Time Untime Chapter 7

Ren braced himself as he felt the steel claws of Kyatel rip across his body. As the wind-demon had intended, it stung his flesh like a thousand scorpions. Tears of vicious pain welled in his eyes while he struggled to remain on his feet. If he went down, the demon would have the woman and the fight would end here and now. She would die and all the gates would open.

I will not be defeated....

Never again.

Angry for getting them into this situation and for failing to teleport her to his intended haven, he forced himself to stand strong in spite of the physical agony as he mentally reached deep inside and summoned every piece of power he could. This was so not where he wanted to be. Why ... why had his powers screwed them over like this? For once, couldn't something work the way it was supposed to? His fury rising, he bared his fangs and threw his arm outward. As hard as he could, he drove a fireball straight into the demon's chest.

Screaming, Kyatel fell back, through the doorway. The winds stopped howling long enough for Ren to grab Kateri's hand and pull her forward. They needed to get deeper into the first realm if they were to survive. He would try to teleport them again, but after this misstep, he didn't dare. His powers were waning and with two of them ...

Better to be locked here than to fall into the second realm.

As he tried to lead her, she shook her head in denial and literally dragged her feet, slowing them down. "What are you?"

"The only one in this realm on your side. Come with me or they will kill you."

He saw the hesitation in her eyes an instant before she nodded. His only thought to put as much distance between him and his former ally as he could, he ran toward a door and threw it open.

Kateri slowed again as she saw the burning room they needed to cross. Giving him a look that said she thought he was insane, she refused to go into it.

Ren fought down his irritation. Unlike him, she wasn't used to demon tricks and traps. "It's an illusion."

This time her gaze called him a liar.

"Trust me."

"Why should I?"

He deserved her doubt. After his past, he wasn't entitled to anything except contempt and disdain. Still, it stung on numerous levels. "You want to live?"

Her gaze scorched him with a trust he'd never seen in any woman's eyes before. "Yes, I do. So please, don't be lying to me. I don't have much to live for, but I definitely don't want to die tonight." Those words were whispered as she stepped forward and retook his hand.

Hoping, praying he was right about it being an illusion, Ren pulled her into the flames. For the merest instant, he thought he'd misjudged the situation. But as they crossed the burning room and he recognized the stench of this hell, he knew what had happened.

Coyote had breached this first gate and sucked them into it. Somehow his brother had opened the doorway to Hi'hinya and released Kyatel. Or worse, Coyote had broken Choo Co La Tah and Choo had done it for him.

Either way, the gate for Hi'hinya was open and it was bad for all of them.

Not wanting to consider what it would take to force Choo's hand to do this, Ren used his telekinesis to slam the door shut and seal it behind them before Kyatel came through. They wouldn't have long and he wasn't exactly the fiend of the month around here. No doubt there were wanted posters for him everywhere. Ones that held a huge bounty. If a demon could capture him and take him to the Grizzly, they would be rewarded beyond measure. There was nothing in the universe the Grizzly Spirit wanted more than to have Ren back in his custody.

For that reason, Ren was as much a threat to her as the demons were.

Maybe he ought to let her go it alone.

But he knew better. She wouldn't last long in this first realm of the dead. She had no idea how to fight or avoid them. And at least the demons here weren't that strong as a rule. Many were nothing more than shadow walkers-demons that straddled the two worlds. The biggest problem with them was that they had no loyalty whatsoever. Ambiguous and capricious in the purest sense of those words, they were as likely to kill someone as to help them.

If they were really lucky, the shadow walkers wouldn't care about their presence at all.

Of course, luck was always one fickle bitch.

And tonight she seemed to have it in for them.

Suddenly, the wall to his left exploded, showering them with sheetrock. However, that wasn't the bad part. The bad came in the form of a herd of demons who were hell-bent to claim his heart, and her life as a bonus.

Ren let go of the woman so that he could face them.

Kateri fell away with a gasp as Ren manifested the club she'd seen him use a thousand times in her dreams. And he made use of it like a champion. With the flat end, he swatted them back before slicing them open with the obsidian glass.

The twisted demons screamed as they went down. Many retreated, but others persisted, climbing over the bodies of the fallen so that they could pursue him.

Kateri glanced around, seeking some way to help. Unfortunately, she wasn't sure what exactly they were fighting and she didn't have a super weapon to combat them with. Going up against them with her bare hands didn't seem like the smartest thing to do. Rather, she decided not to be a distraction to the one who knew how to fight them. Better to guard the wall and make sure Ren didn't accidentally hit her with that club than to run forward and get them both hurt.

It was actually quite impressive to watch Ren wield his club. He treated it like an extension of his arm. He held a fluid grace to his movements that said he'd spent his life training for battle.

And as he fought, more images filled her head.

"Why do you fight me, Makah'Alay? I am not your true enemy. He lives much closer to home. We could be allies, you and I. Fight with me for those who can't fight for themselves. Let go your anger and, for once, embrace something good." She didn't know who the old man was who fought against Ren, but something about him seemed so familiar....

Ren didn't respond as the two of them went at each other like primordial gods fighting for supremacy.

"Is this really what you want?" the old man tried again. "Is it all you want?"

Ren glared at him. "What I want is for you to die already, old man! And shut up while you do it!"

"That's not you talking. It's Grizzly. He fears the truth because he knows that will send him back to where he belongs. Let your hatred go and purge him from your body. Whether you believe it or not, you're better than this, Makah'Alay. You do deserve to be happy and valued."

"Fuck you!" Ren had renewed his fight with greater vigor.

Both of them were sweaty and grimy from their battle. They looked like they'd been fighting for months....

For ...

"A year and a day," she breathed.

Ren turned to scowl at her. "What did you say?"

"Duck!" she shouted as one of the demons went for his back.

Turning, he barely caught it with the club. The twisted demon thing let out a piercing shriek before it burst apart. The flames flared brighter until they were blinding. Kateri held her hand up in front of her face to shield her eyes.

