Susan came awake just after dusk-at least that's what she thought. Since there were no windows or a clock in the room, she didn't really know what time it was, except for the fact that the music from the club upstairs was already hopping. That meant it had to be after sundown, but it was quiet enough that she figured it couldn't be too late.
Ravyn shifted behind her as if he knew she was awake and laid a gentle kiss on her bare back. She shivered as chills shot down her spine in the wake of his hot lips on her flesh. "Good morning," he said as he stretched languidly. Rolling over, she could swear that she felt that stretch herself. The faint light showed his naked body off to perfection. His lean muscles were taut and bulging...
Along with another part of him she couldn't help noticing.
"Evening, you mean."
He yawned without responding. She was mesmerized by the definition of his abs as he arched his back. Oh, yeah, a woman could do laundry on that. And it made her want to rub herself against him.
"Did you sleep well?" he asked, reaching over to brush her hair back from her face.
"Like a baby. You?"
He rolled to his side to give her a devilish grin. "Yeah, I actually did for once."
Before she could ask him another question, Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" started playing. It took her a full second to realize it was Ravyn's phone.
Making an aggravated noise, he rolled over to pull it out of his pants before he answered it.
"Yeah?" He reached over and idly toyed with her hand as he listened.
Susan savored the roughness of his fingers on her skin, even though a part of her wished it was something else he was fondling.
"Okay, I'll be there." He hung up the phone.
He raised her hand up to his lips so that he could nibble the back of her knuckles before he answered. "They're calling a meeting here tonight with all the Dark-Hunters."
That surprised her. "I didn't think you guys could be together without weakening each other. "
"We can't, which tells you how important the Squires think this meeting is. Acheron is usually the only one to call together something like this." He leaned over to give her a kiss, and as their lips touched, she felt warmth seep through her body. She couldn't believe the things this man made her feel for him when they shouldn't even be together.
Susan melted under his assault until he pulled back sharply.
"We have half an hour," he said quietly. "Chop-chop."
She groaned. "I wish that were half an hour for sex, but I think you mean half an hour for dressing."
He gave her an arch stare. "I could never have sex with you in only half an hour, my lady. Truly not possible."
Biting her lip, she reached down to cup his warm sac in her hand. "You keep talking like that, Leopardman, and we won't be leaving this room any time soon."
He nibbled and laved her neck. "Yeah, but then they'd come after us and I'd have to kill one of them, which would really be a bad thing. Ash tends to get testy when we kill off Squires."
He laid himself down on top of her to savor her skin against his, then he stood up with a deep groan.
Susan allowed him to pull her to her feet before they quickly dressed and headed upstairs. Part of her wanted to stay downstairs and keep reviewing files... among other things such as testing how long his stamina would last, but her curiosity got the better of her.
What could be so important that they would call a meeting when it was obvious that the Dark-Hunters needed their strength to fight the Daimons who were trying to kill them?
Susan hesitated at the top of the stairs. "You don't think this is a trap, do you?"
"How do you mean?"
"Well, if I were a Daimon and I knew that to get you guys together would weaken you, wouldn't I do that if I could?"
"Yeah, but they don't have our phone numbers."
He opened the door. Terra met them in the upstairs hallway before they could reach the kitchen. "They're in the back office," she said, handing each of them a sack and a soda.
"What's this?" Susan asked.
"Breakfast. I figured the two of you would be hungry during the meeting."
"Thank you," Ravyn said.
"No problem." Terra led them down another hallway that shot off the kitchen, to a large office that had a desk along one wall and a huge conference table in the center. Leo and Kyl were already there, along with Erika and Jack. Susan looked around for Jessica, but there was no sign of her.
"What's up?" she asked Leo as Terra left them alone.
"A lot of shit."
"Good," Susan said as she put her sack lunch on the table. "I'll make sure and get my waders out. "
Kyl snorted as he reviewed something on his laptop.
As Susan and Ravyn sat down, the door opened to show Otto and Nick. Otto's face was stoic, but Nick's was angry, as if he really resented this meeting. He took a seat opposite her and folded his arms over his chest like a sullen child.
Kyl cocked a brow as he looked up from his computer. "What? Being a Dark-Hunter doesn't agree with you?"
Nick curled his lip. "Shut up, schmuck."
"Schmuck?" Kyl was completely indignant. "What the hell happened to you, boy? I thought we were friends. Best friends."
"Kyl," Otto snapped as he sat down beside Nick. "Lay off."
