“Hades,” her soft voice whispered across his senses. “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.
He placed his weight upon his legs and straightened. The chains above his head rattled. The pressure on his suspended arms lessened until needles tingled beneath the surface of his numb limbs. Jagged stones and shards of broken pottery sliced the soles of his tattered feet.
Peering through the greasy black strands of his long hair, he stared at the renewed torment that would be his.
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. Her skin was 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 known that when he sent Leuce to him. He didn’t know the truth behind their relationship.
“Look at me, Hades,” she snapped, a sudden and sharp relief to the screams whirling around him. “See what your pride has done to me!”
He winced, fighting the urge to play Coronus’ twisted game. She wasn’t his Leuce. His Leuce was dead. The creature before him a mere shade of the woman he had known. She was a puppet, a spirit trapped in the Hell that was his prison, a pawn to the whims of their jailer.
“Go away, phantom,” he rasped.
She stamped her foot. “Look at me, damn you!”
He lifted his heavy head, and the coarse hair of his tangled beard pulled against the half-healed scabs covering his chest. He met her eyes and a triumphant smile twisted her face, but in the depths of her black eyes he could see 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.
If she stayed, her presence would break him. Piece by piece she would destroy what little soul he had left, and with it, his will to resist Coronus. If she remained here, he would grow to hate her in death with the same passion with which he loved her in life.
“You’re not her. You’re a shade, a paltry replica. I have nothing to say to you.”
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 hate. She was as passionate in death as she’d been in life. “You killed me!”
“Murderer!” his constant companions shrieked in unison.
“If you’re going to torture me, Coronus,” he whispered, glaring at Leuce’s shade, “stick with the voices of my victims. At least I killed them.”
“Killer! Monster!” the voices screamed in agreement.
The phantoms of those who’d died because of him raced around the chamber. Their accusations grounded him in the familiar. He was the murderer, assassin, and killer they accused him of being. He was what the world had made him, but he was also more. He was the warrior, hunter, and hero of the rebellion. The world might have condemned and reviled him for his demon blood. But then he’d never truly belonged to the worlds of gods or the demons, mortals, or immortals. He was a Phlegethon Demon-God, a spirit of fiery passions given immortal form, and he would never bow to the likes of Coronus.
Her eyes narrowed, and she glided closer. Her black hair whipped 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?”
“No.” At least not entirely.
“I’m a rotting corpse, Hades!”
A blue tinge spread across her lovely bronzed skin. The faint blue turned white then gray. 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, unable to move. 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.
Yes! his soul screamed in agreement. It should have been him. He should have died that day, not her. But her death was in the past and it could not be changed.
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. Her hands swept down her skeleton. “This is what I am because of you!”
It wasn’t her, he tried to remind himself.
“Assassin!” the chanting voices continued their relentless assault. “Killer! Monster!”
“You’re a worthless god! An incompetent man!”
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, and 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! Demon!” the voices of his victims echoed their agreement.
“You’re not Leuce,” he whispered, suddenly unsure.
The skeleton grabbed his chin, steadying him, her laugh sharp and cutting. “You’d like to think that, wouldn’t you? It would make it easier if all these lives weren’t on your head.” He stared into the empty eye sockets, and every word she spoke did more damage than the pottery slicing his feet to ribbons. “You’re a pathetic fool, Hades. We’re all dead because of you!”
“Murderer! Assassin!” the cacophony of voices hissed.
“I know…” he whispered.
Too late he realized his mistake. All the sorrow and guilt he felt were in those two little words. He had betrayed them both in a single sentence.
Leuce would never know the peace she deserved. She would be bound to Hades 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.
Hades 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.
Squeezing his chin, her bony fingers sliced into his flesh. “Did you ever love me, Hades? Was I ever good enough for you? Why couldn’t I be what you wanted? All I wanted was your love!”
And in those few words, Coronus gave him the strength he needed. “You are not my Leuce.”
