Night Embrace Chapter 12

Talon was furious. He'd been calling for Ceara and she had yet to respond. He'd tried to spirit-walk and couldn't.

His unleashed emotions were restricting his powers and he had to get hold of them so that he could think straight.

But it was impossible.

He had to find Sunshine.

She was out there alone with no one to protect her. And if anything happened to her, he was going to find some way to make Camulus pay-god or no god, no one was ever going to hurt her again.

He paced the area inside the back door of Runningwolf's like a caged lion. Anger boiled through his veins. It was pungent and tangible. He wanted to rip something apart with his hands. Shred something with his fangs.

The darkest part of the Dark-Hunter was unleashed and, for the first time, he understood some of what Zarek felt.

It was a rage so raw, so powerful, that it controlled him completely.

He slammed his hand against the brick wall beside the door.

"I will get her back!" he growled.

His ravaged body throbbing and bleeding, he had no intention of going back upstairs to Sunshine's loft even though his injuries hurt so much that he felt the overwhelming need to sleep.

He was not going to lie down and tend his wounds.

He would stay awake if it killed him again.

Over and over in his mind, he kept seeing Nynia die in his arms, only now it was Sunshine's face he saw. Her sweet, Southern voice he heard calling out to him.

As soon as the sun set, he was heading out to find Sunshine and bring her home. No matter what it cost him.

God help anyone who was dumb enough to get in his way.

It was fifteen minutes to sunset when Acheron and Nick arrived at the back door and entered the dark hallway of the club. Talon stepped back, away from the fading sunlight that streamed in through the opening.

"What happened?" Ash asked as Nick closed the door.

Talon struggled with the fury and worry inside him. The emotions were so strong that if his powers hadn't been dampened, he was sure he would have been able to use nothing more than his thoughts to level this building to its foundation. "Camulus broke in with about half a dozen humans. They came loaded for Dark-Hunter and carrying halogen flashlights."

"Are you bleeding?" Nick asked as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. Looking pale and horrified, he squinted at Talon's wounds. "Jeez, you're bleeding like crazy."

Talon disregarded Nick's nervous tone. "They shot me."

"No, bud," Nick said. "They turned you into Swiss cheese. Ash, look at his back."

Ash growled when he saw it. "Are you all right?"

"I'm sore, but well enough to hunt and plenty able to kill."

"Jeez," Nick breathed. "I thought your powers included healing."

Talon looked at him drolly. "They do, but I heal by absorbing pain and injuries into my body. It's kind of hard to do that when I'm the one who's hurt."

"Nick," Ash ordered. "Go get Talon more clothes. Now."

Nick left immediately to carry out the order.

Ash gave Talon a hard stare with those eerie silver eyes. "You can't go out there covered in blood, with dozens of bullet holes riddling your flesh. I think people might get a little suspicious and wonder how it is you can stand upright and not be, say, dead. The last thing I need is for another Dark-Hunter to make the evening news."

Talon stood firm against the order. "I told you, T-Rex. I'm heading out as soon as that sun sets. Thirteen minutes and counting."

Ash glared at him. "Dammit, Celt. You better get a hold of yourself and think through this."

"I'm fine, Acheron. There's nothing wrong with me that killing a few people won't cure."

Ash's eyes narrowed even more. "Turn around and face the wall."

Unsure of what Ash intended, but trusting him completely, Talon obeyed.

He felt Ash splay his hand against the center of his back. His touch was hot and electrifying, and it radiated heat all the way through his body. Talon hissed as his injuries began to throb even more. Then in the span of a few heartbeats, the bullets worked themselves out of his skin and the bullet holes began knitting themselves shut.

Son of a bitch, he'd never known Ash had this kind of power. He was seriously impressed.

While his wounds were healing, Talon's cell phone rang.

Ash stepped away from him while he answered it.

"Missing her yet, Speirr?"

"Damn you, Camulus. Damn you!"

A laugh answered him. "Tell me, is it better to know love and have lost it or to have never known it at all?"

Talon saw red. "Where is she?"


His stomach twisted violently at the sound of Sunshine's terrified voice. "Baby, are you okay?" he asked, his voice cracking.

"They haven't hurt me, but they want you to come to a warehouse on Commerce Street. I-"

"Sunshine!" Talon shouted, his heart pounding. "Sunshine, are you there?"

"Oh, she's here, Speirr. But she needs you. If you want her, be at 609 Commerce at seven o'clock sharp. Bring as many friends as you want and let's see who gets to take Sunshine home tonight and in how many pieces."

The phone went dead.

Blind, torrid rage pierced him. Oblivious to the threat of the sun, he headed for the door.

Ash caught him. "Talon, look at me."

He refused. All he could see was Sunshine dead.

"Talon!" Ash shouted. "Get a friggin' grip. If you go out there like this, you're dead."

