Ravyn cursed as he realized what was going on. Susan had been right. The Daimons had put them together while their powers were weakened knowing that this would drain them even more-which would make them easy pickings for the Spathis. Dammit, they should have listened to Nick. He'd even warned them about the phones. Who knew the crusty bastard had been telling the truth?
And of course, Nick was the only one of them not here...
"We need to separate." The words had barely left Cael's lips before bolt-holes began opening all around them, trapping them in the narrow, grungy alleyway.
Spathis were emerging from the top and bottom of the hill.
"Oh, we're screwed," Belle said as she pulled the whip off her belt and snapped it in the air before her. "Anyone got a bright idea?"
"Yeah," Zoe said as she pulled a knife from the top of her boot, "we learn to teleport."
They all looked at Ravyn. "Wish I could help folks. But that power was stripped from me when I died."
Belle made a face at him. "Well then, what good are you, leopard?"
He didn't know at present. This was a bad situation and they all knew it.
His adrenaline rushing at the prospect of a fight that would most likely be to his death, he turned to Susan. "We need to get you out of here."
She scoffed at him as she gestured toward the top and bottom of the hill where the Spathis were gathering force. "No offense, Catman, unless you know something I don't, I don't think the Daimons are going to let me out."
As much as he hated to admit it, she was right. Angry that he'd allowed himself to be caught like this, he manifested a stake in his hand. "You know the legend. Stab them in the heart and they'll die." He handed her the stake.
Susan's eyes held a degree of fear as she wrapped her hand around the stake and offered him a brave smile. "Call me Buffy. I'm even blond, but don't ask me to wear a halter top." She glanced over to Zoe. "Or corset."
Ravyn lifted her hand with the stake in it and kissed the back of her knuckles. Standing there with his death imminent, he felt a wave of respect for her the likes of which he'd never known. More than that, something sublimely tender touched his heart.
Whatever happened tonight, he only hoped that she got out of it in one piece.
Susan offered him an encouraging smile before she stepped back. Reluctantly, he let go and turned around to fight.
As the Daimons came toward them slowly, the Dark-Hunters formed a circle with their backs to one another.
Ravyn tried to put Susan behind him, but she wouldn't go. "Susan, get in the middle."
She met his gaze without flinching. "Get your head in the fight, Ravyn, and don't worry about me. I'm the only one here who isn't having my strength depleted right now. "
Zoe scoffed at her bravado. "You're also the only one of us who has a soul they can steal and blood they can drink."
Susan opened her mouth to respond, then snapped it shut. "Very valid points." Then she literally hopped behind him.
Ravyn reached around his back to assure himself that she was as far from harm's way as she could be for the moment.
Dragon whipped out his nunchakus while Menkaura wrapped a strange golden chain around one fist.
The Daimons didn't attack right away. Rather, they crept toward them as if savoring the picture of them crowded together.
"What are they waiting for?" Belle asked.
Ravyn ground his teeth as he realized the answer. "For us to grow even weaker. "
"Screw that," Cael snarled before he let out a war cry. He ran at the Daimon closest to him.
Without thinking, Ravyn broke formation to help Cael as two Daimons ran at Cael's back. Suddenly all hell broke loose as the Daimons swarmed over them.
Susan couldn't breathe as she watched the Daimons go after the Dark-Hunters. There were so many of them, she wasn't even sure if the Dark-Hunters were still standing.
She staggered back as a Daimon came at her, then paused a few feet from her. He sniffed the air in a way that reminded her of a dog who'd caught wind of something it found appealing. "You're not one of them," he said with a gleeful smile. "You're human."
"And you're not."
He came at her.
Susan grabbed his shirt and fell to the ground with him in tow. Rolling onto her back, she raised her legs up and kicked him over her head, away from her, then continued the roll until she was back on her feet. He landed in a heap by the Dumpster as the next Daimon came at her. She elbowed the woman in the face, then twisted around, trying to stake her.
