MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Death was ever swirling through the halls of this nether realm that existed far beyond the reach of mankind. It didn’t haunt here. It lived here. In fact, it was a natural state of being. As the Alexion for Katoteros, he had long grown accustomed to its constant presence. To the sight, sound, scent, and taste of death.
Everything mortal died.
For that matter, Alexion himself had died twice only to be reborn to his current state. But as he stared into the eerie red mists of the sfora—an ancient Atlantean orb that could see into the past, present, and future—he felt an unfamiliar twinge of emotion.
That poor woman-child. Her life had been too abbreviated. No one deserved to die by the hands of the Daimons who sucked the souls out of humans so that they could artificially elongate their short lives. And certainly no human deserved to die at the hands of the Dark-Hunters who had been created solely to kill the Daimons before those stolen souls perished from the universe forever.
It was the job of all Dark-Hunters to protect life, not to take it.
As Alexion sat quietly in the dim light of his room he wanted to feel outraged by her death. Indignant.
But he felt nothing. He always felt nothing. Just a cold, horrifying logic that bore no emotions whatsoever. He could only observe life, he couldn’t live it.
Time would march on and nothing would change.
It was the way of things.
But her death was a catalyst for something greater. With Marco’s actions, he had set into motion his own demise, just as the girl had the moment she’d decided to study late.
And just like the girl, Marco wouldn’t see his own death coming until it was too late for him to avert it.
Alexion shook his head at the irony. It was time for him to return to the dimension of the living and do his duty once more. Marco and Kyros were drawing together Dark-Hunters and trying to convert them to their misbegotten cause and they wouldn’t stop until he forced them to.
Their plan was to rebel against Artemis and Acheron. And Alexion’s job was to kill any who refused to see reason.
Standing up, he started away from the orb when he saw the images on the wall around him change. Gone were the Daimons and Marco.
In their place was her.
Alexion paused as he saw the French Dark-Huntress fighting another group of Daimons not far from her own home in Tupelo. She was intrepid and quick as she danced around the male Daimons who were trying to kill her. Her movements were beautiful and swift, like a frenetic dance.
She laughed defiantly at them, and for an instant he could almost feel her passion. Her conviction. She reveled in her life so greatly that her feelings were able to reach out across the dimensions that separated them and almost warm him.
Closing his eyes, he savored that fleeting twinge of humanity.
Her name was Danger and there was something about her that almost touched him.
And for some reason he didn’t comprehend, he didn’t want to see her die.
But that was foolish. Nothing could ever touch the Alexion.
Even so, he could hear Acheron’s voice in his head.
Some of them might be saved and those were the ones Acheron wanted him to focus on. Save what you can, my brother. You can’t decide for anyone. Let them choose their own fates. There is nothing to be done for the ones who won’t listen—but for the one who does …
It’s worth it.
Perhaps, but what concerned him most was how little he cared whether or not they lived anymore. Duty. Honor. Existing. Those were the things he knew.
He was becoming unsalvageable. How much longer until he refused to even render a choice? It would be easy, really. Pop in, strike them down, and come home.
Why go through the motions of trying to save anyone when the Dark-Hunters were the ones who damned themselves to begin with?
No, he wasn’t Acheron after all. His patience had run out long ago. He no longer cared what happened to any of them.
But as he watched Danger slay the last of her Daimons, he did feel something. It was quick and fluttering, like a dull spasm.
For the first time in centuries, he wanted to change what was to come—he just didn’t know why. Why should he care?
Holding his hand up, he banished the images from his walls.
Even so, he continued to see the future clearly in his mind. If Danger continued on her course, she, like her friends, would die during the Krisi—the judgment Alexion would soon deliver. Her loyalty to them would be her death.
But she wasn’t the only one who could perish by Alexion’s hand. Alexion closed his eyes and summoned another Dark-Hunter into his mind.
He was setting the course for the downfall of not only himself but for all the others too.
This time, there was no mistaking the pain Alexion felt. It was so unexpected that it actually made him flinch. It was the last remnant of his humanity and he was relieved that he still held even a tiny ounce of it.
No, he couldn’t just stand by and see the man die. Not if he could help it.
“Nothing is ever truly set by fate. In one blink, everything changes. Even though it should be a clear, sunny day, the softest whisper into the wind can became a hurricane that destroys everything it touches.”
