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PRESENT DAY, NEW ORLEANS
"You know, Talon, killing a soul-sucking Daimon without a good fight is like sex without foreplay. A total waste of time and completely un ... satisfying."
Talon grunted at Wulf's words while he sat at a corner table at the Café Du Monde, waiting for his waitress to return with his black chicory coffee and beignets. He had an ancient Saxon coin in his left hand that he rolled between his fingers as he scanned the dark street in front of him and watched the tourists and locals drift by.
Having banished most of his emotions fifteen hundred years ago, there were only three things Talon allowed himself to enjoy anymore: loose women, hot chicory coffee, and phone calls with Wulf.
In that order.
Though to be fair, there were times when Wulf's friendship did mean more to him than a cup of coffee.
Tonight, however, wasn't one of them.
He'd awakened just after dusk to find himself pathetically low on caffeine, and though the theory went that immortals couldn't have addictions, he wouldn't wager on it.
He'd barely taken time to pull on a pair of pants and his leather jacket before he came seeking the goddess Caffeina.
The cold New Orleans night was uncommonly calm. There weren't even many tourists on the street, which was unusual this close to Mardi Gras.
Still, it was prime Daimon season in New Orleans. Soon the vampires would be stalking the tourists and preying on them like an open banquet.
For the moment, though, Talon was glad it was quiet, since it allowed him to deal with Wulf's crisis and feed the one craving that wouldn't wait.
"Spoken like a true Norseman," Talon said into his cell phone. "What you need, my brother, is a mead hall filled with serving wenches and Vikings ready to battle their way into Valhalla."
"Tell me about it," Wulf agreed. "I miss the good old days when Daimons were warriors and combat trained. The ones I found tonight knew nothing about fighting, and I'm sick of the whole 'my gun will solve all' mentality."
"You get shot again?"
"Four times. I swear ... I wish I could get a Daimon up here like Desiderius. I'd love a good down-and-dirty fight for once."
"Careful what you wish for, you just might get it."
"Yeah, I know. But damn. Just once, can't they stop running from us and learn to fight like their ancestors did? I miss the way things used to be."
Talon adjusted his black Ray-Ban Predator sunglasses as he watched a group of women walk past on the street nearby.
Now there was one challenge he could sink his fangs into ...
Under his closed lips, he ran his tongue over his long left canine tooth while he watched a beautiful blond woman dressed in blue. She had a slow, seductive walk that could make even a fifteen-hundred-year-old man feel underage.
He so wanted a piece of that.
Damn Mardi Gras.
If not for the season, he'd be hanging up on Wulf and running after her to fulfill his first comfort.
Duty. How it reeked.
Sighing, he turned his thoughts back to their conversation. "I tell you, what I miss most are the Talpinas."
"What are those?"
Talon cast a wistful look at the women who were quickly drifting out of his line of sight. "That's right, they were before your time. Back in the better part of the Dark Ages, we used to have a clan of Squires whose sole purpose was to take care of our carnal needs."
Talon sucked his breath in appreciatively as he remembered the Talpinas and the comfort they had once provided to him and his Dark-Hunter brethren. "Man, they were great. They knew what we were and they were more than happy to bed us. Hell, the Squires even trained them how to pleasure you."
"What happened to them?"
"About a hundred or so years before you were born, a Dark-Hunter made the mistake of failing cf0in love with his Talpina. Unfortunately for the rest of us, she didn't pass Artemis's test. Artemis was so angry, she stepped in and banished the Talpinas from us, and implemented the oh so wonderful you're-only-supposed-to-sleep-with-them-once rule. As further backlash, Acheron came up with the never-touch-your-Squire law. I tell you, you haven't lived until you've tried to find a decent one-night stand in seventh-century Britain."
Wulf snorted. "That's never been my problem."
"Yeah, I know. I envy you that. While the rest of us have to pull ourselves back from our lovers lest we betray our existence, you get to cut loose without fear."
"Believe me, Talon, it's not all it's cracked up to be. You live alone by choice. Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to have no one remember you five minutes after you leave them?"
Wulf expelled a long, tired breath. "Christopher's mother has come over here three times in the last week alone just so she can meet the person he works for. I've known her for what? Thirty years? And let's not forget that time sixteen years ago when I came home and she called the cops on me because she thought I had broken into my own house."
