Death’s Lover

By Stephannie Beman

Series: Children of Khaos, Demons of the Underworld
Genre: Fantasy Romance
Length: Novel

Death'sLoverbyStephannie BemanA chance meeting changed the course of their lives…
Thanatos is no stranger to death. He’s seen every possible way there was to die. He’s lived with it day after day, century upon century, collecting the souls of dead mortals and taking them to the Underworld for judgment. An endless routine of tiresome duty and resounding loneliness that echoed in his heart, until she came into his life…

A second meeting will change their hearts and souls…
Saved by a stranger, Lilith never forgot the mysterious man who gave her the chance to blossom into the strong woman with a spirit of fire and a heart of ice, anymore than she can the lessons of the past. She must hide her secrets deep and never get close to anyone. Sex is merely a means to an end, and pleasure isn’t something to share with a lover, until he came back into her life…

What happens next will change the Underworld….
Lilith’s ability to see a person’s death has attracted the attention of the warlord, Adman, and seals her fate. He will do anything, kill anyone, to possess her talent. And the only one standing between him and Lilith is Death himself. Thanatos will break every ancient law, and even a few newer ones, to save her, and in the end it might cost them both their lives.

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Death’s Lover Excerpt by Stephannie Beman

Prologue

Valley of the Horses
Land of the Todro Clan

Lilith awakened several hours later, with the sun piercing through her closed eyelids and a raging headache pounding in her temple. Groaning, she shifted on the cold, hard ground, her stiff muscles protesting her movements. Her hand bumped against a heavy, fur covered item. She winced at the white-hot agony shooting through her hand. The burns in her flesh were deep, angry red and deathly white. As long as infection didn’t set in, she wouldn’t lose the hand, but she would always carry the scars.

She opened her eyes long enough to see the heavy bundle beside her head, close enough she wondered if someone had aimed for her head. It would explain why her head hurt and she didn’t remember going to sleep.

Shivering, she sat up and dragged the bundle to her. She opened the furs and smiled. Pulling on her leather foot wrappings and fur-lined winter clothes found inside the fur wrapped bundle, she sat with the robe wrapped around her slender shoulders and opened the small package of food. She only took a few bites before putting it away.

Experience warned her that she might be down here a few days and this might be all she would get. It wouldn’t be the first time they’d left her in the pit without food and water for a day or more. They believed it would break her spirit. Or maybe they were tired of waiting for Eva to do what they thought she must.

She glared up at the tiny sliver of blue-gray sky with lazy, puffy clouds floating by and hurled curses at the parents who’d given her life, the Fates who’d granted her this Lot, the goddess who’d sent her the death visions, the gods who didn’t care about those they created, and the spirits for making it too cold on what should have been a nice summer day. To end it all, she spat out a nasty hex upon her father’s man-part and the hope it would shrivel and fall off.

“Quiet, little half soul!” someone hissed above her.

Lilith’s eyes narrowed on the sandy-haired boy with mischievous brown eyes peeking over the side of the pit at her, a sharp retort on her tongue. It died before it could ever be spoken. Adman was her only friend and more often in trouble then she was.

The end of a rope dropped into the pit beside her. “Come on!”

While tempted, the punishment for escape would be far worse for her. She’d seen what happened to slaves who tried to run, and since they had more value than her, she was positive her punishment would cripple her for life, what little of it that remained.

“Adman, no!” she hissed. “We’ve discussed this before!”

A large grin spread across his lips. “Imagine the looks on their faces when they find you gone.”

She shook her head. “I can’t, and you know it.”

He scowled down at her. “If we run away, then you won’t ever have to return to this pit. You won’t have to die, and Eva won’t have to kill you.”

She scoffed at the idea. “We’d never survive alone.”

She’d been alive for thirteen years, but unlike the women here, she wasn’t taught the skills a woman needed to forge for food, or create a home, or even sew clothing. She could hunt only because Adman had taught her. And although Adman was a skilled hunter, he was barely a man of sixteen years, and he could no more survive without the Tribe than she could.

Grunting, he spoke to someone behind him, before throwing a leg over the edge of the pit. Adman quickly shimmied down the rope, dropping the last few feet. Whoever was on the other end, and if she had a guess it was probably Uthe, quickly pulled it up.

“What are you doing?” Lilith whispered. “They’ll beat you if they find you here!”

He shrugged, tapped her nose, and handed her a skin wrapped package. “Keeping you company, little one. Besides they’d have to catch me first.”

She shook her head, taking a seat against the wall and opening his offering. The scent of cooked meat filled her nose, and her stomach grumbled. “It shouldn’t be hard with you in this pit.”

He snorted. “I fell in and was forced to remain here until rescued.”

Sighing, she nibbled on a piece of meat, enjoying the juices flowing into her mouth. “With a package of freshly cooked meat?”

“It was midday meal and I wasn’t watching where I was walking.” He gave her an innocent glance that only an idiot would have believed.

There was no talking to Adman when he got a plan in his head. He was determined to stay, and he would stay. Truth be told, she was grateful for him. Other than Eva, Adman was the only one who treated her like a human and not daemon spawn. Some days, she wished she was a child of a daemon, and then she could hurt all those who hurt her.

She glanced at Adman, who grinned down at her, reminding her of her first memory of him. He’d found the hopelessly lost five-year-old before the wild animals could. He’d built a fire to keep her warm, brought her food to quiet her rumbling stomach, and watched over her the whole night long, returning her home the next morning. Her parents had been furious. She was never quite sure if they were angered more by her behavior, getting lost in the forest, or daring to return home after being lost. Adman’s punishment had been far harsher then she thought it should have been, but it hadn’t stopped him from befriending her.

Adman lowered himself to the ground beside her, threw an arm around her shoulder, and pulled her close to his body heat. “I hate this place. It’s far too cold.”

She snuggled into his warmth. “No one asked you to stay.”

He felt so nice and smelled even better. She could lay in his arms forever and be content.

He kissed the top of her head. “I know.”

Lilith awoke to angry shouts above her head. She could barely understand them. Words like whore and temptress and witch were brandished around her. She opened her bleary eyes, noting the direction of the sun made it mid-morning the next day. They were definitely furious with her.

Men dropped into the pit, hauling her to her feet and yanking Adman away. Her cold hands were cruelly bound behind her. She barely had time to think feel the sharp pain in her burned hand before a rope was tied around her waist and she was roughly dragged out of the pit. She was pulled into the crowd.

Women screamed at her, calling her names she didn’t know. Children threw stones and spat in her direction.

“What did I d—”

Her head snapped back, blood spurting from her nose and pouring down her chin. She spat the blood out of her mouth. Pain seared across her face, and a bone snapped. She stumbled and fell. Her head cracked against the unforgiving ground.

“Leave her alone!”