How many times had Acheron told him that?
Everything was coming to a head again and Alexion wanted to change what was meant to be.
It was odd to have such vivid feelings now after all these centuries of experiencing absolutely nothing.
There’s always hope.
Yeah, right. He’d long forgotten the sensation of hope. Life went on. People went on. Death went on. Tragedy. Success. It all cycled through there and here. Nothing ever changed.
And yet he felt different for once. Marco had gone Rogue and aided the Daimons. There was nothing to be done for him. And even worse, there were others who were quickly following his lead. Others who were allowing him and Kyros to turn their minds away from the truth. The Dark-Hunters in Northern Mississippi were coming together to rebel against Acheron and Artemis.
It was something that had to be stopped.
His resolve set, he made his way out of his room in the southernmost point of Acheron’s palace and headed down the gilded back hallway that ran from his elaborate chambers to the centrally located throne room. The black-veined marble floor was somewhat cold against his bare feet. Had he still been human, that cold would be absolutely biting. As it was, he could only acknowledge the temperature, he couldn’t really feel it. And yet that coldness seemed to seep all the way through him.
Reaching the twelve-foot door that was made of gold, he pushed it open to find Acheron on his throne while Acheron’s demon, Simi, was lying on her stomach in the far corner of the room, watching QVC.
The demon, who appeared to be a human woman around the age of twenty, was dressed in red vinyl. Her ever-changing horns matched her clothes perfectly and her long black hair was braided down her back. She had a giant, half-empty bowl of popcorn cradled in her arms while her tail whipped around her head as if swishing in time to the countdown clock.
“Akri?” the she-demon demanded. “Where’s my plastic?”
As he always did while at home in Katoteros, Acheron wore his black formesta—a long robelike garment that was left open in front, baring his chest and black leather pants. It was made of heavy silk that was embroidered on the back with a gold sun pierced by three silver lightning bolts—a mark that had been branded onto Alexion’s shoulder.
Acheron’s long black hair was left unbound, hanging about his shoulders. He sat on the gilded throne strumming a solid black electric guitar that played perfectly without the benefit of an amplifier. The wall to his left was a series of television monitors all of which showed the cartoon Johnny Bravo.
“I don’t know, Sim,” Acheron said distractedly. “Ask Alexion.”
Before Alexion could reach Acheron’s throne, the demon appeared before him, hovering in midair while her large red and black wings flapped to support her weight. Her wings, like her horns and eyes, were ever-changing in their color to fit her mood and momentary taste. Her hair color changed too, but it was linked to Acheron, therefore her hair color was always identical to his.
“Where’s my plastic, Lexie?”
He gave her a patient but strict stare. Simi had been nothing more than a very small child nine thousand years ago when Acheron had brought him here to live. One of the duties Acheron had assigned to him was to help watch over her and to keep her out of trouble.
Yeah. That was next to impossible.
Not to mention, he was every bit as guilty of spoiling her as Acheron was. Like his boss, he couldn’t seem to help himself. There was something innately compelling, endearing, and ultimately sweet about the demon. Something that made him love her like a daughter. In all the worlds, she and Acheron were the only two things that still made him feel any human emotion. He loved them both and he would die to protect them.
But as her “other” father, he knew he owed it to Simi and to the world to try and teach her some restraint.
“You don’t need to buy anything else, Simi.”
Her singsongy response was quick and automatic. “Yes I do.”
“No,” he insisted. “You don’t. You already have more than enough baubles to keep you occupied.”
She pouted at him while her eyes flamed red and her tail flicked around. “Gimme my plastic, Lexie. Now!”
She wailed, then spun around toward Acheron and flew to his throne. Suddenly QVC appeared on his monitors.
“Simi…” Acheron said. “I was watching something.”
“Oh, pooh, it’s a stupid cartoon. The Simi wants her Diamonique, akri, and she wants it now!”
Acheron passed an exasperated look toward Alexion. “Give her the credit cards.”
Alexion glared at him. “She’s so spoiled, she’s rotten. She must learn to control her impulses.”
Acheron cocked a brow at him. “And how long have you been trying to teach her restraint, Alexion?”