Leuce had never questioned what he’d felt for her because Hades had done everything he could to protect her from his life, keeping her as far away from the war as he could and placing her happiness before his own. He’d never hidden who he was or what he was capable of doing to protect his people. She knew the monster and the man, the demon and the god. His Leuce knew he loved her.
Jerking against the chains that bound him to his cell, Hades howled his defiance to the Titan King. “I will never bow before you, Coronus. I will never give you what you want. I swear by the River Styx, if I am ever freed from this place, I will destroy your world! I will destroy you!”
The web of magic in the room drew tight. The power snaking along his skin, keeping him from accessing his own magic, burned his skin. The stale air of his prison changed, an infinitesimal shift charged with electricity and the taste of sea mist. Hades breathed deep, savoring the scent. It gave him the hope of a reprieve.
A subtle shift jangled through the dense net holding him, shattering the delicate strands of magic, and releasing the compulsion upon them all. The voices ceased. Flesh reformed over Leuce’s bones, and Coronus’ influence faded from her eyes.
They stared at each other for several seconds, neither speaking, neither knowing what to say.
“A little dramatic,” a man said, breaking the moment between them.
Leuce turned on the intruders like an attacking long-tooth tiger. Her finger bones scraped bloody furrows down Hades’ cheeks. “Who are you?” she demanded of the two forms shrouded in the gloomy dark of his prison.
“Be gone, phantom,” the shorter of the two said, stepping into the cell. Not a Titan but a god stood before them. He waved his hand in a half circle, obvious disgust in his eyes as they rested on Leuce. “Return to your rest.”
Hades clenched his teeth at the dismissal. 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. This god 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. She leaned forward, her lips brushing across his cheek. “I love you, too, Hades.”
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 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 who 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, but he didn’t have to lie. “Why did she send you?”
The two brothers exchanged questioning glances.
Hades processed the minute expressions and appearance of the two men and recognized his enemy. “You’re the sons of Coronus.” He licked his dry lips. They were his freedom! “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 on the faces of others. These gods were no different.
Focusing his gaze upon Zeus, Hades knew he could convince the red-haired god to free him. All Hades had to do was dangle the prize before his eyes until he took the bait. And the best way to convince Zeus to free him was to appeal to his desires. “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 feet.
“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 as wife.”
Zeus reached towards the chains, and Hades sighed with relief as power surged from his liberator’s fingers. The locks clicked and fell away. His legs, unused to the weight of his body, buckled. Hades fell upon the blood soaked stones, slicing his knees and hands on the broken pottery.
The air around them warmed, and the first fiery ripples of pure, unadulterated power tingled along Hades’ skin, burning into his flesh. 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 roared.
The agony was worse than anything the Titans had ever devised. It was every second of his imprisonment compressed into one moment. The daily beatings. The knives slicing deep into his flesh. The swords sheathed into his immortal body. Plunging from the cliffs of Mount Othrys and shattering every bone in his body. Crushing. Rendering. Splintering who was he was into millions of pieces.
And then it ended.
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 and spiral into feral madness of a Phlegethon Demon-God. It would have been easy to just let go and allow nature to 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 the 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 agony 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 Demon denied his pleasures into the deepest place of his heart.
He was the only master of his battered body!
Enclosing the magic tightly in a cocoon of power, Hades opened his eyes and rose to his feet. He felt alive, complete, and healed for the first time in over a thousand years. But it would be short lived. He would never truly be free until he lived as a true Phlegethon should, mated to his equal in power and magic. Without his other half to keep the ferocity of the demon at bay, he would slowly lose himself to the beast inside.
Hades glanced at the two stunned gods and grinned. “Who do I serve?”
Uncomfortable fear shone in Zeus’ eyes. Hades had seen the look in the eyes of others who had good reason to fear him. A healthy fear could only benefit this god, 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. “Eris 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 Eris.”
Zeus’ eyes shifted to the dangling chains. “You’re on our side, aren’t you?” The uncertainty in Zeus’ voice brought a smile to Hades’ lips.
