Night Embrace Chapter 19

Zarek watched as Talon and Sunshine vanished into the crowd. He was happy for Sunshine, but he couldn't understand what the two of them felt for one another.

He'd never known any kind of love.

"Fuck it," he snarled, limping away from the building. He needed to get back to his townhouse.

"Dionysus will be coming for you."

He paused at the sound of Acheron's voice behind him. "So?"

Ash sighed as he drew near. "Can we not have a truce?"

Zarek scoffed at the thought. "Why? Mutual disdain suits us so well."

"Z, I'm too tired for this. Give me something to use with Artemis. Something that will make her want to give you another chance."

Zarek laughed bitterly. "Yeah, right. After what I saw in there you don't honestly expect me to believe that she pulls your chain, do you? How stupid do I look?"

"Things aren't always what they seem."

Maybe, but Zarek wasn't willing to give on this. He'd screwed himself royally tonight. The moment he had turned on the gods, he'd known they would make him pay.

Not that he cared.

Let them come for him.

"Look," he said, turning his back to Acheron, "I'm tired and hungry, and I just want to lie down until my injuries heal, okay?"


Zarek paused as a group of college students stumbled past, laughing and teasing each other. He watched them curiously.

They turned a corner and vanished.

He looked around at the drunken tourists and locals who were screaming and cheering. It was almost one a.m. now and still the city was alive and vibrant even though the crowd was being told to disperse.

"When do I go back?" Zarek asked, dreading the answer.

"Tomorrow. Nick'll be by to pick you up about two. He'll have a tinted van that can get you out to the airstrip without exposing you to daylight."

Zarek closed his eyes and winced as he thought about returning to Alaska. A few weeks more and spring would arrive.

He'd be housebound again.

A flash to his left caught his attention. Three seconds later, a Daimon came running through the crowd. The Daimon flashed his fangs and snarled at Zarek as if he had no idea who or what he was facing.

Zarek smiled evilly, anticipating what he was about to do.

"What are you?" the Daimon asked when he failed to scare or intimidate him.

Zarek quirked his lips. "Oh please, let me give you the job description. Me, Dark-Hunter. You, Daimon. I hit, you bleed. I kill, you die."

"Not this time." The Daimon attacked.

Acting on instinct, Zarek caught him in the throat and used his claw to kill him.

The Daimon evaporated as Valerius came running up through the crowd.

The Roman was breathing hard and had obviously been chasing after the Daimon for some distance. Valerius looked at Ash and inclined his head, then he glanced to Zarek and froze.

Zarek met his shocked gaze without flinching. As per Ash's orders, he had shaved his goatee off.

Recognition darkened Valerius's eyes as he stood there without blinking.

Zarek gave him a wry smile. "Surprise," he said quietly. "Bet you didn't see that one coming."

Without another word, he headed off into the crowd, leaving Valerius and Acheron to their own ends.



Brothers. The word hung in Valerius's heart as he stared at the marble bust in his foyer. It was the face of his father.

It was the face of his brother.


Pain racked him as he stood there trying to reconcile the past with the present. Why had he never seen the resemblance?

But he knew. He'd never really looked at Zarek before tonight.

A pathetic lowborn slave, Zarek had been so far beneath his notice that he had barely glanced at the boy.

There had only been one time in their lives when he had truly seen him.

He couldn't remember now what Zarek had been beaten for. For that matter, he couldn't even remember which of his brothers had committed the deed that had caused Zarek's punishment. It could just as well have been his misdeed as that of one of the others.

He only remembered that it was the first time he had recognized Zarek as a person.

Zarek had been lying on the cobbled floor, clutching his arms over his chest, his naked, scarred back bloody and torn.

What had struck Valerius most was the look on Zarek's face. The boy's eyes had been hollow. Empty. Not a single tear was evident.

Valerius had wondered at the time why Zarek hadn't cried at such a harsh beating, but then it had dawned on him that Zarek never cried.

The wretched slave had never uttered a single word while they beat him. No matter what they said or did, the boy just took it like a man, with no sobs, no begging. Just hard, cold stoicism.

Valerius couldn't fathom such strength from someone who was younger than him.

Before he realized what he was doing, he'd reached out and touched one of the welts on Zarek's back. Raw and bleeding, it had looked so painful that he tried to imagine what it would feel like to have one such wound, much less an entire back full of them.

Zarek didn't move.