The woman sank her fangs into Susan's arm.
Susan hissed as the pain spread through her. "I hate to girl fight, but..." She grabbed her by the hair and yanked as hard as she could.
The Daimon cried out before Susan head-butted her.
Ravyn turned to see Susan fighting off her attackers. Stunned by her skill, he missed the Daimon coming for his back. Something hot ripped into his shoulder. He turned with a curse to punch the Daimon in the face. He staggered back but left the knife embedded deep in Ravyn's shoulder. Pulling it out with a curse and a fierce grimace, he tossed it straight into the Daimon's chest. He exploded into a golden shower that rained down on Ravyn.
Ravyn caught the knife before it fell to the ground and headed for Susan. She executed a mawasbi-geri or roundhouse kick so perfectly that even Bruce Lee would have been impressed. Gods love her, she did know how to handle herself. Dragon really had taught her well.
And before Ravyn could reach her, she turned on the Daimon nearest her and stabbed him with the stake.
Ravyn skidded to a stop as she killed the Daimon like a pro. She started for Ravyn, then caught herself as she realized he had black hair.
He gave her a crooked grin. "Remind me to never piss you off again."
"You got it."
He started for the Daimon who was coming at her back, but before Ravyn could take more than one step, she'd elbowed the Daimon in the face and flipped him to the ground, where she pinned him with his arm twisted behind his back and with her right foot on the small of his spine.
Realizing she was fine to fight on her own, Ravyn turned to see Belle surrounded by a group of Daimons. She was wounded and bleeding profusely as an extremely large Daimon swung an ax around.
Belle caught the Daimon against his cheek with her whip. The Daimon recoiled, then snarled before he swung the ax. He narrowly missed her as she lunged to the right.
Ravyn rushed at the Daimon's back to kick him away from Belle.
The Daimon spun on him as two more joined them. He could hear Belle cracking her whip and Dragon fighting with his nunchakus while he kept his eyes trained on the Daimon's ax so that he could dodge the deadly swings. Ravyn dropped to the ground and rolled, then kicked the Daimon's feet out from under him. Grabbing the ax as it fell toward the street, Ravyn arced it toward the Daimon's chest and killed him.
And still the Daimons kept coming.
One dove at Ravyn's back, knocking him forward. The ax flew out of his hand as he hit the ground and landed at the feet of another Daimon. Laughing, the Daimon picked up the ax and came after him.
Ravyn tried to back up, only to stagger against another Daimon who shoved him back toward the ax. Ravyn changed into a leopard at the same time the Daimon swung. He missed Ravyn and decapitated the other Daimon. But before Ravyn could think, another Daimon caught him with another ax against his back leg.
Yelping, his powers snapped from the pain and turned him back into a man against his will. He barely had time to summon clothes onto his body and roll away before they were on him.
To his surprise, Susan was there with an ax she must have taken from another Daimon. "Back off," she snarled, driving them away from Ravyn.
Ravyn tried to stand only to have his savaged leg buckle under his weight. His strength was starting to fail him and he knew the other Dark-Hunters weren't in any better shape. No matter what he might like, his pain would keep him in human form.
They were going to die.
The Daimons seemed to be growing stronger while the Dark-Hunters were weakening by the heartbeat. But even so, Ravyn wasn't going to die on the ground like a scared rodent. He forced himself to his feet. A Daimon caught him a punch to the jaw that felt like a sledgehammer striking his bones. He tasted blood as his lip split. Spitting it out onto the asphalt, Ravyn head-butted the Daimon, then kicked him away as a flash caught his attention to the right.
It was two Daimons with axes trapping Belle between them. Frozen by the horror, he watched helplessly, knowing he couldn't reach her in time.
A frisson of grief spun through all of them as they saw her fall to her knees an instant before the Daimons coldly executed her. Susan stared in horror at the woman's body as she lay in a pool of blood on the dark asphalt while the Daimons high-fived each other.
