“HADES,” HER soft voice whispered across his senses, a sudden and sharp relief to the screams whirling around him. “I know you can hear me, Hades. Wake up.”
He groaned, shifting his tired muscles. The effort to move taxed him, but the thought of seeing her again, even for a moment bolstered his failing strength.
Jagged stones and shards of broken pottery sliced the soles of his tattered feet as he placed his weight upon them and straightened. The chains above his head rattled and the pressure on his suspended arms lessened. Needles tingled beneath the surface of his numb limbs.
Peering through the greasy black strands of his long hair, he stared at the renewed torment that would be his. The pale cast upon her lovely features tore at his soul. She was dead, a mere shade of the woman he had known.
She stood before him, stunning and child-like, highlighted by the faintest glow in the cold, windowless cell of his prison. Her black hair was a tangled mess and her skin marked by bruises and smudges of dirt. Her white dress hung in soiled tatters from her willowy frame, revealing the fullness of her breast, the curve of her hip, and the length of her thigh. It was a peek and tease that held no desire for him.
But Coronus couldn’t have know that when he sent her in to Hades. Leuce was here to break his will, his soul. She was here to destroy him.
“Go away, phantom,” he rasped.
“Look at me, Hades,” she snapped. “See what your pride has done to me!”
He winced, fighting the urge to play Coronus’ game. She might look like his Leuce, but it wasn’t Leuce. This was his enemy, his tormentor, his unwelcome king. This was Coronus and he had to be careful, because if Coronus realized how her presence affected him, she would be trapped in this cesspool of misery, her voice joining the masses inside his cell. He could survive anything they threw his way, but not that, not her.
She stamped her foot. “Look at me, damn you!”
He lifted his head. The coarse hair of his beard pulled against the half-healed scabs covering his chest. A triumphant smile twisted her innocent face. He knew if she stayed, he would grow to hate her with the same passion with which he loved her.
“Why? You’re not her. You’re a shade, paltry replica of the real thing.”
She glared at him, hands on her narrow hips, chin jutting out in that way he’d thought so adorable when she was a child, her black eyes blazing. She was as passionate in death as she’d been in life. “You killed me!”
“Killer! Monster!” the voices shrieked in unison.
Their accusations grounded him. The world condemned him. They reviled him. They hated him. They had made him the murderer, the assassin, and the killer. But he was also a warrior, a hunter, a hero, and a god. He was a Phlegethon daemon-god, a spirit of fiery passions given immortal form.
He faced her, he faced Coronus. “The Titans killed Leuce. If you’re going to torture me, Coronus, stick with the voices of my victims. At least I killed them.”
“Murderer!” the voices screamed in agreement.
Her eyes narrowed, and she glided closer, her black hair whipping around her face as if she was standing in the middle of a maelstrom. “And you don’t think you’re responsible for my death?”
“I’m a rotting corpse, Hades!”
A blue tinge spread across her lovely bronzed skin. The faint blue turned white then grey. Her skin shrunk upon her bones and the stench of rot filled his nostrils. In seconds, her flesh showed the decay of decades.
She reached for him in a strange parody of death’s embrace and he held his breath against the stench, waiting for to come to him. Globs of flesh dripped from her arms, plopping wetly against floor.
“You killed me as surely as if you’d thrown me from the cliff yourself.”
“I won’t take responsibility for Leuce’s death, Coronus.”
Her arms closed around him. Her rancid breath fanned across his face. “They came for you and they found me. You should have warned me.”
So that was how they found her? Waiting for him to return and give her the news of his victory. But there’d been no victory, only defeat and death.
“This should have been you!” she snarled.
“Leuce…” Her name held all the emotion and sorrow in his soul. It also betrayed them both.
Triumph flared in the fiery depths of her eyes. Coronus had finally found the perfect weapon against Hades. Leuce would never know the peace she deserved. She would be bound to him forever, like the ghosts lashing at him. She would remain in this cesspool of despair, a pawn forced to play the game of her Titan overlord.
He prayed to whatever gods listened to his kind, that the peace of death could be had for all the souls trapped with him. He prayed for vengeance against the Titans; not for himself, but for those who didn’t have to die. He prayed for the passionate, beautiful Leuce he knew in life, for the woman who didn’t deserve the fate she earned in death. He prayed for his freedom and the chance to make Coronus pay for every one of his mistakes. He would make the cruel god writhe in pain at his feet.
The last of the decaying flesh and hunks of black hair sloughed from her bones, leaving a screaming skeleton in tattered rags. But the lack of vocal cords didn’t halt her voice.
“I was never good enough for you! I could never be what you wanted! All I wanted was your love!” Her hands swept down her skeleton. “This is what I am because of you!”
“You’re not Leuce!”
“Murderer! Assassin!” the cacophony of voices hissed.
She slapped him. The force disturbed his precarious perch and he scrambled to right his footing. The chains drew taunt, his joints wrenched in their sockets, his abused muscles screamed as he swung by his arms. Wounds, old and new, split open, spilling blood and pus onto the ground.
She slapped him again and again. “You’re a selfish bastard! I loved you! I trusted you! And you betrayed me!”
“Killer! Daemon!” the chanting voices continued their relentless assault.
Leuce grabbed his chin, steadying him. He stared into the empty eye sockets, every word burned into his mind. “You’re a worthless god! An incompetent man!”
“Murderer! Assassin!” the voices of his victims echoed their agreement.
Squeezing his chin, her bony fingers dug into his flesh as she laughed. Her laugh, sharp and cutting, did more damage than the pottery slicing his feet to ribbons. “Pathetic fool!”
It wasn’t her, he reminded himself. This wasn’t his Leuce. It was Coronus.
The infinitesimal change in the stale air alerted him to the presence of others: an electric charge in the atmosphere and taste of sea mist. He breathed deep, savoring the scent. It gave him the hope of a reprieve.
Hades glanced past Leuce’s bony shoulder, and his sharp eyes focused on the two gods shrouded in the gloomy dark of his prison. Not Titans.
The web of magic in the room drew tight. The power snaking along his skin felt wrong. The subtle shift in the dense net jangled through the tendrils, shattering the strands, and releasing the compulsion upon them all.