Talon grimaced at the pain in Wulf's voice. It reminded him why he no longer allowed himself to feel anything except physical pleasure.
Emotions served no purpose in life and he was much better off without them.
"I'm sorry, little brother," he said to Wulf. "At least you have us, and your Squire, who can remember you."
"Yeah, I know. Thank the gods for modern technology. Otherwise I'd go insane."
Talon shifted in his fold-up chair. "Not to change the subject, but did you see who Artemis relocated to New Orleans to take Kyrian's place?"
"I heard it was Valerius," Wulf said in disbelief. "What was Artemis thinking?"
"I have no idea."
"Does Kyrian know?" Wulf asked.
"For an obvious reason, Acheron and I decided not to tell him that the grandson and spitting image of the man who crucified him and destroyed his family was being moved into the city just down the street from his house. Unfortunately, though, I'm sure he'll find out sooner or later."
"Man, human or not, Kyrian will kill him if they ever cross paths-not something you need to cope with this time of year."
"Tell me about it."
"So, who got Mardi Gras duty this year?" Wulf asked.
Talon dropped the coin in his hand as he thought about the ancient Greco-Roman slave who would be temporarily moved into the city tomorrow to help combat the Daimon explosion that occurred every year at this time. Zarek was a known Feeder who preyed on human blood. He was unstable at best, psychotic at worst. No one trusted him.
And it was just Talon's luck to have Zarek here, especially since he'd been hoping for a Dark-Huntress to come visit. It might drain his powers to be in the presence of another Dark-Hunter, but he would still rather have an attractive woman to look at than deal with Zarek's psychosis.
Besides, for what he had in mind, he and a Huntress didn't need their Dark-Hunter powers anyway ...
"They're importing Zarek."
Wulf cursed. "I didn't think Acheron would ever let him leave Alaska."
"Yeah, I know, but word came from Artemis herself that she wanted him here. Looks like we're having a psycho reunion this week ... Oh wait, it's Mardi Gras. Dull."
Wulf laughed again.
At last the waitress brought his coffee and a small plate of three beignets that were heavily covered with powdered sugar. Talon sighed appreciatively.
"Coffee arrived?" Wulf asked.
Talon took a whiff of his coffee, set it aside, and reached for a beignet. He'd barely touched the pastry when he saw something across the street, on the right side of Jackson Square down the Pedestrian Mall. "Ah, man."
"Friggin' Fabio alert."
"Hey, you're not too far from the mark either, blondie."
"Bite me, Viking."
Peeved by the timing, Talon watched the group of four Daimons stalking the night. Tall and golden blonde Daimons who possessed the godlike beauty of their race. They strutted around like punkish peacocks, drunk on their own power as they scoped out tourists to kill.
By nature, Daimons were cowards. They only stood their ground and fought against Dark-Hunters when they were in groups and only then as a last resort. Because they were so much stronger than humans, they preyed openly on them, but let a Dark-Hunter near them and they ran for cover.
There had been a time once when it wasn't like that. But the younger generations were more careful than their ancestors. They weren't as well trained or as resourceful.
However, they were ten times cockier.
Talon narrowed his eyes. "You know, if I were a negative person, I would be seriously annoyed right now."
"You sound annoyed to me."
"No, this isn't annoyed. This is mild perturbance. Besides, you should see these guys." Talon dropped his Celtic accent as he invented a conversation for the Daimons. He raised his voice to an unnaturally high level. "Hey, Gorgeous George, I think I smell a Dark-Hunter."
"Oh no, Dick," he said, dropping his voice two octaves, "don't be a dick. There's no Dark-Hunter here."
Talon returned to his falsetto. "I dunno ..."
"Wait," Talon said, again in the deep voice. "I smell tourist. Tourist with big ... strong soul."
"Would you stop?"
"Talk about inkblots," Talon said, using the derogatory term Dark-Hunters had for Daimons. It stemmed from the strange black mark that all Daimons developed on their chests when they crossed over from being simple Apollites to human slayers. "Damn, all I wanted was a drink of coffee and one little beignet."
Talon glanced wistfully at his drink as he debated what should take priority. "Coffee ... Daimons ... Coffee ... Daimons ..."