"What the hell do you know about it?"

"Celt." Ash tightened his grip on him. "You're doing just what they want. You're about to run headlong into the last minutes of daylight. Think. Out of all the Dark-Hunters I have, you are the one I depend on to keep his head on straight. Don't let them do this to you."

Talon's breathing was ragged as he tried to tamp down his anger and fear. "I can't let her die."

"She won't if you control yourself. You have to leash your temper." Ash released him.

Talon clenched and unclenched his fists as he stared at the door.

"Think, Talon," Ash said, his voice strangely soothing. "Remember what I taught you. Remember that you became a Dark-Hunter because you couldn't control your rage. You have to find your peace. Your balance."

Talon took a deep breath and expelled his anger slowly. Very slowly. "All right. I'm mostly calm."

"Good. Because I don't want you to be mostly dead." Ash stepped away from him. "We'll wait on Nick to return with your clothes and then we'll go get her."

Talon nodded, his gut still knotted over having to wait. But Ash was right.

If he didn't do exactly what Camulus said, he would kill her just for spite.

Talon winced at the thought. "He's going to kill her now, isn't he?"

"I don't know, Talon. I hope not."

Talon paused for a moment as he remembered the address Camulus had given him. "Commerce Street. Isn't that almost right where that woman was murdered?"

Acheron looked puzzled. "What woman?"

"The one you called me over to see."

Ash stared at him blankly.

"You know," Talon insisted, "the woman you said you thought might have been murdered by Zarek."

Acheron scowled. "I didn't call you over to see a murdered woman and I damn sure never thought Zarek would kill a woman."

"Yes you did."

Acheron shook his head slowly. "No I didn't."

Talon duplicated his scowl. What the hell was wrong with the guy? Was Acheron finally going senile?

It wasn't like him to be so scattered.

That was Talon's job at the moment.

"T-Rex, I met you over there. Remember? You called me, and while I was with you, Zarek had his little party with the police. I know it was you. There's not another man on this earth your height who looks like you."

The color faded from Acheron's cheeks. If Talon didn't know better, he'd swear he saw real worry in Acheron's eyes.

Something was really wrong.

"What is it, Ash?"

Acheron stepped away from him. "There's something I need to do. Stay here and I'll be back in plenty of time to go after Sunshine."

Talon caught his arm as Acheron headed for the door. "You better fill me in on this. Now."

"I can't."

"Acheron, this is no time to play Oracle. If you know what's going on and what we're dealing with, you need to come clean."

To Talon's complete amazement, Acheron vanished.

Ash couldn't breathe as he flashed himself into Katoteros, a small nether region between dimensions. This was his private domain where no one but he was ever supposed to tread.

Centuries ago, Hades had relegated him to this non-place. Or more correctly, Hades had incarcerated him here.

Since the day Artemis had freed him, Ash had used this place as a touchstone to remind him of what he was.

What he had been...

Now, Ash struggled for control. He had to have a few minutes to collect his thoughts. His emotions.

His stomach knotted, he felt ill as memories and pain took turns assailing him. The air around him sizzled and snapped in time to his volatile state.

He had to get a hold of himself. He couldn't afford to unleash his emotions.

No one would ever be able to stop him if he did.

Ash raked his hands through his long black hair and shouted his ancient battle cry. Lightning flashed and gray thunder clouds roiled across the eerie blue-black sky above him.

This couldn't be happening. Not now.

And yet there was no other explanation. Styxx was free. Somehow he had escaped from the Vanishing Isle and been turned loose in New Orleans.

How could it have happened?

Now Styxx was pretending to be him. He was mixing with Ash's men and talking to them...

Horror pierced his heart.

He had to stop him before Styxx revealed Ash's past to anyone. Ash couldn't bear the thought of anyone knowing about his human life. Knowing about what he'd been.

What he'd done...


He flinched at Artemis's voice. "This is my place, Artie. You promised me you would never come here."

She materialized before him. "I felt your pain."

"Like you care."

She reached out to touch his face, but he folded his arms over his chest, and moved away from her. She sighed and dropped her hand. "I do care, akribos. More than you know. But that isn't why I'm here. I have learned of Zarek."

Ash growled low in his throat. Of course, she would never come because he was hurt. She'd taught him long ago that his suffering meant nothing to her. "I'm handling it."

"Handling it how? He has been exposed and is now being sought by the human authorities. He jeopardizes everything. He must die."

"No." He snarled the word at her. "I will take care of it. I just need more time."

She had that familiar calculating look on her face. "And what will you give me for this time you request?"

"Dammit, Artemis, why must everything be a bargain with you? Can't you, just once, do something because I asked it of you?"

"Nothing is free," she said as she walked a circle around him. He cringed as she raked her hand over his back. "You of all people should know that. A favor requires a favor in turn."