A foot kicked into her side, forcing the air from her lungs. Gasping and floundering on the ground, she barely registered the curses rained down upon her.

What was happening?!

What had she done?!

Thanatos shook his head, waving his hand around, failing miserably in his attempt to keep the fly from his face. The annoying critter was making his already short temper far shorter. There had better be a good reason for Persephone sending him out in this gods’ forsaken place.

He hated the plains. The flies were bothersome. The wind was annoying and cold enough to chill a Protogenoi demon. Then there was the lack of mountains or anything more than a small hill, which was rather disconcerting for one born surrounded by mountains and water. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the people were backward and war-like.

He hoped he found this shade Persephone insisted he retrieve quickly, although why he needed to rush to save a shade he couldn’t begin to understand. It wasn’t like they went far in the first year after their death.

She hadn’t been in the last two villages. He was sure she wouldn’t be here either. He was actually starting to wonder if Persephone had purposely sent him on a fruitless chase for a woman who didn’t exist.

If she really wanted him out of the Underworld for a month or more, all she needed to do was tell him. He could travel and collect random souls. He could visit the Gorgons or Furies and see if any of the young daemon women caught his fancy.

He swatted at another fly. This place wasn’t helping his temper, and if another self-important tribesman stuck a spear in his face and demanded he moved on—as if he wanted to remain in this gods’ forsaken place any longer then he needed to—he was bound to do something rash and steal a soul before its time. That wasn’t something he wanted to explain to the Iron Queen.

Persephone was rather particular about her human creations, and since she became Queen of the Underworld about five-hundred-years-ago, she’d made a few changes in how her creatures were treated. She’d demanded that the humans be kept out of the petty arguments of Titans and Olympians. They were not to be pressed into warring with each other to serve as entertainment for the gods. They were not to be tortured for fun or toyed with for amusement. Relationships between the humans and the children of Khaos were forbidden on punishment of imprisonment in Tartarus. And for whatever reason, Coronus conceded to her demands.

Thanatos suspected it might have been because she ruled the Underworld and could release some of the more monstrous creatures imprisoned there. Or maybe because she threatened to return her creations to the soil she created them from, and Coronus feared she might be able to do it. It would be a mighty blow to his rule as their worship fed the Titans power base, and without them the Oracle’s prophecy about a son overthrowing Coronus would be possible.

Thanatos snorted. It had been foolish of Coronus to tie his power to the humans in the first place. Humans were fickle and forgetful creatures. They could offer the sacrifices demanded of them and yet retain the bulk of their strength. Faith couldn’t be taken from them, it had to be given freely.

Once his children from Rhea realized it, they would have an advantage over their father. They could stop running and actually fight their father for the chance to rule. Thanatos wouldn’t bet on them. They were a ragtag bunch with little experience and no real leadership. Zeus was way too busy chasing every pretty girl that crossed his path.

Swatting at the flies, he sighed. He hated politics. It was nearly as destructive as religion. Either one could be shaped into a weapon of death.

“STOP!”

Illyria drew to a halt and Thanatos sighed, reminding himself that ripping a human soul from its body would anger his Queen as no direct order for his assassination had been given, and Persephone had banned him from taking their souls just because they annoyed him. That had been a hard adjustment for him. It was nearly impossible to take orders from a woman whose cloths he’d changed as a baby.

He glared down at the man rushing toward him, spear at the ready. “I don’t plan on staying. I’m just passing through,” he growled.

Illyria side-stepped nervously, snorting her dislike at the man. She didn’t like pointy weapons either, but she was one of the Hippoi Athanatoi and immortal. She would heal from a fatal hit.

Thanatos wasn’t so lucky. He was a Protogenoi, and while his spirit was immortal, his body was very mortal, and he was rather fond of it. He would be most displeased if this body died today.

“I can’t let you come any closer to the settlement.” He pointed toward the hills to the West of where they were. “Follow those hills, and no one will bother you.”

Thanatos grinned down at the man, baring his teeth in a not so friendly way. “I will continue on as I am, and I suggest you let me.” He allowed a small trickle of his power to leak outward, slapping the impertinent human with it.

The youth’s eyes widened and his knees failed him. He slammed into the ground, weeping and groveling in the grass like a baby, begging Thanatos not to kill him. “I didn’t know.”

Thanatos sighed. He hoped Persephone didn’t hear about this. Age was making her a little cranky lately, and the longer she went without her mate, the more feral she became. “Stop it! I’m not going to kill you!”

The youth peeked up then jerked his head back down. “You’ve come for the ceremony.” He rose from the ground, keeping his head bowed. “They are about to begin.”

Curiosity won over annoyance, and he nodded. What ceremony would he get to see today? He hoped it was one of the fun ones with feasting and dancing, not the boring type with long speeches and prayers.

The youth led the way, and Thanatos followed, looking around the small village of hide tents. He figured the population was possibly in the hundreds, although he wasn’t sure they’d all been here long. Some areas looked well-worn by time, as if they’d been here for months, while others looked days old, the grass flattened and the paths not yet worn to dirt. What were these people celebrating, and why did they think he’d come to oversee it?

He had his answer several minutes later.

Walking through the crowd that parted before him, he stopped at the edge of the ring of screaming people. Across from him a young man fought with the men trying to hold him back. He seemed very determined to be free.

At its center stood a sobbing blond girl with a knife in her shaking hand, a man who shouted at her that it must be done to save her soul, a barely conscious dark-haired girl covered in blood and tied to a post, and the female shade who screamed at them all and tried to stop the whole travesty before her.

At least he found the shade Persephone had sent him to find. Too bad he couldn’t leave yet. He knew the shade wouldn’t leave without the child. Maybe, if he waited a moment longer, he could take them both to the Underworld.

The shade turned toward him. “Stop them!” she shrieked.

The man grabbed the girl’s hand, bringing the knife up to the bound girl’s throat, and Thanatos sighed.

“STOP!” he roared. He strode into the ring, using his power to slap the knife from the sobbing girl’s hand, and glared at the priest.

The glittering blade sailed through the air and embedded itself in the hard dirt. The blond girl wailed; part from pain and part with relief. The dark-haired girl lifted her head enough to look at him, and he felt a moment of relief that she was alive. Her face was a mottled mess of bruises, blood dripped from several cuts, and her left eye was swollen shut.

“What is the meaning of this?!” he demanded.

The man turned on him. “How dare you interfere?”

Ill-mannered, ignorant plains people!

“I dare!” he roared, letting his power slash out, slamming into the man. It was a little more forceful than he’d planned.

The man’s body lifted off the ground, and flew several feet before landing in a heap.

The blond girl grabbed his arm. “Please, my Lord. Help my sister! Take her far from here! Don’t let them force me to kill her!”

Thanatos glanced at the wailing girl, then toward the other one. “Sisters?”

“We were born on the same day. I came before her. The holy man says I have to kill her. Two bodies, one soul.”