The voices ceased. Flesh reformed over Leuce’s bones as she turned on the two gods like an attacking long-tooth tiger. Her finger bones scraped bloody furrows down his cheeks.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
“A little dramatic,” the shorter of the two gods said, stepping into the cell. He waved his hand in a half circle, obvious disgust in his eyes as they rested on Leuce. “Be gone, phantoms. Return to your rest.”
Hades clenched his teeth. His hands curling into fists. Leuce was worth more than all the gods combined. If he was free of the chains binding him to this prison, even in his weakened state, he could crush the self-important god with practiced ease. He gave the appearance of strength, but he was weak inside.
Leuce sighed, a heavy sound filled with relief. She turned to Hades, her flesh completely reformed as she touched her lips briefly to his cheek. “I love you, too, brother.”
She disappeared, leaving him alone with the two gods.
The smaller god stepped forward into the dim glow of the flameless torchlight, a charismatic smile on his red bearded face. He stared hard at Hades. “Are you sure this is him?”
The other hesitated a moment, a giant of a man with black hair and black eyes, before he moved to flank his leader. He would be a real challenge. “She said it was,” he rumbled deep within his chest.
The red-headed god sniffed the air delicately and a grimaced. Hades hoped the gods choked on the stench of a thousand years of old blood, infection, and stale sweat.
Smiling pleasantly, as if he wasn’t standing in a room of torture, but a grand hall, the redhead asked, “Are you the man that defied Coronus?”
“We don’t have time for this, Zeus. That guard will be found.”
“Rhea and Eris told us to find—”
“I know what that deceptive bitch said! Warrior or no, we have to leave now.”
“Eris sent you for me?” Hades interrupted.
Zeus nodded. “Are you the one imprisoned for attacking Coronus in his own home?”
“You can’t believe anything he says, brother. He would lie to get out of here.”
Hades chuckled. The dark god was right. He would do anything to escape Tartarus. “Why did she send you?”
The two brothers exchanged questioning glances. Hades processed the minute expressions and appearance of the two men. “You’re the sons of Coronus.” He licked his dry lips. They were his freedom! Only those who had the blood of Coronus could break the enchantment upon the chains and the room. “Release me, and I’ll fight for you. I’ll bring your enemies to their knees.”
The dark one with the soulless eyes stepped forward. “You make hearty boasts for a dead man.”
Hades smiled. It was a smile that suggested violence and unpleasantness. He knew its effect. He’d seen the horror or the uncertainty or the fear on the faces of others. These gods were no different.
Focusing his gaze upon the red-haired man, Hades knew he could convince the god to free him. All he had to do was dangle the prize before the god’s eyes until he took the bait. And since the best way to convince a greedy man was to appear greedy himself, Hades demanded a reward. “I make no empty boast, but a promise. Free me, give me sovereignty over one of your kingdoms and a daughter to seal our alliance, and I’ll bring defeat upon your enemy by the end of the week.”
Zeus grinned, laying a restraining hand upon his brother’s arm. “It’s a deal.”
“Swear by the River Styx,” Hades said, leaning forward, uncaring of the pottery slicing his feed.
“Zeus,” the dark god warned.
Zeus shushed him. “I swear by the River Styx, if you defeat the Titans within the week, I will grant you a kingdom and one of my daughters to seal our alliance.”
Zeus reached towards the chains, and Hades sighed with relief as power surged from his liberator’s fingers. The air warmed, burning into Hades flesh. The locks clicked and fell away. His legs, unused to the weight of his body, buckled.
Hades fell upon the blood soaked stones and broken pottery, slicing his knees and hands. The first fiery ripples of pure, unadulterated power tingled along his skin. Oh, how he’d missed its seductive sweetness.
“I’m not carrying him out of here.”
“Shut up, Poseidon. I lost nothing by freeing him. If he can’t do as he says, he gets nothing but his freedom for as long as he can keep it!”
Released from the floodgates, magic crashed over him like a roaring deluge of water. It coursed through his battered body. It stole the breath from his lungs. It surged through his veins. It permeated every cell in his emaciated body. And it seared away the last vestiges of Coronus’ enchantment.
He threw back his head, opening his arms to the power, to the centuries of magic denied him by Coronus, and screamed.
The pain was worse than anything the Titans had ever devised. It was every second of his imprisonment compressed into one moment. It was the beatings, the knives slicing deep into his flesh, and the swords sheathed in his body. It was falling from the cliffs of Mount Othyrs and shattering every bone in his body. Crushing. Rendering. Splintering who was he was into millions of pieces.
And then it ended, and the absence of pain was worse. He felt nothing. He sensed nothing. He cared for nothing.
He staggered, teetering on the edge of the cliff, staring down into the dark abyss of his own mind. It would be so easy to pitch himself into the peace of oblivion, to lose himself within his mind. He was spiraling into madness. It would have been so easy to just let go and allow nature take its course. But he’d been conditioned to fight, to survive at all costs.
He needed a focus, a minor interruption. Because if he couldn’t bring his will to bear upon power coursing unchecked through his body, he would be lost. Control the power or go insane.
He screamed his defiance.
I am stronger!
I am more powerful!
I won’t let Coronus win!
He jerked his hand across a pottery shard. White hot pain seared across his palm and bright red blood splashed upon the floor. He focused his all upon the sensations. But it wasn’t enough.
Through blurred vision, he forced his hand to rise, and dug his fingers into the wounded flesh. Severe pain brought him back from the edge of insanity. His mind veered away from the metaphysical absence of feeling and grasped upon the physical pain, clutching it tight. He directed his attention to the tingling flesh and raw nerve endings that was his body, and used all his self-discipline and self-control to still the rampant magic.
By sheer strength of will, he relaxed, seized the magic by the throat, and confronted the raging fire of extreme passion. Fury. Love. Hatred. Sorrow. Need. He promised them their chance at freedom and then thrust the intense emotions of a Phlegethon daemon denied his pleasures into the deepest place of his heart.
He was the only master of his battered and wounded body!
Enclosing the magic tightly in a cocoon of power, he opened his eyes and rose to his feet. He felt alive, complete, and healed for the first time in over a thousand years.