Hades could almost see the thoughts tumbling around in Zeus’ mind. He was wondering if Eris had tricked him. Hades knew she had. Only those who had the blood of Coronus could break the enchantment upon the chains and the room. She’d sent Coronus’ sons to free her son.
“You keep your word, son of Coronus, and we won’t have a problem. Break it, and Tartarus will seem like Paradise in comparison to what I’ll do to you.”
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 demon-god before them. It was one of many tricks his mother had taught him.
He winked at the two cowering gods. “See you later.”
Hades stood on the beach at dusk, his toes curling into the cooling warmth of the white sand and watch as the sky darkened to a light indigo. He marveled at the oranges, reds, and purples fading before his eyes. Soon the world would be little more than shades of grays, blues, and blacks and the first star of twilight would twinkle in the heavens above him.
It felt good to stand on the beach and watch the tide slide inland, to feel the last rays of the sun on his pale skin before it sank into the sea. Even Helios’ blindingly bright chariot was a welcome sight after centuries in a dank cell, removed from the world and its majesty.
He’d forgotten the simplest pleasures and annoyances of living, like the water caressing his toes, 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 and fought to have for so long. It enveloped his soul in a warm and welcoming blanket of joy. But he knew it was a dream he could only hold onto a little longer.
He would never be free of the past until he had his revenge. The power of the Titans needed to be broken. There was much they had to atone for: the deaths of Leuce and her family; the hundreds of Demons dead in tantrums thrown by gods; the stolen power of his birthright and his forced existence without magic; and using the dead to torment him.
He would never be at peace until the shades that haunted his prison, and Leuce and her family, were safely ensconced in the Elysian Fields. He owed them that. Only then would he be free to let go of the past and move toward the future, whatever that might be.
Selene rose into the night sky, her white chariot glowing brightly upon the water. He hoped the witch fell from the heavens and drowned in the dark waters of the sea. He’d never liked the snooty goddess, and the feeling seemed mutual. After all, it was her betrayal that had killed Leuce and placed him in Tartarus.
Breathing deeply of the cold salty air, he turned away from Selene’s bright face. The first and second phases of his plan were complete. By opening the gates of Tartarus, he’d unleashed every monster the Titans had ever imprisoned. He’d released chaos and mayhem upon the world. And while the Titans expended the precious power they so coveted by running around recapturing the monsters, he had walked into their palace and taken the weapons they had left behind. He’d given those weapons to the Olympians and increased their chances of victory.
But that wasn’t the end of it. While in their armory, he’d taken back his black armor and frightening sword, untouched by the centuries, proclaiming his intent to join the battle. How he would enjoy using them against the smug Titans!
Smiling, Hades wound his way along the beach and into the forest stretching the length of the shoreline. He breathed in the fragrance of crushed grass and salty sea. He’d planned to return to Mount Olympus and confer with Zeus on tomorrow’s battle plan, but he couldn’t bring himself to be confined to the gaudy, marble monstrosity the Olympians called a palace.
Tomorrow he would face his enemies in battle, and 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.
Soon, he’d be at peace. No war, no people, no petty gods. The idea of a solitary life made his excitement grow.
He frowned, stopping to listen. Hidden in the crash of the waves, Hades thought he could hear the soft cascade of the woman’s voice. The gentle contralto floated upon the breeze. He moved closer until he could understand the words of the lilting melody, a song of shipwrecked lovers. It was a song he didn’t recognize, although he suspected there were a great many things he wouldn’t recognize in this new world. So much had changed in his absence, and yet, not nearly enough.
Her voice flowed over him, into him, threading its way into his soul. 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 warm his cold heart and stir the emotions of a Phlegethon Demon 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 body swayed to a beat only she could hear. Her sensual movements, like the purity of the dulcet tones, wove a magical and passionate atmosphere filled with deep longing.