Ren turned and grabbed her, then tried to teleport. It didn't work. Dammit. He had to get her out of here. But he couldn't take them both out with his powers so depleted.

It's a good day to die. If he was gone, no one would care.

But unlike him, she mattered.

He cupped her face in his hand, then locked gazes with her. "Think of your grandmother. Call her to you and ask her to guide you home."

Kateri scowled at his order. "I don't understand."

He put something solid in her hand and held her fist closed over it so that she couldn't see what it was. "Just do it. Now close your eyes and think of her."

Kateri did. One second, she could feel the room warming up-feel the flames starting to lick her skin to burn it-and in the next ...

She was beside Talon in his living room in his New Orleans home.

What the...?

Completely confused, she turned in a small circle, surveying her cousin's house. Decorated in bright pinks and purples, it was completely out of synch with the overtly masculine man Sunshine had married. But he indulged her in everything. Even to the point that all of their towels were pink.

Sunshine sat on the couch to her right with her infant son, Declan, sleeping on her lap.

At Kateri's sudden appearance, Talon shot to his feet. He took a step toward her.

Relieved, Kateri started for him, then remembered Ren had given her something. Glancing down, she opened her hand to find a small, white, opalescent, tumbled feldspar that was in the shape of a teardrop.

A moonstone. Her grandmother had carried a similar one in her degalodi nvwoti or medicine pouch that she kept either in her pocket or tied around her neck. Every morning when her grandmother awoke, she'd pull out her crystals and stones that she kept in her night stand and choose the ones her Spirit Guide told her she would need for the day. Whispering a prayer, she'd place them in her degalodi nvwoti and draw the strings closed so that she could bravely face whatever challenges the day would send for her. Every morning it was a new set, but the one stone that never changed was her sacred moonstone.

"Why do you always keep a moonstone with you, Eleesee?" she'd asked one day after her grandmother had taken it out of her degalodi nvwoti and held it as if in prayer.

Her grandmother had pulled Kateri into her lap and placed the moonstone in her palm for her to examine it. Even now, she remembered how beautiful the milky translucent stone had appeared as the bright sunlight made it flash blue. "It's a stone of destiny that will help you see your future clearly so that you can better attain it. For that reason, it's a strong wishstone-whisper your dreams to it and it will echo them to the heavens for the Great Spirit to hear. It can also heal and protect those who are in need. And it is a stone of new beginnings and good fortune. You should always carry one whenever you travel, Waleli. They are a most precious gift from Grandmother Moon, who guides us through the cycles of our lives and who watches over us while Grandfather Sun slumbers. In our darkest hours when our enemies are hidden from our sight and wish to do us absolute harm, it is she who will guide us to safety. She who will make us see truths we don't want to face."

Tears choked her as she held Ren's moonstone, and understood the significance of what he'd done for her. In their culture, gifts were never expected from others, not even on birthdays or at weddings or festivals. In fact, it was usually the one being celebrated who gave to the attendees, as a way of letting them know how much they were valued and how much the person being honored appreciated other people taking valuable time out of their lives to come be with them for the event.

The importance was never on receiving something. The importance was on the act of giving to another, especially when it came unexpectedly and from the heart. The monetary value of a gift was even less important. The most valued gifts of all were those that held personal or spiritual significance to the giver.

And Ren had sent her away with his protection and destiny stone-with one of his most sacred possessions that he'd thought enough of to have it with him-knowing that he stayed behind to fight for her without it to watch over him.

No one had ever given her anything more valuable.

"Teri?" Worry creased Sunshine's beautiful brow. "Are you all right?"

Kateri couldn't answer for the lump in her throat as she clutched at Ren's most precious gift. A single tear for him slid down her cheek.

In that moment, she felt something grab her from behind.

Talon lunged for her.

It was too late. Whatever had grabbed her, sucked her out of the house and back into darkness.

"Grammy!" Kateri called, attempting to do what Ren had instructed her. She tried her best to stay focused on her grandmother. But it was useless. Her grandmother couldn't help her stop whatever this was.

So instead, her thoughts turned to a tall, gorgeous man who always murdered her in her dreams.

* * *

Ren's head swam from the pain he was in. It was so foul that it kept him from shifting forms to escape. He'd used up his reserves to send the woman to Talon. Worse, his Dark-Hunter powers were making him sleepy-something they always did whenever a Dark-Hunter was wounded. Asleep, the Greek dream gods could help them heal. But if he went down in this fight ...

They'd kill him for the very blood he hated.

He felt so sick. And still the demons kept coming.

Just lie down and let them have you. Really, there was no reason for him to fight anymore. He'd more than made amends for his human atrocities. And he'd survived long enough to see his bargain with Artemis fulfilled.

It was time for his next adventure.

If you die without a soul, you will be in utter misery for eternity.

He laughed at the thought. How would that be a change from normal? Hell, he wouldn't even notice the difference.

Kyatel shimmered in front of him. His demon's eyes were a bright fluorescent purple. "You owe me your blood."

Ren sneered. "I owe you nothing."

The demon bared his fangs before he went for Ren's throat. Ren caught him and swung him around. But instead of flying away from him, Kyatel embraced him like a brother. The demon sank five claws deep into Ren's previously injured shoulder.

Ren cried out in agony of the additional wound.

"Remember your debt," Kyatel breathed in his ear.

Ren's sight dimmed as that one word took him back to the distant past. Back to the time when he had ruled here as Grizzly's overlord.

When he had owned everything ...

It had been the only time in his entire life he had felt no pain. No shame. He had walked this realm with the knowledge that he was king. No one could touch him.

You are mine again. Grizzly laughed, the sound echoing through his head.

No! Ren struggled to hold on to his last shred of humanity. But it was impossible. No matter how much he denied it, he knew the truth in his heart.

He wanted to belong to something. Anything. Just once. No one else had ever wanted him. Evil had been the only thing that ever welcomed him to its bosom....