"Do you need..." Valerius had choked on the last of the sentence. He had wanted to help Zarek up, but knew they would both be punished if anyone saw him do such a thing.

"What are you doing?"

His father's angry voice caused him to jump. "I-I-Iwas l-l-looking at his back," he answered honestly.

His father had narrowed his eyes on him. "Why?"

"I was c-c-curious." Valerius hated how he always stuttered around his father.

"Why? Do you think it hurts him?"

Valerius had been too afraid to answer. His father had had that dead look that often came into his eyes. A look that meant the kind, loving father he knew was gone and the brutal military commander was there instead.

As much as he loved his father, he feared the military commander, who was capable of most any act of coldblooded ruthlessness, even against his own sons.

"Answer me, boy. Do you think it hurts him?"

He nodded.

"Do you care if it hurts him?"

Valerius had blinked back his tears before they betrayed him. The truth was he did care, but he knew his father would fly into a rage if he ever dared breathe that aloud. "N-n-no. I don't c-c-care."

"Then prove it."

Valerius blinked, suddenly afraid of what that meant. "Prove it?"

His father had retrieved the whip from the stand and handed it to him. "Give him ten more lashes, or I will see you given twenty."

Heartsick and with his hand shaking, Valerius had taken the whip and delivered the lashes.

Unused to wielding a whip, he had missed Zarek's back entirely. His lashes landed on Zarek's unscarred arms and legs. Virgin flesh that had never been beaten before.

For the first time Zarek had hissed and recoiled from the lashes. So much so that the last lash ended up cutting across Zarek's face, right below his brow.

Zarek had screamed, cupping his eye as blood poured from between his dirty fingers.

Valerius had wanted to vomit as he heard his father praise him for blinding the slave's eye.

His father had actually patted him on the back. "That's it, my son. Always strike where they're most vulnerable. You'll make a fine general one day."

Zarek had looked up at him then and the emptiness was gone. The right side of his face had been covered in blood, but with his left eye, Zarek had conveyed all the pain and anguish he felt. All the hatred that was directed both inward and out.

That look was seared inside Valerius to this day.

His father had beaten Zarek again for the insolence of that glare.

No wonder Zarek hated them all. The man was entitled to it. More so now that Valerius knew the truth of Zarek's parentage.

He wondered when Zarek had learned the truth. Why no one had ever told him.

Angry, Valerius gripped the stone bust of their father.

"Why?" he demanded, knowing he'd never have an answer now.

And right then he hated his father more than ever. Hated the blood that flowed through his veins.

But at the end of the day, he was Roman.

It was his heritage.

Right or wrong, he couldn't deny it.

Lifting his head high, he retreated from the foyer to his bedroom upstairs.

But as he ascended the steps, he lashed out one last time.

Turning around, he kicked his leg out, catching the pedestal.

The bust of his father toppled against the stone marble floor and shattered.


Zarek leaned back as the helicopter took off. He was going home.

No doubt he would die there.

If Artemis didn't kill him, he was sure Dionysus would. Dionysus's threat rang in his ears. For Sunshine's happiness, he had crossed a god who was sure to make him suffer even worse horrors than those in his past.

Zarek still didn't know why he'd done it, other than the fact that pissing people off was the only thing that truly gave him pleasure.

His gaze fell to his backpack.

Before he knew what he was doing, he took the handmade bowl out and held it in his hands.

He ran his hands over the intricate designs that Sunshine had carved. She had probably spent hours on this bowl.

Caressed it with loving hands...

"They waste their time over a rag doll and it becomes very important to them; and if anybody takes it away from them, they cry..."

The passage from The Little Prince ran through his mind. Sunshine had wasted much of her time on this and given him her work. She probably had no idea just how much her simple gift had touched him.

"You really are pathetic," he breathed, clutching the bowl in his hand as he curled his lip in repugnance. "It meant nothing to her and for a worthless piece of clay you just consigned yourself to death."

Closing his eyes, he swallowed. It was true.

One more time, he was going to die for nothing.

"So what?"

Let him die. Maybe then he would find some kind of solace.

Angered at his own stupidity, Zarek splintered the bowl with his thoughts. Pulling out his MP3 player, he scrolled to Nazareth's Hair of the Dog, put his headphones on, and waited for Mike to lighten the windows of the helicopter and let the lethal sunlight in on him.

It was, after all, what Dionysus had paid the Squire to do.


Screams surrounded Styxx, piercing the blackness. He tried his best to see something and saw only the strange pinpoint ghost-lights of eyes that were desperate to be of use.