He frowned. What an absurd notion! What idiot had thought up that?

Unsheathing his knife, he reached forward to cut the ropes binding the girl to the post. The strands split easily, and the girl collapsed into her sister’s waiting arms.

“Lil, please, you have to go with him.” The small girl tried to tug her sister to her feet, but Lil wasn’t strong enough to support her own weight. “You have to escape. I love you too much.”

“Love you too, Eva,” Lil mumbled, her swollen jaw making the words nearly incoherent.

Thanatos sighed and stared down at his burden. What was he going to do with a human girl? Why couldn’t he have let it be?

He could be home now instead of dealing with human stupidity. Was he going to save every little girl now? Gods, he hoped not!

Because if he had to rescue another child from such dim-witted humans, he might renege on his promise to Persephone, and take their souls before their time. Then Persephone really would be mad at him.

“See me!” he roared at the crowd, walking a circle around the girls and using all the showmanship he’d learned over the centuries to cow the humans into obedience. “Hear me! I claim the lives of these girls! Does anyone wish to challenge me?”

“They belong to the gods!” the man cried, finally rising from where Thanatos had thrown him. “You can’t have them!”

Thanatos smiled, revealing the daemon beneath the human exterior, and watched the blood drain from the man’s face. “I am Death! The Right-Hand of the Iron Queen! Do you challenge my right to take them?!”

The crowd stepped back, fear in every face. Mentally reaching out to Illyria, he called the Hippoi Athanatoi to him. She burst through the shocked crowd, scattering the humans in every direction, and skidded to a stop before him.

“Not a word,” he growled at her before he lifted Lil out of the hands of her sister.

A shock ran through him, like the buzz after being struck by lightning, only far more pleasant. He glanced down at the child who stared up at him through unfocused brown eyes. Her hand rose, and she touched his cheek.

Grunting, he mounted Illyria and reached down, grabbing the other girl by the back of her tunic, and lifting her into the air. With the use of magic, he deposited the squirming bundle behind him and kept her there. He glanced at the shade. “You are coming too.”

Chapter 1

15 years later
Desert village of the Gatan Tribe

“Ma!”

Lilith glanced up from the complex design of the basket weave and smiled at her son. Rae sprinted over the even ground with the other boys in close pursuit. For a youth of five years, he was fleet of foot and agile despite the baby fat still clinging to his frame.

Nadral believed him too small and soft to grow into a proper man. A trait that Nadral promised to beat out of him when he controlled their son’s education. Lilith disagreed. She could see the wiry strength and potential height hidden within her son. If given the chance, he would be stronger and taller than his father. His sensitive soul would make him a wonderful husband to one of the village girls who’d paused in their games to watch the foot race taking place in the meadow.

Halting, Rae turned to her with a wide grin. “I won!”

She quickly blinked away her tears that threatened and plastered a smile onto her face. “I. . .” She swallowed hard, willing the thickness in her voice away and tried again. “I saw. You did very well.”

While better, the sadness in her voice couldn’t be erased, and her son had heard it.

A frown furrowed Rae’s brow, and he came toward her, his knowing eyes searching her face. “Are you all right, mama?”

She nodded. “It’s about time to return to the village. Why don’t you collect everyone while I gather my things?”

He nodded slowly. The deep frown told her he didn’t believe her.

For a young boy, he was very observant and aware of the emotions around him. Maybe he had to be with a father-figure like Nadral. Thoughts of her mate dissolved the crippling sorrow threatening to overwhelm her. She would not be ruled by foolish emotions for a fate she couldn’t stop. The Moirai had decided, and all she could do was make all the days she had with Rae happy ones.

Standing quickly, she gathered the baskets she’d woven during the day, packed them into the sling, and slipped it over her shoulders. The village children assembled before her, waiting patiently for her to be ready.

They knew better than to leave without her. They were safe in a large group with an armed protector. They would not be safe alone. The lands around them hosted several predators that would find a child easy prey. It would not be the first time carelessness had claimed the life of a villager.

She lifted the deadly scythe from the grass and nodded to the children. Nadral mocked her choice of weapon, calling it the tool of a farmer. He wanted her to brandish the spear he’d traded for, and she’d refused. While she was proficient with several weapons due to her training at the temple, the scythe was her weapon, an extension of her arm. If she ever needed a weapon to protect the children with, she wanted one she could wield the best, and the scythe was it.

Following the laughing children, she scanned the sparse desert, grassland, and water for hidden dangers. And while she’d always be vigilant of the well-being of the children in her care, she knew only one was tainted by death. The blackness that engulfed his bright aura had darkened and thickened by the day. Death would be coming for him soon, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.

Perhaps if she could see how it would happen, she could save him from his fate. But her sight gave her nothing more than insight into the other’s impeding death. And she’d known since the moment she’d saw her son that his time in the land of the living would be limited.

The misty gray swirling around him was only the first sign. Over the last five years it had darkened and lightened, but it had never disappeared. Lakhesis had given her son his lot in life and all Lilith could do was try to protect Rae the best she could.

They arrived at the small village on the edge of the desert, just far enough from the fields beside the river to allow the fertile land to be used to grow crops. Unlike the hide homes of her youth which were easily moved from one place to another as they followed the herds, these homes were made of a mud brick, and the people would remain here until the floods drove them away for a few weeks each year.

When they returned, repairs would be made on the homes. Some of the homes would have to be rebuilt. The belongings they couldn’t bring with them were usually damaged beyond saving and thrown away. Lilith saw it all as a waste. If only they would return to the tents of their ancestors. They could pack up and move before the floods came. Much of what they lost would be saved.

“Lilith!”

She turned toward the woman’s voice, smiling as young Fyla waddled up to her, holding onto her giant belly. In the next month, Fyla would birth a new addition to the Tribe.

Lilith waved the children toward the village. “What can I do for you, Fyla?”

“Is it true?!” she demanded. “Can you see death coming?”

Lilith blinked, shocked by the accusation in her usually sweet voice, and swallowed her fear. Feigning surprise, she shook her head. “What do you speak of?”

“Everyone is talking about the man in your master’s home. He’s come to buy you from Nadral. Says he talked to a priest who said you had the sight, that you could see death coming. Is it true? Could you have saved my Jyrel?”

Looking into Fyla’s bright accusing eyes, Lilith knew the shadow of doubt had been cast over her. No matter what she said now, the village had already decided that a stranger was right. They would never believe her or question why she didn’t tell them about her gift.

She’d refused to tell anyone of her gift because she hadn’t wanted them to fear her. Because the fear would eat at them like a wasting disease, turning into anger with every death until they blamed her, until they decided that they couldn’t trust her and that her curse would be better gone from the village. They would either exile her or kill her.

The events of her childhood would be replayed, and when Rae died, the blame would fall upon her. “I’ve never seen Death, Fyla.”