He felt the first stirs of desire inside his heart. It wasn’t just the base desire of a man gone too long without a woman, although he yearned to touch the wealth of feminine curves revealed by the filmy white dress. It was the desire of a Phlegethon Demon 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.
Closing his eyes, Hades pictured Menthe and what his love had almost done to her. It was a harsh lesson that a young and foolish Hades had learned so very long ago. He wasn’t that adolescent boy anymore. He was an adult now, with his full power, and he knew the passions of his Phlegethon blood could destroy.
It was a reminder that had him turning away from the haunting sound of her song and the promise in her voice. He needed to focus on preparing his mind and body for the fight tomorrow, not some woman in the forest.
Opening his eyes, he took one last look at the woman, and was lost to her magic. Her supple, young body swayed and twirled, moving with the fluid, seductive grace of a dancer. 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.
Her crown of flowers tumbled from her head, and the wealth of her sun-kissed hair poured down her slender back in a red-gold wave. Laughing, 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. She straightened and set the crown back upon her head.
Lifting the hem of her gown and revealing 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, awakening a part of him long dormant, and painting a picture of the brazen maiden and the bold shepherd meeting in the mountain meadow for a lover’s tryst.
Hades could almost feel the brush of her hair against his naked skin, the flare of her hips in his hands, the press of her luscious body against his, and the warmth of her mouth upon his as he tasted her. She would taste like honey, sweet and rich.
Hades stepped forward, his blood boiling at the need to claim her. She represented everything he had lost and wanted in this life. She represented everything he could not have. The hidden invitation of the song was not for a demon like him. 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. This child of nature deserved to live a long and happy life before Death took her. She deserved a man who could love her. She deserved to dance and sing in the dark night without ever having met him.
~ ~ ~
Hair streaming down her back, she opened her arms and embraced the cool night air. She danced and sung, and the stars above her seemed to dance with her. A myriad of red, pink, yellow, and white rose petals floated around her. Their silky caress gently kissed her skin. She laughed, shaking her head, and the delicate petals tumbled from her hair.
“It’s time to wake, Persephone,” a woman’s voice whispered in her ear.
She twirled around and found herself standing alone on the beach. She frowned, wondering how she’d gotten from the old oak to the beach.
“Trouble’s coming,” the woman continued behind her.
She turned, seeking the woman and finding nothing. A hand touched her shoulder and warmth surged across her skin, shocking a gasp from her.
“Fight for what you want.”
She frowned. What she wanted?
Arms encircled her, hot and heavy, enclosing her in a cocoon of affection and love unlike anything she’d felt before. She sunk into the embrace. “I love you, Persephone,” a deep voice whispered close to her ear.
She turned toward the voice with a smile, lifting her face to his…
The sudden chirp of birds bursting into song outside her window snatched Persephone from her strange dream and deposited her into her room.
She groaned and burrowed deep into her silky cocoon. Her skin smoldered with a need she didn’t understand. She wanted to return to the peace of her dream world. She wanted to enjoy the kisses of her phantom lover. She wanted…what exactly? Rose petals to fall from the sky? Freedom to enjoy life? Love from a phantom she never saw?
She stirred beneath the sheets and buried her head in the pillow. These dreams were coming more frequently and were far more vivid then they had a right to be! 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 their fault. Truthfully, she was irritated more by the feeling that something vital was missing from her life and she’d know what that was if only she could remember.
Throwing back the blanket, she crawled from her silky cocoon and allowed the chilly morning breeze coming through the window 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 lately she didn’t want to linger upon them. She wanted…she wanted the perfect love spoken of by the nymphs!
It was a love she couldn’t quite grasp, but desired all the same.
Opening her wardrobe, she stared at the selection of dresses and sighed. The pastels were so bland. She wanted a dress the color of violets, or ocean blue, or maybe deep red roses.
Roses. She smiled at the thought of rose petals falling from the sky like rain. At least the unexpectedness of that happening would break the predictable, monotony of her days.
How had she coped with her life before her accident?