This place was cold. Icy. He felt his way along a craggy rock only to learn he was encased in a small, six-by-six-foot cell. There wasn't even enough room for him to lie down comfortably.

Suddenly, a light appeared beside him. It faded to form a young, beautiful woman with dark red hair, fair skin, and the green, swirling eyes of a goddess. He knew her instantly.

She was Mnimi, the goddess of memory. He'd seen her likeness countless times in temples and on scrolls.

She held an old-fashioned oil lamp in her hand as she studied him closely.

"Where am I?" Styxx asked.

Her voice was faint and gentle, like a breeze whispering through crystal leaves. "You are in Tartarus."

Styxx swallowed his outrage. When he had died aeons ago in ancient Greece, he had been placed in the paradise of the Elysian Fields.

Tartarus was where Hades banished the evil souls he wished to torture.

"I don't belong here."

"Where do you belong?" she asked.

"I belong with my family."

Her eyes were tinged by sadness as she regarded him. "They have all been reborn. The only family you have left now is the brother you hate."

"He is not my brother. He was never my brother."

She cocked her head as if listening to something far away from them. "Strange. Acheron never felt that way about you. No matter the times you were cruel to him, he never hated you."

"I don't care what he feels."

"True," she said as if she knew his innermost thoughts, as if she knew him better than he knew himself.

"Honestly, I don't understand you, Styxx. For centuries, you were given the Vanishing Isle as your home. You had friends and every luxury known. It was as peaceful and beautiful there as the Elysian Fields, and yet all you did was plot more vengeance against Acheron. I gave you memories of your beautiful home and family, of your peaceful and happy childhood to comfort you and instead of gaining pleasure from them you used them to fuel your hatred."

"Do you blame me? He stole everything from me. Everything I ever hoped for or loved. Because of him my family is dead, my kingdom gone. Even my life ended because of him."

"No," she said softly. "You can lie to yourself, Styxx, but not to me. It was you who betrayed your brother. You and your father. You let your fear of him blind you. It was your own actions that condemned not only him, but yourself as well."

"What do you know of it? Acheron is evil. Unclean. He defiles everything he touches."

She danced her fingers through the lamp's flame, making it flicker eerily in the darkness of the small cell. All the while her eyes burned him with their intensity. "That is the beauty of memory, isn't it? Our reality is always clouded by our perceptions of truth. You remember events one way and so you judge your brother without knowledge of how things were to him."

Mnimi placed a hand on his shoulder. The heat of it seared his skin and when she spoke her low tone sounded evil, insidious. "I am about to give you the most precious of gifts, Styxx. At long last, you will have understanding."

Styxx tried to run, but couldn't.

Mnimi's fiery touch held him immobile.

His head spun as he rushed back in time.

He saw his beautiful mother lying on her gilded bed, her body covered in sweat, her face ashen, as an attendant brushed her damp, blond hair from her pale blue eyes. He'd never known his mother to appear more joy-filled than she did that day.

The room was crowded with court officials and his father, the king, stood to the side of the bed with his heads of state. The long, stained-glass windows were open, letting the fresh sea air offer relief to the heat of the late summer day.

"It is another beautiful boy," the midwife happily proclaimed, wrapping the newborn infant in a blanket.

"By sweet Apollymi's hand, Aara, you've done me proud!" his father said as a loud jubilant shout echoed through the room. "Twin boys to rule over our twin isles!"

Laughing, his mother watched as the midwife cleaned the firstborn.

It was then Styxx learned the true horror of Acheron's birth, learned the dark secret his father had hidden from him.

Acheron was the firstborn son. Not him.

Styxx, who was now in Acheron's infant body, struggled to breathe through his newborn lungs. He had finally taken a deep, clear breath when he heard a cry of alarm.

"Zeus have mercy, the eldest is malformed, Majesties."

His mother looked up, her brow creased by worry. "How so?"

The midwife carried him over to his mother, who held the second-born babe to her breast.

Scared, the baby wanted only to be comforted. He reached for the brother who had shared the womb with him these past months. If he could just touch his brother, all would be right. He knew it.

Instead, his mother pulled his brother away, out of his sight and reach. "It cannot be," his mother sobbed. "He is blind."

"Not blind, Majesty," the eldest wisewoman said as she stepped forward, through the crowd. Her white robes were heavily embroidered with gold threads, and she wore an ornate gold wreath over her faded gray hair. "He was sent to you by the gods."