While the distinction between seeing the aura of death around someone and seeing the Spirits of Death was insignificant to most, they were very different to her. Death was a creature she never wanted to see.

She touched the pregnant woman’s arm. “I couldn’t have saved Jyrel.” Which wasn’t a lie. First, she wasn’t there. Second, his choice that afternoon had saved the one destined for death and stolen his life instead. There was nothing she could have done.

Fyla leaned toward her. “You lie!” she hissed. “Nadral told us you were training at the temple.”

“Of Pallas, not Iapetus. I was to be a handmaiden to Warriors, not Priests of Death. But my skills were seen as unworthy, and I was cast from the temple.”

Fyla shook her head, spitting at Lilith’s feet. “I hope he sells you!” She turned and walked away.

Lilith watched her leave, almost hoping the same. But trading one master for one unknown to her would be foolish.

Ignoring the glares from the villagers, she hurried through the streets to the home of Nadral, son of the Tribes leader and her master. The large mud brick home was amongst the finest in the village, boasting three rooms. The main living area was the size of most villagers’ homes, a small room for the children, and another for Nadral. As a slave to Nadral and not a proper wife, Lilith either slept in the bed with Nadral or before the fire pit in main living area.

She heard the raised voices before she reached the building that had been her home for the last five years.

“Don’t insult me!” Nadral shouted. “I could easily get twice as much for her!”

She reached for the latch.

“It’s all you’ll get from me,” a man growled, and the voice chilled her to her soul.

She snatched her hand back, ready to run. She needed to hide before they saw her. But already it was too late.

The door swung open, and a large man stood in the doorway, staring down at her. He hadn’t changed in five years. He was still a handsome man. His frame was fit and lean, clothed in supple leathers. His body was strong and taller than most men. Her fingers itched to release his long, sandy blond hair from its tie and run her hands through the silky length. It was his only outward show of vanity. Many of the warriors in the ranks of his army cut their hair short. But he refused after she’d once admired the color and mentioned loving longer hair on her men.

Her body warmed at the memory of long nights in his bed. Sex with Adman had been adventurous and beyond pleasant.

“Lilith?” he breathed, stepping closer to her. His brown eyes warmed, and the backs of his fingers brushed lightly against her cheek. A gesture that was both tender and possessive. “Kar’ela par’ja.”

Lover of my heart.

Her heart flipped in her chest at his words and for one moment she deluded herself into thinking that he meant it. This was the man who’d come to take her from this life of slavery. She could be his again. She could be free of Nadral. All she had to do was betray everything she believed and held dear. She’d have to go with a murderer of innocent people.

“She’s mine,” Nadral snarled, grabbing her arm.

His punishing grip twisted her arm, and tears sprang to her eyes. He jerked her to his side, and she stumbled, nearly falling to her knees before regaining her feet. She dared a glance at Adman beneath her lowered eyelashes, and fear rose to swallow her whole.

His youthful face, innocent in appearance, could not hide the coldness of his soul. His look said it all. He would have her. He would destroy everything to possess her. And he would kill anyone standing between him and what he wanted.

She laid a calming hand on his arm. “Nadral, please—”

His hand struck her cheek, silencing her warning. “This is between men!” He shoved her through the doorway and she fell to her knees.

Adman, her warlord lover, the true father of her child, knew everything about her. He knew what she was capable of and what she had done to survive on the streets she’d found herself on to protect Eva. So when she didn’t retaliate for Nadral’s treatment of her by killing him, Adman’s eyes narrowed. His hand flexed at his side, reaching for the weapon that wasn’t there. Not that he needed it to take her. The villagers would not protest, and one hit would kill Nadral.

She didn’t pretend that Adman loved her; no more than he loved his horse or his sword. He loved no one besides himself. He was angry because, in his eyes, she was his property, and Nadral had marked her. While she cared nothing for Nadral or his miserable life, she knew beyond a doubt that Adman would come for her and everyone would die. It wouldn’t be the first time.

She bowed her head and let the tears fall. Her sorrow was short-lived. Nadral joined her in the house and she could feel his anger like a living breathing dragon.

“He was willing to pay a lot for you. Why?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know.” The lie stung her throat.

She didn’t know why Adman wanted her, but she could guess. She was his. She knew his secrets. He knew who she was and what she was capable of doing to survive. He knew the truth about her, and that knowledge might save the village, but it would condemn her to death.

Wrenching pain shot through her scalp as she was lifted off her knees. She scrambled to her feet, relieving most of the pressure, and met Nadral’s angry eyes. “He knows you, Lilith. He knows more about you than I do.”

“And you believe everything he said!”

“He had no reason to lie to me,” Nadral growled.

She needed to place doubt on Adman’s words, whatever they might be, before Nadral lost control and beat her. “He had every reason to lie. If you wanted something badly enough you would, too!”

“But why you? He was willing to pay me three horses for you. He could find a lovely face much cheaper than that. What could he possibly want from you?”

“I have nothing, Nadral.”

His hand tightened in her hair, and she winced. “He said you could see death.”

She allowed the tears to fall, knowing it would disgust him. “Fyla said the same. I’ve never seen Death.”

He grunted and tossed her. She slammed into the wall and fell into a heap on the floor. Covering her face with her hands, she let the sobs shake her shoulders and listened, waiting for the blows to fall. If he thought she lied, he’d beat the truth from her.

Nadral cursed and left the house. He believed her for the moment. He would talk it over with his father or one of his brothers. Later he would return with questions. Ones she couldn’t answer.

Wiping the tears from her cheeks, she stood, determined. She needed to prepare for a long journey. She would leave the village on the morrow and take her son with her. Maybe she would save Rae’s life in the process. She put her plans into motion, hiding a pack of supplies for her and Rae in the kitchen. Later that night, Lilith drifted into a light sleep beside Nadral.

She woke abruptly from sleep and rose from the bed in a single, swift motion. Her senses searched for the cause of her alarm. At first there was nothing except the normal sounds of the night and Nadral’s curses toward her for waking him.

A muffled cry sent her running from the room and toward her son. By then, it was too late. Her violent past had met her peaceful present. Her future had come for her and brought death in its wake.

Chapter 2

Staring out over the barren wasteland of the Underworld, Thanatos smiled. It had begun.

The old, weak visages of magic trickling through the caverns crystal veins were now pulsing with new life, an acknowledgment of its creator’s arrival. The cool mustiness that had become part of living here was receding, replaced by a warm breeze that freshened the air and kept the cavernous Underworld at a more temperate clime.

This place was once a breathtaking reproduction of the living world, in many ways Thanatos thought it superior to that world, filled with vibrant colors and warmth that never faded. Until the day their Queen was taken from them. For three years, it had languished in neglect. Each day a little piece had died.