He glanced at the two stunned gods and grinned. “Who do I serve?”
Uncomfortable fear shone in Zeus’ eyes. He’d seen it in the eyes of others who had good reason to fear him. A healthy fear could only benefit Zeus for Hades was starting to suspect that neither god knew who they’d released.
Zeus swallowed hard, raised his trembling hand, and attempted to smile. “I’m Zeus, King of the Olympians. This is my brother Poseidon. What exactly are you?”
Hades laughed. Not who, but what. “She didn’t tell you?”
Zeus shook his head. Poseidon glared at his brother.
The foolish god hadn’t even thought to ask Eris. If it wasn’t so sad, it might have been funny. “Isn’t it just like her to leave out certain details?”
Drawing upon his inner power, Hades let his magic swirl around him, embracing him like a gentle lover, before he sent the awesome potency of his magic outward to stroke along the edges of the two men’s auras. Zeus started, eyes wide.
Opening his arms wide, a gesture that was completely unnecessary, but dramatically satisfying in its effect, Hades threw wide the doors of Tartarus. He released the horrors from their deepest pits, all the monsters, mortal and immortal. “I’m Hades, son of the goddess Eris.”
Zeus’ eyes shifted to the dangling chains. Hades could almost see the thoughts tumbling around in Zeus’ mind. He was wondering if Eris had tricked him. Hades knew she had.
“You’re on our side, aren’t you?” The uncertainty in Zeus’ voice brought a smile to Hades’ lips.
“You keep your word, son of Coronus, and we won’t have a problem. Break it, and Tartarus will seem like Paradise in comparison.”
Hades drew in his magic tight to his aura, and then brought it closer. Only if someone touched his skin would they understand the truth of the man. It was one of many tricks his mother had taught him.
He winked at the two cowering gods. “See you later.”
PERSEPHONE LIFTED her face to the gentle kiss of rose petals fluttering around her in a myriad of colors. Reds, pinks, yellows, whites. The silky caress of the petals against her skin was heavenly as they floated to the ground.
Persephone opened her arms wide to the night sky and twirled. The stars seemed to dance with her. The sky above her burst into color. She laughed, shaking her head, and delicate petals tumbled from her hair.
“It’s time,” a woman’s voice said.
Warmth surged across her skin. A tickle of memory as the presence at her back enclosed her in a cocoon of affection and love unlike anything she’d felt before. “I love you, Persephone,” a deep voice whispered close to her ear.
She turned into the embrace…
The sudden chirp of birds bursting into song outside her window snatched Persephone from her strange dream. She stirred beneath the sheets, enjoying the silky texture against her flesh. Her skin smoldered with a need she could not understand. She only knew she wanted…what?
Rose petals to fall from the sky? Love from a phantom?
She groaned, burying her head in the pillow. It was frustrating to awaken each morning with sensations one didn’t understand, let alone know how to satisfy. And though she would like nothing more than to blame the nymphs for her predicament, she knew her dreams weren’t entirely the nymphs’ fault. She was a romantic at heart, treasuring the stories they told her of lovers, magic, and heroes. Truthfully, she was irritated more by the feeling that something vital was missing from her life and she’d know just what that was if she could remember.
Throwing back the blanket, she crawled from the bed and allowed the chilly morning breeze to cool her heated flesh. Usually this was her favorite time of the day, the brief period of time when her thoughts lingered in her dreams. Only she didn’t want to linger today. She wanted. . . she wanted the perfect love spoken of by the nymphs! A love she couldn’t quite grasp, but craved all the same.
She opened her wardrobe and stared at the selection of dresses. There were several white ones, a pale yellow one, a peach one with small pink flowers embroidered on it, several shades of pinks, a soft sea green, a few creams, and a light blue.
She sighed. She hated pastels. She wanted a dress the color of violets, or ocean blue, or maybe deep red roses.
Roses. She could not help smiling at the thought of rose petals falling from the sky like rain. The unexpectedness of it would break the monotony of her days.
Grabbing a dress of creamy white, she slipped out of her light shift and wrapped the cloth around her body, fastening the shoulders with golden butterfly broaches, and twining a golden cord under her breasts and wrapping it down her narrow waist to her hips, tying it into an elaborate knot.
Satisfied, she exited her room, forcing the images of her dream from her mind. There was a multitude of tasks ahead of her today. She needed to check on the row of daffodils she’d planted last week. The carnations and daisies would need watering. The wood nymphs wanted to teach her a new song, so she would take a break from her tasks before lunch to learn it. It was easier sneaking away to the grove when her mother remained in the small villa.
After lunch, she’d try again to coax the old apple tree to bloom, though without magic she didn’t know if it would do any good. Then she’d gather some vegetables and fruits from the garden to compliment the ambrosia they would have for dinner. She didn’t expect her mother to eat it, but she wished for a change. After dinner, she would spend the time with her mother sewing or knitting as they discussed the day’s activities.
She sighed. Her life was boring, predictable. And it wasn’t really her.
Demeter set a pitcher of fresh water upon the table, looking up as Persephone entered the kitchen, a full grin on her beautiful face. “Good morning, Persephone.”
She brushed her hands on the skirt of her dress and pushed back a stray lock of her corn yellow hair, before hugging her daughter.
Persephone returned the hug, cringing inside, her skin pricking with the force of her mother’s magic. She might not have the ability to wield magic, but she could feel it crawling over her skin, burrowing deep inside, until she could see the inner person.
Her mother was old; far older than the thirty years she appeared to be and she had many secrets. Sorrowful, shameful secrets hidden in the darkness.
Persephone was the first to break contact. “Morning, Mother.”
Demeter lifted the knife from the table and quickly sliced through the crisp skin of an apple. “Breakfast will be but a moment.”
Persephone looked over at the counter, seeing the basket of fruit and sighed. Nothing every changed. She was tired of fruit.
Before she could take her seat at the table, someone rapped sharply on the door. She knew instantly who would be there. Only Aunt Hestia visited the villa.
Persephone opened the door and smiled at stout five-foot three-inch Aunt Hestia waiting patiently on the stoop. Her curly brunette locks falling in waves over her wide shoulders and a broad grin on her lovely face. “Hello, dear one, I brought you a gift for your garden.” She held out her hand and presented two azure butterflies with sparkly diamonds flashing in their wings.