He took a deep breath and prepared himself for what was to come. Like it or not, he would have to play supplicant to her to keep Zarek safe. "What do you want?"

She pulled his hair back from the nape of his neck and nuzzled him with her lips and nose. Against his will, his body broke out in chills and hardened.

When she spoke, her voice was low and husky. "You know what I want."

"Fine," he said resignedly. "You can have me, just don't send Thanatos in yet. Let me get Zarek back to Alaska."

"Mmm," she breathed against his neck. "See... it's so much better when you cooperate."

He stiffened as she licked his skin.

"Question?" he said coldly. "Did you free Styxx just so you could screw me?"

She pulled back sharply and stepped around him to give him a shocked stare. "What?"

Ash watched her carefully, wanting to know the truth. "Styxx is loose in New Orleans."

Artemis appeared flabbergasted. "I would never do that to you, Acheron. I had no idea he had escaped. Are you sure?"

In spite of himself, he was relieved to know she hadn't betrayed him. Again.

"Talon saw him and thought he was me."

Artemis pressed her hand to her lips. Her green eyes were terrified. "He'll be coming for you."

"He already is. I'm sure that little dance with Zarek outside of the club was a setup to get you to kill Zarek. No doubt, Styxx is trying to neutralize my men. Either to keep them from protecting me or to keep me distracted."

"I won't let him have you," she said emphatically.

"This is between me and my brother, Artie. I want you to stay put of it." Ash moved farther away from her. "I'll be back at dawn to fulfill our bargain. In the meantime, leave Zarek to me."

Vane was still in human form as he helped his sister eat her gumbo.

She was the only living creature he had ever allowed to see the tender side of him. To the rest of the world, he must always be ruthless and harsh lest their pack prey on Anya and Fang because of their mixed heritage.

Vane clenched his hand against Anya's thick, soft fur and fought down the pain inside him. She and Fang were all he really had in this world.

All that had ever meant anything to him.

On the day Anya had mated with the Strati warrior Orian, Vane had thrown a fit. He had always known her reckless and stupid mate would meet an early death.

A few weeks ago, the Fates had proven him right.

He could still hear the sound of her voice when she had learned of Orian's death and had told him that she was more than mated to Orian. She had allowed the wolfswain to bond her to him as well. With their life forces melded into one, Orian's death would normally have been hers, except for the fact that she carried Orian's young.

But as soon as the pups came into this world, she would join her mate on the other side of eternity.

His heart broken, Vane blinked back tears.

Anya looked up and licked his face.

"You like the gumbo, huh?" he asked, stroking her ears with both of his hands.

He heard her laughter in his head. "Thank you for getting it."

He nodded. For her, he would walk through the fires of hell to claim a simple drink of water.

She sank down beside him and rested her head on his lap. "You should take wolf form before the others grow suspicious."

He watched the way her fur cradled his fingers. How he was going to miss her when she was gone. She was the most beautiful wolf swan he'd ever seen, and he didn't mean her looks. It was her gentle heart he would miss most of all. The way she always worried after him.

"I will, Anya. I just want a few more minutes."

He sensed Fang coming up behind him in wolf form. His brother butted him in the back with his head, then nipped playfully at his shoulder.

A flash of light appeared to the right of them. Vane looked up to find Acheron standing in the swamp. The Atlantean glanced around to make sure they were alone, then spoke quietly. "Can I have a minute?"

Fang growled.

"It's all right, adelfos," Vane said, pushing his brother back. "Watch over Anya."

Vane rose to his feet and walked Acheron into the woods, away from the den. If any of his pack learned he had brought a Dark-Hunter into it, his life was over.

"You should have called me, Ash."

"This couldn't wait. I have a problem and you're the only one I trust to help me."

Now that shocked him. Immensely. "You trust me?"

Ash gave him a wry look. "No, not really. But I have a renegade who is pretending to be me and threatening my Hunters."

"What's that got to do with me?"

"You owe me one, Vane, and I need you and Fang to act as backup. I need some muscle that they won't see coming."



Talon paced the floor of Sunshine's loft. He'd quickly showered the blood from his body and changed into the clothes Nick had brought. He was staying calm, but it was a real challenge.

"She is unharmed, Speirr," Ceara said. "I swear it."

He let out a long, weary breath in relief. He was grateful Ceara had managed to come to him this time, but it was a hard struggle for her to stay with him. The power that was blocking her was one they had never before encountered.

He only hoped Ceara could battle it a little longer and continue to help him protect and watch over Sunshine.

"Can you tell me where she is exactly?" he asked his sister.

"Oh jeez," Nick said from the breakfast counter where he sat, waiting for Ash to return. "You're not talking to the dead again, are you? I hate it when you do that."

"Shut up, Nick."

Nick curled his lip. " 'Shut up, Nick, heel, sit, fetch.' Love you too, Celt."