But now the desolate landscape was coming to life. Small patches of green bloomed on the gnarled trees and dotted the hillsides. The jeweled plants emerged from their dormant state, a rainbow of color. Soon it would be like it once was. All it needed was a push, an infusion of love and power from their Queen and King.

He sighed, glancing at the somber daemon behind him. On his best days Hades wasn’t the happiest god. Even as a child, he’d been serious and industrious, never stopping, never resting, until he collapsed from exhaustion. At least he’d been more playful and enjoyable to be around. After his return with Persephone, and her rejection of him a few days back, Hades had become downright morose. It was all doom and gloom with him. It was downright depressing being around him.

There had to be something he could do to push Hades and his kidnapped bride together. Persephone needed him as much as Hades needed her.

“You don’t have to stay if this bores you,” Hades growled from the other side of the room.

Thanatos snorted softly. Whatever had happened to the loving and care-free Hades he remembered? That Hades had been amusing. The dark lord of the Underworld was downright boring.

But he knew the answer to that question. Young Hades had been in love with a daemon woman and learned in a single passionate kiss what his love and touch could do. He’d nearly killed the weaker daemon, and the depth of his grief over the loss of the woman had scarred him.

“I’m fine. My mind wandered to other things. Proceed.”

“You have the attention span of butterfly.”

He grinned and turned back to the window, catching a glimpse of Persephone slipping out of the palace. She furtively glanced around her.

Persephone, one who was less talented than the woman who’d ruled the Underworld for several hundred years, started down the white path toward the Judgment Hall. Several times she paused to glance around before she continued. Did she think to follow the path along the River Styx to the hidden Gate leading into the World of the Living? What would she do once there? How did she plan to return to her mother’s vale? It was, after all, quite a distance from here.

He turned toward Hades again. “Your lady wife is leaving.”

Hades looked up from the book he was studying. “I know.” He didn’t move.

Damn! He’d hoped Hades would chase after her. “Where do you think she’s going?” he mused.

The book Hades had been looking through snapped closed. He pushed it way with a rasp, pulling another to him. Thanatos briefly wondered what exactly he was doing. He’d started this strange habit of studying the books and writing notes days after he’d brought Persephone to the Underworld and declared her his wife. Although, to Thanatos’ knowledge, she’d never be his wife until they had sex. It was one of the prerequisites of the ritual of kidnapping a bride.

At the rate they were going, they’d never consummate their marriage, and Thanatos would have to stoop to drastic actions to get them in the same room. He wondered if a room in Tartarus could be made free. He’d lock them both in a cell and refuse to let them out until they made him a grandfather.

He chortled. The idea had merit. He’d have to see what he could arrange.

He turned back to Hades. “Aren’t you worried she’ll disappear?”

Hades body stiffened and his jaw tightened. He didn’t want to talk about it, which made Thanatos more curious. Demeter had found his curious nature troublesome and her least favorite of his vast array of irritating traits. Traits she’d very honestly shared with him before she left the home he’d created for her.

Shaking off the memories that threatened to rise about his past lover, he tried to focus on the current problem. And while it involved Demeter indirectly, he was more worried about the Fates of his daughter, his friend, and the Underworld.

He thought Hades was interested in Persephone. He knew from their conversations that Hades wanted to marry Persephone and not the Iron Queen. That while marrying the Iron Queen would secure his kingdom, he didn’t love the woman he’d never met. Thanatos was positive Hades didn’t know that Persephone and the Iron Queen were the same woman. The only reason he didn’t tell Hades was it was far more amusing to watch this play out. There was little that amused him of late.

“No. She can’t get into too much trouble, either.”

“Are you sure? Most of the dissidents of the Underworld would do anything for a beautiful lady. If she asks, they might just try putting you back in Tartarus,” Thanatos joked.

Hades sighed and finally glanced at Thanatos. Thanatos didn’t have to probe deeply into Hades’ thoughts to read the strong emotions. Hades knew the denizens of the Underworld, many of whom were considered the dregs of proper immortal society, wouldn’t hesitate to defend Persephone against him. He knew that Thanatos would keep Persephone safe from him and from the threat Rhea had warned him was coming for her.

Thanatos could also feel the depths of Hades’ shame. He didn’t like what he’d done to Persephone. Honorable men didn’t kidnap unwilling women, even if it was to save them from marriage to disgusting Hermes or rape at Apollo’s hands. Honorable men protected and cherished the woman in their care. They gave them the freedom of choice and aided them finding their life path. Hades was all for giving Persephone a choice, but he wasn’t helping her escape the Underworld.

Thanatos shook his head, pulling himself out of Hades’ mind. He’d never taken Hades for a romantic. And from the sound of his thoughts, Hades was an honorable man. One who never again wanted to see the look in his Bride’s eyes as when he told her they were married. Persephone had cut deep into the soul of a good man, and for once Thanatos was ashamed of his daughter’s actions.

Then again, he also agreed with Hades’ thoughts. Good men didn’t kidnap women. It was a conundrum he would have to sort out later.

“Do you think they’ll put me back in Tartarus?” Hades asked suddenly. “I could use the rest.”

While meant as a joke, the sorrow in his voice told Thanatos more than every thought in his head that he truly believed he belonged in Tartarus, imprisoned for eternity. He saw himself as a monster, a creature unworthy of Persephone, or any woman.

“That wasn’t funny,” Thanatos growled. Hades was quite literally the only man for Persephone.

“No? Oh well, I won’t quit my job as the glorified steward of the Underworld.”

“You’d let them take the Underworld from you without a fight, wouldn’t you?”

Hades finally had what he wanted! A wife! A home! A chance at a future!

Hades shrugged. “What do you want me to do, Thanatos? I claimed Persephone over your Iron Queen. I have no real claim to the throne Zeus gave me. When your Queen returns, do you really think she’ll want me here anymore than the rest of you do?”

Thanatos’ eyes narrowed, moving closer to the table, his suspicions confirmed. Hades didn’t know who Persephone was. He’d chosen her over the Iron Queen. But the real question was why? Why would he give up a kingdom for a woman?

He stopped before the table. “Why did you choose Persephone, Hades?”

“She needed me.”

He placed his hands on the table and leaned forward. Needed him? Could he be any more vague with that statement?

The images flitting through Hades’ head spoke louder than words. Hades wanted her. Hades needed her. And he wasn’t the only one. Apollo, Ares, and Hermes were also after his daughter. There were probably a dozen more that hadn’t made their intentions clear. He’d love to see the arrogant dolts burned out like candles with a single kiss of Persephone’s lips.

“You don’t want to be here, so why stay?”

“Why, indeed?” Hades placed his head in his hands. “I’m so tired of fighting, Thanatos. I fight to protect the ones I love. I fight to survive. I fight to carve a place for myself in this world. I fight to keep what is mine. And at every turn, someone threatens to take it from me. I don’t have it in me anymore.”