Kyl held his hands up in surrender. "Whatever."
Susan looked up as the door opened again and froze with her turkey sandwich halfway to her lips. Eyes wide, she stared at a man she hadn't seen in almost twenty years... and he hadn't changed a bit. Seriously. Not a bit. Not a wrinkle, not a gray hair. Nothing.
Still stunningly gorgeous, he was six feet even in height with short jet-black hair that set off his Asian features to perfection.
She set her sandwich back on the table. "Sensei?"
His own mouth dropped as he met her gaze and she finally saw a set of fangs that she'd somehow failed to notice during the two years she'd trained in his studio. "Susan?"
Ravyn darted a curious gaze between them. If she didn't know better, she'd swear she saw a hint of jealousy in those dark eyes. "You know Dragon?"
Ravyn looked less than pleased. "How well do you know him?"
"She was one of my students at the dojo," Dragon said as he smiled at her. "One of my best students, I might add."
Susan continued to stare at him in disbelief. "Wow, I can't believe you're here. Then again, this explains so much."
Finally relaxing, Ravyn laughed at that. "Let me guess, never a day class available, and a lot of family emergencies that had him running out at odd times?"
It was true. Dragon had been a great teacher, but he'd also had two assistants and they'd often joked that he dashed off like Superman after a criminal. Who knew how close they'd been to the truth?
Susan shook her head. "Jeez... you guys really are everywhere, aren't you?"
"Yes," Dragon said. "Which explains why I'm here, but not how it is that you're in our company."
"She's a new Squire," Leo said as he sat down at the head of the table.
Coming forward, Dragon held his hand out to her. "Welcome to our world. It's good to see you again."
She shook his hand and smiled. "You, too."
As Dragon started to take the chair beside her, Ravyn cleared his throat.
Dragon arched a single brow as he hesitated with his hand on the back of the chair. She could see his inner debate of whether to sit there and irritate Ravyn or not. Winking at her, he moved to sit on the other side of Ravyn.
"Have you known Ravyn long, Susan?" Dragon asked.
"Drop the subject, Dragon," Ravyn said as he picked the tomatoes off his sandwich.
Dragon put his hands in the pocket of his black windbreaker and cast a knowing look at them.
Susan felt the heat sting her cheeks before Dragon started chatting with Leo over the latest story in the Inquisitor about an alien baby being found in Greenland.
While they talked, Susan noticed Nick's hand. Like Leo and the others, he had the same spiderweb tattoo. How very interesting...
The next Dark-Hunter to join them was a former Nubian priest named Menkaura. Tall and lean, his skin was a perfect shade of mocha. He wore his long black hair in braids that were tied back at the nape of his neck. But what fascinated her most was that he was dressed in black jeans and a black sleeveless vest that showed off a tattoo of the eye of Horus on his right biceps. There was also a line of tiny hieroglyphics beneath it.
"I have to know what that says," she said, indicating the tattoo.
He glanced at it before he answered, " 'Death is a doorway. Think before you knock on it.' "
He inclined his head to her as Jack made an aggravated noise.
"Dang, and I always thought it said something like 'Die, Scum, Die.' How disappointing."
By his pained expression, Susan could tell Menkaura didn't appreciate Jack's humor. Unlike Dragon and Ravyn, Menkaura was completely reserved and said very little. Something about him reminded her of a cobra lying in wait for its next victim.
Susan took a second to glance around at the men... "You know, I suddenly feel like I'm on that Cover Model show. Is it just me or is there some unwritten rule that says all the Dark-Hunters have to be really hot?"
Erika snorted. "C'mon, Susan, think about it. If you're an immortal goddess and you're putting together an army of warriors to fight the undead, are you going to fill it with slugs or with the hottest pieces of cheese you can find? Maybe I'm shallow... okay, I'm highly shallow, but in this I give Artemis two thumbs-up."
"You have a point," Susan said as she let her gaze wander over the four Dark-Hunters who were present. Then she looked at Leo. "You know, this would have made a good headline, huh? 'Greek Goddess Commands Army of Hot Cheese.' "
Leo flipped her off before he returned to sorting through his folder.
"Ooo," Susan said, feigning hurt. "I think I've been dissed by the Master of Sleaze."
Menkaura had just taken his seat when the door was suddenly thrown back.
"Dammit, Belle!" Leo snapped as he jumped completely out of his seat. "Don't do that."
Susan had to force herself not to laugh.