Zoe cried out and started for them, only to have her legs swept out from under her by another Daimon. She hit the ground facefirst, then rolled to her back to kick out at the Daimon who was trying to stab her.
Ravyn was kicked so hard, he swore he heard three ribs crack.
Before he could regain his senses, Menkaura was flung down on top of him. The weight from him was enough to finish breaking Ravyn's ribs. His breathing labored from the pain, he caught the man's look of panic as Menkaura realized the same thing he had.
They had no way to escape.
Ravyn pushed the larger man off his chest and tried to breathe past the awful pain that seemed to seep into every part of him.
"Summon Stryker," one of the Daimons called out to the others. "He'll want to be here to see them die."
"Yeah," a deep, angry voice said, echoing off the brick walls around them, "summon the bastard. I'd really love to get my hands on him right now."
Ravyn held his breath as he heard the last voice he'd expected.
Susan hesitated as the Daimons froze in the middle of their attacks. They were all staring at the bottom of the hill.
She turned to see what had them transfixed and felt her own jaw drop.
Yeah, that'd do it.
Highlighted by the bright moonlight, the man there was incredibly tall, with long black hair that had a red stripe in the front. A strange ethereal fog swirled around him as if it were caressing his entire body like a lover. Dressed in black leather pants and a long leather coat that had its sleeves pushed back to expose his forearms and fingerless black leather gloves, he looked like the typical Goth who hung out around Capitol Hill. But as he walked slowly up the hill with a long, predatorial lope there was an aura of power so dangerous that it made every hair on her body stand up on end.
The Daimons summoned their bolt-holes.
"I don't think so," the newcomer said as each hole fizzled shut before they could use it.
A powerful boom rent the air. It emanated out from the man like a sonic wave. She felt it go through her and chill her very soul.
And as it touched each of the Daimons, they screamed out in pain, then burst into a colorful dust.
Damn, they could have used some of that themselves.
Not completely sure this man was a friend, Susan ran over to Ravyn, who was clutching his ribs and bleeding profusely from his leg, shoulder, brow, and mouth. Menkaura lay beside him, also badly hurt. Menkaura's brow was laid open and by the way his arm was twisted it was obviously broken. She knelt beside Ravyn and helped him to sit up.
"It's about time you showed up, asshole," Zoe snarled as she wiped the blood from her own chin. "Where the hell have you been?"
The man ignored her as he went silently to where Belle had been killed as if he knew exactly what had happened before his arrival. His features tormented, he knelt down on one knee and picked up a small silver necklace that had been around Belle's neck. He clenched it tight in his fist before he bent his head as if in prayer and held it to his forehead.
Susan was held transfixed by the agony he betrayed. It was obvious he mourned the loss of Belle.
He moved the necklace to his lips to kiss it before he rose slowly to his feet and faced them. He slid the necklace into his pocket.
Susan was going to take a wild guess that this was the mysterious Acheron who led the Dark-Hunters. But dang, who knew the big bad was going to be a child, and not some ancient wise man? Even though he was completely ripped, he couldn't be any older than his early twenties.
Still, there was something powerful about him. Something compelling and terrifying. Like Savitar, it was obvious he wasn't human and that he commanded primal powers no one should possess.
And it was then as he looked around that she saw his eyes. Susan actually fell back onto her butt on the street at the sight of them. They were unlike anything she'd ever seen before and they held so much power, so much wisdom and pain, that it sent a jolt through her.
Those weren't the eyes of a human. They swirled like silver mercury as he took in the scene around him. And as those eyes went to each Dark-Hunter, the Dark-Hunter's injuries instantly healed.
"Thanks, Acheron," Dragon said irritably as he wiped his bloodied hands off on his coat. "But couldn't you have gotten here a little sooner?"
Anger bled from every pore of Ash's body as he held his hand out to help Dragon regain his feet. "Trust me, I got here just as fast as I could."