"I think in this case the Daimons better win."
"Yeah, but it's chicory coffee."
Wulf clucked his tongue. "Talon wanting to be toasted by Acheron for failure to protect humans."
"I know," he said with a disgusted sigh. "Let me go expire them. Talk to you later."
Talon stood up, zipped his phone into the pocket of his motorcycle jacket, and stared longingly at his beignets.
Oh, the Daimons would pay for this.
Taking a quick drink of coffee that scalded his tongue, he skirted through the tables and made his way toward the vampires, who were stalking toward the Presbytere building.
His Dark-Hunter senses alert, Talon headed to the opposite side of the square. He would head them off and make sure they paid for their soul-stealing ways.
And for his uneaten beignets.
It was one of those nights. The kind that made Sunshine Runningwolf wonder why she bothered leaving her loft.
"How many times can a person get lost in a city where she's lived the whole of her life?"
The number seemed to be infinite.
Of course, it would help if she could stay focused, but she had the attention span of a sick flea.
No, actually she had the attention span of an artist who seldom stayed focused on the here and now. Like an out-of-control slingshot, her thoughts drifted from one topic to the next and then back again. Her mind was constantly wandering and sifting through new ideas and techniques-the novelty of the world around her and how best to capture it.
To her there was beauty everywhere and in every little thing. It was her job to show that beauty to others.
And that neat building they were constructing, two or three, maybe four streets over, had distracted her and got her thinking up new designs for her pottery as she wandered through the French Quarter toward her favorite coffeehouse on St. Anne.
Not that she drank that noxious stuff. She hated it. But the retro-beatnik Coffee Stain had nice artwork on the walls and her friends seemed partial to drinking gallons of the tar-liquid.
Tonight she and Trina were going to go over ...
Her mind flashed back to the building.
Pulling out her sketchbook, she made a few more notes and turned to her right, down a small alley.
She took two steps, and ran into a wall.
Only it wasn't a wall, she realized, as two arms wrapped around her to keep her from stumbling.
Looking up, she froze.
0Ay, Caramba! She stared into a face so well formed that she doubted even a Greek sculptor could do justice to it.
His wheat-colored hair seemed to glow in the night and the planes of his face ...
Perfect. Simply perfect. Totally symmetrical. Wow.
Without thinking, she reached up, grabbed his chin and turned his face to see it from different angles.
No, not an optical illusion. No matter the angle, his features were perfection incarnate.
Wow, again. Absolutely flawless.
She needed to sketch this.
No. Oils. Oils would be better.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"I'm fine," she said. "I'm sorry. I didn't see you standing there. But do you know your face is pure eurythmy?"
He gave her a tight-lipped smile as he patted the shoulder of her red cape. "Yes, I do. And do you know, Little Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf is out tonight and he's hungry?"
What was that?
She was talking about art and he ...
The thought faded as she realized the man wasn't alone.
There were four more men and one woman. All insanely beautiful. And all six eyed her as if she were a tasty morsel.
Her throat went dry.
Sunshine took a step back as every sense in her body told her to run.
They moved in even closer, penning her between them.
"Now, now, Little Red Riding Hood," the first one said. "You don't want to be leaving so soon, do you?"
"Um, yes," she said, preparing to fight. Little did they know, a woman who made it her habit to date mean biker types was more than able to deliver a swift kick when she needed it. "I think it would be a really good idea."
He reached for her.
Out of nowhere a circular something whizzed past her face, grazing his outstretched arm. The man cursed as he pulled his bleeding arm to his chest. The thing ricocheted like Xena's chakram, and returned to the opening of the alley where a shadow caught it.
Sunshine gaped at the outline of a man. Dressed all in black, he stood with his legs apart in a warrior's stance while his weapon gleamed wickedly in the dim light.
Even though she could see nothing of his face, his ever-changing aura was mammoth, giving him a presence that was as startling as it was powerful.
This new stranger was dangerous.
A lethal shadow just waiting to strike.
He stood in silence, looking at her attackers, the weapon held nonchalantly, yet somehow threateningly, in his left hand.
Then, total chaos broke out as the men who surrounded her rushed the newcomer ...
Talon fingered the release for his srad and folded its three blades into a single dagger.
Copyright © 2003 by Sherrilyn Kenyon