"Aw, sit your ass down, Leo," Belle said in a voice that was thick with a Texas drawl before she slammed the door shut with the heel of her foot. Tall and blond and also dressed in black jeans and a black blouse, she reminded Susan of an angel... one that was chewing her gum like a cow going to town with cud. She moved forward to set two bottles of unopened tequila on the table. "Now boys and girls, let the party start."
"All right, Annie Oakley," Ravyn said in a teasing tone. "Last time you threw a party, half of Chicago burned down."
Belle narrowed her eyes playfully on him. "That was not my fault."
Ravyn leaned back in his chair and gave her a doubting stare. "Uh-huh. The least you could have done was take the blame yourself and not put it off on Mrs. O'Leary's cow."
"Hey now, they couldn't hang old Bessie for starting the fire." Belle moved to stand by Susan. She folded her arms over her chest as she stood there with her feet slightly apart. The stance reminded Susan of a gunfighter about to draw his gun. "You're new. Who the hell are you?"
She glanced about nervously, but the men didn't seem concerned at Belle's antagonistic nature. "Susan."
"Uh-huh," Belle said in a tone that was less than impressed.
"She's a Squire," Leo said.
"Uh-huh." Belle sized her up again. "Can you shoot a gun?"
Susan frowned at the odd question. "Yeah."
"Can you hit anything after you pull the trigger?"
"Most of the time."
"Cool." She held her hand out to her. "Welcome to our little group here."
Susan shook her hand as Belle's entire demeanor changed over to friendly. "Thanks."
Menkaura shifted in his chair. "Belle used to travel with a Wild West show."
Belle opened the bottle nearest her with her teeth. "Yeah," she said as she pulled a small shot glass from her pocket and filled it, "and I kicked Annie Oakley's ass in my last show, but do they ever mention that? No. I got the shaft and she got the fame. Life's just not fair, I tell you."
Kyl opened the other bottle before he poured the tequila into the plastic cup he had before him. He held the cup up in toast to Belle before he met Susan's gaze. "Belle shot the reporter who failed to mention her as the winner." He knocked back the drink in a single gulp.
"Yeah, but he took a shot at me first." Belle tilted her head back to empty her cup, then refilled the glass. "Not my fault he missed. I just showed him up close and personal who the better shot was..." She frowned as she set the bottle aside. "But then I probably shouldn't have killed him 'cause then he could have fixed that article."
Leo gave her a dry look. "And you wouldn't have become an outlaw. "
"Shut up, Leo."
Belle grabbed the chair next to Susan, spun it around, and straddled it. At the same time an unbelievably attractive woman walked in.
Susan had to keep her mouth from dropping. She'd truly never seen a more beautiful woman in her life. And she was incredibly tall... at least six foot five, with long auburn hair that was scraped back from her face to fall in a braid all the way to her thighs. Like the others, she was dressed in what must be their uniform of black clothes. Only this Dark-Hunter had on leather pants and a black brocade corset. She was also clutching a venti-sized cup of Starbucks coffee and wearing a pair of five-inch steel-spiked boots, which accounted for some of her unbelievable height.
She stopped beside Nick's chair and took a minute to size him up. "Gautier?"
He didn't even bother to look at her while he poured his own shot of tequila. "Hi, Zoe."
Narrowing her eyes, she reached out and tilted his head to the side so that she could see the Dark-Hunter mark that was on Nick's face and neck. "Damn, boy, what happened? Artemis bitch slap you?"
He grabbed her wrist and glared up at her.
Zoe broke his hold as she shook her head. "Kyrian said he thought you'd gone over to the dark side, but I didn't believe him."
Nick gulped down his tequila. "Yeah, well, I guess he isn't as dumb as he looks."
Zoe looked surprised by the venom in Nick's voice. She took a drink of coffee before she frowned at Susan. Zoe inclined her chin toward her. "Who's the new chick?"
"Who's the old bitch?" Susan asked, looking over at Leo.
"Ooo," Zoe said with an evil laugh, "snotty." Still there was respect in the woman's eyes. "You got anything to back that up?"
Dragon gave a low laugh of his own. "Yes, she does. J trained her."
"Okay. A smart- and tough-ass. Can't ask for better than that. I know she's not one of us, so I take it she's a Squire then."
"Yeah," Leo said.
Susan put her sandwich wrapper back in the sack as she looked over at Ravyn, who was watching her with a seductive gleam in his eyes. "Should I have a shirt on that says 'New Squire'?"
"Nah," Kyl said, "it should have 'Squirehood: what an indenture.' "
All the Squires plus Ravyn laughed. The rest didn't seem to have much of a sense of humor about it.