That didn’t bear commenting on. There were some things in life that were indeed futile. But immortality was boring enough. Trying to control Simi often added a lot of spark to it. “I finally got her to sit in front of the television quietly … sort of.”
Acheron rolled his eyes. “Yeah, after five thousand years of trying. She’s a demon, Lex. Restraint isn’t in her makeup.”
Before Alexion could argue, the box where he kept Simi’s credit cards appeared in the air before her.
“Ha!” Simi said to him in a delighted tone before she seized the box and rocked with it in her arms. Her happiness died as she realized it was locked. She pinned Alexion with a menacing glare. “Open it.”
Before he could refuse, it popped open.
“Thank you, akri!” Simi shouted as she grabbed her cards, then fluttered away and headed for her cell phone.
Alexion made a sound of disgust at Acheron as the box vanished. “I can’t believe you just did that.”
The monitors returned to the cartoon. Acheron didn’t say anything as he reached down to feed his black guitar pick to the tiny pterygsauras that was perched on the arm of his throne. The small, orange dragonlike creature chirped before it swallowed the plastic whole. Alexion wasn’t sure where the pterygsauri came from. For the last nine thousand years, there had always been six of them here in the throne room.
Alexion still wasn’t sure if they were the same six or not. All he knew for certain was that Acheron loved and pampered his pets and as the Alexion, he did too.
Acheron patted the creature’s scaly head as it preened and sang happily, then looked back down at his guitar.
“I know why you’re here, Alexion,” he said, as another pick appeared in his hand. He strummed a melodious chord. “The answer is no.”
Alexion feigned a frown he didn’t feel. “Why?”
“Because you can’t help them. Kyros made his choices long ago and now he has to—”
Acheron paused his hand in mid-strum, then gave him an angry stare. The swirling silver eyes turned red, warning that the destroyer side of Acheron was coming to the forefront.
Alexion didn’t care. He’d served Acheron long enough to know his master wouldn’t kill him for insubordination. At least none that was this mild. “I know you know everything, boss. I got that a long time ago. But you’ve also taught me the value of free will. True, Kyros has made some bad choices, but if I go to him as me, I know I can talk him out of this.”
“C’mon, akri. In over nine thousand years, I have never once asked you for a favor. Never. But I can’t just go in and let him die like the others. I have to try. Don’t you understand? We were human together. Brothers in arms and in spirit. Our children played together. He died saving my life. I owe him one last chance.”
Acheron gave a heavy sigh as he began playing “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” “Fine. Go. But know that as you do this, whatever he decides, it’s not your fault. I knew this moment was coming from the day he was created. His choices are his own. You can’t accept responsibility for his mistakes.”
Alexion understood. “How long do you give me?”
“You know the limits of your existence. You can have no more than ten days before you have to return. At the end of the month, you must render my judgment to them.”
Alexion nodded. “Thank you, akri.”
“Don’t thank me, Alexion. This is distasteful work I’m sending you to do.”
Acheron looked up to stare at him. There was something in his swirling silver gaze that was different this time. Something …
He didn’t know, but it sent a raw chill over him. “What?” he asked.
“Nothing.” Acheron went back to playing the guitar.
Alexion’s stomach knotted in apprehension. What did the boss know that he wasn’t sharing?
“I really hate it when you don’t tell me things.”
Acheron gave a lopsided grin at that. “I know.”
Alexion stepped back, intending to return to his room, but before he could turn around, he felt himself slipping. One minute he was in the throne room at Katoteros and, in the next, he was lying facedown on a cold, dark street.
Pain slammed into him with resounding waves of agony that took his breath as he felt the rough, pungent asphalt against his face and hands.
As a Shade in Katoteros, he didn’t really feel or experience anything this real. Food had no taste, his senses were all muted. But now that Acheron had placed him in the human world …
Ow! Everything hurt. His body, his skin. Most of all his skinned-up knees.
Alexion rolled over and waited for his body to fully transition into his control again. There was always a burn when he came to earth, a brief period for him to get used to breathing and “living” again. As his senses awoke, Alexion realized he could hear people fighting around him. Was it a battle?
Acheron had done that to him a few times in the past. It was sometimes easier to drop him unnoticed into the middle of the chaos. But this didn’t look like a war zone. It looked like …
A back street.