Talon glared at him. "Why don't you go scrounge up something to eat so that your mouth is occupied?"

"That I can do." Nick scooted off the bar stool and headed into the kitchen.

"Nae, I can't find her," Ceara said. "I can't pinpoint her exact location. I told you, something powerful protects her. Something that is beginning to feel like a god's power to me."


"I'm not sure. Part of it feels like it could be a Celtic god and yet there is something more."


"It's more like powers are commingled. Like two gods are protecting themselves."


She shrugged.

Nick cursed. "There's no food in here. There's nothing but grass and tofu and shit. There's not even a Coke. Man, T, your girlfriend is whacked."

Nick pulled out the block of soy cheese and smelled it. "This looks kind of edible though. I mean, you can't really screw up cheese, right?"

"Yeah, Nick. Eat the cheese." He turned back to Ceara. while Nick searched for a knife to slice it. "Will they free her?"

"I can't tell you the future, Speirr, you know the rules."

"I have to know she's going to live."

Ceara hesitated before she answered. "Today, she will."

"And tomorrow?"

Ceara looked away. "I can't tell you that."

Talon cursed.

Suddenly, a bright flash of light entered the room. Talon shielded his eyes from the glare and watched as Acheron and two men appeared just inside the doorway. He'd never seen the two men before, but one look told him they were Katagaria. The air around them was rife with animalistic, psychic power.

"Oh man," Nick snapped. "I hate that pooling shit. You scared me so bad, Ash, you made me eat this crappy cheese." He looked back at Talon. "What is this stuff anyway?"

"Soy cheese."

The Katagaria exchanged a disgusted look.

"So much for my dinner," the taller Katagaria said. "Now his whole system is polluted. Be at least a week before it leaves his cell tissue and he's edible again."

Nick paled considerably.

"You ready to go after Sunshine?" Acheron asked Talon.

Steeled with determination, Talon nodded. "Let's do it."

Acheron glanced to Nick in the kitchen. "Nick, I want you to head over to Zarek's and keep him out of sight for the time being. He's under house arrest, so if I catch him out and about, he's in deep shit and so are you."

Nick grimaced. "Okay, but for the record, I want you to know that if a woman's life wasn't on the line, I'd tell you to stuff that order."

Nick walked out the door, past the Katagaria, mumbling all the while. " 'Nick, fetch my car, fetch my clothes, sweep the chimney, make my bed, watch my psychopath, fetch my slippers.' Yeah, I'll fetch those slippers and stick them someplace real uncomfortable." Just when Talon thought he was through, he heard one last parting comment. "I swear, my mother should have named me Fido."

"Hey, I'll have you know my best friend is named Fido," the taller Katagaria said over his shoulder.

The other Katagaria shoved him lightly. "Would you stop?"

Acheron indicated the taller Katagaria with short black hair who had made the first comment. "Talon, meet Fang." He motioned to the one with longer hair and green eyes. "And his brother, Vane."

"Why are they here?" Talon asked Acheron.

"Let's just say that if the bad guys are armed with halogen lights again, they won't have the same effect on the Katagaria that they had on you."

"Yeah," Vane said, smiling evilly. "Lights just make us attack more."

Good, they had at least one surprise in their corner.

Now if he could just get his hands on Camulus.

"So, what's the plan, girls?" Fang asked.

"For none of us to get killed," Acheron said.

Vane led them out of the loft, downstairs to Talon's car. Talon saw the two black and gray Ninja motorcycles that must belong to the Katagaria. Since the were-animals had to move quickly to avoid their enemies, they tended to prefer racing bikes to running or walking, which depleted the strength they needed for fighting.

Talon checked his watch. It was twenty minutes to rendezvous. Part of him wished Ash would just poof them over to the warehouse, but he knew better than to ask.

Ash was capricious with that one power and got rather testy when asked to use it.

Talon got into the Viper while the other three started their bikes. He pulled out of the alley first, with the guys right behind him, and headed for Commerce Street.

They reached the Warehouse District a few minutes later.

The streets were bustling with activity, both tourist and local. This popular area was New Orleans' premier art district and was often referred to as the SoHo of the South.

It didn't take long for Talon to find the old abandoned warehouse that had been a popular art gallery during the 1980s. It had closed down in the early 1990s and been vacant ever since. The large-paned windows were dark, some partially boarded up and broken. The once red doors were now cracked and peeling, and held together by a thick chain and padlock.

There wasn't a single sound coming from inside as the men left their vehicles and gathered into a group.

"Uh, guys," Fang said slowly as he removed his helmet, "you do realize this is most likely a trap?"

"No, you think so?" Talon asked sarcastically.

Fang rolled his eyes.

Talon summoned his powers, letting them surge and feeling just how fragmented they were. This wasn't good.

He didn't know what was waiting inside that building, but he would fight his way through hell itself to keep Sunshine safe. Powers or no powers.