After taking another swig of coffee, Zoe gave Susan a once-over that was extremely sexual. "Who does she serve?"
Erika answered. "No one. She's Dorean."
There was no mistaking the interest in Zoe's eyes as they lingered on Susan. "Really?"
Ravyn cleared his throat meaningfully. "You've already got a Squire, Zoe."
"Yeah, but I can't stand him-he's more woman than I am. Be nice to have an actual female Squire for a change."
Dragon snorted. "It doesn't work like that, Zo, and you know it. You can't have a Squire you're sexually attracted to."
She let out an aggravated breath. "I really hate that rule," she muttered as she took a seat next to Belle and Cael joined them.
He greeted them all before he took a seat beside Leo. Unlike the others, Cael wasn't dressed in black. He had on a pair of baggy blue jeans and a loose V-neck sweater that seemed at odds with his spiked hair. Poor Cael looked like he'd just crawled out of bed and tossed on the nearest clothes he could find.
Susan frowned as she watched him. He seemed extremely subdued, as if something had him completely preoccupied. The reporter in her was instantly intrigued.
Dragon checked his watch. "I don't mean to be rude, but my powers are starting to wane. How much longer before we start this meeting?"
"We're just waiting on-" Leo's voice broke off as the door opened and a short, stout man walked in. In his mid-thirties, he was dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans. He didn't strike her as a Dark-Hunter but rather another Squire.
His face was completely grim as he swept them with a soulful stare.
"What are you doing here, Dave?" Leo asked. "Where's Troy?"
A tic worked in Dave's jaw. He swallowed before he answered in a voice that was thick with grief. "Dead."
With that one word, it felt as if all the air had been sucked out of the room. For a full minute it was so quiet that all Susan could hear was a faint buzzing in her ears. No one moved.
Even though she didn't know who this Dark-Hunter was, she felt the sadness of his loss. And she knew it deeply affected everyone there, especially Dave.
Ravyn was the one who finally broke the silence. "How?"
Tears gathered in Dave's eyes as he visibly struggled for composure. "Last night, he'd run into a group of Daimons at the Last Supper Club and got seriously injured fighting them. He called me from the alley and said that he was bleeding badly. That he couldn't drive back or go inside without exposing himself to the humans. I told him to wait behind the club and I'd be there as fast as I could. Before I could get him into my car, the police showed up and arrested us. He was too weak to fight-not that Troy would have anyway. There's no way he'd have ever done something to hurt a human. "
Ravyn looked as ill as Susan felt. "You're kidding."
He shook his head. "We weren't allowed a phone call or anything. They took us to a cell on the east side of the building... no shades or anything else over the windows. I kept shouting at them to move us to another cell, but they'd just laugh and make jokes about crispy critters and toast. There was nothing we could do but wait."
He shook his head and turned so green that Susan half-expected him to be ill on the floor. When he spoke again, his voice was barely more than a whisper. "Troy kept moving out of the way of the sunlight, and I kept trying to cover the window, but by nine o'clock, it was over." He winced at the pain of his memory. He looked around the table at the Dark-Hunters. "Pray to whatever God you worship that none of you ever die like that. Forget what Apollo did to the Daimons... this is a whole hell of a lot worse. You don't die right away. It's slow and painful. You just smolder while your skin and bone melt until there's nothing left. Not even ashes." He covered his eyes with his hands as if trying to banish the images that were haunting him. "He was totally aware of everything right up to the end. He kept praying over and over, between crying and screaming from the pain." Dave let out a sob. "Why wouldn't they at least give me an ax to put him out of his misery?"
Susan covered her mouth as bile rose in her throat. She glanced around at the Dark-Hunters who were there. All of them felt the pain of what he described. All of them. It was plain on every face. But it was Ravyn her gaze settled on. In the back of her mind was an image of him in the same situation.
It was more than she could stand.
"How did you get out of jail?" Otto asked.
Dave clenched and unclenched his fist as a myriad of emotions played across his face. Rage. Hurt. Even bitter humor was there. But it was the hatred that flared so bright, it was blinding. "They were watching it. After Troy died, they came to the cell and opened the door... 'Guess we were wrong about you. But you should be more careful about who you befriend.' Then they stepped back and walked me out of there."
"We can get them for murder!" Erika said angrily.
Leo shook his head. "How? I'm sure by now they've erased whatever surveillance data they had. Even if they hadn't, who would have believed it? Human beings don't disintegrate in real life-only in Hollywood movies."