The king narrowed his eyes angrily at the queen. "You were unfaithful?" he accused Aara.

"Nay, never."

"Then how is it he came from your loins? All of us here witnessed it."

The room as a whole looked to the wisewoman, who stared blankly at the tiny, helpless baby crying for someone to hold him and offer him solace. Warmth.

"He will be a destroyer, this child," she said, her ancient voice loud and ringing so that all could hear her proclamation. "His touch will bring death to many. Not even the gods themselves will be safe from his wrath."

"Then kill him now." The king ordered his guard to draw his sword and slay the baby.

"Nay!" the wisewoman said, halting the guard before he could carry out the king's will. "Kill this infant and your son dies as well, Majesty. Their life forces are combined. 'Tis the will of the gods that you should raise him to manhood."

The baby sobbed, not understanding the fear he sensed from those around him. All he wanted was to be held as his brother was being held. For someone to cuddle him and tell him that all would be fine.

"I will not raise a monster," the king said.

"You have no choice." The wisewoman took the baby from the midwife and offered it to the queen. "He was born of your body, Majesty. He is your son."

The baby squalled even louder, reaching again for his mother. She cringed away from him, clutching her second-born even tighter than before. "I will not suckle it. I will not touch it. Get it away from my sight."

The wisewoman took the child to his father. "And what of you, Majesty? Will you not acknowledge him?"

"Never. That child is no son of mine."

The wisewoman took a deep breath and presented the infant to the room. Her grip was loose, with no love or compassion evident in her touch.

"Then he will be called Acheron for the river of woe. Like the river of the underworld, his journey shall be dark, long, and enduring. He will be able to give life and to take it. He will walk through his life alone and abandoned-ever seeking kindness and ever finding cruelty."

The wisewoman looked down at the infant in her hands and uttered the simple truth that would haunt the boy for the rest of his existence. "May the gods have mercy on you, little one. No one else ever will."


As Ash approached Artemis's sacred temple, he opened the oversized double doors with his thoughts.

With his head held high, he gripped the padded strap of his black suede backpack and forced himself to walk through the ornate, gilded doorway into Artemis's throne room where she sat listening to one of her women play a lute and sing.

Nine pairs of feminine eyes turned to stare at him curiously.

Without being told, her eight attendants gathered their things and rushed from the room as they always did at his appearance. They shut the door discreetly behind them and left him alone with Artemis.

Vaguely, Ash remembered the first time he'd been allowed inside Artemis's private domain on Olympus. As a young man he had been awed by the intricately carved marble columns that framed the throne room. They rose twenty feet from the marble and gold floor under his feet up to the domed gold roof that was intricately embossed with wildlife scenes. Three sides of this room had no walls. Instead, it looked out over the perfect sky where white, fluffy clouds floated by at eye level.

The throne itself wasn't as ornate as it was comfortable. More an oversized chaise longue that could easily double as a bed, it occupied the center of the open room and was covered with lush, decadent ivory pillows with gold tassels and trim.

Only two men had ever been allowed to set foot inside this temple. Artemis's twin brother Apollo and him.

It was an honor Ash would gladly have ceded.

Artemis was dressed in a sheer white peplos that left her lithe body all but bare to his gaze. The dark pink tips of her breasts were hard and puckered against the gauzy material, and the hem of it rose high on her legs, showing him a glimpse of the dark auburn triangle at the juncture of her thighs.

She smiled seductively at him, bringing his attention back to her perfect, beautiful face. Her long, auburn curls seemed as iridescent as her green eyes while she watched him with fascinated interest. She lay on her side, her arms folded over the high back of the chaise and her chin resting on the back of her hand.

Taking a deep breath, Ash closed the distance between them and stood before her.

Artemis cocked a finely arched brow as she gazed ravenously at his body. "Interesting. You look more defiant than ever, Acheron. I see no proof of the submission you promised me. Do I need to revoke Talon's soul?"

He wasn't sure she had the power to do such a thing, but then, he wasn't willing to chance it. He'd called her bluff before and had lived to regret it.

He shrugged his backpack off his shoulder and dropped it to the floor. Then he removed his leather jacket and draped it over the backpack. Falling to his knees, he placed his hands on his leather-clad thighs, ground his teeth and lowered his head.

Artemis unfolded herself from the chaise and approached him. "Thank you, Acheron," she said breathlessly as she moved to stand behind him. She ran her hand through his hair, turning it golden blond and freeing it from its braid so that it spilled over his shoulders and chest.