They headed for the building with Ash pulling up the rear.

"Ooo," Fang said as Talon worked the padlock. "Breaking and entering. Brings back fond memories, eh, Vane?"

"Shut up, Scooby," Vane said, using the derogatory wolf Katagaria term for a brainless, cowardly pup. "And watch your back."

Talon snapped open the lock and opened the door. It creaked loudly as the door fell off its hinges.

Talon cursed, then irritably shoved the door aside.

Entering the building one by one, they fanned out, and then paused inside the dark, empty room that was covered with at least a decade's worth of dust, spiderwebs, and grime.

Every so often, a car would go by outside, the headlights illuminating some of the dilapidated interior.

The place was totally silent except for a strange, rhythmic thumping coming from upstairs and the sound of rodents scurrying around the floor.

"Ewwww-eee-wwww," Fang sang in a voice reminiscent of some B-movie soundtrack. "Hey Ash, you vant to suck my blud?"

Ash gave him a droll, blank stare. "No, thanks. The last thing I want is to catch parvo from you, or some other freaky dog disease that makes me lift my leg around hydrants."

Vane smacked his brother on the back of the head. "Next time I'm leaving you home."

"Hey, that hurt," Fang said, rubbing his head.

"Yes, but not as much as this will." The disembodied voice came out of nowhere.

Talon heard something whirling through the air. He moved his head sharply to the left to avoid its trajectory and caught it as it started past his shoulder.

Arching a brow at the huge medieval throwing ax he held, he passed it over to Vane.

Vane curled his lip. The Katagari looked less than amused. "Hey dickhead, you should know something." Vane tested the edge of the blade with his thumb. "You attack my brother, you really piss me off."

Vane tossed the ax back at the one who'd thrown it.

Talon heard a groan an instant before searchlights pierced the darkness.

Talon and Ash hissed in pain, ducked low, and shielded their eyes.

In the next second, something crackled and the lights went out.

Ash tossed a lightning bolt into a corner where it must have hit its mark, since Talon heard someone shriek. The odor of burning flesh wafted through the room.

Then, Daimons came out of the darkness, attacking. Talon caught the first one to reach him, and flipped him to the floor. He toed the release for the blade in his boot, but before he could use it to kill the Daimon, another one caught him about the waist and shoved him back.

"Hot damn, Daimon food," Fang said with a laugh. "Hey Vane, you want the white meat or dark?"

Vane caught one of the Daimons in the chest with a knife, right in the heart. The Daimon disintegrated. He laughed at his brother who was slugging it out with another Daimon. "How about I grab one leg, you grab the other and we make a wish and pull?"

Talon rolled his eyes at them, then he spun around and used the toe of his boot to finish off the Daimon who had grabbed him.

He went after the first Daimon, who was making his way toward Fang's back. Talon caught him just before he reached the Katagari.

The Daimon turned on him with a hiss, and tried to stab him. Talon turned his wrist under and snapped the knife out of his hand.

"Bad move, inkblot," Talon said, slugging the vampire.

The demon staggered back. Talon used the knife to finish him off. The Daimon disintegrated as the stolen souls ran free of his body and drifted up toward the ceiling.

Something out of the corner of his eye caught Talon's attention. He turned his head to see Ash being mobbed by a group of Daimons.

Ash was fighting them off with his staff, but there were so many of them attacking that it was like trying to brush ants off while standing in the middle of an anthill.

Talon went to help.

Where had all the Daimons come from?

They usually congregated in New Orleans this time of year, but damn... it looked like half their world population was here in this room.

Working together, Talon, the Katagaria, and Ash finished them off.

"Thanks," Ash said as the last one disintegrated.

Talon nodded and folded up his srad into a single dagger, then returned it to his boot.

"Well," Fang said, mimicking a thick Southern drawl. "I have to say it's mighty nice of them Daimons to clean up after themselves when you kill them. It's much better than slaying an Arcadian." He held his hands up to them. "Look, Ma, no mess."

"Does Fang, have an off switch?" Talon asked Vane.

Looking a bit apologetic, Vane shook his head no.

But Talon was no longer paying attention to them.

He had far more important things to focus on. "We have to find Sunshine," he said, heading for the stairs.

"Wait," Ash called. "You have no idea what's up there."

Talon didn't slow at all. "And I won't know until I get there."

With no thought except to save her, Talon followed the thumping noise to a door at the far end of the upper hallway. By the time he reached it, Vane, Fang, and Ash had caught up to him.

Talon flung open the door, ready for battle.

Instead of another group of Daimons, what they found was Sunshine tied on a bed in a room that was lit by a small lantern. Moaning, she was writhing and twisting as if she were on fire.

Terrified something was wrong with her, Talon rushed to her side while Vane and Fang searched the room for more Daimons.

What had they done to her?

If they had touched or harmed her, he would hunt them down and tear them to pieces.