“Oh!” Persephone hugged the shorter goddess. She took the magnificent butterflies from her Aunt’s hand and stepped back into the kitchen. “Thank you, Aunt Hestia! They’re beautiful!”
The butterfly on Persephone’s hand took flight, fluttering around the room, a series of prisms flashed on the creamy plaster of the house’s walls as the sunlight reflected off its wings. It landed on the flowers in the vase.
“Where did you find them?” Persephone breathed, awed by the majestic creatures.
Hestia laughed; a hearty, joyful sound from deep within her gut. “I created them.” Her radiant smile lit her face, a becoming glow of pride. “I thought they would be a perfect addition to your garden. I remembered you like jewels-”
“Hestia,” Demeter interrupted, gliding toward them. “It’s good to see you.”
Persephone frowned. Her mother was doing it again. Every time Aunt Hestia let something slip Demeter interrupted. Maybe these small tidbits could shake loose a memory and crack open the shell around her life. Maybe she could remember more than last three years of her life.
Hestia looked away from Demeter, the frown smoothing away. “This one is male and the other is female. Soon you’ll have a garden full.”
Persephone forced a smile to her lips although she wanted to cry, or rant and rave, or scream her frustration. She hated when they treated her as if she was a child. She hated it when they flaunted their use of magic knowing that she didn’t have any.
“What are their names?” Persephone asked.
Hestia shrugged. “They belong to you.”
She stared at the butterflies, deciding upon the two names she liked. “She’ll be Jewel. And he’ll be Enchantment.”
Demeter winced but didn’t protest.
“You’re going to be late, Demeter,” Hestia said.
Persephone turned to her mother. “Where are you going?”
Demeter lifted her dark jade cloak from the stool beside the door and settled it around her shoulders. “To Mount Olympus. I’ve business to discuss with the other gods.”
“If an informal gathering can be considered business?”
“It’s business for me, Hestia. I don’t enjoy going.”
“You use to,” Hestia reminded her sister, looking pointedly at Persephone.
“That was a long, long time ago before—I don’t enjoy them anymore, Hestia.”
“Then why do you go?”
“I need to know how the war is going. If the Titans win,” she glanced at Persephone and shuddered, “we’ll find another place to go.”
Persephone pretended to lose interest in the conversation. She had learned a long time ago that Demeter never spoke of such things in her hearing. As long as she pretended to be completely captivated by her butterflies, her mother would continue to speak.
Regardless most of her knowledge came from the nymphs or Hestia. She knew the story of her father Zeus. Rhea bore her husband, Coronus, a son, but instead of presenting the child to his father as she’d done with their other children, Rhea took the child to an island cave where he was raised to adulthood by nymphs. Zeus released Demeter and the other Olympians from Coronus’ imprisonment in Tartarus, gathering allies to his banner to challenge the elder gods for power. For ten years now they’d squabbled for leadership like hummingbirds over a productive flower.
“You worry too much, Demeter. They may outnumber us, but we’re too evenly matched.” And being immortal meant there were no permanent damages done. Hestia lowered her voice and Persephone had to strain to hear her aunt’s next words. “Eris seems to think she knows someone who will turn the tide of this war.”
“Eris is a venomous bitch. I hope Zeus didn’t listen to her.”
Persephone was shocked by her mother’s language and the malice dripping from her words. She couldn’t recall a goddess named Eris, although it seemed somehow familiar. She wasn’t about to ask them about it either and ruin the moment. Her mother would send her outside or change the topic.
Demeter glanced her way and Persephone decided it was time to remove herself from the room. Persephone stood and headed for the other room. “I love you, Persephone.”
Persephone smiled. “I love you too. Are you heading out then?”
Demeter nodded and kissed Persephone on the cheek. “Mind your, Aunt Hestia.”
“Of course.” Persephone took the insects to the window overlooking the flower gardens and settled them on the honeysuckle creeping up the wall. Jewel crawled onto a pale pink flower with the tongues of brilliant red on the petals and a golden center and Enchantment wasn’t far behind.
Demeter lead Hestia walked out of the villa, closing the door firmly behind them. Persephone shook her head and crossed to the kitchen. Using the open window to eavesdrop upon the conversation outside, she listened carefully. This war affected her as much as anyone and yet her mother would tell her nothing. What she learned, she overheard or the nymphs told her, but no one ever provided her with details. And unlike her mother, the nymphs didn’t care who won; they were more interested in pursuing men or running from them.
“She gave him hope for an end to this war, Demeter. Zeus and Poseidon left for the Underworld days ago to retrieve this warrior.”
“The idiot! Did he even think to ask Eris who the man was?!”
“He was imprisoned in the darkest pit of Tartarus by Coronus for defiance in some argument. You know Father. He cares not for justice, just his pride. And power.”
“How can a mortal help us, Hestia?”
“He’s immortal. Probably some minor Titan.”
The comment evoked a tickle of memory, a flash of a cave and a shadowy figure with midnight eyes. The image was gone before she could grasp it.
“Or one of the older gods?” Demeter snapped. “Daemons are unpredictable.”
“Don’t be foolish. How could Coronus trick an elder god into imprisonment?”
“Oh, Demeter, I’m sorry. I didn’t think…Do you forgive me?”
“Of course, dear one,” Demeter said. Her voice shook. “It was my own fault that Coronus was able to…I thought her safe.”
“She was as safe as you could make her. As soon as Zeus frees this warrior, he can turn the tide of battle and bring us victory. No more war. No more Coronus. And no more worries over Persephone.”
“It’s foolhardy, Hestia. We don’t know who he is.”
“I’m sure Zeus does. Now you’d better go if you plan to return before dark.”
Persephone raced across the room with her bowl of fruit and sat at the window, taking a bite of breakfast. Maybe if she was careful, she could ask Hestia about the god. Sometimes her aunt spoke before she thought and Persephone could prod information or stories from her.
Hestia entered the house and paused. “There you are.”
Persephone looked up with a smile and a twinge of guilt, swallowing the mouthful of fruit. “I know the perfect spot for Enchantment and Jewel. The daffodil patch in the corner.”