But this wasn't belonging and he knew it. All of it had been a lie. The demons hadn't welcomed his presence any more than his family or the world in general. And the only reason Grizzly had pretended to want him was so that he could use Ren's body to get at his enemies.

As for Windseer ...

She'd abandoned him as soon as she had her freedom. Ren had been just as lonely here as their overlord as he'd been in the human realm.

Nothing changed. He was a worthless throwaway then.

He was worthless now.

Closing his eyes, he waited for the demon to end him.

"Let. Him. Go."

At first, Ren couldn't place that angry tone. And even once he'd identified it, he couldn't believe his eyes as he saw Kateri standing behind Kyatel.

And she was pissed at the demon holding him. As incredulous as it was, she appeared ready to tear the demon apart. He wasn't sure who was more shocked by her reappearance. Him or the demon.

That being said, Kyatel recovered first.

Then laughed.

Ren took advantage of the distraction to stab the demon. Too bad, it couldn't kill him. But the blow to Kyatel's carotid would weaken him. Kyatel would have to stop the bleeding and replenish the missing blood, or he'd be too weak to fight. Something no one could afford to be in this realm.

Kyatel's eyes glowed a deep vibrant orange that obliterated their normal purple hue. "This isn't over."

Ren gave him a taunting grin. "It is for now."

As the demon vanished, Ren turned to grab Kateri's arm. "What are you doing here? I sent you away."

"I don't know. I was at Talon's and then I vanished ... and came back."

Ren cursed. Kyatel was stronger than he'd been before. Much stronger. But for her timing, he'd have probably been killed. And now, thanks to the wound in his shoulder, he was even weaker than he'd been before.

Which meant she was in extreme danger. If something attacked her, he was in no condition to put up much of a fight. And if it came for him, he wouldn't be able to keep it from getting her.

Shit ...

"You shouldn't have come back here."

Kateri didn't respond to that. Her attention was diverted by the amount of blood on his clothing. His arms had cuts all over them. And his left shoulder looked as if someone had tried to shred it. "You're hurt."

"I'll live." He leaned his head over to glance past her shoulder, where more creatures were piling in on them. "We need to leave."

"And go where?"

Ren hefted his club up, over his uninjured shoulder. "Preferably some place they're not."

"I couldn't agree more." She followed him out of the room, down a long hallway where there were more demonlike creatures, but they didn't attack. Rather, they stayed to the shadows, watching with an eerie intentness that made her extremely uncomfortable. "Where are we?"

He twisted his club around on his shoulder before he answered. "Someplace neither of us needs to be ... The first level of the West Lands."

Kateri scowled at the term. "Why does that sound familiar to me?"

"It's where our ancestors locked away the worst evils of the world to keep them from preying on humanity."

Oh yeah ...

Her eyes widened as she remembered her grandmother's stories about the Guardian who'd been chosen to keep mankind safe. Benevolent and kind, he'd sought to protect the first humans by banishing all threats. Unfortunately, mankind had been tricked and, like Pandora in Greek mythology, had cracked open the door to release just enough evil to keep them from having a life free of pain and suffering.

It's just a legend.

That thought died as another demon turned around and viciously hissed at them. Huge, green, and smelly, it was as real as she was.

This wasn't playtime and that definitely wasn't make-believe. As much as she wanted to deny it, she couldn't. These things were real.

Baring his own fangs, Ren angled his club at the beast, letting it know what would happen should it attack. It shrank away in fear. He put her in front of him while he rushed her through the building, and away from the rest of the creatures.

Too grateful to argue or even question Ren's peculiar dental problem right now, she rounded a corner, then pulled up short as she saw three divergent hallways. With no idea where they were going, she allowed Ren to choose the correct direction.

He headed left with huge predacious strides.

Kateri practically ran in order to keep up with him. One of his strides equalled two and a half of hers. "How did we get here, anyway?"

Ren winced at a question he didn't want to answer. He couldn't stand looking stupid or being mocked. But apparently, his sole purpose in life was to serve as the poster child of imperfection and incompetence.

Thanks, fate. Appreciate the consideration.

So rather than hide it like a coward, he told her the truth. "I was trying to take us to Sin's and somehow I landed us here. I know it was a stupid mistake, okay? I'm doing my best to fix it as quickly as possible."

"Hey." She pulled him to a stop. "It's all right. You were trying to help me. I'm not about to complain when you saved my life, especially since you bled to do it. What kind of person do you think I am? And by the way, thank you. For everything." She rose up on her tiptoes to place a quick, chaste kiss on his cheek.

Ren couldn't speak as those words echoed in his head and his skin burned from her soft lips. Lips that left him swollen and aching for a much more thorough physical exchange.

Honestly, he was baffled by her. No one had ever given him the benefit of the doubt before. In the past, whenever he screwed up, he was held accountable, and usually rather rudely. "I should have known better."

She snorted. "I don't think knowing has much to do with it. Besides, we were a little preoccupied with our near-death experiences. Give yourself a break. Out of everything that has happened in the last few hours, this isn't so bad." She gestured to his club. "At least we're armed and ready to battle. Well ... you are, anyway. Thank goodness."

Her generosity of spirit charmed him. He'd often heard it said that people had good hearts, but he'd so seldom seen them that hers caught him off guard. The majority of people he'd dealt with had been self-serving and cold.


And that had been his family.

Ren slowed down as they left the building. The moment they were through the door, the glamour spell was broken and instead of appearing as the Ishtar Casino he'd thought it to be, it took on its true form-an old gray stone structure that looked weathered and aged, in a town full of similar buildings. They were burned-out hulls against a dark landscape of utter misery. There was nothing inviting or beautiful about this place.

Worse than that, he hated to be back here where he was forced to face the memories he'd wanted to keep buried. The First Guardian was right. He flogged himself more than any torturer ever could.

And that thought reminded him of the first time he'd met Acheron-the immortal who led the Dark-Hunters. Though Acheron appeared physically young-he'd barely been twenty-one when he was killed-he was one of the oldest and wisest men Ren had ever known.