"And there's no body," Otto added. "No evidence. As far as we can prove, all they did was arrest one man who they let go a few hours later. No harm. No foul. They're untouchable."
Dave's gaze went to Leo. "And that's why I quit. I'm completely out of this."
Kyl got up and reached for him.
"Don't touch me," Dave snapped as he stepped away.
Kyl's features turned harsh. "You've got to pull yourself together."
"No, hell, I don't." His face was ashen. "I'm a sixth-generation Squire on my father's side, Kyl. Eighth on my mother's. I grew up in the house with Troy and I never doubted what I would do with my life." He gestured meaningfully with his hands to emphasize his words. "We are here to protect the Dark-Hunters' identities. We're their lifeline when they're hurt and we're the only ones they're ever allowed to rely on. Dammit, I failed him. And now I know the man who was like a brother to me is stuck as a Shade suffering for eternity because he tried to protect us. Where's the justice in that?" He turned toward Leo. "I don't care if you guys kill me. I'm done. I can't go through this again."
"He's right," Nick said in a deep voice. He gripped the cup of tequila so tightly that his knuckles were white. "This is just like New Orleans. The Daimons are screwing with us and laughing while they do it. There's no telling what they've done that we don't even know about... yet. " He cut a look around the table that was so cold it could freeze fire, and it chilled Susan all the way to her bones. "For all we know right now, one of you could be a Daimon who's already killed a Dark-Hunter and who is now using his body to spy on us." His gaze stopped on Cael. "You even live with them."
Cael's face turned to stone. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"When a cow lives with the butcher, sooner or later he gets eaten unless he helps the other cows off to their slaughter."
"Bullocks!" Cael shouted as he came to his feet.
Still Nick didn't back down. He merely sat there, staring at Cael as if he were trying to figure out if it was Cael or something else. "How do we know Stryker or one of his chief minions hasn't possessed you?"
Otto scowled at him. "Nick, what are you talking about?"
He pinned that deadly glare on Otto. "You don't remember anything about the night my mother died, do you?"
"We were attacked."
"To say the least." His voice dripped sarcasm. "We weren't just attacked, Otto. We were fucked over royally. Don't you remember the phones and how the Daimons played us? I'd get a call from you, only it wasn't you... It was them screwing with our heads."
Susan and Ravyn exchanged an eerie look. The hair on the back of her neck rose at Nick's words.
"No one screwed with the phones, Nick." Otto snarled.
"I don't remember that either," Kyl added.
"How could they get our numbers?" Ravyn asked.
Nick scoffed. "Do I look like a Daimon? How the hell do I know? But they did it. Night after night they led us on a merry chase through the streets as they killed us and any innocent bystander who caught their attention." He looked over at Otto. "Don't you remember the night they almost killed Ash?"
By Otto's face it was obvious he had no idea what Nick was talking about. "No."
Nick growled deep in the back of his throat. "Let me guess, when all was said and done, Acheron took all of you aside one by one and erased your memory, didn't he?"
Kyl shook his head. "Ash wouldn't do something like that."
"You idiot. Of course he would. None of you know Jack Shit about him. But I do." He raked his hand through his hair as his eyes burned with anger. "When you think back, is everything fuzzy? You can remember some things clear as a bell, and others are vague?"
"That's true of any memory," Otto scoffed.
"Yeah, and do you remember when we were trying to get ahold of Ash and no one knew where he was?"
Kyl frowned. "Ash said his phone wasn't working."
"Trust me, it was working just fine. He knew what was happening, but he stayed out of it and left us alone to deal with the Daimons, knowing we weren't capable of fighting them without him. And then the Daimons came out and went to town all over us. While we were distracted with trying to fight them off, their leader, Desiderius, possessed Ulrich so that he could kill Amanda's sister and my mother. As a possessed Dark-Hunter he was able to enter Kyrian's house without an invitation. He took off Kassim's head and then he killed Amanda and Kyrian."
Kyl rolled his eyes. "You're the idiot, Nick. They didn't die."
"Oh, yes, they did. Trust me. Artemis had already dumped me into Hades when Kyrian showed up. Even though he was dead, he was beside himself because Amanda wasn't there with him. Since she was a Christian and he was an ancient Greek, she'd gone off to her heaven while he was on his way to his. Still bloody from our deaths, we stood there on the banks of the river Acheron, waiting for Charon to ferry us to the other side. While we waited, Kyrian spilled his guts to me about everything that had happened to cause his death."