Ravyn pushed himself up from the street, then turned to help Susan up. "I heard you were tied up. Double-knotted to a bedpost as I recall."
"Excuse me?" Ash asked as if offended. "Who told you that?"
"A big, angry birdie on a surfboard."
Ash gave a painful grimace. "He knows? Great. That's all I need."
Zoe curled her lip at that. "We've been dying because you were making time with your girlfriend?"
Ash cut a nasty glare at Zoe. "Mind your own business, Amazon. I'm really not in the mood for your sniping." He looked around at the others. "How are the rest of you?"
"Other than pissed off, with severely damaged egos, we're fine," Cael said. "Why haven't you been answering our calls?"
"I wasn't able to."
"Uh-huh." Cael looked less than impressed by that answer. "Well, welcome to Seattle. We have a major situation with the Daimons. They're in league with the police force and are kicking our asses all over the streets. We've lost Troy and Aloysius and now Belle."
"Thank you for the recap, Cael. But I already got the picture."
"Good, 'cause I'm heading home. You can get your ass kicked for a while."
Menkaura walked over to Ash. "I'm glad you made it, but I really wish you'd been here sooner."
As Menkaura left, Susan heard Ash whisper, "Not half as much as I do."
He looked around at the others. "Anyone else have a complaint?"
Zoe opened her mouth.
"Don't start," Ash snapped. "I'm already hearing the entire tirade in your head, Zoe. I did the best I could, okay?"
"Yeah, well, your best sucks." And with that, she turned on her heel and left, muttering about her spilled coffee and worthless men.
Ravyn patted Susan on the arm, before he walked over to Ash. "You okay?"
"No. I have people who are dead and an extremely limited amount of time before I have to leave again. As Zoe says, it sucks."
"You know how Zoe is." As Ravyn clapped Ash on the back, he hissed and stiffened as if he were in an incredible amount of pain.
"Are you all right?" Susan asked.
Ash recovered himself almost instantly. "Fine. We've got bigger problems right now. "
She looked over her shoulder to see what he was staring at... It was a police car.
She held her breath until after it'd rolled past and vanished. She looked up at Ravyn. "That was close."
"We need to get the two of you back to the Serengeti."
Susan was baffled by Acheron's words. "How do you know where we're staying?"
"I'm omniscient, Susan."
A chill went down her spine because he knew her name. "Uh-huh. There seems to be an abundance of that going around." She glanced to Ravyn. "You ever feel left out?"
"All the time."
Well, that answered that.
As the men headed back up the hill, Susan couldn't help looking around the alley. There was no sign of a battle having been fought here. Not one. Not even dust from the Daimons, not a trace that Belle had ever lived...
A gentle breeze stirred down the narrow alley and everything looked oddly peaceful and quiet. This was a tragic life the Dark-Hunters lived. They gave their lives for mankind and no one even knew they were here. And when they died, they vanished into nothing.
It brought everything home to Susan with painful clarity. How many battles like this had Ravyn fought over the centuries? How many injuries had he tended without Acheron there to fix them? He really was alone with no one there for him.
Good God, Ravyn would have died had she not gone to the shelter and taken him out. That thought made her ache for him.
She looked up at Ravyn.
"You okay, babe?"
Nodding, she headed for them and took his hand, needing to feel a physical connection to him while her emotions were so raw.
Acheron gave her a look that said he knew exactly what she was thinking.
"Can you help us stop the humans from attacking the Dark-Hunters?" she asked Ash as they headed for Phoenix's car.
Ash opened the car door for her. "That's a loaded question, Susan. And not as easy to answer as you'd like."
Ravyn paused by the driver's side. "Will you be at the club later?"
"Yeah. I'll catch you guys then."
Susan got into the car. Ash closed her door at the same time Ravyn closed his.
She watched Acheron step back from the car and turn back toward the hill. As Ravyn started to pull away, she could swear Acheron evaporated into the mist.