Grabbing a dress of creamy white, she forced the images of her dream from her mind and slipped out of her light shift. She wrapped the rich cloth around her body, fastening the shoulders with golden butterfly broaches, and twining a golden cord under her breasts and down her narrow waist to her hips, tying it into an elaborate knot.
Satisfied with her appearance, she exited her room and walked down the hall to the kitchen. Her mother was deftly slicing through the crisp skin of an apple and humming softly. She added the apple pieces to the bowl of fruit beside her.
“Good morning, my dear,” her mother said without turning. “Breakfast will be but a moment. Could you set the table for me while you wait?”
Sighing at the predictability of her life, Persephone grabbed the fresh pitcher of water and set it on the table, followed by the bowls. Nothing every changed around here. Was this the way it had always been? Or had her accident caused this sameness?
“Are you alright, Persephone?” Demeter brushed her hands on the skirt of her dress and pushed back a stray lock of her corn yellow hair before lifting the bowl from the counter. “How did you sleep?”
Persephone shook herself from her thoughts and forced a smile onto her face. “Sorry, Mother. I was lost in thoughts about all the things we need to do today,” she said, hoping her mother accepted her answer. “I slept well.”
It was a lie, but her mother didn’t need to know that Persephone had been too restless to sleep last night. She definitely didn’t need to know that Persephone had slipped out of the villa to dance under the night sky and sing the songs the nymphs had taught about lovers, magic, and heroes. She definitely didn’t need to know that Persephone had had the strangest feeling of being drawn to the northern valley or that someone had been watching her last night.
If Demeter learned about any of that, she would put a stop to it, and Persephone couldn’t bear to lose what small bit of freedom she had.
With a full grin on her beautiful face, Demeter set the bowl on the table, and proudly looked at her daughter. Persephone returned the grin, hoping her lack of enthusiasm couldn’t be detected. She wasn’t all that good at deception but she was learning.
Demeter curled an arm around her shoulders, pulling her into a half embrace. Persephone’s skin prickled at the contact and she hoped she was able to hide her cringe before her mother could see it. The reminder that Persephone’s accident had taken her magic and memories always made Demeter a little prickly. And while Persephone might not have the ability to wield magic, 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 and sit down. “Looks wonderful as always,” she lied, feeling a strong lack of enthusiasm for the bowl of fruit. It was the same thing they had for every meal. “Shall we eat?”
Struggling to keep the grimace of distaste off her face, she scooped the fruit into her bowl and tried to listen to her mother rattle on about what they would do today. Apparently, there was a multitude of tasks ahead of them today.
“We need to check on the row of daffodils we planted last week. The carnations and daisies need watering. We should try again to coax that old apple tree to bloom.”
Without magic, Persephone wasn’t sure how helpful she would be at that. Maybe she could sneak away to the grove when her mother was busy. The wood nymphs wanted to teach her a new song.
“I would like to gather some vegetables and fruits from the garden to compliment the ambrosia we’ll have for dinner. And after dinner, we can spend some time sewing and talking.”
Persephone nodded, taking a bite of fruit and forcing herself to swallow. Would it be amiss to have something other than ambrosia and raw fruit and vegetables? Maybe a nice lamb stew? Or some roasted vegetables?
She frowned. Where had that idea come from? She couldn’t remember having ever tasted any of those dishes? And really she wasn’t even sure what any of those dishes entailed?
“Do you like it?”
Persephone almost choked on a piece of pear and had to swallow hastily. Sometimes her lack of memory was rather troublesome.
A sharp rap on the door startled them both.
Persephone raced from her chair, glad for the reprieve of having to lie to her mother once more today. Why did she have to be so protective all the time?
She swung the door wide, knowing who would be there. Only Aunt Hestia visited the villa. She smiled at the stout five-foot three-inch goddess waiting patiently on the stoop. “Aunt Hestia!”
Her curly brunette locks fell in waves over her wide shoulders and there was 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 gasped, hugging the shorter goddess. “Thank you, Aunt Hestia! They’re beautiful!”