His tightly controlled passions rioted within him, tearing at the walls of their prison, seeking a way out. His sorrow bled from his heart like a gaping, raw wound. His rage, a festering sore that slowly stole his reason to fight, was also taking his reason to live. Inside, he was howling his grief.

“Hades, you are the son of Eris and Horkus, not a weakling god—”

“But that’s the point, Thanatos.” He looked up, his eyes revealing unbelievable weariness. His years weighed upon his soul, as did the one source of his pain. “I’m both a god and a daemon. I am a four-thousand-year-old Phlegethon without his mate. How many others do you know that have lived so long and remained sane?”

Thanatos shook his head. It couldn’t be true. He would have felt the power of a Phlegethon daemon-god!

Like he’d felt it that night with Menthe. . . .

He fell into the only other chair at the table. How could he have missed it? “Without your mate, you’ll…”

Hades would lose complete touch with reality. His power, tied with his emotions and passion, would become wild and dangerous until only the most instinctual and base desires lingered. Everything he was, everything he might be, would be gone until only a feral beast remained.

Thanatos would be forced to imprison him in Tartarus for the safety of all, or tear his immortal soul from his body. Neither option appealed to him.

Hades nodded. “It’s happening already. It started the day Zeus released me. And it worsens every day. If I’m not joined with my mate soon, Persephone might as well be a widow.”

And without Hades to ground her, his beloved daughter, his Persephone, would follow Hades into madness. Thanatos knew beyond a doubt that Persephone needed Hades, that he was her mate. He knew it the moment he’d followed her to Hades’ prison cell all those years ago and watched her cry for the daemon she never met and yet craved with all her soul. They needed each other to survive.

***

Lilith raced toward the faint clink of metal coming from Rae’s room, grabbing a knife on her way through the kitchen. She burst through the doorway, and saw the shadowy man hovering over her son’s bed, sword in hand. She didn’t hesitate. She attacked.

She was already too late.

The sword plunged downward, piercing the thick fur robe, mat, and the dirt floor beneath. Her knife sliced through the flesh and muscle, sinking deep into the spot between his armor plates. Her other hand closed over the hilt of his knife, drawing it from the sheath.

He roared, swinging around, and his meaty fist connected with her temple, throwing her body across the room. She slammed into the wall, losing the knife. Pain flared through her body, and she cried out, sliding to the floor.

The raider jerked the blade from his side, and blood gushed out. It wasn’t a fatal wound.

She blindly searched for the knife, a plan forming in her mind. She only needed a few seconds to distract him, and she had fifteen years of experience.

“What is—”

The sword whistled through the air, no longer aimed at her, but Nadral. Warm blood splashed over her. She turned her head away, bile rising in her throat. Nadral’s words died on a gurgle.

She glanced back at the man she hated. His body slumped in the doorway, his head resting at an unnatural angle. His soul was already pulling away from the body. She wished she felt more relief at his death. She was free of him.

Her gaze drifted to the raider. She would be free the moment she killed the man.

The raider spit on the body and turned toward her with a grin. “I don’t care what he says. I’m going to gut you like a fish.”

She had one chance to make him hesitate.

Gripping the knife against her leg, she slowly rose, using the wall to support her, making herself appear weaker then she felt, although the room swayed a bit. “Adman would be most displeased if you did. After all, I’m the reason you are here.”

The man frowned at her, looking her up and down. “You!”

She tilted her head up, bestowing her most seductive smile upon him, and took a hesitant step forward. She didn’t fall on her face which was a good sign. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know who you were.” She glided toward him the best she could, hips swaying, drawing his gaze.

She touched his sword hand, swirling her fingers over his armor and up his arm. This wasn’t the part she liked, but it was what she was good at. She knew men’s weakness, could see it in their eyes, and she knew how to exploit it against them. “I’d like to make it up to you.”

His slack jawed expression was more than she needed to know his thoughts had moved from murder to sex. She caught her bottom lip between her teeth and snaked her fingers down his chest plate. His eyes followed the path of her fingers downward.

“It will be our little secret.”

He nodded, grinning like the idiot he was. She smiled back, and drove the knife deep into the exposed flesh above his armor. He reared back and slapped her. Hot agony exploded across her face. She reeled back, crashing to the floor. Her already abused head snapped back, smacking the ground hard.

The world around her tipped and swayed the moment she opened her eyes and tried to move. Her stomach rebelled, twisting with nausea. She closed her eyes against the early morning light, and struggled to get her belly under control before she lost her last meal.

Had Nadral beaten her? He’d never been so brutal or struck her face before. He didn’t like leaving marks where he or anyone else could see them.

A few deep breaths later, and she tried to move again. Everything was blurry and indistinct, her sight swimming. Where was she and what happened to her?

She searched her sketchy memories. She remembered feeding Rae and Nadral. . . Nadral demanded her presence in his bed and used her body roughly, but nothing that accounted for the soreness that seemed attached to every inch of her body. Last she remembered, she’d heard a noise in the house.

Sitting up slowly, she frowned at the stiffness in her joints and the sticky substance coating her skin. It reminded her of the time she fell on a rotten log with an abandoned bee hive. She’d been coated with honey to the amusement of Eva and Adman.

The thought of her old friend brought everything back. The faint clink of metal. Rushing to Rae’s room. The man hovering over his bed. Using the man’s knife to kill him. But not before. . .

She scanned the room, spotting Nadral in the doorway, his head resting at an unnatural angle, his flesh pale grey. Dead. The raider lay beside Rae’s bed, the knife deep in his chest, his body in a pool of dark blood. Dead.

She stood and staggered toward the bed, her vision tilting and blackening, her stomach rebelling every move. It hadn’t been Nadral who’d beaten her, but the raider before she’d plunged the knife into his chest. She must have hit her head hard.

Closing her eyes, she steadied herself, and took a deep breath before opening her eyes and looking down.

Rae wasn’t in his bed.

Heart thundering in her ears, Lilith swung around, searching the room. There wasn’t a place to hide here. He wasn’t in his room. She moved toward the door, determined to search the house, and nearly collapsed when the world threatened to disappear. She probably had a head wound, and she knew it was far too dangerous to lose consciousness. She’d seen warriors die in their sleep due to head wounds far less severe.

Moving slowly and efficiently through the house, she looked for her son. He wasn’t in the house. Had he done as she’d once told him to and ran? Would he be waiting for her in a place he felt safe? She prayed to all the gods of her childhood that he was safe.

She walked toward the door and her sluggish brain finally registered the sounds and smells outside.

People were running. Men shouting. Women screaming. Children crying. Metal clanged. The rancid scent of smoke and burning meat tinted the air, mixing with the stink of waste and the tangy scent of blood. Seven years of training slammed into place. She knew what was happening. The raiders were burning the village and slaughtering the people. There was nowhere to hide.

