"Susan…" he said in a chiding tone.
"Look, Ravyn, I already ruined my life because something that looked like a duck and quacked like a duck turned out to be a tiger with an entire battery of attorneys bent on taking everything I might ever own again. All the evidence was there, clear-cut and perfect, and I leaped at it and, in the morning, everything that said he was guilty was just a bad coincidence for me. I don’t want to make that mistake again." She held up her wrist to show him the scars she still bore. "I really don’t want to relive my past."
Ravyn’s gut clenched at the sight of the scars where she’d cut her wrist. "Susan…"
"Don’t patronize me, okay? I know it was stupid. But I was completely alone. Everything I’d ever believed in caved in on my head and I had to sit through lawsuit after lawsuit until the rubble settled and left me homeless, friendless, and hopeless. I clawed myself up every morning from bed so that I could be kicked again. And then I decided that though I was ruined, I wasn’t dead, and that my life, such as it was, was mine and I refused to let them take that from me, too. I’ve come a long way, but it’s been hard and brutal, and the last thing I want is to accuse an upstanding, highly decor-rated official and relive that nightmare all over again. Understand?"
Ravyn’s throat tightened at the pain he heard in her voice, the agony she held in her eyes. He kissed her wrist, and held it in his hand as he locked gazes with her. "You won’t ever relive that, Susan. I promise you."
"Don’t make promises you can’t keep."
"I can keep this one. And if I’m wrong, I’ll go down alone with my error. But if we’re right…"
Cael had just reached the back door of the Happy Hunting Ground when his cell phone started ringing. He pulled it off his belt to see it listing Amaranda’s number. Flipping it open, he held it to his ear. "Yeah, babe?"
"Don’t come home."
"What?" he said, not sure he’d heard her right with the loud music that was drowning out her voice. He reached for the doorknob.
"Don’t. Come. Home," she repeated only slightly louder than the last time.
"Is this a joke?" he asked angrily. Amaranda would never tell him not to come home. "If this is you, Stryker, go f**k yourself." He slammed the phone shut, then opened the door.
As usual, the club was thumping and loud with college kids gyrating on the dance floor and guzzling alcohol at the tables that surrounded it. He inclined his head at Amaranda’s cousin who was waiting tables as he passed by.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
Cael closed his eyes and searched the building mentally for any telltale sensation of a Daimon. Nothing set off his radar. Wanting to double-check in case he was still unnerved by the earlier fight, he pulled out his phone and ran the Daimon trace program that was in it.
It, too, came back negative.
Cool, there was nothing here that needed his attention… except his wife.
Cael pulled his thin jacket off and slung it over his shoulder as he descended the stairs to the basement. Looking forward to spending some quality time with Amaranda, he began whistling while he headed for his room.
Until he opened the door.
His whistling stopped mid-tune. Kerri was in his room, bound and gagged. Her eyes were large and terror-filled as she begged him with her gaze to set her free.
And in that instant, he came face-to-face with his past. The pain of it was almost crippling. And most of all, he could feel his Dark-Hunter powers wane.
Was it some kind of joke? If it was, he damn sure didn’t find it funny.
"What the hell’s going on, Kerri?" He’d only taken one step toward her when the door slammed shut behind him.
He jerked around to find a human male there, glaring at him. In his mid-fifties, the pudgy little man had shifty gray eyes that re-fleeted his insanity. "What the hell’s the meaning of this?" Cael demanded.
"Where’s Ravyn Kontis?"
Cael forced himself to betray nothing. "Who?"
"Don’t play stupid with me," the man snarled, spewing spittle in his rage. "Answer the question."
"I can’t. I don’t know anyone named Ravyn."
Disbelief twisted his features. "No?"
The man tsked as he moved forward toward Kerri’s chair. "Too bad. I guess I’ll have to kill you and your whore then." He headed for Kerri, whose eyes widened even more as she started squealing through her gag.
The man gave him a vicious glare. "No one’s innocent. And even if she was, I don’t give a damn." He pulled a hunting knife out from his jacket and angled it at Kerri’s throat. "Tell me where that bastard is or watch her die."
"But I don’t-" He broke off as the man pressed his knife so close that it pricked Kerri’s neck.
She screamed, trying to angle her neck away from the blade.
"Okay, okay," Cael said, trying to stall for time as his powers weakened even more. But what concerned him most was where had Amaranda gone? Obviously, she was the one who’d called him and this idiot had mixed the two of them up. Even so, if anything happened to Kerri, Amaranda would never forgive him.
Nor would he forgive himself.
And then he felt it… that prickling sensation of a Daimon’s presence.
Only there were two of them.
The door opened and Cael’s entire world shattered. Amaranda was between the two Daimons with her hands tied behind her back. She was pale and shaking as she bled from a wound at her neck.
They’d been feeding from her and by her appearance, they’d almost drained her dry.
"Look who we found trying to warn him, Dad."
"Damn you!" Cael snarled. Without thinking, he rushed at them.
Even though his powers were all but gone, he caught the first one about the waist and they went sprawling into the hallway. The Daimon didn’t let go of Amaranda, who landed on top of Cael.
He took a second to make sure she was okay before he cut the rope on her hands then kicked the second Daimon away from them. Growling, Cael reached for the one he’d tackled only to hear a gun firing.
He recoiled as the bullets ripped through his body in rapid succession. The pain of it stole his breath as he bled all over the floor.
The Daimon picked him up and slugged him hard in the jaw. The impact knocked him back into the wall so that the other Daimon could kick him in the stomach.
As the Daimon moved to kick Cael again, he grabbed his leg and shoved him back. The Daimon slipped on Cael’s blood and hit the floor with a thud. He kicked the Daimon in the ribs and turned to grab the other one.
