“He needs to be destroyed. My preference is painfully and quickly, but any means that ultimately results in his death will work.”
Acheron Parthenopaeus turned his head to see the Greek goddess Artemis approaching him. For centuries now the two of them had been tied together, and at times such as this the goddess actually believed she controlled him.
The truth, however, was very different.
Dressed only in black leather pants, he sat on the stone railing of her temple balcony with his back against one of the columns that lined it. The balcony was made of sparkling white marble that overlooked a breathtaking view of a rainbow waterfall and a perfect forest scene. But then one would expect no less on Mt. Olympus, where the Greek gods made their home.
If only the inhabitants were as perfect as the landscape. . . .
With flowing red hair, unblemished porcelain skin, and sharp green eyes, Artemis would be beautiful if Ash didn’t begrudge her every breath she drew.
“Why do you have such a burr up your ass all of a sudden where Sin’s concerned?”
She curled her lip at him. “I hate it when you talk like that.”
Which was exactly why he did it. May the gods forbid he ever do anything she liked. He had enough problems with that already. “You’re changing the subject.”
She huffed before she answered. “I’ve always hated him. He was supposed to die. Remember? You intervened.”
She was seriously oversimplifying that sequence of events. “He survived on his own. I merely gave the guy a job after you fucked him over.”
“Yes, and now he’s gone insane. Did you not see that he broke into a museum last night, knocked out three guards in the process, and stole a high-profile artifact? How is that not exposing your precious Dark-Hunters to public scrutiny? I swear he did it on purpose, hoping to get caught so that he could tell the humans about all of us. He’s a threat to everyone.”
Ash dismissed her anger even though he did agree it was a reckless move on Sin’s part. Usually the ancient ex-god had more sense. “I’m sure he just wanted to touch a piece of home. Hell, whatever artifact he took probably belonged to him or some member of his family. I’m not going to kill anyone because he was homesick, Artie—kind of like killing someone when he’s on the can. It’s just wrong.”
With her hands on her curvy hips, she glared at him. “So you’re going to dismiss it as trivial?”
“If by that you mean I don’t think it warrants his immediate execution. Call me crazy, but yeah, I’m dismissing it.”
She narrowed her eyes on him. “You are going softball.”
Ash frowned until he realized what she meant. “Soft, Artie. You meant to say I’m going soft.”
“Whatever.” She moved to stand beside him. “The Acheron I remember would have sizzled him for half the infraction.”
He released an agitated breath before he responded. “Fried, Artie, damn, learn to speak. I’ve got a headache from trying to figure out what the hell you mean most of the time. And at no time in my life would I have ever fried anyone for something like this.”
“Yes, you would have.”
He thought about that for a moment. But as usual she was wrong. “No. Definitely not. Only you would move me to that kind of violence over something so insignificant.”
“You’re such a bastard.”
At least she got that right, in more ways than one.
He leaned his head back against the column so that he could look up at her. “Why? Because I won’t do your bidding?”
“Yes. You owe me this. You made me get rid of my assassin and now I have no control over those creatures—”
“That you created,” he added, interrupting her angry tirade. “Don’t forget the important part here. The Dark-Hunters wouldn’t exist at all had someone, and for the sake of your missing intellect let me clarify that, you stole powers from me that could bring back the dead. I didn’t need the Dark-Hunters to help me fight against the Daimons and protect the humans. I was doing fine on my own. But you wouldn’t have it. You created them and made me responsible for their lives. It’s a responsibility that I take most seriously, so excuse me for banning you from killing them because you have reverse PMS.”
She scowled. “Reverse PMS?”
“Yeah, unlike a normal woman, you’re cranky twenty-eight days out of the month.”
She moved to slap him, but he caught her wrist in his hand. “You haven’t bargained for the right to hit me.”
She wrenched her arm away from him. “I want him dead.”
“I’m not your tool in this.” And lucky for Sin, Ash was here. He was the only reason Artemis didn’t kill Sin herself. They’d made the pact centuries ago, after she’d flambe;d a Dark-Hunter for one erroneous comment, that she would never again go after a Dark-Hunter without Ash’s approval.