As soon as Talon released her from the bed she latched onto him with a viselike grip.

"Hi, baby," she breathed throatily, rubbing herself against him as she ran her hands through his hair and over his body. "I've been thinking about you, wanting you to come to me."

Oblivious to the others in the room, she kissed him feverishly and started trying to pull his clothes off. For a full minute, Talon was too stunned to move.

Then his hormones surged, wanting her as much as she wanted him.

She pushed him back on the bed, climbing up his body as if she were ready to do him on the spot.

His body instantly on fire, Talon had never seen anything like it. He had to literally struggle to keep his clothes on. Not that he would have objected had they been alone. But there was no way he was going to perform before an audience.

Acheron watched her, his eyes haunted.

There was something about Acheron's expression that reminded Talon of someone reliving a bad nightmare.

"Sunshine?" Talon said, trying to inspect her for damage. "Are you okay?"

"Umm-hmm," Sunshine groaned as she nibbled her way down his chin to his neck. His body was instantly hot and hard for her.

"C'mon, baby," she breathed in his ear. "I need you. Right now."

"Hey, Vane," Fang said. "I didn't know human females could go into heat, did you?"

Vane gave his brother a droll look.

It didn't curb Fang in the least. "You think she'll need a stand-in after she wears out Talon, like a Katagari female would? I don't normally do humans, but for a piece of that I might be tempted."

Talon saw red.

Vane clapped his hand over his brother's mouth and pulled him back. "Fang, I think you better stop or Talon might turn you into a wolf kabob."

Ash shook his head as if forcing himself to wake up from a trance. He pulled Sunshine back, away from Talon. Sunshine fought and hissed like a wildcat as she struggled for her release. Ash whispered something in a language Talon couldn't understand and Sunshine immediately went limp in his arms.

"What did you do to her?" Talon asked angrily.

"Nothing dangerous." He carefully placed Sunshine back in Talon's lap. "It's a small sleeping spell to keep her calm and let you get her home safely."

Ash lifted Sunshine's hand and sniffed her skin.

Talon had already caught a whiff of the strange spicy orange scent that seemed to permeate Sunshine's body.

Ash turned to Vane and Fang. "Would you guys mind waiting for us downstairs?"

Vane inclined his head. "We'll do another sweep of the building to make sure there aren't any more Daimons hiding out."

He led his brother from the room.

Talon cradled Sunshine against his chest, grateful to have her again, but concerned over what had been done to her. He had also noticed how strangely Ash was behaving; the man was much weirder than normal. "What's wrong with her?"

Ash let out a long, tired breath. "She's on a drug called Eycharistisi." At Talon's frown, he defined the unfamiliar word. "Pleasure."

"Come again?"

"It's a very potent aphrodisiac. It floods the body with endorphins and destroys any and all inhibitions. One hit and all the user can think about is finding someone to stimulate them to orgasm."

Rage descended as Talon thought about why someone would give her such a thing. "You think Camulus had sex with her?"

"No, I think someone else did it as a message to me and a warning to you."

"How so?"

Ash's cheeks were mottled with red-something that only happened when the man became truly angry. In fifteen hundred years, Talon had only seen Ash's skin mottled three times.

"Pleasure was the drug du jour in Atlantis and hasn't been produced since the entire continent sank to the bottom of the Aegean."

A bad feeling settled in Talon's gut. This wasn't just about Sunshine and him.

He narrowed his eyes on Acheron. "What's going on, T-Rex? First someone is messing with me who looks like you but isn't you. And now someone has access to a drug that vanished eleven thousand years ago along with your homeland, and he's fed it to Sunshine who was kidnapped by Camulus. What's the deal?"

"Offhand, I would say Camulus has teamed up with someone else."


As expected, Acheron didn't answer. "I need you to stay out of this."

"It's rather hard for me to stay out of it when this person keeps dragging me into it. And I won't stay out of it so long as Sunshine is threatened."

"You'll do as I tell you, Talon."

"I'm not your boy, Ash. You better take another tone with me. Quick."

Ash's cheeks turned even redder. "Are you questioning my authority?"

"No, I'm questioning your judgment. I want you to come clean with me about who and what we're dealing with and why this man gave Sunshine this drug."

"I don't owe you an explanation, Celt. All you need to know is that I have an old enemy pretending to be me."


"Well, it obviously isn't to be nice to me and win over my friends, now is it?"

Talon growled at Acheron's inability to tell anyone jack about his past. Why was the man so damn secretive?

"Is he a shapeshifter or a demigod?"

"Last I checked, he was human."

"Then why does he look like you? Is he a relative?"

"I'm not going to play Twenty Questions with you, Talon. He's not your concern. He's mine."

"Will you at least explain to me how in the future I can tell you two apart?"