His features perfect and chiseled, Acheron held the swirling, silver eyes of a true ancient. "Life is messy, Ren. It's not easy and it's definitely not for the timid. Everyone has a past. Things that stab them right between the eyes. Old grudges. Old shame. Regrets that steal your sleep and leave you awake until you fear for your own sanity. Betrayals that make your soul scream so loud you wonder why no one else hears it. In the end, we are all alone in that private hell. But life isn't about learning to forgive those who have hurt you or forgetting your past. It's about learning to forgive yourself for being human and making mistakes. Yes, people disappoint us all the time. But the harshest lessons come when we disappoint ourselves. When we put our trust and our hearts into the hands of the wrong person and they do us wrong. And while we may hate them for what they did, the one we hate most is ourself for allowing them into our private circle. How could I have been so stupid? How could I let them deceive me? We all go through that. It's humanity's Brotherhood of Misery."

Ren had locked gazes with the Atlantean youth. "Tell me, Acheron. How do we find peace again when we have wronged ourselves and others?"

"If we're lucky, we find the one person who will hold our trust and keep it sacred and safe against all attackers. That one soul who will restore our belief that people are decent and kind, and that life, while messy, is still the most wondrous gift anyone can know. But until that day comes, we have to try and remember that home isn't a specific place or person. It's a feeling we carry inside ourselves. That touch of the divine that lights a fire inside us that burns out the past and consumes the pain until nothing is left but a warmth that allows us to love others more than ourselves. A warmth that only grows when we do right even while others seek to do us wrong. Peace is knowing that one life, no matter how trivial it seems, touches thousands of others, and learning to respect that about all people. While you may not mean much to the world, to those who really know and love you, you are their entire world. And it is the knowledge that no one can hurt you unless you allow them to. The only power they have isn't something they've taken or demanded. It's what we give them by choice. And while it is imperative that we value the lives of others, it is equally important to value our own."

Even though he'd wanted to believe Acheron's words, Ren scoffed. "You make it sound so easy, Atlantean."

Acheron had let out a short, bitter laugh. "The truth is always simple, but the path to it is overgrown with thorns and lined with traps. Our fears and our emotions cloud even the brightest day and the clearest truth. Talk is cheap, but actions are bloody. You can't plant the garden until you've overturned the soil. And nothing new can grow until the old dies. Lay your past to rest, Ren, so that your future can grow unimpeded by those ghosts. We can't change what we've done, but we can always change what we're going to do."

Those last words had branded themselves into Ren's heart and he had carried them through the centuries.

And tonight, he was going to protect the woman by his side with everything he had.

Kateri's features went pale as she surveyed her dismal surroundings. Never had she seen a more frightening place. A huge sallow moon hung over a town that reminded her of a Tim Burton landscape. Mournful cries for mercy and tortured screams echoed all around, many punctuated by the sound of insane laughter as if someone or something took pleasure from their pain.

A chill of foreboding ran up her spine. "Is this hell?"

"As close to it as I want to get." Ren stopped, then gently tugged her into a shadowed alley.

When she started to speak, he placed his finger over her lips. Only then did she hear the sound of something slithering by the area they'd been in only a heartbeat before. Bug-eyed, she held her breath until it vanished and all was relatively quiet again.

"I have to get you out of here," he whispered in her ear.

She couldn't agree more. "And you, too."

He glanced to his wounded shoulder. "I've been tagged. I won't be able to leave now. Wherever I go, they'll follow and drag me back."

Her heart ached at the sad resignation in his voice. It was as if he accepted the fact he was going to die here, and that she had no intention of allowing to happen. If she was nothing else in her life, she was loyal to a fault. "It's not right to leave you here alone to face them."

"I'll live."

"You keep saying that. But-"

"I'm immortal, Kateri," he said, cutting her off. "You're not. Your duty is to save the world and my only duty now is to save you. I have to get you back to the human realm so that you can fulfill your sacred role. It's that simple."

She shook her head at the ludicrousness of those statements. And nothing was ever simple. Rubik's Cube had taught her that when she was four years old and had arrogantly boasted that it couldn't be that hard.

Yeah, that had learned her.

"You know, Ren, twelve hours ago, I'd have called you nuts for talking about sacred roles and all of this." She gestured at the bleak, twisted buildings surrounding them. "Luckily, I'm a little more open-minded now. Not sure if that's a good thing or not, but ... At least I'm not wasting time with denial anymore. I accept the fact that the weirdness in my life has just shot up the epic scale of redonkulous."

After all, what more could happen?

Death and dismemberment notwithstanding.

Yeah, okay, maybe she shouldn't test the bad-luck fairy since the bitch was already gunning for her. But dang ...

Didn't they deserve a break tonight? And not one on their bones.

All of a sudden, one corner of his mouth quirked up as if he was amused by her comments. "We have to get off the street and find a safe place to hide until I recharge my powers enough to get you out of here."

"Okay. But I still don't understand why it has to be me to do whatever it is I'm supposed to do. How did this chore fall to my bloodline anyway? What did we do to be so cursed?"

"It's not a curse. Your ancestor stood strong before the gods when no one else would."

There was an answer she hadn't expected. "What do you mean?"

Ren grimaced as if his wound pained him, then rolled his injured shoulder. He led her back to the dark street. Keeping to the shadows, they headed in the direction that, given the moon's position, she assumed would be east. "Before recorded time, there was a god who came to this realm and-"

"What god?" she asked, cutting him off. While her people believed in an overall divine being, and other paranormal entities, they didn't think of the Great Spirit as a god in the traditional sense of the term. It was extremely hard to explain their beliefs to others who came at it with preconceived notions.

And the way he used the word "gods" ...

It didn't make sense to her.

"Ahau Kin was, for lack of a better term, the Mayan god of their underworld and of time," Ren explained. "It's why he's usually shown at the center of their calendars."