"That is a strange man."
"Yes, he is."
"Can't he just kill off all the Daimons like he did tonight?"
"Then why doesn't he?"
Ravyn glanced at her as he shifted gears. "I have no idea. I guess it comes down to what Ash would say. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. There's a lot of stuff in this world that doesn't make sense. I would imagine the Daimons and Apollites are in some kind of balance with the rest of us and if he killed them all off, it would destroy it. "
"But you don't know that's true."
"No. I'm only guessing."
Susan considered that as they headed down the dark streets.
It seemed like hogwash to her, but then what did she know? She was only a reporter who up until two days ago knew nothing of their existence.
"What do you think the Daimons will do now that Acheron is here?" she asked Ravyn.
"I don't know for sure, but if I were them, I'd run for cover."
Acheron let out a long, tired breath as he flashed himself to the alley behind the Serengeti. He could feel a presence inside the club that saddened him to the deepest part of his consciousness.
Acheron hadn't seen him since the night Nick had killed himself and Ash had removed him from Hades and Artemis's clutches. Nick hated him and he had every right to.
In one fit of anger, Acheron had been the one to curse him to his death. The guilt of that festered inside Acheron like an open wound he knew would never heal.
And because of Nick's hatred, Ash had been unable to train Nick and so he'd sent him to live with Savitar. He didn't know why Savitar had freed him to this time and place. No doubt Savitar knew, but he would never share that information.
He was even better at keeping secrets than Ash was. How he wished he could see Nick's future. But Ash was forbidden to see his own future, or the future of anyone he cared about.
"No need to postpone the inevitable," he said under his breath. He wasn't a coward.
Steeling himself for what he knew was coming, Ash entered the club through the back door.
He met Dorian first as the Were-Hunter was taking a box of bottles from the storeroom.
"Ash," he said, his eyes wide. "You're in town."
"Hi, Dori. How's the mate?"
"She's fine. How's Simi?"
He could feel his Charonte demon in tattoo form crawling up his biceps to lay herself over his shoulder where she liked to sleep. "Same."
"Is she with you?"
Simi was almost always with him. "She might pop in later."
"Give us a little warning and I'll have Terra stock up on barbecue sauce."
"You got it." Ash moved past him, into the kitchen. He called a greeting to Terra and the cooks before he pushed his way through the door, into the club. The hip-hop music here was loud. It was "Grillz" by Nelly.
Ash was surprised Nick could hang out with that playing. Personally, Ash liked all kinds of music, but Nick didn't really care for hip-hop or rap. He only listened to metal and Cajun Zydeco.
And Ash knew the instant Nick saw him. The hatred went up his spine like an electric shock.
Dreading the encounter, Ash turned to find Nick standing just behind him. Gone was the good friend who used to tease and laugh with him and in his place was an enemy Ash knew was plotting his death even while he faced him.
Nick's face was completely stoic. "Well, look who the leopards dragged in. I'm surprised you bothered."
"Fuck you." Nick knocked back his glass of whiskey, then glared at it. "You know what I hate most about being a Dark-Hunter?"
"The fact you can't get drunk?"
Nick put the glass on the tray of a waitress who was passing by. "It's having to deal with you."
Ash shook his head. It was still too soon for this. Nick needed more time. "I'll catch you later."
Nick grabbed Ash's arm as he started away and spun him around to face him. "You'll catch me now, you bastard."
Before Ash could move, Nick punched him in the jaw. He staggered back from the force of it. And if Nick had been paying attention, he would have realized something significant. Ash didn't feel the blow he'd just been given. Dark-Hunters couldn't strike each other. But then Ash wasn't like the others.
His first instinct was to strike Nick back, but Ash caught himself before he did more damage to the Cajun. The crowd around them cut them a wide berth as people moved to get away, while the Weres looked around in nervous debate about whether or not they should come between two Dark-Hunters, or more importantly, if they should interfere with Ash.