Her eyes were still seething. “Sin’s up to something. I can feel it.”
“Of that I have no doubt. He’s been plotting your murder since the day you stole his godhood from him. Lucky for you, I’m in the way and Sin knows it.”
She narrowed her eyes on him again. “I’m surprised you’re not helping him kill me.”
So was he. But in the end, he knew he couldn’t be a part of that. He needed Artemis in order to live, and if he were to die, the world would become an even scarier place than it already was.
Too bad that. ’Cause honestly, he wanted nothing more than to bid her ass goodbye and never look back.
Artemis shoved at his raised knee. “Aren’t you at least going to ask him why he was at the museum? And why he assaulted those officers?”
A sliver of hope went through him. “Are you going to let me leave to do it?”
“You owe me three more days of service.”
So much for hope. He should have known better. The bitch had no intention of letting him out of her temple until his two weeks were up. It’d been a bitter bargain he’d made with her. Two weeks as her pet sex slave for two months of freedom from her interference. He hated playing these games, but one did what one had to.
Even when it seriously sucked.
“Then it looks like it can wait.”
Artemis growled at him as she curled her hands into fists. Acheron was ever her bane. Why she put up with him she didn’t know.
Actually, she did. Even in his stubbornness, he was still the sexiest man she’d ever seen. There was nothing she enjoyed more than watching him move. Or even sit, as he was doing at present. He had the most viciously perfect body any man had ever possessed. His long blond hair was braided over one shoulder as he leaned back with his arms folded over his chest and his left bare foot tapped in time to an imaginary beat only he could hear.
Powerful and bold, he only bent to her will when she forced him to it by blood and bone. And even then, he did so grudgingly and defiantly. He really was like a wild beast that no one could tame.
For that matter, he bit and snarled at anyone who tried to pet him.
And the gods knew she’d tried for centuries to either win him over or beat him into submission. But nothing worked. He was ever near and ever unattainable. It infuriated her.
She pouted at him. “You’d like for him to kill me, wouldn’t you?”
He let out a small laugh. “Hell, no. I want that honor myself.”
How dare he! “You wretched—”
“Don’t insult me, Artie,” he said, cutting her words off with an irritable tone, “when we both know you don’t mean it. I get really tired of the lip service.”
A shiver went over her at his choice of words. “Strange. I never tire of yours.” She reached to touch his lips. They were the only part of his body that was soft—like the petals of a rose—and she was ever fascinated by them. “You have the most beautiful mouth, Acheron, especially when it’s on my body.”
Ash groaned as he recognized the heat in her emerald eyes as she fingered his lips. It made his skin crawl. “Aren’t you ever satisfied? I swear if I were mortal, I’d be limping from our last go-round. If not dead. We really need to find you a hobby other than jumping on top of me.”
But it was too late; she was already pushing his knee down and straddling his thighs.
Grinding his teeth, Ash leaned his head back as she began to nibble his throat. He tilted his head, knowing what was coming while she lightly tongued his skin. Her heartbeat was already pounding as she slid herself closer to him.
And then he felt her sharp incisors piercing his skin an instant before she began drinking his blood. . . .
Kat Agrotera sat bolt upright in her bed at the shrill call in her head. “What did I do?” she asked, trying to figure out why Artemis would be angry at her now.
“Were you asleep?”
She blinked as Artemis appeared in the room beside her bed. The room was completely dark except for the eerie glowing blue light that radiated out of Artemis’s body.
Kat glanced down at the bed where she sat in her pink sock monkey pajamas with rumpled sheets and hair, then decided sarcasm was not the better part of sanity. “I’m awake now.”
“Good. I have a mission for you.”
Kat had to bite back a sharp laugh. “I hate to be the bearer of reminders, but you traded my service to Apollymi, remember? Now the big evil of Atlantis that you fear forbids me to do anything you say. She kind of finds it funny that she can irritate you that way.”
Artemis’s eyes narrowed on her. “Katra . . .”