"Freeze, ass**le, or I give your little playmate here a bullet in her brain. And since she’s an Apollite, it’ll cut her short life even shorter."
Cael froze instantly.
He did and saw that the older man had Amaranda in front of him with his gun angled at her head. Cael’s heart pounded at the sight of her fear as anger clouded his vision. Damn this bastard for scaring her.
"It’ll be okay, baby."
"Not if you don’t answer my question." He cocked the snub-nosed .38 against her temple.
Cael heard Amaranda praying in Atlantean under her breath.
If he gave up Ravyn’s location, they would kill him. If he didn’t, they’d kill Amaranda.
His best friend or his wife. How could he make that call?
"Fine," the man snarled. "Have it your way." He started to squeeze the trigger.
"No!" Cael shouted, taking a step forward. "He’s…" He couldn’t say it. He just couldn’t. Having been betrayed, how could he betray someone else?
"Don’t play with me, boy."
Cael took a deep breath and leveled a sincere look of hatred on the bastard. "He’s at the Last Supper Club in Pioneer Square."
The man narrowed a doubting gaze on him.
One of the Daimons grabbed Cael by the hair and pulled his head back. "Are you lying to us, Dark-Hunter?"
"No," he lied with conviction. "I wouldn’t dare."
"What do you think, Dad?" the Daimon holding him asked the man with the gun.
"He’s either telling the truth or he’s a damn good liar. Since I don’t know which, I think we should keep them alive, just in case."
Images of his family dying while he’d been powerless to stop their torture ripped through his mind. He looked at Amaranda and her sister and saw the terror in their eyes.
There was no way in hell he would relive that moment. He wasn’t about to let them be tortured in front of him while he was powerless to stop it. And with that thought, the last of his Dark-Hunter powers seeped out of him.
The man tossed a pair of handcuffs at the Daimon, who caught them and snapped one over Cael’s wrist. He swung about and elbowed the Daimon straight in the face.
"Derrick!" the man shouted before he opened fire on Cael again.
Cael refused to stop. He pulled his dagger out and turned to kill the Daimon.
Another gunshot rang out, an instant before Cael felt something sharp and hot pierce his back. It was the knife the man had used to threaten Kerri. Cael knew it the instant the blade didn’t protrude out of the front of his chest. The man twisted the blade sideways and then snapped it off at the hilt to leave the blade buried deep in Cael’s heart.
Cael’s ears buzzed as he tasted his own blood. He heard Amaranda’s screams through the haze as his vision dimmed.
He was dying…
Unable to breathe for the pain, he fell to his knees.
Amaranda screamed out loud at the sight of Cael falling. Agony and grief assailed her and it awoke the fighter inside her. Her rage taking root, she ran at the man who’d stabbed him. Before she could reach him, his Daimon son turned to fight her. He grabbed her and slapped her hard. She spun around to face him again and then acted on pure Apollite instinct.
She launched herself at his throat and sank her fangs into his flesh. His father cursed as he tore her away from his son, but by doing so he caused her to sever the Daimon’s jugular. Instead of dying quickly, he fell to the floor and lay there as his blood ran over him and he shook uncontrollably.
His father let out an anguished cry before he shot Amaranda and her sister.
Her vision dimming in pain, Amaranda fell to the floor and couldn’t move. It was as if she were completely paralyzed.
"So help me," the man shouted, "I will see all of you dead. Dead!" He stomped her hard on the small of her back before the other Daimon pulled him away from her.
"C’mon, Dad, we’ll mourn Derrick later. We have to get out of here before the Apollites realize we’re here and what we’ve done."
"I have a search warrant."
"And you just killed two members of their family. Search warrants are for your people, not mine. They’ll kill us both."
He stomped her one last time before they left.
Amaranda could barely see for the tears in her eyes. She’d never known physical or mental pain like she felt right now.
"Cael," she whimpered, needing to touch him. Even though all she wanted was to close her eyes and let death carry her away from the agony of her body, she refused to go without holding his hand.
It was what he’d promised her on the night they’d married.
"I won’t leave you alone to die. I’ll be there with you, hand in hand, until the end. "
She wouldn’t let him die without knowing she was there for him. Hand in hand.
Her limbs shaking, she pulled herself across the slick floor until she reached him. To her shock, he was still alive, but only barely. There were tears in his eyes as he breathed in shallow gasps. No longer the black of a Dark-Hunter, his eyes were a beautiful amber.
She saw the fire in his eyes as he stared at her. "Sunshine," he breathed.
She choked on a sob as he called her the nickname he’d given her during their wedding vows… vows he’d written just for her. "Even though I walk only at night, I will never know darkness as long as you, my sunshine, are by my side. "
He swallowed as he reached out to touch her cheek. "I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you."
Amaranda licked her lips, retasting the Daimon’s blood. "It’s okay, baby." She laid her head down on his chest and held him while he played with her hair.
She fully expected to die like that. Closing her eyes, she waited for death to take her.
Or so she thought. But as the seconds ticked by and Cael’s breathing grew more shallow, hers only grew stronger.
The pain of her body receded as something started to burn in the center of her chest. It wasn’t overly painful, but it wasn’t comfortable.
She felt her vision turning more sensitive, her hearing sharper. Gasping, she lifted herself up as she realized what was happening.
She was turning Daimon.
But how? She hadn’t…
Her gaze went to the Daimon she’d killed. "Oh God," she breathed as full knowledge assailed her. She’d drunk the blood of a Daimon and in that blood was the human souls he’d taken. Now it was converting her body.
And it was saving her life…
She looked down at her chest to see the small black stain over her heart-the place where the human souls gathered so that they could nourish her Daimon’s blood and keep her Apollite body from decaying. And as she watched, her body expelled the bullets out of her flesh and then healed itself.