Hestia smiled; never suspecting deviousness from her. She squelched the twinge of unease. The only way to have a hand in her fate was too learn everything possible to her life. Her mother wanted her to remain a child forever and Persephone couldn’t be that for her.
“Will you tell me about the war?”
Hestia motioned to the fruit and gave her a pointed look. “I’ll tell you while you eat.”
~*~ ~*~ ~*~
HADES STOOD on the white sandy beach at dusk, his toes curling into the cooling warmth as he watched Helios’ blindingly bright chariot sink into the sea. It felt good to stand on the beach and watch the tide slide inland, to feel the warmth of the sun on his pale skin.
What a welcome sight after centuries in a dank cell, removed from the world and its majesty. He watched as the azure sky began to darken to a light indigo. He marveled as the oranges, reds, and purples disappeared, and the world became little more than shades of grays, black, and black-blue. The first star of twilight twinkled in the heavens above him.
He’d forgotten the simplest pleasures and annoyances of living, like the water caressing his toes, or the cold air on his flesh, or gritty sand slithering between his toes. He relished the feel of cool water, the darkness upon his skin, and the power surging through his veins, soothing and repairing the damage to his body, to his mind, to his soul.
This was freedom. The freedom he’d desired for so long. He could almost taste it upon his tongue, warm and welcoming. But he knew it was a dream he could only hold a little longer. He could never truly be free as long as the Titans ruled. There was much they had to atone for: the deaths of Leuce and her family; the hundreds of daemons dead in tantrums thrown by gods; the stolen power of his birthright and the forced existence without magic; and using the dead to torment him.
He could never be free until Leuce and her family were avenged and safely ensconced in the Elysian Fields, because he owed her that much. He could never be free until he let go of the past and moved toward the future, whatever that might be. He could never be free until he lived as a true Phlegethon should, mated to his equal in power and magic.
Selene rose into the night sky, her white chariot glowing brightly upon the water. He hoped the witch fell from her chariot and drowned in the dark waters of the sea. He’d never liked the snooty goddess and the feeling seemed mutual.
He lifted his face, breathing deeply of the cold salty air, before turning away from Selene’s bright face. The first and second phases were complete. By opening the gates of Tartarus, he’d released every monster the Titans had ever imprisoned. He’d released chaos and mayhem upon the world. And while the Titans ran about capturing the monsters, expending that precious power they so coveted, he’d walked into their palace and taken their weapons, hiding them throughout the world. He’d insured the Olympian’s victory.
While in their armory, he’d taken back his black armor and frightening sword, untouched by the centuries. How he would enjoy using them against the smug Titans, for tomorrow he’d face them in battle. His revenge would be swift. He would accomplish in one day what the Olympians had failed to do in ten years. He would bring the Titan Empire to its knees. He would make them pay for their mistakes.
Leaving the beach, he moved inland. He’d planned to return to Mount Olympus and confer with Zeus on the next plan of action, but he couldn’t confine himself to the gaudy, marble monstrosity the Olympians called a palace. What was it with the Titans and the Olympians that they built such places on top of mountains?
For the most part, no one would dare defy them. They didn’t really need the security of higher ground. It was a mere show of power and dominance.
Of course, there were the occasional idiots who dared defy the ruling faction of gods. Coronus’ rise to power had been a greedy power play that benefited all, but then Coronus had been no better than his father. Now the Olympians, Zeus at their head, were in a power play for supremacy, fueled by the need for freedom. Hades didn’t know if Zeus would be any better than Coronus. Not that it mattered.
Coronus had overthrown his father, as Zeus was attempting to overthrow his, and the day would come when another would rise to overthrow Zeus. It was a vicious cycle.
In his own defense, Hades’ first attempt at defiance was to protect himself. His second was to protect Leuce. However, this third attempt at rebellion was purely for revenge.
Hades wound his way along the beach and into the forest stretching the length of the beach. He breathed in the fragrance of crushed grass and salty sea.
Soon, he’d be at peace. No war, no people, no petty gods. He was actually looking forward to his solitary life.
The soft cascade of the woman’s gentle contralto floated on the breeze, flowing over him, into him, threading its way into his soul, and awakening the Phlegethon daemon inside him. The lilting melody was one he didn’t recognize. A song of shipwrecked lovers.
He suspected there were a great many things he wouldn’t recognize. The world had changed so much in his absence, and yet, not nearly enough.
Against his better judgment, he let the woman’s voice lure him through the trees to a small northern valley. Careful where he placed his foot, he wove his way through the loam covered path to a small clearing. He told himself he wouldn’t disturb her, and he definitely didn’t want to scare her. He just wanted a look at the woman who could awaken emotions in his heart with the music of her voice.
He stopped at the edge of the clearing, mesmerized by the dark silhouette beneath the gnarled oak tree. Back to him, her sensual body swayed to a beat only she could hear. Her movements, like the purity of the dulcet tones, wove a magical and passionate atmosphere filled with deep longing.
He shifted at the first stirs of desire in his heart. It wasn’t just the base desire of a man gone too long without a woman, although he yearned for the wealth of feminine curves revealed by the filmy white dress. But the desire of a Phlegethon to meld mind and soul and magic to his equal, something he could never have with a lesser immortal, and especially not with the newer mortal creatures. What his soul craved could only be had with another Phlegethon daemon.
Closing his eyes, and taking a firm grasp upon his desire, he reminded himself of the lessons he’d learned so very long ago when he’d been a weak, naïve adolescent who thought himself in love with a nymph named Menthe. A mere kiss had almost lead to her death.
That thought, more than any other, cemented his resolve. He was an adult now, with his full power, and he knew the passions of his Phlegethon blood could only destroy. He would leave this place and never return. He would never think of the woman again. He would clear his head and prepare his mind and body for the fight tomorrow. He would take a very cold bath.
However, rather than just flashing away, he opened his eyes to take one last look, and was lost again. Her supple, young body swayed seductively, moving with the fluid grace of a dancer as she twirled and leapt.
Her crown of lavender tumbled from her head, and the wealth of her sun-kissed hair pour down her slender back in a red-gold wave.
