Authors: N.J. Walters
For Gerard. Thank you for always believing in me.
And thank you Heidi Moore—my amazing editor—for going on this carnival ride with me. As always, your keen eye and hard work have helped turn this book into something special.
Spell of the Lady of the Beasts
Lion, wolf, tiger and bear,
Be of stout heart and show no despair.
Phoenix, jaguar and serpent, all brave,
Be not afraid, though thy destiny is grave.
Warriors brave deserve a much better fate.
You shall not pass beyond Hades’ gates.
My powers I give thee to protect and to keep
From death and torture in the dark and the deep.
When Olympians’ power is turned into dust
The time will come for the righteous and just.
A chance to escape from a prison of Hell.
Listen closely to all that I tell.
Feminine power will come to your aid.
You will come to life as the curse starts to fade.
The sands of time will begin to slip by
And you will have but one day’s turning to tie.
While the demons from Hell tempt and deceive,
A life must be given, a heart received.
One step from the path and all will be lost.
Your souls will be forfeit. That is the cost.
If honor and courage win the fight,
The curse will be broken, the debt made right.
Free you will be from harm and from strife
Able to live your immortal life.
Hades strode down the gloomy corridor, ignoring the skittering of feet and claws as demons of all shapes and sizes shrank back into the darkness to try to avoid his notice. He could have told them it was a waste of time. In his realm, he knew where everyone was. He was Lord of the Underworld, and Hell was his domain. He wanted to change that, wanted to expand his base of power. And the time was at hand for such advancement.
He walked deeper into the unending darkness, each step taking him farther away from the light. Nothing moved down here. Nothing lived. Nothing except for one very special prisoner.
Hades reached the end of a long-forgotten tunnel chiseled out of the earth when mankind was still living in caves and hunting with spears. Layers of dust rested undisturbed by the passage of time. A heavy metal door was padlocked shut. Nothing had changed in over five thousand years.
Pleased, he held out his hand and the massive lock opened and dropped to the floor. Dust kicked up, settling on his designer shoes. Hades frowned then shrugged. He’d get a new pair as soon as his business here was completed.
The large door swung open with a wave of his hand. The creak echoed down the narrow corridor like the screech from a tortured demon, and he stopped to savor the terrible sound. Smiling, he stepped inside and snapped his fingers. A spark jumped to a torch nestled in a rock crevice just inside the room. The kindling ignited, sending sparks flying before settling down to a low, steady burn.
The room was really more of a cell, carved completely from hard, unforgiving rock. There was no way to tunnel out of here, even if you could get free from the chains, which was impossible at any rate. Like the lock on the door, the chains had been created at the forge of Hephaestus, by the immortal armorer himself. Not that the god had had any idea what Hades planned to use them for. He definitely wouldn’t have approved.
Hades shrugged. Hephaestus had wanted a favor only Hades could provide, so he’d asked no questions. Everyone had gotten what they wanted. Everyone except for his prisoner, that is.
The woman was chained naked to the wall, her clothing long since rotted away, leaving her bare to the elements. Her brown hair was dirty and matted, flowing over her skin like a blanket, covering her emaciated body. She’d had no food or water since her imprisonment. Sunlight and fresh air had not touched her face since the day he’d dragged her down into the unrelenting darkness of Hell.
Yet she was not dead. She could not die. She was a goddess. Here she would rot for all eternity. Unless he set her free.
Hades walked over to her and nudged her bare ankle with his foot. The chains rustled, their metallic sound music to his ears.
“I’m here to offer you a chance for freedom.”
The woman didn’t move, nor did she acknowledge him. Irritation pricked him. He should leave her for another thousand years. It would serve her right. The problem was he needed something from her.
Undeterred, he pressed onward. He could sense she was listening even if she was ignoring him. For a creature as jaded as himself, it was quite a novelty to have someone disregard him. Usually, anyone who met him trembled in fear, even his fellow gods and goddesses.
“Set your warriors free from the spell you put on them. Give them into my keeping, and I will let you go.”
The woman finally stirred and slowly raised her head. Her skin was sallow and taut, but her pale blue eyes were as clear as a summer’s day, almost blinding in their purity. “I cannot change the spell I cast. It is what it is. All must abide by its terms. Even you.” She paused to take a breath. “My warriors are free to do as they choose. But I cannot set them free. That is for you to do.”
He swallowed his impatience. His fingers curled inward to keep from grabbing the infuriating woman and strangling her. “How?” he demanded. He could taste victory and it was very sweet. It was so close now. With the strength of her warriors, he would have the power to crush his enemies under the heel of his boot. Soon all would worship him.
The corners of her mouth tilted slightly upward. “You will set me free?”
“Agreed.” Hades waved his hand and the chains dropped away, clanking against the hard rock floor. “Tell me.”
The woman licked her cracked and dried lips. Talking was a strain, but she persevered. He silently willed her to get on with it.
“You must find the key to unlock each of them in turn.”
Hades stalked toward her, his eyes glowing red. The walls shook and the rock beneath his feet undulated with his fury as he stared down at her. The fact that she didn’t shrink from his anger, but stood her ground, only added fuel to the fire. “Do not trifle with me, Lady. Your stay here can be made much more unpleasant.”