“Matisera . . .” she said, imitating Artemis’s agitated tone. “I didn’t ask for this. You’re the one who made the bargain with Apollymi that I have to live with. Personally, it irks the shit out of me to be traded like some Yu-Gi-Oh! card you got tired of having around the house. But trade me you did. So sorry, I’m playing for the other team now.”
Artemis came forward then, and for the first time Kat realized she was actually afraid.
“Is something wrong?”
Artemis nodded before she whispered, “He’s going to kill me.”
“Acheron?” He was the most likely candidate.
“No,” she said sharply, “Acheron would never hurt me. He just threatens it. Do you remember when you were a young woman?”
Well, given the fact that was about eleven to ten thousand years ago, it was a bit of a stretch for her. “I try not to, but some things are still crystal. Why?”
Artemis sat down on her bed before she took Kat’s stuffed tiger and pulled it to her. “Do you remember the Sumerian god Sin?”
Kat frowned. “The one who broke into your temple eons ago and tried to take your powers and kill you?”
Artemis’s hand tightened on the tiger. “Yes. He’s back and he’s trying to kill me again.”
How was that possible? Kat had personally taken care of that enemy. “I thought he was dead.”
“No, Acheron saved him before he could die and made him a Dark-Hunter. Sin thinks I’m the one who drained him of his powers and left him for dead.” The terror in Artemis’s eyes scorched her. “He’s going to kill me, Katra, I know it. The entire world is going to end. We are coming up on the Sumerian apokalypsi—”
“I don’t think they use that word.”
“Who cares what word they use?” she screeched. “End of the world is end of the world regardless of whatever term you use for it. The point is, Sin is now going to try to overthrow me again and take my place. Do you know what that means?”
“There will be much rejoicing?”
She sobered. “Sorry. I get it. He wants revenge.”
“Yes, for something I didn’t do. I need your help, Katra. Please.”
Kat sat there for a moment, contemplating. It wasn’t like Artemis to ask for anything. She always demanded it—that only told Kat how much Artemis feared Sin. But even though it was obvious the goddess was scared, Kat suspected there was more to this story than Artemis was letting on. There always was. “What aren’t you telling me?”
Artemis gave her a blank stare. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Of course you do.” Artemis never told the whole truth about anything. “And before I commit myself to some disaster, I want to know everything about it.”
Artemis’s face hardened. “Are you telling me that you refuse to help me after all I’ve done to you?”
That actually summarized it well. “I think you mean ‘for me,’ Matisera, not ‘to me.’”
“As if I care. Now answer me.”
Wow. For a woman asking for help, Artemis had a wonderful way of expressing it. But then that was her nature, and Kat would be suspicious if Artemis was anything less than authoritative. “What do you want me to do?”
“What do you think? Kill him.”
Kat was aghast. “Matisera! What are you asking?”
“I’m asking for you to save my life,” she snarled, “which is the very least you could do for me. Especially after all I’ve given you. Sin will kill me if he gets a chance and take all my powers. Who knows what he’ll do to mankind once his godhood is restored. How he’ll make them suffer. I’ve already gone to Acheron and he has refused to help me in any way. You’re the only hope I have.”
“Then why don’t you kill him yourself? I know you’re capable of it.”
Artemis sat back in a huff. “He has the Tuppi Shimati. You do remember what that is, don’t you?”
“The Sumerian Tablet of Destiny, yeah, I remember it.” Whoever held possession of it could render another god powerless. It could also be used to strip a god of their powers entirely and thereby allow the possessor to kill any god they chose. Not exactly something the gods wanted in the wrong hands.
Artemis swallowed. “Who do you think Sin will come after now that he has it?”
No-brainer there. Artemis. “And with that you have my undivided attention. Don’t worry, Matisera. I’ll get it from him.”
Artemis actually looked relieved. “I don’t want anyone to know our past. You of all people understand how important it is that it remain hidden. Don’t fail me this time, Katra. I need you to fulfill your word to me.”
Kat flinched at the reminder of the one and only time in her life she’d failed in her mission to Artemis. “I will.”
Artemis inclined her head before she vanished.
Kat lay back in bed, thinking of what had just transpired. On the one hand, she had no doubt that Artemis was telling the truth about the Tablet of Destiny. Sin’s pantheon had been the one who’d created it. If anyone knew how to find and wield it, Sin would be he.