Artemis brushed the hair on the left side of his neck aside, exposing the flesh beneath it to her gaze. She dragged a long fingernail down his bared skin, raising chills over his arms and chest.

And then she did the one thing he hated most of all.

She blew her breath across the back of his neck.

He fought down the urge to cringe. She, alone, knew how and why he hated that sensation. It was a cruel thing she did to remind him of his place in her world.

"In spite of what you might think, Acheron, I derive no pleasure from making you bend to my will. I would much rather have you here by your own choice-the way you used to come to me."

Ash closed his eyes as he remembered those days. He had loved her so much then. Had ached any time he was forced to leave her side.

He had believed in her and had given her the one thing he had never given anyone else-his trust.

She had been his world. His sanctuary. At a time when no one would acknowledge him, she had welcomed him into her life and had shown him what it was like to be wanted.

Together, they had laughed and they had loved. He had shared things with her that he had never shared with anyone before or since.

Then, when he had needed her most, she had coldly turned her back on him and left him to die painfully. Alone.

She had spurned his love that day and had proven to him that in the end, she was just as ashamed of him as his family had been.

He meant nothing to her.

He never would.

The truth of it had hurt, but after all this time he had come to terms with it. He would never be anything more to her than a curiosity. A defiant pet she kept around for her own amusement.

Again in a gesture she knew he hated, Artemis knelt at his back, her knees brushing gently against his hips. She ran her hand over his shoulder, and then down the intricate bird tattoo on his arm.

"Mmm," she purred as she nuzzled his hair with her face. "What is it about you that makes me want you so?"

"I don't know, but if you ever figure it out, let me know and I'll be sure to stop it."

She sank her fingernails deep into his tattoo. "My Acheron, ever defiant. Ever vexing."

She ripped open his T-shirt and removed it from his body.

Ash held his breath as she pulled his back to her front and hungrily skimmed her hands over his bare chest. As always, his body betrayed him and reacted to her touch. Chills ran over his skin and his gut drew tight as his groin hardened.

Her hot breath fell against his neck as she ran her tongue along his collarbone. He leaned his head to the right to give her more access to him while she unlaced his tight leather pants.

His breathing ragged, Ash clutched his hands against his thighs and waited for what was to come.

She freed his swollen shaft and sheathed it with her hands.

Her tongue teasing his neck, she ran her right hand upward to the tip of his manhood where she stroked him until he was so hard for her that he hurt. He moaned as she dipped her other hand down and cupped and stroked him from underneath while her right hand continued to tease him.

"You're so large and thick, Acheron," she whispered hoarsely as she used her fingers to coat him in his own wetness so that she could stroke him even faster. Harder. "I love the way you feel in my hands."

She took a deep breath in his hair. "The way you smell." She nuzzled his shoulder with her face. "The sound of your voice when you say my name." She ran her tongue across his shoulder blade back to his neck. "The way your cheeks mottle whenever you exert yourself."

She nibbled his ear. "The look on your face when you release yourself inside of me."

She brushed her breasts against his spine so that she could whisper her next words in his ear. "But most of all, I love the way you taste."

Ash tensed as she sank her long canine teeth into his neck. The momentary pain turned quickly to physical pleasure.

Reaching over his shoulder, he cradled her head to his neck and rocked himself against her hands as she stroked him even faster than before. He felt her and her powers flowing through him, uniting them even closer than the intimacy of sex.

His head swam until he could see nothing. All he could feel was Artemis. Her demanding hands on him, her hot, living breath against his throat, her heart pounding in time to his.

They were synchronized. Her pleasure was his and, for this moment in time, they were one creature with one heartbeat, bonded on a level that transcended human understanding.

He felt her desire for him. Her need to possess every part of his mind, body, and heart. He felt as if he were drowning. As if she were pulling him far away from himself, into a cold, dark cell where he would never again find his way back.

He heard her whispering to him in his mind. "Come for me, Acheron. Give me your power. Your strength. Give me all that you are."

He fought against her intrusion, and as always, he lost the battle.

In the end, he had no choice except to give her what she wanted.

Ash threw his head back and roared as his entire body shook in complete orgasmic ecstasy. Still she drank from him, taking his essence and powers into her own body.

He was hers. Regardless of what he might think, want, or feel, he would always belong to her.

Panting and weak from her possession, Ash leaned back against her and watched as a thin trail of blood ran down his chest...

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