He could almost feel the wealth of her hair against his naked flesh, the flare of her hips in his hands, the press of her luscious body against his, and the warmth of her mouth as he tasted her. She would taste like honey, sweet and rich.
She bent to retrieve her crown, the creamy tops of her firm, full breasts pressed tightly against the white dress, threatening to spill out, before the veil of hair hid them from view.
What was he thinking! He had to leave now!
But despite his best intentions, he couldn’t budge. She straightened and set the crown back upon her head. Lifting the hem of her gown, she revealed the length of her pale thigh. She pivoted, beginning a new song about a meadow of flowers, a shepherd, and his maiden dear.
His breath quickened as the magic of her voice spilled over him, painting a picture of the brazen maiden and the bold shepherd meeting in the mountain meadow for a lover’s tryst.
She opened her arms, her hair streaming down her back, and embraced the cool night air. She danced with a freedom he’d never known, had never seen in another. She was so full of grace, and joy, and wild abandon. And he desired her like he’d desired no other woman.
He stepped forward, his blood boiling at the need to claim her. She represented all he needed in a mate, everything he had lost, and everything he could not have back. She could be the balm to the rage in his soul. But what could he offer her?
The hidden invitation of the song was not for daemons like him, especially coming from a woman like her. She deserved a man who would speak to her, laugh with her, dance with her, and be with her. He could do none of those things without endangering her life. He had nothing to offer her expect a world of sorrow and pain. He would rather will himself out of existence than watch this beautiful woman die, screaming in agony.
The last thoughts gave him the strength to turn away. He wanted this child of nature to live a long and happy life before Death took her. She would marry a man who loved her, have children, and sing in the dark night without ever having met him.
Please keep her safe, he prayed to whatever being answered the prayers of gods and daemons. And keep her far, far away from me.
HADES GRABBED the Titan’s massive shoulder and rammed the blade of the sword through the man’s heart. The satisfying gush of blood over his gauntlet was dampened by the knowledge that the damage wasn’t permanent and the Titan would heal.
Shoving the howling Titan from him, Hades tore the whole jagged length of the serrated blade from the body. The air behind him shifted. Hades thrust his sword back as he dropped to his knee. The blade met instant resistance, than gave as he shoved his hand against the hilt and screamed his rage.
A blade glanced weakly off Hades’ armored shoulder and fell to the dirt beside him. The Titan fell against his back, skewered on Hades’ sword. Hades rose, shedding the dead weight and jerking the jagged blade from the body. He glanced down at the bleeding Titan.
The man gasped. Blood bubbled from his mouth. The punctured lung would hurt like hell and be a long time healing.
Hades grinned and scanned the battlefield, searching for his next opponent. No one was left standing. Bodies littered the flat landscape like broken toys strewn across the hearth. Some were trapped beneath boulders thrown by the Hundred-Handed. Others were groaning as their injured bodies began the slow healing process.
He grunted. If this was any example of the battles they fought for ten years, it was no wonder the Olympian had needed him. He understood the fall of the Titans today, but the weakness of the Olympians appalled him. Notwithstanding the added advantage he’d given them, they’d fallen under the force of the Titans.
“Disgusting isn’t it?”
Hades turned to the ebony haired goddess dressed in black armor, standing behind him, the sharp tip of her serrated sword pointed at his throat. Damn, he’d made his first mistake of the day! Never let your guard down, especially when the bitch was on the battlefield.
“So weak and defenseless,” she mocked him. “It amazes me they rule this world.”
“They must not be all bad. You took their side.”
She smiled. “I just wanted to shed blood.” The pressure intensified with the twist of the blade. A slender trickle of blood slithered down his throat. “Didn’t give a shit who it belonged to.”
He flashed to her, grabbing her around the waist, and tossing her like a doll. She spun through the air, landing lightly on her toes. He winced at the sheer force of her magic as it poured over him, threatening to crush him. It tasted of violence and bloodlust, like serrated knives slicing into his soul.
He attacked back, hating her with every cell of his body, and yet in the deepest part of his soul, he was grateful to her. Without her coldness, and her brutality, he wouldn’t have survived in this world or the depths of Tartarus. His particular brand of wild magic sliced her like a thousand broken shards of glass. She bled, but not for long.
Her next move stopped him cold. She laughed, pulling her magic back like a snake coiling around her warrior lean body, ready to strike at the first sign of weakness. She sheathed her sword, put her hand on her slender hip, and looked him up and down.
“You’re resilient, if nothing else,” she said. “You look no worse for your captivity. Maybe you’re stronger for it.”
“It took you long enough to get me out, Mother.”
Her smile died. “I should’ve left you there to rot. A true son of mine would never be caught in such a childish trap. He would have died in the fighting, or at least not allow a woman to be his downfall.”
He laughed scornfully in her face, knowing to her, any vulnerability was an invitation to attack. Strength and violence were the only things she understood.
“What woman?” he asked.
Eris’ eyes narrowed.
“Ah, yes. That woman.” He would rather return to Tartarus than speak of his half-sister Leuce to her. He spat on the ground. “Can’t think of her name now. Such is the price of young love.”
She grunted and ran her pale hands down her armor, using magic to clean the blackened surface. “I heard she haunted you.”
“Yes, she did. But then she was only one among many.”
She smiled, and that smile sent shivers of fear through him. The woman was pure evil. “I knew there was a reason I didn’t have Thanatos kill you at birth. You’re proving yourself worthy to be my son.”
Ignoring the rare compliment, he gestured toward the small group coming their way. “Olympians. It appears some did survive well enough to walk.”
She sneered. “Probably hid in their palace and waited for us to do their work. Too bad I missed them.”
“Whose side were you on?”
She smiled again. “My own.”
She turned away without another word and disappeared. He shook his head. That was his mother: cold bitch of the battlefield.
He wondered if he too could disappear, but it was too late. The large Cyclops with Zeus and Poseidon was shouting his name.
He waved, forcing a semblance of politeness as he greeted the group, “Zeus, Poseidon—”
“Hades. Good fight.” Zeus turned to the Cyclops. “Um…Whatever his name wants to give you something.”