She stalked toward the dead raider. She picked up the knife from the floor and ripped the other from his chest. She then headed toward the kitchen to retrieve her scythe and the small pack she’d hidden there.

She had to find Rae before it was too late, and may the gods have mercy on any soul that stood in her way.

Chapter 3

Thanatos was no stranger to death.

He’d seen every possible way there was to die. He lived with it day after day, century upon century. But even a feral predator such as himself knew that the outright destruction such as the scene before him wasn’t natural. It couldn’t even be considered war.

He’d seen war. He’d even participated in battles. War had never bothered him, but the utter devastation and meaningless loss of life he saw as he stood outside the small village, sickened him to his darkened soul.

There was no reason for it. This was no natural disaster with Rhea sending warning signs of impending doom that had been ignored because the people thought the signs read in sheep intestines were more reliable. No flood by Okeanos’ unpredictable mood. Coronus was too busy being tortured in Tartarus with his Titan allies to destroy creatures he saw as beneath his notice. This wasn’t a bid for survival.

What lay before him was a slaughter.

The men had died horribly in the defense of their women and children, clutching farm implements, knives, and dull axes. Many lay where they fell. Others were strung up on display for everyone who passed this village to see. But the fighters were not the only dead.

Women had died shielding their children. A spear driven through a young woman’s back had pierced through the child, pinning them both to the side of a home. The women had died with their men, their children and infants slaughtered like diseased cattle. The unborn ripped from their mothers’ wombs.

Covering his mouth and nose with a cloth from his belt, he tied it behind his head and wished it could mask the stink of so many dead. The scent of iron was long gone, even if the dark stains and sticky pools of red-black blood were not. The stink of so many dead bodies, charred by fire and baking in the noonday sun, became a stomach-turning stench of decay and rot.

A woman with empty eye sockets and a hole torn through her stomach lay in his path. She’d probably been killed with a sword to the gut. The wild animals had started their work. The birds had taken the eyes. The scavengers had torn into the damaged flesh to feed their bellies. The insects buzzed around her.

Stepping over the woman’s body, he moved swiftly through the fire blackened village, searching for the souls of the dead.

Only he found nothing. Not a single soul.

Usually he found them sitting beside their bodies in a state of confusion as they tried to piece together what had happened and what they were to do next. Sometimes larger groups huddled together, a form of comfort from their mortal lives. They sought the familiar.

But there were no souls here for him to collect, only the ghosts of memories burned into the very ground he walked. Images that haunted his vision. Children playing in the streets, chasing each other, and shouting their victory. The giggling groups of young women watching the young men strut and demonstrate their prowess as providers. The stolen kisses of soon-to-be lovers. Mothers cuddling their babes and smiling at the antics of the young. The elders reminiscing of their youth, when everything was different and life was better. There was even the occasional tender moment between mates who’d aged together, loved and bore the hardships of life. The celebration of the tribe with the birth of a child and the group mourning at the passing of a loved one.

Their whole lives and their horrible screaming deaths played out before him like a gruesome play that Ares’ might convince the Muses to do.

These people were farmers, tilling the ground for food and raising wild beasts for meat. They weren’t warriors. They had no weapons to defend themselves except the knives they butchered their livestock with and the scythe they used to cut their harvest. They hadn’t a chance against the force that sweep through their village.

The first to die and those who fought until their last breaths had been lucky compared to those who sought mercy at the hands of their murderers. Because there was no mercy in the war-like men and women who thought it easier to kill than gather their own food for the coming season. They were the type to prey upon the unsuspecting population of dirt grubbers, revel in torture, and drink in the pain and death like elixir. They would rather massacre an entire village, burn the fields to soil, and steal what they wanted than work for what they needed.

He witnessed the tortures of the men sliced to pieces and the raping of the women until the fight left their eyes. He watched the killers bathe in the blood of the dead and dying. He watched them perform unspeakable acts upon their victims that would probably impress the ever bloodthirsty Furies and his own daughters by Kerena, the Keres.

He became their witness.

And when the killers finally met him, he would make sure there was a special place in Tartarus waiting. They would soon know the pain and suffering they inflicted upon their victims. They would understand fear.

Walking past a mostly intact hovel, Thanatos at last found the shades. They were standing at the edge of the village, watching something he couldn’t quite see through the mass of their diaphanous bodies. A man, bent with age and a wasting disease that would have taken his life within months had he lived, turned toward him, his eyes bright, as if he was crying. Slowly the others faced him, sensing his presence among them.

This was the moment he hated, because there was no way to explain to the newly dead, who rarely understood their new roles, that the gods they prayed to had abandoned them. That they cared about humans as long as it suited their needs. That upon their death they were now under the guardianship of the Queen of the Underworld and that she, of all the gods on Mount Othyrs and Mount Olympus, had willingly accepted her fate as their guardian. That she’d taken stewardship over the shades once condemned to roam the world, confused and scared, and created a haven for them. They could follow him to the Underworld and a chance at happiness, or they could remain lost souls, forever wandering.

He couldn’t force them. His Queen forbade it. They had to follow him willingly into the darkness and judgment. They had to accept their deaths and move on, maybe even decide to be reborn into the world. She would only accept those who came willingly and criminals who could not be left to roam the world.

A few refused his offer, wishing instead to cling to a life that held no solace for them, and continue as if nothing happened. No matter how he explained it, they would not move on, and he hated to see them ruin the lives of the living they loved by remaining behind. It never ended well.

These shades were different. Their energy thrummed with power. Their souls glowed red. They understood what happened to them. They’d accepted it.

They knew who he was and why he was there. He could see it in the expressions on their faces. And he knew beyond a doubt they would not come with him.

The looks of determination implored him to understand, to leave them to the fate they’d chosen. The question was why. They had nothing left to stay for. They couldn’t even enact the revenge they sought. Everyone was dead or gone.

If they wanted to remain for those who’d been captured and taken, they wouldn’t be here now. Which made him wonder why. Why did they stay? Why would they risk eternity trapped on the mortal plane? Why would they risk angering the goddess of death they so feared?

Not that Persephone was all that fearsome when it came to the free will of her creations. She’d created the Underworld for them, a place where the lost could reside. It didn’t mean that she was a pushover either. She hadn’t earned the title of the Iron Queen for nothing.

He was so distracted by the souls he barely reacted to the woman stalking toward him with a look of deadly determination on her lovely face. Black haired, dark-eyed, small in stature, and pale of skin, the blood-splattered, soot-covered woman-child struck out with a wicked-looking knife, cutting through his tunic and almost decapitating him with the bloody scythe in her other hand. He danced out of her reach as searing pain blossomed from his neck.

Grinning at the spirited woman pursuing him, he touched the cut on his throat. The situation wasn’t really funny. He was rather attached to this body and would like to keep it a few centuries longer.