Nick's face was contorted by rage. "How could you destroy New Orleans?"
Ash frowned at him. "What?"
"You heard me. Wasn't it enough that you killed me? Did you have to punish all my friends and family, too?"
"Nick, get a grip."
He shoved Ash back, into a table. "I've just spent the last few hours looking at the pictures... at the people. You could have stopped it and you didn't. "
Ash felt his anger snapping. They were drawing way too much attention here in the bar. "You don't know what you're talking about."
Nick was relentless as he stalked Ash. "Yes, I do. I know what you are. You brought Kyrian and Amanda back from the dead. You saved their baby from the Daimons and you did nothing to help my mother. You claim you loved New Orleans and yet you did nothing to help the city when she needed you most. "
"That's not true, Nick. I was there and I did what I could. But even I have limits and rules about what I can and can't do. My God, you were like a brother to me. How can you think that I'd ever do anything to hurt you?"
"You killed me, remember?"
"No. I've loved you and your mother like I've never loved another human being in my entire life. I never wanted to see the two of you hurt. "
"Bullshit! One snap of your fingers and you could have deflected the storm. Talon could have deflected it. You refused to let him, didn't you?"
Ash shook his head. Fate wasn't that easy to control. "It's not that simple."
"It is that simple." He shoved Ash again.
The people in the bar were getting restless now, especially the Weres. Nick was drawing way too much attention to them and he was speaking of things that no one was supposed to talk about.
"Lay off me, Nick. I mean it."
Nick grabbed Ash by the front of his coat and pulled him close enough that he could whisper in his ear. "Or what? You'll kill me again?" He laughed at that as if it amused him greatly.
Letting go, Nick stepped back and smoothed Ash's lapels. "You know, I'm sorry. I'm forgetting all the manners my mother tried so hard to teach me." He narrowed his eyes meaningfully. "How's Simi doing? Has she picked up any new guys lately?"
That succeeded in breaking the hold Ash had on his temper. He bellowed in rage as he felt himself slipping. Throwing his head back, he froze everyone in the bar. Everyone. They stood silently in place as the music continued to play while he and Nick faced each other. Not as friends. As enemies.
Nick's face actually paled as he saw Ash's true form.
"You never knew when to shut your mouth, Cajun." His voice was a guttural demonic growl.
"What are you?"
Ash looked down at his blue hands that were marbled by silver. His gaze was hazy now from the fire that swirled in his irises and pupils.
Closing his eyes, he shoved his emotions aside and returned to his human form. How he wished he could erase Nick's memory, but Nick was one of those one in a trillion people who were immune to Ash's mind manipulation. It was what had made them friends.
Unfortunately, Nick wasn't immune to Ash's god powers, and that was what had made them enemies.
"For your own sake, Nick. Stay away from me and never say Simi's name in my presence again."
Nick gave an evil laugh. "One day, Ash, I'm going to find a way to kill you for what you've done to the people I love."
"Don't threaten me, boy. You don't have those powers."
"It's not a threat," he said, his eyes burning. "It's a promise."
Ash growled low in his throat as he pushed his way through the frozen people.
"Keep walking, Ash. But remember when you feel my hand delivering the death blow to you that you're the reason I'm here."
Ash paused and turned toward him. "No, Nick. You're just another mistake Artemis has made that will cause me nothing but misery."
Nick grabbed a bottle from the table beside him and flung it at Ash.
Ash splintered the glass bottle before it reached him. The pieces hung silently in the air for a full ten seconds before they fell to the floor as harmless dust.
Turning on his heel, he headed for the door intent on putting as much physical distance between them as possible.
He was so intent, in fact, that he failed to notice the one person in the corner who wasn't frozen. The one person who had witnessed the entire encounter.
As the room returned to normal and Nick went back toward the bar, the woman in a dark wig smiled evilly.
Now this was something they could definitely use...