She took the magnificent butterflies from her Aunt’s hand and stepped back into the kitchen. One of the butterflies 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. She had never seen any creature like the pair.
Hestia laughed; a hearty, joyful sound from deep within her gut. “I created them.” Her radiant face glowed with pride. Persephone tried to ignore the stab of jealousy that came whenever they flaunted their magic, knowing that she no longer had any. “I thought they would be a perfect addition to your garden. I remembered you like jewels—”
“Hestia,” Demeter interrupted, her tone sharp. She glided toward them. “It’s good to see you.”
Persephone frowned. Her mother was doing it again.
Every time Aunt Hestia let something slip about Persephone’s past, Demeter stopped her. These small tidbits could be the key to shaking loose a memory and crack open the shell around her life so she could remember more than the last three years. Didn’t Demeter want Persephone to remember 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. Why was her mother so determined to keep what had happened to Persephone away from her?
“What are their names?” she asked instead.
Hestia shrugged. “Whatever you want. 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 light 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 once did,” Hestia reminded her sister, looking pointedly at Persephone. They were doing it again.
“That was a long, long time ago before…” She shook her head. “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 around her if she thought Persephone was listening. As long as she pretended to be completely captivated by her butterflies, her mother would continue to speak.
“You worry too much, Demeter. They may outnumber us, but we’re too evenly matched.”
And being immortal meant there was no permanent damage done. She’d learned a lot from the little bits of information the nymphs and Hestia had allowed to slip over the years. She knew the story of the Olympians. About Rhea bearing her husband, Coronus, a son. But instead of presenting the child to his father as she’d done with their other children, Rhea had hidden the child away. Zeus had been raised in an island cave by nymphs. Then he’d gone to release Demeter and the other Olympians from Coronus’ imprisonment in Tartarus. He’d gathered allies to his banner, and when he’d thought they were strong enough, he’d challenged the elder gods for power. For ten years now, they’d squabbled for leadership like hummingbirds over a productive flower.
Persephone had to strain to hear her aunt’s next words. “Eris 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 leave the room with her butterflies.
“I love you, Persephone,” her mother called.
Persephone smiled at her over her shoulder. “I love you, too. Are you heading out then?”
Demeter nodded, coming to kiss 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.
The door closed firmly behind Demeter and Hestia.
Persephone shook her head and crossed to the kitchen. She hated when they treated her like a child. And while eavesdropping on Hestia and Demeter’s conversation wasn’t something she liked to do, it was the only way she was going to know what was happening. 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. Although 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,” Hestia was saying. “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, horrible screams, and a shadowy figure with midnight eyes. She tried to hold it but the image was gone before she could grasp it.
“Or one of the older gods?” Demeter snapped. “Demons 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?”
Forgive her? What had she said that needed forgiving?
“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.”
Had they been talking about her the entire time? Had Coronus done something to her? What he the reason she no longer had her memories or power? She hated when she didn’t understand what was going on.
“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.”
They were coming back in.
Persephone raced across the room and sat at the opposite window. Maybe if she was careful, she could question Hestia about the warrior without raising her suspicions. Sometimes her aunt spoke before she thought, and Persephone could prod information or stories from her.
Hestia entered the house and paused, scanning the room. “There you are.”
Persephone looked up with a smile and a twinge of guilt. “I know the perfect spot for Enchantment and Jewel,” she said, acting the part of the child they treated her. “The daffodil patch in the corner.”
Hestia smiled, never suspecting deviousness from her. Persephone squelched the twinge of unease at her deception. The only way to have a hand in her fate was to learn everything possible about 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 bowl of fruit still sitting at the table and gave her a pointed look. “I’ll tell you while you eat.”
Persephone hid her grimace of distaste and took a bite of her meal, listening to Hestia tell her about the war between Titans and Olympians.