She did not flinch. Instead of fear, he saw…pity in her eyes. Unacceptable. He was Hades, Lord of the Underworld. Feared by most. Soon to be feared by all.
She sighed and continued. “They are cursed to remain frozen in time until they find the one female who can unlock them from their inanimate state.”
“How?” He raked his fingers through his hair and scowled. “How do I find these women?”
“That is for you to figure out. They are out there in the human realm. Somewhere. Waiting to fulfill their destiny.” Slowly, the Lady pushed herself to her feet. “Now you must honor the bargain and set me free.”
Hades crossed his arms over his chest, knowing he had to honor the bargain. Once his word had been given it could not be taken back. A god’s word was law, even unto himself.
But that didn’t mean there weren’t some loopholes. She should have been more specific in her request. “You are free. None will stop you, but none will help you either. Make your way from Hell if you can.” Turning on his heel, he strode from the room, taking the light with him and leaving the weakened goddess in darkness.
She sighed. She’d known this day would come. Hades was nothing if not predictable. The spell she’d cast on her warriors gave them a way out if they were courageous enough and clever enough to seek it. Not even Hades could circumvent the events that would unfold. She’d told him he had to abide by the terms of her spell and he’d agreed without question, thinking there was nothing that could stop him. He would not be pleased when he realized what he wanted would not be as simple as he’d hoped.
Shuffling forward, she placed her bony hand on the rough rock wall to guide her. “The wheel begins to turn and only fate knows where it will end.” Pushing forward, the Lady took her first step to freedom.
The way would be perilous, filled with danger and pitfalls. Hades would not make this easy. If she did not use her wits, she could wander in the depths of Hell forever.
Lightning flashed outside the window, illuminating the entire bedroom for one brief second. A crash of thunder quickly followed, rattling the windows. The long, white curtains billowed in the breeze like some ghostly visitor as the wind pushed through the screen, bringing the damp air with it.
Aimee Horner shifted restlessly in her bed, rolling from her side to her back. The covers bunched around her waist, a silent testament to her growing agitation. Her skin was covered in a light sheen of sweat, and she shivered as the chill in the night air hit her bare flesh.
But she didn’t wake. The dream was upon her.
Lightning flashed behind her eyelids, revealing a trio of skeletal remains casually leaning against a rock wall, their skin rotted and ripped away from their bodies. Large black ravens swooped around them, pecking what little flesh remained on their bones. Maggots swarmed around their decomposing internal organs and through empty eye sockets.
Aimee swallowed back the scream of terror that threatened to erupt from her throat. It would do no good. There was no one to help her. No way out.
As always, she was alone.
The trio straightened and bowed at their waists as she passed. Their actions were unexpectedly graceful and formal. Like some terrible hosts from a horror movie, they invited her closer.
They held out their bony fingers, beckoning her forward. Their shiny teeth and smooth jaws were locked in a permanent smile, offering a macabre greeting as she entered the darkness beyond. She didn’t want to go any farther, wanted desperately to wake up. But her feet shuffled forward as if propelled by some unseen force.
It was always this way.
Her heart pounded so hard it felt as though it would erupt from her chest at any moment. A bead of sweat trickled down her temple, rolled down her cheek and slipped off the edge of her jaw. Clad in only the thin cotton shift she slept in, her feet bare, Aimee inched into the darkness. Evil laughter, mixed with tortured screams, mocked her. Taunted her. Drew her onward.
The air was damp and moldy, a product of centuries of decay and rot. She tried to breathe through her mouth, not her nose, but the stench surrounded her, clinging to her and permeating her skin. She could taste the despair, the rising fear, on her tongue and not all of it was her own. Sweat dotted her forehead, plastering her hair to her skull.
Aimee tried to discern the ground beneath her feet, desperate to see where she was stepping, but it was almost impossible to catch even a glimpse. The darkness seemed intent on swallowing her whole.
Goose bumps rose on her skin as a blast of chilly air swept over her. The fine hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. A shiver crept down her spine. Someone was behind her.
The urge to glance over her shoulder was overwhelming, like an itch she didn’t dare scratch. She didn’t look back. Couldn’t look back.
She ignored the urge to scream, the increasing pressure swelling in her throat, and pretended she didn’t see the multitude of red eyes observing her every move, stalking her silently from the darkness.
Lightning flashed again, illuminating her surroundings as though it were midday. For a brief second, she saw everything. Grotesque creatures of every conceivable shape, color and size surrounded her. Watching. Waiting.
For what, she didn’t know. Wasn’t sure she wanted to.
Some of them had skin like leather, tough and scaly. Several had horns in place of ears and hooves where their feet should be. One or two had wings of a sort, spread wide, making them appear even larger. There were several no bigger than a dog, while others were at least seven feet tall. Most fell somewhere in-between.
A few of the creatures appeared almost human, until you looked into their eyes. There was nothing human about them then. Aimee closed her eyes and swallowed hard. Those red, soulless, pitiless eyes would haunt her for the rest of her life. Somehow, the human-looking creatures were more frightening than the ones that truly looked like monsters.