Hades grounded his teeth at Zeus’ obvious dislike and rudeness toward the giant man. Hades wasn’t in the mood to be civil, but he wasn’t about to be blatantly rude either.
Looking at the one eyed giant, wondered if this was Kale. There were several Cyclops in the camp, but Kale was the only Cyclops he’d met so far.
The Cyclops flashed him a large, pointed-tooth smile. “Ourns,” he rumbled.
Hades bowed his head. “My friend. Ourns, what can I do for you?”
“Made Hades a gift, we did.” He opened his large hand. In the middle of his palm, he held a stunning silver helmet. “Hades has no helmet. Hades accepts the helmet, he will?”
He smiled. “Yes. Hades accepts.” He lifted the surprisingly light helmet from Ourns hand. “Thank you, Ourns.”
The Cyclops grinned, inclined his head and lumbered away, stepping on the bodies of friend and foe. Zeus cringed. Poseidon winced. Hades kept his face impassive at the screams following the giant man.
Poseidon shivered. “Revolting creatures. I don’t know why you keep them around, brother. They should be returned to Tartarus with the rest of the monsters.”
Hades arched a brow. “Is that how you reward your allies? Imprisonment?”
Hades didn’t doubt that would be his fate if Poseidon had his chance. He dared them to try it. This war would look like a skirmish compared to the fury he’d bring down upon their heads.
“Of course not,” Zeus answered before Poseidon could even think of a clever lie. “We’re gathering at Mount Olympus in one week’s time and I will bestow upon my allies their rewards. The Cyclopes have earned their land. And you, your kingdom.”
“The Titans still need to be rounded up and imprisoned in Tartarus. Would you aid us in this task, Hades?” Poseidon asked.
Hades smiled at the two gods. “No.”
He flashed away from the battlefield and to the misty coolness of the seashore before they could protest. Simply looking at the vast blueness offered him a certain peace, centering him, allowing the bloodlust and anger to melt from his heart.
He loved the volatile moods of the sea, peace and calm one moment, and raging storm the next. They had a lot in common. They were changeable creatures, answering to no one, expecting nothing and having no expectations. They had few rules, their own codes of conduct that didn’t always make sense to others. They were free.
Closing his eyes, he lifted his face to the sky, enjoying the warm caress of the sunlight on his skin. He was tired of hatred and anger, vengeance and blood, politics and power struggles. He was so tired of killing and the petty squabbles of gods. He only wished to be free of it all.
He would receive his reward from Zeus, rule his kingdom, and never to return. He would never know the dark despair of the Underworld ever again. He would go on with his immortal life, and maybe one day, he would be at peace with himself.
Glancing down at the blood and gore covering his armor, he felt his body revolt and the bile rise in his throat. Dropping the helmet and his bloody sword in the sand, he tore off his gauntlets, and clawed at the blood soaked ties holding his breastplate together. His boots, tunic, and loin cloth followed the rest into the sand.
Naked, the salty sea air swirling around him, the coolness was heaven compared to the sweaty grime of being trapped in battle gear. He ignored the voice of his mother, whose constant instructions reminded him that a warrior always took care of his weapons and armor before himself, and submerged himself in the surf.
The water washed over him. The echoing waves pulsed through his veins, filling him with a calm that had evaded him for so long. He scrubbed the coarse grains of sand into his skin until it reddened and burned, until his flesh bled and the saltwater stung the cuts, until every inch was cleansed of blood, battle, and vengeance. But he couldn’t cleanse his blackened soul.
Leaving the water, he strode to the top of the sand dune overlooking a small bay and stared down upon the empty sands where the prosperous fishing village that had once been his sister’s home had rested. There were no nets or fish smoking over the fires, no huts, no boats, and no people. No sign that anyone had ever been here. Only his memories attested to the truth that anyone had lived in this place.
He could still see the shine of her black hair in the sun as she raced through the sands and played in the surf. He saw her laughing, her black eyes glowing in the firelight. He felt the passion she had for life radiating from her like a candle in the darkness.
He sighed. Leuce would always be part of him, regardless of where he went or what he did, because she’d taught him the hardest lesson in his life. He could care.
As he sat on the beach, cleaning the blood from his black armor, and forced back the tears threatening to fall. He wasn’t allowed the act of tears as a child and he wouldn’t cry now. He was a disciplined killer, a cold-hearted warrior! He would not be soft, not when he needed his strength more than ever.
He could not mourn the woman he cared for, the life he wanted and been denied, the life he desired and would never know, and the woman he now craved and could never have. But he could exalt in the vengeance he’d obtained for his sister and her family. Their souls could now rest. He only hoped that they might forgive him his part in their deaths.
The release of emotion was as cleansing to his soul as the sands had been to his body. He felt light and empty. He felt freed from the past. And for the first time, he felt as if he had a future before him.
Rising from the rock, Hades drew the dagger from its sheath and grabbed the long strands of his beard, hacking at it, removing centuries’ worth of hair, until the beard was cropped short. Done with that, he turned to the task of his head. The hair was coal black and longer than a woman’s so he flipped the length over his shoulder and began to saw at it. It wouldn’t be the cleanest cut, but at least it was a start.
Magically creating clothes, he dressed in a simple blue tunic, a light cloak of black, and sandals. He left his battle gear sitting on the beach as he ventured into the forest.
Who are you trying to fool? His inner voice taunted him. Who cares what you look like? It’s not as if you want to impress the Olympian gods, or even the goddesses. No. You want to impress a woman you should leave alone.
Not so. He argued. I just want to go for a walk. Clear my head…
Who was he kidding? He could try to delude himself of the truth, but he knew wanted to see the woman again. And he found her beneath a tall weeping willow at the base of the hill.
He crept closer, until he could hear her singing about forbidden lovers escaping into the night to marry. She stepped over the tree root and stepped out of the shadows and into the light. And what he saw took his breath away.
She was stunning—not the classical beauty he’d seen in the courts of the gods, but a natural beauty of youthful innocence and joyous spirit. Her almond-shaped eyes, full lips, and the glow of youth softened the strong features of her square jaw. But her beauty went deeper. It was in her soul.