"Kyrian isn't dead," Kyl insisted.
Hatred flared deep in Nick's eyes. "Not now he isn't. Acheron brought him back. "
Still Kyl argued. "Ash doesn't have that power."
"And you're stupid if you believe that." Nick sat forward and punctuated his words by pounding his hand on the desk. "News flash, folks. Ash is a god."
Leo and Otto laughed at him.
"Nick, are you high?" Zoe asked.
He turned on Zoe like a demon looking for a victim. "No. Deny it if you want, but I know the truth. I might be the youngest Dark-Hunter created, but I've been in this world a long time and I know exactly what I'm talking about. The rest of you are just fools in a game that's being played behind your backs. The Spathi Daimons that you're up against now aren't stupid. Until Desiderius went after Kyrian the first time, no one even knew that Daimons could live a hundred years, never mind a thousand... or more to the point, eleven thousand. But Ash knew and even when I asked him about them, he didn't say a word. Why is that?"
Dragon narrowed his eyes on Nick. "Ash didn't know or he would have."
"Ash is the king of secrets. You all know that. I don't know how the Daimons are related to him, but I know there's a link."
Now it was Belle's turn to laugh. "What are you saying? Ash is a Daimon?"
"No. He's a god and somehow he's linked to them." Nick looked at each one of them. "These aren't what you're used to dealing with, folks. These are so much more and now they have human help, too."
Menkaura frowned. "What do they want with us?"
"They want to bathe in your blood and trust me, they will."
Erika made a rude noise. "Well, aren't you just Mr. Sunshine?"
Nick turned his head slowly toward her like something out of a bad horror movie. Not to mention the fact that his face reminded Susan of a king addressing a peasant who'd dared to breathe his air. "Who are you, little girl, and why are you even in this meeting?"
She pointed to Ravyn. "His substitute Squire and I have no idea, but at least I'm not bringing everyone down with this doom and gloom bullshit."
Now he looked to Susan like the king after the peasant had wet his shoes... and she didn't mean with water. "Substitute Squire? What the hell is that?"
Erika gave him a "duh" stare that had to be one she reserved for those who were a bit slow. "It's a person who doesn't want to be a Squire, but who got drafted into this because Mr. Kontis won't let anyone else around him for more than twenty-four hours. I think my father has lasted longer with him than anyone else in the past because he's half-deaf and can't listen to Ravyn's razor-sharp sarcasm. Something I can only tolerate because, well, he taught it to me from the crib."
Nick didn't look impressed by her speech. "Then as a Squire you should know to sit there and keep your mouth shut."
Erika's jaw dropped in indignation. "What do you know about being a Squire?"
"He used to run the Dark-Hunter Web site," Leo said under his breath.
She turned on him in a pique. "And that makes him an expert?"
Kyl shrugged. "He's the one who put the Squire's handbook online."
"So he can write HTML, so what? My grandma could do it, if she were still alive."
"Erika..." Leo said in a warning tone.
"Shut up, Leo," she snapped.
Nick hissed at her, "You don't talk to a Theti like that."
The look on Nick's face would have made anyone with half a brain shudder. Erika, on the other hand, appeared to be missing the part of her brain where her self-preservation should be located.
"You need to learn to respect your elders," he growled dangerously.
"Oh, yeah?" she challenged him. "Like you would have?"
"As a Squire, I always followed orders."
Cocking her head, she folded her arms over her chest and glared at him. "Yeah, right. If you followed orders, then how did you get to be a Dark-Hunter, huh? Last time I checked, we weren't supposed to be doing that, now were we?"
"What?" she snapped at Leo.
He gave her a harsh stare. "We have more important things to discuss and we're running out of time."
She held her hands up. "Fine. Talk. I'm going to get a sandwich." As she crossed the room, she mumbled to herself. "Like he's going to save us with his sage bullshit-the man don't know shite about shit. He couldn't even save New Orleans and he lived there."
Those words went through the room like a pall as everyone sucked their breath in sharply.
Erika tried to open the door only to find it locked.
His face contorted by rage, Nick shot to his feet. "What did you say?"
Erika ignored him while she tried to get the door to open. "Why won't this door open?"
"What. Did. You. Say?"
"Leave her alone, Nick," Otto said, rising.
Nick threw his hand out and Otto went crashing into the far wall. "What happened in New Orleans?" Nick demanded of Erika.