Acheron removed his sunglasses. "Our eyes. I'm the only human ever born with eyes like these. He won't have them and he won't remove his sunglasses for fear of revealing himself."

"Why is this guy after you?"

"He wants me dead."


Acheron stepped away from him. "Your orders are simple. Take her back to the swamp. I don't know how much of the drug they gave her, but I'm sure she'll still be feeling it when she wakes up. Trust me, when she does, she's going to put a really big smile on your face."

"Trust you," Talon repeated. "Funny how you keep saying that when you never trust anyone with even the most basic facts about yourself. Why is that, Ash?"

As expected, Ash didn't answer. And in that instant, Talon realized how Sunshine must feel when dealing with him.

It was a wonder she tolerated him at all.

"Hey Ash," Vane called from downstairs. "There's something down here you need to see."

Talon picked Sunshine up and carried her downstairs. Ash followed behind them.

Vane and Fang were in a small room off the main one. On the far wall someone had painted an eerie Greek symbol of three women and a flock of doves. Three notes were taped to it-one above each woman's head.

Talon saw that one was for him, one for Sunshine, and one for Ash.

Crossing the room, Acheron pulled the letters down, opened the one addressed to Talon and read it out loud. " 'You didn't listen to me, Celt. I warned you to keep her in your swamp where she would be safe.

" 'I'll bet it's now tearing you up that you don't know when, where, and how I'm going to kill her. But rest assured, I am going to kill her.' "

He opened Sunshine's next and read it out loud as well. " 'Talon, are you reading Sunshine's letters? What? Don't you trust your girlfriend?

" 'Don't worry. She hasn't been unfaithful to you. At least not yet, though it was hard. We had to tie her down to keep her from screwing every one of us.' "

Talon bellowed with rage. "So help me, I'm going to find that son of a bitch and rip his heart out."

Furious, Ash opened the last one, but this time he didn't read it out loud.

The note was addressed to him. The handwriting was different.

I know you, little brother. I know all you've done. I know how you live.

Most of all, I know the lies you tell yourself so that you can sleep.

Tell me, what would your Dark-Hunters think of you if they ever learned the truth about you?

Keep them out of my way or I'll see them all dead.

And you I'll be seeing on Mardi Gras.

Ash balled the note up in his fist and disintegrated it with his thoughts. Impotent rage rushed through him, setting fire to his blood. If Styxx wanted a war, then he'd better gather a whole lot more Daimons.

Styxx had no idea what he was playing against.

"What did that one say?" Talon asked.

"Nothing. Take Sunshine to your place and keep her there until the drug wears off, then call me." Ash rubbed his eyes as the Katagaria led them from the building.

Once outside, Talon placed Sunshine in the car while the others stood nearby.

Vane had his arms folded over his chest as he looked at Ash. "So, Ash, where does all this leave you?"

"Basically screwed. In the next twenty-four hours I have to find a way to get Zarek out of here before the cops find him, and unless I miss my guess, the next act of my nemesis will be to tell Kyrian and Julian who their new neighbor is."

Talon caught Acheron's gaze. "He wants your attention scattered and unfocused."

Ash nodded. "Yeah, and he's doing a really good job at it."

An idea occurred to Talon. "You know, I think we've all been forgetting something."

"And that is?"

Talon indicated the Katagaria to remind Acheron that the wolf patria wasn't the only group of Were-Hunters in town. "That your pal doesn't know about Sanctuary. I think we need to go put the bear clan on standby. I'm sure Papa Peltier and the boys would be more than happy to lend us a hand on Mardi Gras. They owe me a few favors, and if the Daimons come out like they did tonight, we'll be needing all the help we can get."


"And if I were you," Talon continued, "I'd go ahead and break the news to Kyrian about Valerius just like you were planning on doing. And keep Zarek on standby here in the city."

"What about the police?"

"Trust me, T-Rex, I know my city. The police will be so distracted on Mardi Gras that Zarek could introduce himself to them and they wouldn't realize it's him. But if I were you, I'd pretend that I was getting Z out of here just in case your 'friend' is watching. Call Mike and have him fly in and ride Eric out under the cover of darkness so that they'll think it's Z. And keep Zarek in hiding and bury Valerius until that night."

Acheron set his jaw. "It's risky."

"So's living in a swamp."

Vane moved forward. "I can set up sentries around Talon's place. If they make a move on him again, Fang and I can be there in a heartbeat."

"Why are you willing to help us?" Talon asked. "I thought it was your policy to let Dark-Hunters rot."

"It is. But I still owe Acheron a debt." He turned to Acheron. "After this is over, consider it paid in full."

Acheron nodded. "Done."

Talon said his goodbyes to the group, then got in the car and headed home.

As he drove away from the district, he reached over and took Sunshine's hand into his and held on to it tight. Her bones felt so fragile in his palm and yet he knew the strength this lady possessed. The grace and determination.