He ducked under another strike, the scythe whistling through the air above his head, and the knife sliced into his arm. Several strands of white-blonde hair rained down on him and the cut stung. “Can’t we talk about this?”

She screamed. The scythe slashed toward his unprotected gut. The leather vest split, and the blade skimmed across his ribs.

He caught her wrist, stopping the knife a hairsbreadth from his face. “I’m not your enemy!” he shouted over her screaming.

She struck out and he seized her other wrist, twisting her around. The knife bit into the underside of his arm, but he ignored it. The pain was brief, already healing along with the other wounds. The advantage of being a Protogenoi meant quick healing, and his physical form wasn’t necessary even if there were benefits to having it.

She thudded hard against his chest, arms crossed over her chest, and weapons useless. It didn’t mean she was unarmed. The heel of her sandals racked uselessly down the side of his boots. She even tried jerking her body from his hold by letting her body turn into a boneless heap. It didn’t work.

He held her and waited for her to calm down. Another advantage of his god-like state was that he didn’t tire or need sleep as often as the tiny slip of a girl who was exhausted and human. There was little else he could gather from her muddled thoughts.

“Now are you ready to listen?”

Her answer was push off the ground and slam into his nose. Bone snapped and pain flared across his face. Blood gushed down his chin, and he cursed Persephone for creating such an obstinate woman.

“You curse the Goddess of Death?!” Her shock was plain in her tone. At least it stopped her attack.

“She likes me,” he replied, letting the woman go with a shove. “Most days.”

She stumbled forward and righted herself, turning on him with weapons held at the ready. “Are you mad? The Queen is not a goddess to battle with.”

He agreed. Persephone wasn’t a goddess to battle with. She’d been trained by Eris at his insistence. She was one of the fiercest, most dangerous goddesses the world would ever see and that didn’t include the power flowing through her veins. She could rip a soul from its mortal or immortal body. She was also unaware of all of it at the moment.

Keeping the woman in sight, he tore the sleeve off his tunic and held it to his nose. Already his accelerated healing was doing its job and knitting the bones together. The other wounds were mostly healed, if a little sore still. Other than his ruined shirt and blood streaming down his chin, no one would be the wiser. “What’s your name, girl? And why are you still here?”

“The dead needed to be buried.”

He blinked, trying to place where he might have seen the woman before. He’d probably collected the soul of a relative. “Even if it costs you your life?”

Her chin hardened, though the fear in her eyes twisted his heart. “Yes.”

Thanatos shook his head. “Fool woman,” he growled, although he couldn’t stop the grin crossing his face.

She had spirit and honor. Two things he highly respected in the human race, even if it lead to stupid choices at times. Now if he could dissuade her from killing him, which was a thought still rattling around in her head, maybe he could help her.

He sighed. He knew better then to get involved in the lives of humans. It never ended well and, quite frankly, usually ended in pain for him. He should leave her to her fate and come back in a few days to collect her soul with the others. It was obvious that the people stayed out of some belief that this tiny slip of a woman would avenge them.

Lifting his fingers to his mouth, he let loose a loud, shrill whistle that echoed through the valley. It wasn’t necessary to call Illyria to him, but he thought it might frighten the girl less if his horse acted like a horse and not the Hippoi Athanatoi she was.

Seconds later, Illyria, his pale horse, trotted into the view. “You’ll need something to keep up your strength or you’ll be joining them sooner than you’d like.”

Keeping an eye on her in case she decided to take his head with her scythe, he reached into the empty pack on the saddle. Power flared and a single thought produced a primitive skin filled with water and a leather cloth with a meal of cheese, bread, and fruit wrapped inside.

He nudged Illyria with his shoulder, and the mare snorted at him, her opinion of the situation clear. He was an idiot to get involved. Their duty was to the dead, not the living. Hadn’t he learned his lesson about living humans yet?

He shrugged and grinned at her. Persephone had only been mad at him for a year for interfering, and the girls were placed in a home with a childless couple who adored them. In his mind, it had been worth the risk.

The mare walked a short distance away and started nipping at the grass as if she were a true horse and not one of the Hippoi Athanatoi, immortal horses of the gods. She didn’t need to eat.

Thanatos set the items on a rock. “Eat.”

The filthy, soot covered woman awarded him a suspicious glare. “I’d rather starve than eat your poisoned food.”

He sighed. “Why would I poison you? If I wanted you dead, I’d just have to wait another day or two.”

When she still didn’t touch the food or water, he lifted the water skin to his mouth and without touching the spout, let the water dribble into his mouth. He swallowed several gulps of water he didn’t need. “Not poisoned.” He opened the leather wrapped meal and sampled every piece of food inside. “Neither is this. I have no reason to want you dead.”

Her eyes narrowed and a frown furrowed her brow. “Why keep me alive? I hurt you. I tried to kill you.”

Because he was a fool who was tempted by the strength and the beauty he saw under the dirt, grime, and blood. Because he respected bravery in the face of one’s fear. Because she honored the dead and refused to leave them to rot even knowing it would cost her life. Because she was unsuspectingly lethal, gliding from one move into the other with a sensual grace that enticed him on a sexual level he hadn’t experienced in years. Because she was so very fragile and broken, her vulnerability and mortality spoke to something deep inside him. Because he didn’t want to be the one to collect her soul. Because he desired her with a fierceness that shocked him. Because, in some twisted, way he felt he owed her and wanted to protect her.

“Because you need the food more than I do.”

“Humph.”

If her expression didn’t let him know her opinion of him, her thoughts sure did. She thought he wanted her to warm his bed, and the images of others who’d taken the same from her seemed to prove her point. The very idea sickened him. How could they treat her, or any woman, in such a disgusting manner? If his desires had run in that direction, he would have been ashamed of himself.

Good thing, the only thing he wanted from her was to keep her alive long enough to drop her off at the next village. He didn’t bed humans. He just saved the ones he liked from the stupidity of others.

“You eat, and I’ll bring the bodies here. Then I’ll take you to the nearest village.”

Her eyes narrowed. “What do you want in return?”

He wanted a lot, but nothing she could give him. Nothing he would take from her. Friendship with a mortal would be short-lived.

He sighed and presented her with his back, trusting that she no longer wanted to kill him, and shed his ruined vest. “You remind me of my daughters,” he said lamely.

Which wasn’t necessarily a lie, although, it wasn’t the full truth either. The woman had a lot of the same qualities that he respected about his girls. He was sure they could be friends, but they were also very different. And unlike his daughters, he was attracted to this mortal and needed to keep his distance before he did something irrevocably dim-witted. Like break a truly unbreakable law.

“If the same thing happened to them, I hope that someone would give them aid. I’m only doing what I think is right.”

And that was the truth.

Originally Published August 2014
Copyright by Stephannie Beman


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