Finally her survival sense kicked in. Erika turned around, eyes wide as Nick approached her. Gulping, she pressed herself against the door and made a tiny squeak noise.
Nick was only two feet away from her when he went flying across the room to land not far from Otto.
"Two can play that game, boy," Ravyn said in a feral growl as he stood up. "And I've had a lot more practice with my powers than you have. Don't you ever threaten her."
The door opened a crack.
"Erika." Ravyn's tone was eerily calm and pleasant. "Go get your sandwich."
She hurried from the room as Nick pushed himself up from the floor.
Nick glared at Kyl and Otto. "I want the truth about New Orleans."
It was Otto who answered as he straightened his clothes with a tug. "New Orleans was hit dead-on with a category three hurricane about nine months ago."
Susan's breath caught at the horror she saw on Nick's face.
"What happened?" he asked, his voice thin and breathy.
Otto sighed before he answered. "The levee broke and flooded the city. It completely wiped out the Ninth Ward. "
Nick leaned against the wall as horror played across his face.
"Your house is still standing," Kyl said gently. "It had some damage from the winds, but it's repaired now. Kyrian made sure of it."
"Screw my house. What about the people?"
Otto and Kyl exchanged a sick look. "It was bad. But we're-"
"Why are you here?" Nick demanded. "Why aren't you down there helping people?"
Anger flared in Otto's eyes. "We were sent here before the hurricane hit."
"You just walked out and left the city?"
"We did what we were told to do, Nick. We're Squires, remember?"
Nick curled his lip. "You bastards." He pinned a hate-filled glare on Kyl. "I don't expect better from Otto, but you were born there, same as me, Kyl. How could you turn your back on the city and our people?"
"You don't know what you're talking about, Nick," he said between clenched teeth. "Damn you, how dare you take that tone with me? I lost family down there, boy. We weren't the ones sitting on an island with Savitar, learning to surf. We were in the thick of it. I stayed there through the storm, with Kyrian, Valerius, Talon, and the rest. I was part of search and rescue teams until I couldn't take it anymore. And then I got up and started it over. Every single day. I wasn't transferred up here until three months ago. So don't you dare stand there and judge me."
Leo whistled. "Enough! Squires, out of the room. Now."
Susan felt like she'd been caught by shrapnel. She started to argue that she hadn't been the one causing problems, but Leo didn't look like he could take any more arguments from anyone.
Ravyn squeezed her hand reassuringly before she got up. Ironically, Nick took two steps for the door before he must have remembered that he was no longer a Squire. He was a Dark-Hunter.
There was so much agony in his gaze that it stole her breath as he returned to his chair. Feeling for him and for Dave she followed the men out of the room.
She paused to look back at Ravyn, who gave her a small smile. That smile warmed her and gave her strength as she closed the door and headed back downstairs to start her research again.
"All right, " Leo said as soon as the Dark-Hunters were alone in the room with him. "We have a unique problem here. We not only have to avoid the Daimons, but the police, too. Anyone have a suggestion?"
"Bend over and kiss your ass good-bye," Nick said.
They ignored that oh so not helpful comment.
"Don't we have some cops on the Squires' payroll?" Zoe asked.
Leo shook his head. "Not in Seattle. We have some in Internal Affairs and with the DA's office, but none on the force itself. "
Belle made a sound of disgust. "Why not?"
"The last one retired," Leo said irritably. "The other one died a year ago of a heart attack. We haven't had a chance to replace them."
"Well, that blows." Belle reached for the tequila bottle and didn't bother with her glass. She took a giant swig. "No offense, but I don't want to be barbecue."
Zoe gave her a pointed stare. "None of us do."
"Has anyone been able to get a hold of Ash?" Dragon asked.
One by one, they shook they heads.
Except for Nick. "You won't hear from him until it's too late. Any time he vanishes, the Daimons go wild. I told you, they're linked somehow."
Leo cleared his throat. "That doesn't help us, Nick."
"And neither does staying together like this," Ravyn added. "We've been together too long. We need to break."
"Yeah," Menkaura agreed.
Belle set the half-empty bottle back on the table. "I just wish we knew what they were up to!"
"That's a no-brainer," Nick said snidely. He looked around the table as if they were all morons, and honestly, Ravyn was getting a little tired of his attitude. Train him, hell, the man would be lucky if Ravyn didn't kill him.
"Care to enlighten us blind sheep?" Zoe asked.
"Most of you are ancient warriors. Can't you figure it out? Think about it. All through history, what has brought down every great civilization or people?"