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 his body. The air behind him shifted. Hades thrust his sword back, dropping to his knee. The blade met instant resistance. He shoved his hand against the hilt, forcing it deep, 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 be a painful time healing.
Hades grinned and scanned the battlefield, searching for his next opponent. 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, their injured bodies starting the long process of healing. There were very few warriors left standing.
Hades spat on the ground, disgusted. If this was any example of the battles they’d fought for ten years, it was no wonder the Olympian had needed him. Notwithstanding the added advantage he’d given them, they’d fallen under the force of the Titans. The weakness of the Olympians appalled him.
“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 slipped between the links of his armor, pricking his throat.
Damn! He’d made the mistake of thinking himself safe. He should have remembered the first rule he’d ever learned. Never let your guard down, especially when Eris was on the battlefield.
“So weak and defenseless,” she mocked him, looking over the battlefield. “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.” A twist of her hand and the pressure of the blade against his neck intensified. A slender trickle of blood slithered down his throat. “Didn’t care who it belonged to.”
A single thought, and he’d disappeared, only to reappear beside her a second later. He grabbed her around the waist, and tossed 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 struck back, hard; 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 physically sliced into her skin, like a thousand shards of broken glass. She bled, but not for long.
She threw back her head and laughed, stopping his attack cold. She drew her magic to her like a snake coiling around her warrior lean body, ready to strike at the first sign of weakness.
Sheathing her sword, she placed her hand on her slender hip, and looked him up and down. “You’re resilient, if nothing else,” she said. “You appear 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 fighting, or at least not allow a woman to be his downfall.”
Any vulnerability he showed now would be an invitation to attack. Strength and violence were the only things she understood. “What woman?” he asked, wondering just how much she knew about Leuce and what had happened on Mount Othrys.
Eris’ eyes narrowed, weighing his words. Like his father, she hated liars.
“Ah, yes. That woman,” he said dismissively. He would rather return to Tartarus than speak of his half-sister Leuce to her. “Can’t think of her name now. I guess 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 in that cell of yours.”
He shrugged, his armor clicking. “If she did, she was 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 might yet prove yourself worthy to be my son.”
Ignoring the rare compliment, he gestured toward the small group coming their way. “It appears some of the Olympians survived well enough to walk.”
She glanced toward them and sneered, “Probably hid in their palace and waited for us to do their work for them. Too bad I missed them.”
“Whose side were you on?”
She smiled again. “My own.”
He shook his head. That was his mother: cold bitch of the battlefield. If she wasn’t so scary and cold he might have been impressed with her.
Eris turned away without another word and disappeared. Hades wondered if he, too, could disappear, but it was too late.
“Hades!” the large Cyclops with Zeus and Poseidon roared.
Hades waved, forcing himself into 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 ground his teeth at Zeus’ obvious dislike and rudeness toward the giant man. Hades didn’t like the Cyclops people either, but he refused to be blatantly rude to an ally either. Looking at the oneeyed giant, he 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 longer in the mood to be civil. He was tired of hatred and anger, vengeance and blood, politics and power struggles. He was tired of killing and the petty squabbles of gods. He only wished to be free of it all. “I don’t think so.”
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’d always loved the volatile moods of the sea, peaceful and calm one moment, and raging storms the next. They had a lot in common. They were both 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.
Closing his eyes, he lifted his face to the sky, enjoying the warm caress of the sunlight on his skin. He should be exalting in his successes. He was free of the dark despair of the Underworld. He had given his sister and her family vengeance, a chance for their souls to rest in peace. Within the week, he would receive his reward from Zeus and rule his own kingdom. He would go on with his immortal life, and maybe one day, he would be at peace with himself and his part in sister’s death.
Glancing down at the blood and gore covering his armor, his body revolted at the sight, and the bile rose in his throat. He dropped the helmet and bloody sword in the sand. He tore off his gauntlets and clawed at the blood soaked ties holding his breastplate together. His boots, tunic, breeches, and loin cloth followed the rest into the sand.