Alexion pushed himself to his feet and then froze as he realized what was happening. There were six Daimons and a human fighting in the alley. He tried to focus his sight to be sure, but everything around him was still fuzzy.
“Okay, boss,” Alexion said under his breath. “If I need glasses, fix it, ’cause I can hardly see shit right now.”
His sight cleared instantly. “Thanks. But you know, a little warning before you dumped my ass out here would have been nice.” He straightened his long, white cashmere coat with a tug. “By the way, couldn’t you, just once, drop me either in a La-Z-Boy or on a bed?”
All he heard was the sound of Acheron’s short, evil laugh in his head. Acheron and his sick sense of humor. He could be one serious bastard when he wanted to. “Thanks a lot.” Alexion let out a long, irritated breath.
Turning his attention to the fight, he focused on the group. The human was a short man, probably no taller than five five or five six and appeared to be in his mid-twenties. As the man turned toward him and Alexion saw his face, he realized who he was. Keller Mallory, a Dark-Hunter Squire—one of the people who helped to shield and protect a Dark-Hunter’s identity from the humans.
Squires weren’t supposed to engage Daimons, but since Squires were integral to the Dark-Hunter world, they were prone to be targeted.
Apparently, tonight was Keller’s turn to get his butt kicked.
Alexion rushed toward the Daimon who was headed at Keller from his back. He grabbed the Daimon and flung him away from the Squire.
“Run!” Keller said to him.
No doubt the Squire thought he was a human too. Alexion kicked a discarded dagger up from the street and caught it in his fist. Enjoying the “realness” of the fight, he tossed it straight into the heart of the Daimon, who quickly exploded into a golden powder. The dagger fell to the street with a clatter. Alexion held his hand out for the dagger, which immediately shot up from the ground and returned to his grip.
Keller turned to gape at him.
The distraction cost Alexion as one of the Daimons came running up to him from behind to bury a dagger deep between his shoulder blades. Curling his lip in disgust, Alexion felt his body burst apart. He hated it when that happened. It wasn’t painful so much as it was irritating and disorienting.
Two seconds later, his body rematerialized.
His expression terrified, Keller stumbled away from him.
Playtime was over.
The remaining Daimons took off at a dead run but they had only a few seconds before they, too, exploded. Only they weren’t about to be put back together again.
Still not appeased over the aggravation they had caused, Alexion straightened his coat with a tug at the lapels.
Daimons … they never learned.
The Squire’s face blanched as he backed up and stared in horror. “What the hell are you?”
Alexion sauntered up to Keller and handed him the dagger. “I’m Acheron’s Squire.” It was kind of true. Okay, not really. It was a lie, but Alexion had no intention of letting anyone know his real relationship with Acheron.
Not that it mattered. Keller didn’t buy it. “Like hell. Everyone knows Acheron doesn’t have a Squire.”
Yeah, right. If everyone on earth put together all the correct information they had about Acheron, it wouldn’t fill a fairy’s thimble. Alexion tried not to laugh at the poor man who thought he understood the world around him while the truth was he didn’t know jack about shit.
“Apparently everyone’s wrong since here I am, sent to you by the head honcho himself.”
The athletically built young man scanned him from head to toe. “Why are you here?”
“Your Dark-Huntress, Danger, called for Acheron and since he’s busy, I was sent to check things out and report back to him on what’s happening. So here I am. Joy, oh joy of my life.”
That didn’t seem to soothe the man at all, but then sarcasm was seldom soothing. Although, to be honest, Alexion found a great deal of entertainment from it. Which was probably a good thing since sarcasm was Acheron’s native tongue.
“And how do I know you’re not lying?” Keller asked, his eyes still filled with doubt.
Alexion forced himself not to laugh. The man was smart. It was all a lie. Acheron knew exactly what was happening … at all times. But it was true that his boss couldn’t come here in person. Not while all the Dark-Hunters in the area were suspicious of him. They would never believe the truth from Acheron’s lips.
If they were to choose wisely and live through this, they needed to hear the truth from an “impartial” third party, and that was why he’d come. His goal was to save them from their own stupidity.
Provided they weren’t all terminally stupid.
Alexion pulled a small cell phone out of his pocket. “Call Acheron yourself and hear the truth.”
Copyright © 2005 by Sherrilyn Kenyon