But Artemis was still Artemis.
Which meant some important parts of this story were most likely missing and before Kat went traipsing off after another god, even a fallen one, she wanted to know as much about him as she could.
Reaching for her cell phone on the nightstand, she flipped it open and noted the time. It was one a.m. for her, but in Minneapolis it would be midnight. She pressed the 6 button and waited until she heard a soft, feminine voice answer.
Kat smiled at the sound of her friend’s greeting. “Hi, Cassandra, how ya doing?” At one time, she’d been Cassandra’s protector for Artemis. But since Cassandra had become immortal and was married to the ex-Dark-Hunter Wulf, Kat had been reassigned . . . and then traded off to the Atlantean goddess Apollymi.
Even so, Kat was still close friends with Cassandra and made it a habit of visiting her friend whenever she could.
“Hey, baby girl,” Cassandra said with a laugh. “We’re fine. We were just finishing up a movie. But I can tell by the tone of your voice and the time of this call that you’ve got something more on your mind than checking in with me.”
Kat smiled at her friend’s intuition. “Okay, I’m busted. There was a point to this call. Can you put the big guy on the phone for me? I have a couple of Dark-Hunter questions for him.”
“Sure. Hang on a sec.”
Kat raked her hand through her tousled curls as Wulf came to the phone. When she’d first met him, he’d been a Dark-Hunter. They were immortal protectors who’d sworn their service to Artemis in exchange for an Act of Vengeance. Their job was to kill the Daimons who preyed on human souls and to spend eternity in Artemis’s service protecting mankind.
But Wulf had been granted his freedom and now he lived happily with his son and daughter and wife in Minneapolis. And he only policed the Daimons when the Dark-Hunters in his area needed an extra hand.
“Hey, Kat. You wanted to speak to me?” Even after all these centuries, his voice still held its thick Nordic accent.
“Yeah. Do you happen to know the Dark-Hunter named Sin?”
“I know a couple who have that name. Which one are you referring to?”
“The fallen god?”
“That would be he.”
Wulf let out a speculative breath on the other end. “Personally, no, I don’t. But I’ve heard rumors about him. They say he’s crazy as hell.”
“Everyone. Any Dark-Hunter who’s ever been in his area. Any Squire who ever made the mistake of crossing his path. He’s a vicious bastard who tolerates absolutely no one near him.”
Well, that didn’t sound promising. But it did corroborate Artemis’s fear. “You know anyone I can call who knows him personally?”
Yeah. There were two problems with that. One, Artemis would flip out if Kat ever went near the Atlantean god. And two, Artemis would flip out if she ever went near the Atlantean god.
“No,” Wulf said firmly. “Let me reiterate that he’s completely antisocial and will not interact with anyone. They say he once let a Dark-Hunter die at the hands of a Daimon and laughed while he watched it happen. You can log into the Dark-Hunter bulletin boards at dailyinquisitor.com/bbs and see if you can find someone he might have let into his inner circle. I seriously doubt that from what little I know about him, but that would be your best bet.”
Great. Just great. “Cool. Thanks for the help. I’ll let you get back to your movie. You guys take care.”
Kat hung up the phone and then grabbed her laptop from under the bed and followed Wulf’s advice, but after a couple of hours on the bbs and on the Dark-Hunter.com Web site reading profiles, she gave up. They didn’t tell her anything except Sin was a loner and a psycho.
Apparently, he didn’t even go after Daimons. According to one story, he’d walked past a group of them once while they were feeding and didn’t even grimace. There were also numerous stories of him inflicting burn wounds on himself and cursing anyone who came near him.
Boy, he sounded like a warm, fluffy bunny. She couldn’t wait to meet him. Obviously he wasn’t a people person, which was fine by her. As an only child, she didn’t always play well with others, either.
But the tales of his self-mutilation concerned her. What kind of creature was he that he’d do such a thing? Had his sanity been lost when he’d been drained of his god powers or had he always been like that?