She scowled as she remembered seeing the image all over the Yucatan last summer. "The guy who looks like a jaguar or has a jaguar face?"

He nodded.

Fernando would be so pleased that she recalled that. But her happiness died instantly as she remembered her friend's death, and grief went through her all over again.

Clearing her throat, she waited for Ren to continue.

He didn't. Rather he seemed to be lost in either thought or memories.

After a few minutes, she prompted him. "You were saying?"

Ren ground his teeth as his thoughts went back to his youth-to a time and place he hated with every part of his being.

Even now, he could see himself running through the bright summer forest of his island home, chasing after the buck he'd been hunting. The beast had been elusive and it'd led him to a clearing where a woman bathed alone in a pond that was at the base of a whispering waterfall.

Never had he seen a more beautiful maiden. Her long black hair had fanned around features that were perfection incarnate. Her dark, tawny skin had been so flawless that his mouth had watered for a taste. And even though he was invading her privacy, he'd been unable to tear his gaze away from her.

Completely naked, she was floating on her back, her eyes serenely closed while her breasts jutted out from the water. Her hands had moved through the water in a mesmerizing dance that was in synch with the pleasant, gentle tune she was humming.

His prey forgotten, he'd moved closer, taking care to be as silent as possible.

All of a sudden, as if she'd sensed his presence, she opened her eyes and pinned him with a harsh glare. Narrowing her gaze, she rose out of the water to show him her entire naked body as she walked toward the land where he stood, gawking.

Ashamed and embarrassed that he'd spied on her, he'd felt his face heat up. Turning away, he tightened his grip on his bow and started to run.


Her unexpected command had literally frozen him in place. Before he could think better of it, he stopped moving. With his back to her, he'd heard her leave the pond and make her way over to him.

A few seconds later, her hand had brushed across his shoulders, smoothing his braid. And when she'd moved it to trace the line of his jaw, his entire body turned molten. She sucked her breath in sharply as she fingered his biceps. "Aren't you a handsome one? You know, if you're going to spy on a woman during her bath, the least you could do is kiss her first."

Stunned, Ren hadn't known how to respond to that. He wasn't used to women coming on to him. All the women in his town knew who and what he was, and they either avoided him or mocked him for it.

None of them had ever tried to seduce him.

Licking her lips, she'd fisted her hand in his hair and pulled his head down for her kiss.

His senses had reeled from it, and when her tongue brushed against his ...

He'd been blinded by pleasure.

Windseer had pulled back to give him a salacious grin. Then, taking his hand into hers, she'd led it to her breast so that her hardened nipple teased his palm. "You act as if you've never seen a naked woman before."

The softness of her skin had amazed him. Her body was so different from his. Supple. Sweet.


And he'd been long past the age most men lost their virginity ... another truth that shamed him and left him open to attacks from others whose vicious cruelty rammed home why no woman would have him. Ever. Until that moment, he'd never been kissed.

She'd nipped at his chin with her teeth. "Are you not going to speak to me?"

He hadn't dared. The last thing he'd wanted was for his stutter to betray him and leave him open to more ridicule. She'd think him stupid and push him away like everyone else.

So he'd kissed her again while he fingered her puckered nipple. Within a few minutes, he'd lost both his virginity and his will to her. After that afternoon, he'd been a fucking idiot where Windseer was concerned.

She asked. He gave.

He'd have done anything to keep her.

Even kill his own father ...

Ren winced at a memory he wished with the whole of his being he could take back and change. But there was no way to undo any of it. Windseer had claimed him with her body and he had been her most willing slave.

How could anyone screw up their life so badly? One wrong move. One foul decision ...

An eternity of regret.

And all because she and Grizzly had needed a blood sacrifice. Not from a worthless piece of shit like him, but from a whole-blood ...

His father.

Damn you both.

But that wasn't really what hurt him most. They weren't the ones he hated.

Damn me for it all.

The saddest part? He had damned himself.

Sighing, he lowered his club, taking care not to let the razor-sharp glass touch his leg as he turned his thoughts to the present and what Kateri needed to understand about all of this. "Ahau Kin was the father of the Anikutani."

Kateri frowned up at him. "You mean the legendary Cherokee fire priests who were put down for their arrogance and licentiousness? How could he be their father? He was a Mayan god, right?"

He nodded. "The Maya were our ancestors. We come from common ground and people, but we split off from them centuries ago. While the Maya built their cities, the Anikutani, as the direct descendants and chosen people of Ahau Kin, fortified their posts. They were essentially gatekeepers charged with holding the darkest evil back from the world-to keep it locked in their father's underworld realm so that it couldn't harm humans. There are a total of eleven gates that can be opened to access it. Four main ones in what is currently the U.S. and the other seven that are spread over the rest of the world. It was their most sacred duty, and for generations, the Anikutani bred the greatest warriors the world has ever known to combat that evil should it ever escape. No one could defeat them.... Until the day the monster with white eyes came for them."

Kateri slowed her pace as she walked beside him, and dread consumed her now that she realized these legends weren't just farcical stories made up to scare and entertain children. And this one in particular she knew well ... it was something her grandmother had even written down for her. "From over the great Eastern water, the monster that was possessed of terrifying power and great evil came and laid waste to everything in its path. The attack was so vicious that Mother Earth bled and her heartbeat grew so faint that not even the little people could hear it anymore. Though it was fought off, legend says it will return one day to finish what it started. To end the world." All ancient Mesoamerican cultures described a Caucasian god who had destroyed them, or one who would return to kill them. Scholars had been debating the origins of those myths for decades.

He inclined his head to her. "That monster's name was Apollymi. A goddess from Atlantis."

But that didn't make any sense to her. "Why would an Atlantean goddess destroy our people?"

"Vengeance over a wrong done to her."

"What did we do?"

"Nothing, other than having a gate on an island that was near Atlantis. In her mind, our inaction was the greatest sin of all. But her anger wasn't really for us, we just got caught in the cross fire. Her fury was for the Greek god Apollo. Most of all, it was against her own family."