"War," Cael answered.
"No," Zoe whispered. She looked around the table at them. "It's what has brought all of us over to Artemis."
Ravyn nodded as he understood what they meant. "Betrayal. Sabotage. None of us were brought down by the enemy who attacked us in the open. We were brought down by the enemy within. By the traitor we didn't see coming at our backs."
"That's right." Nick's gaze went back to Cael. "It's always the one you least expect who does it, too. We won't be destroyed by the Daimons. We're going to be destroyed by one of our own."
Ravyn stiffened at words he knew were all too true. It was why, as Erika had pointed out, he didn't let anyone near him. He'd had enough of trusting people. God, he'd been killed by his own brother. A brother whose life he'd saved only a year before Phoenix had taken his.
Zoe stood up. "And on that sobering thought, I'm going to patrol."
Menkaura fell in behind her.
"Watch your backs," Leo called.
Zoe paused at the door. "Don't worry. It's what I'm best at."
"And beware of the phones," Nick said. "I don't know how the Daimons do it, but not even the caller ID works right."
She scoffed at him. "Yeah, thanks."
Dragon and Belle went next, leaving Cael, Ravyn, Nick, and Leo alone in the room.
Cael met Ravyn's gaze. "August 14, 2007."
When he spoke, his tone was barely a whisper. "That's the day I need you to help me do the right thing. "
Ravyn's heart clenched as he realized it must be Amaranda's birthday. That more than anything else told him that Nick was wrong to accuse Cael. He was the one person Ravyn had faith in. "I'll be there."
Cael nodded and then passed a hostile glare toward Nick before he headed to the door.
As soon as it closed, Ravyn sighed as he looked at the Cajun. "Well, you certainly know how to win friends and influence people. No wonder Savitar wanted you off his hands."
"Don't start with me, Katagari. Out of all of them, you know I'm telling the truth."
How he wanted to deny it, but yeah, he could feel it. His animal senses picked up on it with an eerie accuracy. There was something highly out of the ordinary here. "For the record, I'm Arcadian, not Katagaria. Jeez, you've been hanging around Talon too long."
Nick sneered. "For the record, I don't give a shit."
Turning away from the angry man, Ravyn looked at Leo. "So what's our next move?"
"You have to stay hidden," Leo said as he handed him the folder he'd been thumbing through.
"A file I was collecting. About a year ago, I got a call from a hysterical woman who said she'd seen her neighbor come home one night with blood on her clothes. A neighbor with fangs. I investigated it and found out the woman was on all kinds of medication, so I wrote it off. "
"Okay, so why give it to me?"
"Open the folder."
Ravyn did. His gaze went straight to the third paragraph where Leo had underlined four words that leaped out at him. Chief of police's wife.
"That's who she lived next door to."
Ravyn narrowed his eyes as those words went through him.
"Give it to Susan. Believe me, if anyone can find the truth, even while the cops are hunting her down, it's her." Leo patted him on the arm and left.
Alone now with Nick, Ravyn closed the folder. "Just so you know, Cael would never betray us."
"Yeah, and two years ago I thought Ash was a friend of mine. You know what that got me? A bullet to my brain."
"I don't know how you died, but I know Ash didn't kill you."
Nick gave a bitter laugh. "I wish I still had your blind faith. Unfortunately, mine was stripped from me the night I died."
Ravyn felt sorry for the man. What he had inside him was actually very typical for a new Dark-Hunter. That sense of outrage and of being wronged. The need to strike out at everyone around you. Hell, he'd even attacked Acheron when the Atlantean had shown up to train him. But then, he hadn't really needed training. Unlike a human warrior, he was used to his powers and used to fighting preternatural beings.
"When do you want to start your training?"
"I don't need training," Nick said. "I was a Theti and I know how to stake a Daimon. "
As a former Squire, Nick also knew the basics for Dark-Hunter survival.
"Fine. I guess for the first time in history, Savitar was wrong."
"He wasn't wrong. He just wanted an excuse to get me off the island. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have things to do."
Ravyn didn't even want to go there. He didn't say anything as Nick left the room. That was one troubled man. But until he was willing to let go of the bitterness, there was nothing Ravyn or anyone else could do for him.
As Ravyn started for the door, he froze. There was something strange in the air... a whispering.
Closing his eyes, he summoned his powers of cognition and tried to hone in on it. But for his life, he couldn't. Instead, it settled as an uneasy feeling deep in his gut. Something bad was about to happen. He just couldn't tell what it was.