Sighing, she closed her laptop and forced herself to get up out of her comfy bed and dress. It was only three in the morning . . . still a couple of hours before sunrise, which meant Sin was probably on the streets, wandering about aimlessly as he bypassed Daimons in need of death.
Kat closed her eyes and concentrated until she found what she was looking for. . . .
But it wasn’t where she’d expected to find him. Instead of being in Las Vegas, he was in New York . . . Central Park to be precise. She frowned at the sight as she shimmered in the shadows in a transparent Shade form. No one would be able to see her, but if the light were to hit her just right, it would catch a luminescent outline of her body. That was why she was keeping to the shadows—out of sight and reach of an insane ex-god.
Her research had said that Sin was stationed in Las Vegas.
What was he doing in New York in the middle of the night?
How had he gotten here and when?
But that wasn’t the really important part. It was the way he walked through the dimly lit area of the park. “Stalking” would be a more apropos term. He was like a bloodthirsty beast trailing after the scent of its prey. He had his head bent low, his eyes barely more than slits as he skimmed the area around him. Dressed in a long black leather coat that rippled and flared with his movements, he was an impressive sight. His shoulders were wide and his short, curly jet-black hair barely brushed the collar. Unlike other Dark-Hunters, his eyes weren’t black. They were a golden brown—like the color of a lion’s eyes. Topaz. And they glittered like ice against his darkly tanned skin.
His features were perfect in form, but since he’d been born a god, it was expected. As a rule, gods weren’t ugly people. And even if they were, they usually used their powers to fix that. It went with the whole god-vanity thing that could be quite off-putting at times.
Appearing no older than his mid-thirties, Sin moved with a fluid, timeless grace. His black eyebrows were drawn together in a stern frown, and at least two days’ worth of whiskers dusted his face.
Truly, he was exquisite, and a part of herself that she wasn’t acquainted with took extreme notice of his dangerous masculine lope. Something about the way he moved went through her like a hot, heady wine. It made her dizzy and breathless.
Made her want to reach out and touch the very creature she knew would kill her if he had a chance. He was mesmerizing and engaging.
Suddenly he stopped dead in his tracks and cocked his head in her direction. Kat held her breath as trepidation pierced her heart. Had he heard her? Sensed her? He shouldn’t be able to, but then he was a god . . . or at least had been one before.
Maybe he did have that power.
But as she saw the slight shadow to her left, she realized that he wasn’t focused on her Shade form. He had his attention firmly rooted to the trees in front of her. And whatever was there was whispering in a language she’d never heard before. It was low in tone, with a sinister sound that was like some strange combination of grinding gears and a bone-chilling screech.
“Erkutu,” Sin whispered in a voice that was laden with power. In one fluid motion, he dropped the coat from his shoulders to show a body so corded with power that it actually sent a shiver over her.
He wore a sleeveless black T-shirt and black leather pants with buckled biker boots. But what stood out even more than the deep, perfect indentations of his muscles was the set of knives strapped to his biceps and the ancient hilt of the dagger in his left boot. He had a silver vambrace on each forearm, and as he approached the shadows he unwrapped a long cord from his right wrist. On each end of the cord was a metal ball about the size of a golf ball. The balls flashed in the light and made a slight tink in the night as he walked.
It was obvious he was gearing up for battle, but there were no Daimons anywhere near them. If there were, she’d be able to sense them.
And still that strange whispering continued.
Kat crept through the trees, trying to see where he was headed.
Without warning, something was hurled at Sin’s head. He ducked it and rose, twirling the cord over his head like a cowboy with a rope as he moved. The balls whistled in the air a moment before he released them and they flew through the foliage.
A scream tore through the night.
Kat froze as she saw what had caused it. At first it looked like a pretty human woman, until she opened her mouth and showed a double row of serrated fangs. But worse than the fangs was the blood that dripped from her chin. Human blood that matched the redness of the creature’s eyes.
And she wasn’t alone. There were three of them total—the woman and two stocky men. Kat had never seen anything like them. They definitely weren’t of the human species even though they had human bodies. They communicated with one another in that ferret-meets-Flipper language of theirs.
