Authors: Linda Robertson
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Urban, #Contemporary, #Romance, #General
Before her blazed a ring of fire. Within the circle of flames, a man and a woman lounged, embracing and locked in a passionate kiss. Hades and Persephone.
They didn’t seem aware of her presence. The fire must have been blocking her out.
Or maybe the kissing is just that good.
Steeling her resolve, firming her grip, she readied herself to lift the scythe and charge forward. In her mind’s eye, she saw herself doing it. She saw the scythe rising, the point taking Hades in the back.
“You are so beautiful, my sweet,” she heard Hades say.
Demeter rolled her eyes. Her granddaughter was not going to follow in the footsteps of the goddess for whom she was named. Hades had tricked her, too.
Demeter murmured, “No way in Hell. Or any underworld,” raised the scythe, and started forward.
• • •
As Lydia fell, Johnny grabbed her arms. Wax splattered across the linoleum as her candle wobbled this way and that. He never stopped chanting as he adjusted his stance so she could lean against him. She managed to lock her knees and maintain her hold on the candle
and the lighted orb, but without his strength she wouldn’t be holding either aloft. “Not much longer,” she whispered.
Suddenly a blinding light emitted from the center of the circle. In its midst, engulfed in brilliance, were two figures. Were they Demeter and Persephone? Johnny had to shut his eyes against its radiance and for a moment he thought Lydia’s weakness had broken the circle. Still, the other witches chanted on, so he did, too. The sensation of power and energy did not change. Surely, he hoped, that meant the circle remained strong and intact.
Blinking repeatedly, he willed his eyes to recover but he continued to be blinded by the glare. He heard the rush of wind from within the circle and he discerned Demeter’s silhouette, hunched over but slowly standing straight. He squinted to see her better and realized that within the shaft of illumination Demeter was to his right, and Persephone—seated—was to his left.
There was a third figure, Pershephone was with someone. A man. Now Demeter was holding something aloft. Something large, raising it high.
oliath was racing toward Ailo when he saw Liyliy, in her owlish form, turn in the sky. She tucked her wings and rocketed toward them like a missile.
Ailo was backpedaling swiftly, holding Beverley up as if she were an offering to a sky god—but Liyliy’s monstrous nature was far more demonic than godly. He could see the strip of cloth tightening around the girl’s throat.
There were only seconds to save Beverley . . . save her from death or a fate worse than death with the shabbubitum.
With a few more steps and a leap he could place himself between the owl and the girl, and hope Menessos could use his ancient connection and mastery over her to compel Ailo not to strangle her.
As Goliath planted his foot, ready to propel himself up and into the huge owl’s path, he saw Menessos with his shoulders hunched inward, arms down. His face was contorted with concentration, but his fingers were arched, and sparks danced from his palms. His lips were moving in a chant Goliath could not hear until Menessos shouted, “Ailo, fly!”
He’s compelling Ailo.
Goliath had a millisecond to react, to decide if he would change his own plan. Or if Menessos, seeing him in action, would change his.
Before this night, Menessos had always been the master. He had always expected Goliath to defer to his will and his choices.
But even though so much had changed, Goliath could not cast away his faith in Menessos now.
The Haven Master slowed his momentum just as Ailo spun around. Her knees bent awkwardly. Her elbows straightened. . . .
Beverley fell from Ailo’s arms, landing directly on top of Goliath as Ailo launched herself into the air, soaring over them as she hurled herself up and into Liyliy’s path.
Liyliy, in her unnaturally large feathered form, was unable, or unwilling, to alter her trajectory as quickly. Her extended talons slammed into Ailo’s body.
The shrill owl voice filled the night. She beat her wings so hard the branches of nearby trees shuttered in the turbulence. Either the unbalanced, unexpected weight of her sister was too much to carry or she was trying unsuccessfully to hover and not land. She forced her legs back and forth, first pushing then pulling, trying to extricate Ailo from her talons—but her long, hooked claws had plunged all the way through her sister’s body.
Goliath tore his eyes from the horrific scene to examine Beverley. The silky gray fabric that still swaddled her was surely Ailo’s, but it no longer seemed enchanted. The strip that had wrapped the girl’s throat had slipped off and now lay dormant and unthreatening on the ground.
Liyliy continued bouncing along the ground, trying to resolve her predicament. More than once, her frantic and deadly movements came too close for comfort. Goliath rolled, placing Beverley behind him, shielding her
with his body. He came to his knees and pulled her to him like an infant, then rose to his feet and fled.
Crouched behind the relative safety of a tree trunk, he watched the owl’s desperate efforts end as Ailo was torn in half.
The giant owl, screaming miserably, flew into the night sky.
pulled away from Aidon’s kiss, breathless and content. Well, mostly content. I wanted him to touch me more. I wanted him to take my clothes off and make love to me while this magic fire burned around us. Yet even though my body was all need and desire, my mind . . . or perhaps my heart . . . was clouded with confusion. Being with Aidon felt so good, but, at the same time, there was something not “right” about it.