He'd been so afraid when Camulus had taken her.

He didn't like living with this fear. He didn't like feeling anything. He'd been without emotions for so long that having them now hurt even more.

How he missed his calm serenity. He was used to having complete control and yet every time he looked at her he felt his emotions spin out of control.

Sunshine touched him so deep in his heart that he knew he'd never be the same again. And it wasn't just because she was Nynia. It was because she was her.

Sunshine held strength, courage, and fire. She was her own person and he loved the challenge of her.

She was precious to him.

Talon loved her more now than he ever had as a man. And the pain of that thought was enough to cripple him.

Talon got her back to his place and laid her carefully on his futon. He wasn't sure what Acheron had done to her, but she slept peacefully.

His phone rang.

He answered it to find Ash on the other end.

"Did you make it back with her?"

"Yeah, she's still asleep."

"Good. I was worried about you two."

He frowned. It was Acheron's voice but that wasn't something Acheron would normally admit to.

All his instincts went on full alert. This was definitely not Acheron. The voice and tone were the same, but now that he knew there were two of them, he could hear the difference in their personalities.

This was the imposter.

"So how long do you think it'll be before the drug leaves her system?" Talon asked.

"I don't know. One dose can keep you pumped anywhere from one to three days."

"Really? You seem to know a lot about it."

"Yeah, well, when I was mortal I was so addicted to it that I was willing to sell my soul for it."

"And who might you be?" Talon asked.

"Excuse me?"

"I know you're not Acheron."

A dark laugh sounded in his ear. "Very good, Dark-Hunter. Very good. For that, I shall let you and Sunshine live another day."

Talon snorted. "Boy, you've got a lot to learn about me if you think you could ever be a threat to me or mine. You come near her again and I'll make boots out of your hide."

"Oh, I don't think so. But I am impressed that this time you figured me out. I had begun to wonder if you would ever be able to tell us apart."

Talon tightened his grip on the phone. "Yeah well, if you're going to impersonate Acheron, you might try learning a little more about him."

"Trust me, Dark-Hunter," he said, his voice confident and evil. "I know Acheron a lot better than you do. I know things about him that would stun you into silence and make you hate him forever. He's not what you and the others think."

"I've known him for fifteen centuries. I think by now I know a thing or two about his character."

"Do you?" he asked sarcastically. "Did you know that he had a sister he let die? That she was only a few feet down the hall, screaming for his help. And while he lay in a drugged and drunken stupor, she was torn to pieces?"

Talon was horrified by what the man described. But he knew Acheron better than that. Acheron would never, drugged or not, be so far gone that he wouldn't render aid to a stranger. When it came to those who fell under his protection, Acheron would move heaven itself to keep them safe.

"I don't believe you."

"You will. Before I am through here, all of you will learn the truth of him." The imposter hung up the phone.

Talon tossed his phone to the nightstand and ran his hands over his face. This was a nightmare.

He was torn between his need to protect a friend he had known a thousand lifetimes and a woman whose soul meant more to him than his own life.

And he'd never felt more helpless. Not even when he had watched his uncle slain. At least then he'd held a weapon in his hand and had seen his attackers.

This time, there was nothing solid to grasp onto. There were two enemies out there. One pretending to be Acheron and the other a cowardly god with a vicious vendetta.

What was he going to do?

He turned around and looked at Sunshine.

Her black hair was a dark cloud on his pillow. Her face was relaxed and peaceful, her tanned skin a soothing sight against his sheets. Even now he could feel her in his arms, feel the heat of her body under his, the warmth of her touch on his skin.

How could he protect her?

"Trust in the Morrigan, Speirr. Never doubt her loyalty to you. Never question her actions. Just know that when she can, she will always help you." Those were the last words his father had ever spoken to him.

Closing his eyes, Talon could still see his father's face in the firelight that night. See the older man's pride and love shining at him as his father embraced him and sent him to bed.

He had held tight to those words, and no one had ever defeated him in battle. Not by ambush or by trickery.

In the end, it had been the enemy at home who had destroyed him. The last person he had suspected.

His cousin had wanted to be king so badly that he had known the only way to power would be to kill off both Talon and Ceara.

Talon had never suspected his cousin of setting up the death of his aunt and uncle.

Talon had learned of the man's treachery only after the Druids had slain him and Ceara.

The night Talon had shown up to take vengeance on his clan, his cousin had confessed everything, trying to get Talon to spare him.

It hadn't mattered. Young, angry, and hurt, Talon had taken his revenge against all of them, and then cast off his emotions and hardened his heart.

Hardened it until a fey beauty had looked up at him on a quiet street with large brown eyes that seared him.

He loved her. Her laughter, her wit.

She had made him feel again. Made him complete.

Without her, he didn't want to live at all.

But he refused to see her killed because of him.

"I have to let her go."

He had no choice.

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