Her frown deepened. "Why?"

"She had a son who had been ordered killed by her husband. To protect her baby, she hid him in the human realm to be raised as a prince. Instead, he was abused and then brutally murdered by Apollo. In retaliation, she put down her entire family and then sank her Atlantis into the ocean. Still not appeased, she vowed to see the whole earth destroyed. And so she went on a rampage that brought her here. Not because we'd harmed her, but because none of us had been there to help her child."

Kateri gaped at the irrationality of that. Honestly, she expected better from a goddess. "But if they didn't know-"

"It didn't matter to her, Kateri. Trust me. Her rage and loss, I completely understand, and I don't hold that against her in the least. There is no worse feeling than to have your entire world shattered when there's nothing you can do to stop it. To be in complete and utter agony and misery, and to look around at a world that truly doesn't give a shit about you ... It hits you on a level I am grateful to the gods that you can't understand or imagine. Because no one should ever know that place in hell. You are lost to the pain, and inside you're screaming at the top of your lungs for help, and no one hears you. No one cares. They go on with their putrid lives, oblivious to your agony. And when that moment comes that you realize just how alone you really are-how little you matter to anyone else, you lose all higher cognitive functioning. You devolve into a rabid animal. All that matters then is that you make them understand your pain. That you shake them out of their blind complacency so that they share the hell that is yours. In that moment, you want to feel their blood on your hands. To taste it on your lips. To bathe in it until you're drunk and pruny. There is this place of insanity that lives deep inside everyone. Most people might tap at it, once, maybe even twice in their lifetime, but they never breach it." His eyes burned her with his sincerity....

And madness.

Something that absolutely terrified her. She wasn't even sure what kind of creature he was. Demon, god, or other. Yet here he was, livid, and she hadn't done anything to provoke him.

"Others are like animals who have been abused one time too many," he continued. "They have suffered and been hurt to a level that doesn't understand anything except cruelty. The rage takes hold and it drives out everything else that makes them human. All they want is to make the world pay for what it's done to them. I cannot imagine the pain and brutal betrayal Apollymi felt as she held her son's lifeless body in her arms and saw what had been done to him. Truthfully, I can't even begin to comprehend a love of that magnitude. But I do understand the need for retribution that drove her across the ocean and made her attack us."

His gaze turned darker, but the anger was gone now.

Kateri's heart ached in sympathy at the torment she saw in his obsidian eyes. In that one moment, his heart was bared to her. This wasn't a fierce immortal warrior standing by her side.

He was a man whose heart had been shattered.

She wanted to hold him and make it better, but she knew it wasn't that simple. Only in early childhood could everything be cured by a kiss and a hug. That was the saddest part about growing up. The biggest loss.

Some scars went too deep to ever be fully concealed. While you might succeed in hiding them from time to time, they always came out and reopened a wound that never fully healed.

And his were massive.

Ren moved his club to his other hand before he spoke again. "In a matter of minutes after reaching their shores, Apollymi destroyed the Keetoowah homeland and sank their island to the bottom of the ocean. But because of their superior skills and technology, many of them escaped to the mainland, where they sought shelter." He had a bitter catch in his voice.

"What happened?" she asked, knowing it had to be bad.

"Within a few weeks of setting up their new town, they were attacked by seventy tribes who blamed them for the destruction Apollymi had wrought. At least that was what they claimed. The truth was, they were jealous. They felt that the Keetoowah were more favored by the heavens, and since the Keetoowah were weakened by Apollymi's attack on them, the others saw it as a rare opportunity to go after them and kill them off before they had a chance to replenish their numbers."

That was beyond cowardly. But as her grandmother had so often said, envy was the root of the greatest evil in the world. Since the dawn of mankind, it had been used to fuel the worst acts of cruelty.

And while she'd heard a different version of the story, she wondered if one part had been true. "My grandmother told me that the Keetoowah won because of the Spirit Warriors who aided them in the fight."

A wry grin twisted his lips. "They weren't Spirit Warriors."

"What were they?"

Ren paused as they reached the end of town. He scanned the dark forest in front of them, wondering if it would be safer or more dangerous than to try and hide among the city dwellers.

The number of demons who lived here was staggering, both in the city and the outlying areas. But at least in the forest he'd feel more at home.

As a child, he'd spent hours upon hours hiding in the woods, pretending that he would never have to go home again.

But this wasn't the time to think about that.

Hefting the club, he used it to beat a trail through the thick foliage so that they could find shelter and give his body a chance to heal and his powers a chance to charge. "On the island that Apollymi had destroyed, the Keetoowah's main city was directly below the Pleiades constellation. Because of that, the seven goddesses who called it home were able to look down and watch them go about their daily lives."

He paused to glance back at her to ensure himself that she was safe and still following him. "One of the Pleiades, Sterope, fell in love with the chief's son.... She must have hit her head or something to give herself brain damage to love that bastard, but what the hell do I know?" he mumbled bitterly. Then louder, he continued, "For years, she watched over him, dreaming of a time when they might be together. And when the tribes attacked his people, she saw it as a prime chance to win his heart."

"I don't understand. Why didn't she help him with Apollymi?"

"She couldn't. The Greeks were the ones who'd pissed Apollymi off, and they were her prime target. Had Sterope reared her head during that fight, Apollymi would have taken it and stuck it on a pike. So Sterope didn't make her presence known to the chief's son until he was under fire from the seventy tribes. Unlike with Apollymi's attack, there were no gods rallying to stop the brutality. She knew if she didn't do something, they would all die."

Kateri was impressed with his depth of knowledge. He told the stories as if he'd witnessed them. "Were you there when all of this happened?"

He shook his head. "It was before I was born."

"How do you know so much about it, then?"

"I grew up with people who'd lived through it. When the elders would get together, they'd talk about it and warn the rest of us to be wary of those who might still want to do us harm because of it all."

Kateri took a second to digest everything he was telling her. And that made her curious over something. "How old are you?"