He sat beneath an apple tree, safely out of her sight, and leaned against the rough bark, content to just watch this child of nature skip through the meadow of flowers, laugh at the wind lifting her hair, kissing her slender neck and delicate earlobes. She smiled at the buzzing bees, the erratic flight of the butterfly, and the whirling flutter of the hummingbirds. She wove through the trees, dancing through the forest, revealing a freedom of spirit he envied.
He closed his eyes, reveling in the foreign emotions flickering through him. Wonder. Happiness. Amusement. And peace.
He started as the first faint traces of her power licking at his aura. Her very presence emphasized his loneliness. He could sense the hint of sadness and isolation vibrating through her energy.
He knew it was wrong. He should leave her alone. But he just wanted speak to her.
He breathed in the earthy scents of the forest around him and opened his eyes, his decision made. “Come to me,” he sent to her, although the words never passed his lips.
A vision of perfection stepped into the clearing, and he would swear, even from this distance, she was looking at him. His heart raced with a heady mixture of fear and excitement.
Her bare feet whispered across the loam as she glided past him, mere feet from his hiding place. “Hello. Is someone here?”
His breath caught. He loved the soft, gentle lilt of her voice. “I know someone is here.” She paused, head tilted, listening. “You don’t have to be afraid.”
He reached out to her and stopped, his hand hovering above her shoulder. Menthe. Leuce. Every woman in his life, he destroyed. He was a fool for thinking it could be otherwise. He let his hand fall away.
She glided forward. Her soft, silky hair flowed in gentle waves, swaying at her hips. “Please, show yourself. I won’t hurt you.”
He smiled at the thought. She couldn’t hurt him, but it was definitely in his daemon nature to hurt her. He shifted his weight, determined to leave, but a branch under his foot snapped. She pivoted, staring straight at him, though in the shadows she couldn’t have seen him clearly.
He urged himself to do the right thing and leave, only to step out of the darkness and into the light. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
She glided closer to him, a curious frown upon her face. “Are you the one who has been watching me?”
It was his turn to frown. He hadn’t been aware that she was conscious of his presence.
“You are, aren’t you?”
He shifted uncomfortably. What could he say? Yes, I’ve been lurking in the forest waiting to ravish you, Persephone. Name’s Hades. His actions were creepy enough without adding to them.
“Do you live in the forest?” she asked.
“Are you a mortal or a god?”
“You’re a god then!”
He wasn’t about to correct her misconception. He was a god. But he was also a daemon. And that would scare her.
She stopped before him and pushed back the wealth of golden-red hair. He yearned to brush his fingers through that hair. To hold it in his hands as he kissed those rose-colored lips.
“Do you live on Mount Olympus?”
He couldn’t stop himself from smiling. “I have no home yet. But Zeus has promised me my own kingdom for defeating the Titans.”
Her bold gaze studied him with an open curiosity that should’ve bothered him but didn’t. There was nothing sexual in her indigo eyes as they traveled the length of him, making him feel naked despite his tunic and heavy ebony cloak. He felt his arousal hardening beneath the thorough perusal of his body.
He needed to leave now or he would do that which he vowed not to. He would bury himself in her and damn the consequences. And he refused to destroy her out of a selfish desire to bed a woman. He would leave and think no more of her.
She stood so close to him he could smell the soap she used in her hair. Honey and lavender. “Did you accomplish your task? Are the Titans finally defeated?”
He cleared his throat so he wouldn’t sound as aroused as he felt. “I did. I hid their weapons.”
The question was easy enough, but startling since no one had thought to ask and he really didn’t know how to answer. “Magic,” he said. “Do you know what magic is?”
“Of course, I do. I’m not a child. My mother is one of the Olympian goddesses.”
“Yes. Her name’s Demeter. Have you met her?”
He shook his head. “I know Zeus and Poseidon. I’ve met a few of the other gods and two goddesses. I think I would remember your mother if she were as beautiful as you.”
Her gaze dropped and her dark, long lashes rested on her cheeks. A rosy blush stained her cheeks. “She’s very beautiful. I think I reminded her of my father though.”
“And he is?”
She shrugged. “Unimportant. I’ve never met him. Are you a male god?”
He couldn’t help it. He burst into laughter. “What kind of question is that?”
The infinitesimal tightening of her jaw and rise of her head told him this was no coy game. She was serious. And he’d offended her.
He sobered immediately. “I’m sorry—”
“I haven’t seen one of your kind before,” she interrupted. “The nymphs often speak of men.” She looked away, a hint of red in her cheeks. “They tell me stories.”
He grinned at her honest reply. He could imagine the stories the nymphs would tell her. He doubted her mother would approve. Of course, she surely wouldn’t approve of her talking to him.
“Yes, I am a man.”
“What’s your name?”
The smile lit her entire face. “Hades.” He loved the sound of his name on her lips. “I’ve heard of you.”
He drew back, not physically, but mentally and emotionally. Surely those stories couldn’t be good ones. There was little in his life to be proud of. “Oh?”
“Yes. Zeus and Poseidon went to retrieve you from the Underworld, so you could end the war.”
He waited for the rest but it never came. “That’s all?”
She shrugged. “People don’t tell me much. What did you do to Coronus?”
It was refreshing for someone to hear his name and not flee, or in the case of the nymphs, try and bed him. Though he was sure, in time, she would come to fear him. Everyone did.
“I defied him in his home.”
Persephone looked over her shoulder and smiled, “Coming, Aunt Hestia!” She turned back and handed him a purple sprig of lavender. “Good luck to you, dear Hades.”
He accepted her token, careful not to touch her, and bowed. “Thank you, Persephone.”
She walked away.
“Persephone,” he called out.
She paused and peered over her shoulder. The image flashed before his eyes of her clothed in nothing more than hair. He drew in a sharp breath. She was heavenly, an angel in every sense of the word, and much too trusting of strangers.
“You shouldn’t make it a habit of talking to men without a guardian.”
Choosing his words carefully, he said, “Because not all of them can be trusted.”
She tilted her head, her brow creasing. “But I trust you.”
He was stunned by her simple declaration.
“Will I see you again, Hades?”
His heart stirred at the hopeful expression on her open face, but he shook his head. “I think it best if we not meet again.”
Originally Published January 2011
Copyright Stephannie Beman