Naked as the day he was born, 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 cleansing 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 could never cleanse his blackened soul of all he had done.
Leaving the water, he strode to the top of the sand dune overlooking a small bay and stared down upon the empty sands where a prosperous fishing village that had once been. 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 once lived in this place.
In his memories, he could almost see the girl with shiny black hair racing through the sands and playing in the surf. He could hear her laughing. He could see her black eyes glowing in the firelight. He could feel 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.
But he refused to be soft, not when he needed his strength more than ever.
Sitting on the beach, cleaning the blood from his sword and black armor, he silently mourned the loss of his sister. And though the tears threatened to fall, he couldn’t cry for her. He had never been allowed the simple act of tears as a child, and as a man, he wouldn’t cry now. Until he met his sister face to face, and knew she forgave him for his part in her death, he could never truly mourn her. So instead he mourned 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.
Rising from the rock, Hades drew the dagger from its sheath and grabbed the long strands of his hair, hacking at it, removing centuries’ worth of growth. Coal black hair, longer than a woman’s, slipped through his fingers, drifting to the sand, falling like the tears he could not shed. It was symbolic, a cleansing to his soul as the sands had been to his body.
In the end, he felt light and empty. He felt free from the past. And for the first time, he felt as if he had a future before him.
Hours later, Hades, dressed in a simple blue tunic, leather breeches, a light cloak of black, and sandals, ventured into the forest.
Where are you headed looking like that? his inner voice taunted him. Who are you trying to impress? The Olympian gods? Or maybe a goddesses? Or are you trying to impress that woman?
I just want to go for a walk, he argued. Clear my head…
Who was trying to fool? He couldn’t delude himself of the truth. He knew he 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. 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 reveled in the foreign emotions flickering through him. Wonder. Happiness. Amusement. And peace.
Only when the first faint traces of her power licked at his aura could he sense the hint of sadness and isolation vibrating through her energy. It only emphasized his loneliness.
Her bare feet whispered across the loamy earth, mere feet from his hiding place. He reached out to stop her, his hand hovering above her shoulder. Menthe. Leuce. Every woman who entered his life, he destroyed. He was a fool for thinking it could be otherwise.
She glided away from him and he let his hand fall away. Her soft, silky hair flowed in gentle waves, swaying at her hips.
He shifted his weight, determined to leave, but a branch under his foot snapped.
She pivoted, and he would swear, even from this distance, she looked straight at him. “Hello. Is someone here?” His breath caught and he waited. Even if she could see him in the shadows of the forest, she couldn’t have seen him clearly. “I know someone is here.” She paused, head tilted, listening. “Please, show yourself. You don’t have to be afraid. I won’t hurt you.”
He smiled at the thought. She couldn’t hurt him, but it was definitely in his Demon nature to hurt her.
Breathing in the earthy scents of the forest around him, he made his decision. His heart raced with a heady mixture of fear and excitement. He knew it was wrong. He should leave her alone. But he wanted to speak to her.
He stepped 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. “Were you the one watching me the other night?”
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 for you. 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?”
“No. And immortal.”
“You’re a god then!”
He wasn’t about to correct her misconception. He was more demon than god, and that would scare her.
She stopped before him and pushed back the wealth of her auburn hair. She stood so close to him he could smell the soap she used in her hair. Honey and lavender.
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 really needed to leave now and think no more of her.
“Did you accomplish your task? Are the Titans finally defeated?”
He cleared his throat so he wouldn’t sound as aroused as he felt. It had been a very long time since he had felt desire for a woman. “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’ve met a few of the gods. 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 to him. “Will I see you again, Hades?”
His heart stirred at the hopeful expression on her open face, but he shook his head. She was far too tempting a creature and he feared he would hurt her. It was better to end things before they started. “I think it best if we not meet again.”
She handed him a purple sprig of lavender. “Then I wish you good luck, 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.”
Stunned by her simple declaration, he watched her go in silence.
Originally published May 2010
Copyright Stephannie Beman
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