He laughed bitterly. "By the calendar you know ... over eleven thousand years."

She stumbled at that unexpected disclosure. Whoa ... that was old ... Even by her geology standard. "I have to say, you look great for an old geezer. What's your secret? You bathed in Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth as a kid?"

He gave her a droll stare. "Sold my soul."

Okay, between the red eyes and the fangs ...

What am I doing here?

"You're a demon, aren't you?"

"Not by blood."

A chill went down her spine. "What does that mean?"

"You don't have to be born demonic. There are plenty of people I've met who are worse than any demon ever born."

Those words calmed her a bit. He was right. She'd met a few of those herself.

He stopped and turned to face her. To her complete shock, he laid his hand against her cheek. "Don't be afraid of me, Kateri. While I lived at one time for no other purpose than to make the entire world tremble in my presence, I've long since put that battle to bed. I sold my soul, not for personal gain, but to make right a wrong I committed against the people I should have protected with every part of me."

"And did you make it right?"

He released a weary sigh. "It took a long while, but yes. I did. Eventually." He dropped his hand from her face. As he started away from her, she stopped him. He met her gaze with one arched brow.

There in the moonlight, with the play of shadows over his handsome face, he took her breath. Not because of the way he looked, but because of the vulnerability she saw in the heart of a man who seemed invincible.

"Why did you give me your moonstone?"

"To protect you on your journey." He said that like it was nothing, but she knew better.

She glanced down to his wounded shoulder. "You're the one who's fighting. Wouldn't you need it more than me?"

He shrugged. "Grandmother Moon never thought much of me. I was hoping she'd like you better."

Still, it meant a lot to her that he'd done it. And she'd offer it back, but if his people were like hers, that would be the ultimate insult. When a gift was made, it was from the heart. To return it was a rejection.

And this man had been rejected enough.

"Thank you, Ren."

He inclined his head to her, then returned to cutting a path for them through the woods.

"Ren? Can I ask you something?"

He paused to look back at her. "Have you not been doing that since we met?"

"Yeah, but this is personal."

"More personal than asking about my gift or age? Or if I was a demon? I shudder with dread over the possibilities."

She smiled at his sarcasm. "Fine. Does the name Makah'Alay mean anything to you?"

He hissed as his grip on his club slipped and he narrowly missed hitting himself with it. "Where did you hear that name?"

Kateri hesitated. Talk about personal. Admitting she'd seen him in her dreams for years was kind of creepy. Could that be considered a form of stalking? She hadn't done it intentionally. Still ...

Oh c'mon, Teri. Every friggin' thing about this is creepy. He was creepy.

Might he have the power to walk in her dreams? He was old ... and he was as paranormal as anything could be. It was possible that he'd been the one to make her dream those things.

Hoping for the best, she opted for the truth. "I've seen visions of you, but in them you're always called Makah'Alay."

Ren couldn't breathe as he heard that. Why would she dream of him? Dreams had great power. They were the key to all creation.

To all life.

If he saw visions of her and she saw them of him, then that meant they were tied together.


Was she the tool the Grizzly would use in this time and place to destroy him? It was the only thing that made sense. It would explain how she knew his name and why he'd been warned about her.

Whatever he did, he couldn't let his guard down where she was concerned. She was his assassin.

"And in these visions ... what does Makah'Alay do?"

She didn't flinch or hesitate with her response. "Usually, he kills me."

"Have no fear, ta'hu'la. I would never kill you. It's forbidden."

"Forbidden by whom?"

"The one who owns me. I came back to this life to protect humans, not harm them. So long as you're with me, I will give my life for yours. As for Makah'Alay, he died a long time ago."

That seemed to placate her. "So what does ta'hu'la mean?"

"Little one."

Kateri felt heat rush over her face at his endearment. She wasn't the kind of woman who normally brought that out in a man. And definitely not in one who looked like Ren. Heck, her own lab assistant, who wasn't that much younger than her, couldn't even call her by her nickname. Wanting to cover her embarrassment, she returned to their former conversation. "I interrupted your story. You were telling me about the Pleiades. I take it Merope rallied her troops?"

"Sterope," he corrected. "Merope is actually her sister, who married Sisyphus."

"And people wondered why I had a C average in the one Classical Studies class I took in college. Who can keep all these names straight?"

"There are many who would argue that the Greek is easier to pronounce and remember than our names."

"Yeah, well, those are people who weren't raised with our writing system ... which is different than yours, isn't it?"

"It is. Ours was more like the Maya. Glyph based."

Kateri's mind reeled at that. "Wait ... the stone that was sent to me." The one that was fourteen thousand years old. "It had strange writing on it with something that appeared to be Greek."

"Not Greek. And not Mayan. Keetoowah. But you're getting ahead of the story."

"Sorry. Back to the Greek confusion. I take it our ... Ope woman rallied her troops to help the Keetoowah fight off their attackers."

He wiped the sweat off his forehead with his arm. "Not until after she made a bargain with the chief's son."

Ooo, this was getting good. "Which was?"

"She would save his people if he would agree to spend a week with her once the battle was won."

"Horny little booger, wasn't she?"

Ren cast her a glare so malevolent that she actually took a step back from it. "She loved him."

Okay, she'd struck a nerve there. She'd ask him more about Sterope, but decided it might not be the wisest course of action. Better to get the scary immortal man off his sensitive topic, especially while he held a war club that still had the blood of demons on it.

Kateri cleared her throat. "So she made her bargain and he agreed to it?"

Ren returned to his hacking, which made her feel a whole lot better.

Yeah, kill the bushes. They didn't care about living.

She did.

"After the agreement was made," he said, "she convinced her sisters to help her save his people. Because they were family and they loved her, they agreed. The seven goddesses came down together and chose the seven strongest warrior-priests among the Keetoowah to fight with them. They were the ones who drove the seventy tribes back and then divided them up so that they couldn't attack the Keetoowah ever again. When the fighting was finished, Sterope claimed her fee, not knowing that the chief's son was already married to a woman he loved dearly."