As one unit, they rushed Sin. He ducked and sent the first one to reach him flipping over his back. In a smooth, fluid move he pulled the dagger from his boot and sliced at the second male. The demon caught his arm and sank his fangs into Sin’s hand.
Cursing, Sin kneed the creature in the stomach and twisted to confront the woman. The female demon jerked back a split second before his dagger would have slit her throat.
The first male pushed himself up and rushed Sin’s back. Sin turned and hit the ground so that the demon would fall into the arms of the one who had bitten him. He uncoiled another string from his left arm, then rose and wrapped it around the throat of the female. She screamed an instant before her head fell free from her body and landed with a whispering thud.
Kat turned away and cringed at the sight as bile rose in her throat.
The other two demons shrieked, then ran. Crossing his arms over his chest, Sin jerked the knives from his biceps and threw them straight into the backs of the fleeing beasts. The knives landed at the bases of their spines with an unerring accuracy. They fell instantly to the ground, where they writhed and screamed in agony.
After one last cry, they each went still.
Kat was horrified by what she was witnessing. It was grisly and intense, and there was something about Sin that said he was enjoying it a lot more than he should. It was as if he took pride in inflicting as much pain on them as he could.
He’s a sick bastard.
Sin watched the men for a few seconds more before he went to check on the human they’d been feeding from. But it was too late for her. Even from her distance, Kat could tell the human was dead as her glassy eyes stared up at the star-filled sky. Her entire body was ravaged from their kill.
The poor woman.
His face grim, Sin closed the woman’s eyes and whispered an old Sumerian prayer for her soul to rest peacefully in spite of the violence that had taken her life. Kat was surprised by his actions. They seemed completely incongruous with everything she’d just witnessed from this man.
At least that was her thought until he retrieved a knife from the back of one of the demons. He made a ball of fire in his right hand to heat the blade, then once it was hot, he placed the blade over the bite wound on his hand. She cringed in sympathetic pain even though he didn’t so much as whimper.
He merely stood there with his teeth clenched while the stench of burning flesh made her queasy.
But he wasn’t through. Once his wound was cauterized, he went back to the human woman and then mercilessly cut her head from her body. Kat cringed in horror.
He’s insane. . . .
There was no other explanation. Why would he do something like that to their poor victim? It didn’t make sense.
And still he wasn’t through. He repeated the decapitation on the two male demons before he piled all the bodies together and burned them. His face completely stoic, he watched them burn. The flames illuminated his cold, emotionless features. The shadows darkened his eyes, making him look even more like a demon than the ones he’d killed.
He didn’t speak a single word the entire time or show even a drop of compassion.
Once they were completely burned, Sin spread the ashes with the toe of his boot until there was no trace left of any of them. No one would ever know what had befallen the one poor woman.
Kat felt sick. How was it this man had been allowed to live given this kind of savagery? Did Acheron not know what Sin did at night? That he desecrated human remains? She couldn’t imagine Acheron forgiving something so horrendous. It wasn’t in his nature, any more than it was in hers.
Maybe, for once, Artemis was right. A man like Sin didn’t need to be let loose on the world. He was too dangerous.
But before Kat went in there blazing to attack him, she needed to know what his powers were. From what she’d just seen, he could control fire and he was well versed with weapons and hand-to-hand tactics.
Taking him out would be tricky. Perhaps stasis would be a wiser choice. She could put him to sleep where he couldn’t hurt anyone—it would be like death, only he’d still be alive. Yeah, that might be her best bet instead of just outright killing him.
And while she contemplated his death, Sin headed for his coat. He put it on with a flourish and then vanished into a shimmery mist.
Kat closed her eyes, trying to locate him again so that she could finish her mission.
But she felt nothing. No trace of him anywhere.
She frowned. How could that be? He had to have an essence, and that essence always left a calling card. She tried to locate him again, and again there was nothing. It was as if he were no longer part of the earth. She had no idea where he’d gone.
That had never happened to her before.
“Where are you, Sin?”
But the real question wasn’t where he was. It was what he was doing. . . .
Copyright © 2007 by Sherrilyn Kenyon. All rights reserved.