Kateri gaped. "Are you serious?"

"Very much so."

"That dog. How could he do that?"

Ren shrugged. "In his mind, he was making a sacrifice for his people. One week of servitude seemed like a small price to pay for everyone's life."

Okay, so when put in those terms, it made sense. Still ...

What a two-timing bastard.

"For the record, I'd absolutely kill my husband if he did that to me."

"Believe me, his wife wasn't happy about it. Especially since her husband impregnated Sterope during that same week."

Ouch! Kateri cringed with dread. Something told her this wouldn't have a happy ending. "I imagine it wasn't exactly the highlight of Sterope's life, either."

"Actually, they say she was thrilled to be pregnant with his baby. But because the father was a mortal man and she was a goddess, the other gods shunned her for it. Zeus, driven by jealousy since she was the mother of two of his children, ordered the mutant baby killed. The last thing he wanted was to suffer the humiliation of having the mother of his children prefer the touch of a mortal man over his."

Kateri cringed for the poor woman and the baby. "That is so harsh. So did she kill it?"

"No." Ren led her deeper into the forest. "Instead, Sterope went to the goddess Artemis."


"At one time, she'd been Artemis's most trusted handmaiden and had kept the goddess's secrets. To repay her, Artemis saved the baby and lied to Zeus. They both swore it was stillborn. Zeus wasn't happy, but he didn't hurt Artemis over it. Off the hook, Artemis then took the infant to his father, who was furious over it. The last thing he wanted was to have a permanent reminder of his infidelity around the wife he loved-a wife who was, at that precise moment, in labor with her own child. Not to mention, he didn't want a half-breed mutant son that wasn't good enough to be kept by its own mother."

Kateri flinched in sympathy. Poor baby boy, but it made sense. If the Keetoowahs were matriarchal like her people and the mother didn't keep the child, it would be viewed as seriously defective and lacking. Unworthy.

To this day, all babies born to her tribe were presented to the grandmother, if she was still living, to be inspected and named. If the grandmother wasn't alive, then it fell to the mother.

For that child to be rejected ...

"I'm surprised they didn't kill it."

Ren snorted. "I'm told he tried and couldn't."

Well, that made her feel better. "He loved the baby too much to hurt it?"

"Hardly." Ren returned to hacking a path for them. His strokes were more brutal and sharp. "The first time he left it to die, an old woman found the babe and brought it back to town not knowing it had been intentionally abandoned. When Artemis learned about it, she struck down his beloved wife in retaliation."

Kateri winced at that. How awful for all of them. But even worse ... "'First time' implies he tried again."

Ren nodded. "The second time, a crow-demon found and nursed the baby. When he was a year old, she returned him to his father and warned him that if he didn't raise it to manhood, she would return to kill his cherished son for his neglect, and then make him live with the pain of knowing he killed both his beloved wife and treasured child."

In a sick way, that was almost touching. "Why did the demon care?"

He sighed heavily. "Honestly? She couldn't have cared less. But she didn't have a choice."

"Why not? And where was the baby's mother during all of this? Why didn't Sterope bitch-slap him for his cruelty?"

Ren fell silent as bitterness swelled inside him. "For her sin against Zeus, Sterope had been banished back to the stars. To make sure that she never shamed him again with her human lover, Zeus turned her into a comet that would only pass over the earth every seventy-five years-his way of guaranteeing that she would never see her son. That the boy would most likely die prior to her return. But before she was punished, Sterope had made Artemis promise her that the goddess would ensure no one killed her son before he had a chance to become a man. Artemis promised, however she was too afraid of Zeus to see to the baby herself. So she sent a demon in to protect the boy and make sure that his father didn't kill him."

"Poor kid. So did the demon stay with him after that?"

"No. She kept him only until he was weaned and didn't need a mother's milk anymore. Then, after threatening the father, who had no more love for the boy than she did, she left the child and walked away. The boy cried himself sick for the only mother he'd ever known, but the demon never returned and he never saw her again."

Kateri shook her head at the horror. "How could even a demon leave a little baby with a father who hated him?"

Ren shrugged with a nonchalance that defied her comprehension. "After a while, the boy didn't mind his father's hatred. The feeling was quite mutual. In fact, most days, he hated his father more."

"Oh, but it had to be horrible for the little guy. Growing up like that ... can you imagine?" Tears welled in her eyes as she felt so bad for the innocent baby who had no part in any of it. Her emotions overwhelmed her. Anger, pity, grief.

Most of all was a tsunami of indignation on the boy's behalf. She wanted to hurt all of them for treating him that way.

How could people be so selfish and cruel?

Ren turned to stare at her with a puzzled scowl. "Why do you cry?"

She wiped at her eyes, then waved her hand over her face in an attempt to stop any more tears from falling. "I'm sorry. I can't help it. I'm being a girl. I know. I just can't stand the thought of a little boy going through something so terrible. Alone. It's just not right. Please tell me that he grew up to be a ruler or happy or something really good."

When he didn't speak, a bad feeling went through her.

"His father didn't kill him, did he?"

"No. He lived."

She waited for him to say something more.

When he didn't, she reached out to touch his arm. "C'mon, Ren. Finish the story. You can't leave me hanging like this. What happened to the baby? Did he grow old? Did he father a boatload of kids and shower them with all the things he didn't have? Please, tell me after all of that evil misery he found someone who loved him and treated him right." She knew she was babbling, but she couldn't help it. Something inside her was desperate to know the baby's fate. "Well? Did he?"

His gaze searched hers with a probing stare she couldn't fathom. When he spoke, his tone was low and incredulous. "No. While he was in the fullest bloom of his manhood, his brother tricked a spirit into killing him. Then the boy sold his soul to come back and make right a wrong against the only real friend he ever knew."

It took a full minute for her to grasp the meaning of his words. For her mind to put all the pieces together into the only conclusion she could make.

"You're the baby."

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