Out of nowhere, an old woman burst through the flames. She sliced the flaming curtain with a single stroke of a huge sickle and let the momentum of the blade draw her toward us, swinging the blade up for another strike.
Instinctively, I dived off the dais, sliding across the floor and rolling, coming up on my knees. The long, gauzy dress impeded my ability to stand and I stumbled, stepping on the skirt and hearing the fabric rip.
Beside me, Aidon rose to meet the threat. He twisted to the side, and the blade missed his chest by a hairbreadth even as his hands rose to snatch hold of the weapon’s long handle.
He laughed at the old woman. “Hecate’s scythe in the hands of a mortal?”
The old woman’s face was set in determination. “Persephone, come with me now!”
She was looking at
. “Who are you?”
Her focus shot back to Aidon. “You cannot have my granddaughter.”
He jerked the handle, pulling her forward and off balance. She cried out in pain. Aidon leaned down until his nose was practically pressed against hers.
As he spoke, I saw a man with dark wavy hair and thick markings around his eyes appear behind the old woman. Aidon couldn’t have seen him or have known that the man gripped the end of the handle. But the old woman knew.
Aidon growled, “I don’t need your blessing, you old hag, and I don’t want your consent.”
“Or, apparently, Persephone’s, you immortal ass.”
• • •
Squinting into the intense light, Johnny could barely see the action unfolding within it, but was determined to watch every moment, even if it blinded him.
He saw Persephone retreat as Demeter wielded the scythe. He saw the man rise and foil her effort. He saw the older woman, despite her resolve, about to fail. Knowing damn well he was shattering the circle, Johnny maneuvered Lydia away from his body and onto the floor, breaking the conduit of ley energy running through him. He knew this was a bad thing to do, and he hoped the remaining witches could reforge the circle around him—they were a High Priestess and an Elder, after all—but he simply could not risk doing
He shoved the ley energy to either side, ramming it into Hunter and Vilna. The force of it made them both stagger a step.
Free of the circuitous energy, Johnny stepped forward
into the light. In that split second, he bent and grasped the lower end of the scythe. Twisting it to angle the blade into a horizontal position behind the man, he yanked with all his might.
The scythe carved deep into the man’s back.
Red screamed. Demeter stumbled and fell to the side. He tried to catch her but couldn’t. The man was pitching toward him, across a wide lounge seat.
Behind the man, Red was racing forward, her expression full of confusion and concern. . . .
Concern for the fallen man?
Suddenly, Johnny was suffering the consequences of his actions. Waves of energy coursed through him. Feeling like he had shoved his finger into a light socket, he lurched backward and fell, half in and half out of the lighted core of the circle. All the air was propelled from his lungs by the brusque landing; he fought for the breath to scream, but even as he did, the cry shifted into a howl. Fur sprouted across his body only to retract and sprout again, retract and sprout, until his skin was raw. He writhed and convulsed, unable to escape the clutches of this power riding him.
Stupid thing to do. Stupid. Stupid.
Vilna-Daluca stood over the part of him that was out of the light. She was shouting mightily. Though his vision altered repeatedly from the transformations, he saw Vilna transfer her orb and candle to Demeter, who was sitting on the floor. Pain was evident in Demeter’s expression.
Did I fuck everything up? Oh, Red. I’m so sorry.
The next thing he knew Vilna was sitting on his
stomach with one hand on his chest and one raised over her head—the lifted hand flickered and gave off lighted shards like an Independence Day sparkler.
For interminable minutes, she pulled power out of him, discharging it into the circle as Demeter and Hunter channeled it back into the ley. When finally the bright inner circle had faded and only the normal realm of the farmhouse kitchen remained, his transformations ceased. He lay with his eyes shut and listened as the witches shut down the connection to the ley line and took up the circle.
When it was done he lay still panting and not moving. Hunter helped the old witch climb off him and stand. When Vilna had her feet under her, Hunter kept hold of her arm and moved her away from him toward a chair. Vilna paused.
“You okay, Vil?” Hunter asked.
“Yes,” the old witch grumbled, then she kicked Johnny in the ribs.
Hunter dragged Vilna away from him.
“Serves you right,” she called back. “You know better than to break a circle! And a circle drawing on the ley, no less. Fool! You could have killed us all!”
Johnny tried to sit up, and decided leaning on one elbow made breathing easier. Vilna settled into a dining room chair where she could still see him.
“You may be the Domn Lup,” she grumbled, “but when there’s magic being done, you damn well better respect those who are working it! It may seem like a flick of the wrist and a twitch of the wand, but that’s the exterior. Calling the power, holding the power, shaping it and
releasing it safely, properly, and with the right focus and direction takes skill. Takes energy. And the kind of power that is called up from a ley—hell, boy. You don’t want to take the chance on loosing that kind of power.”
She paused to breathe deep, and in that moment of silence heard a cough from behind him near the sink. Remembering Lydia and Demeter were both down, he rolled onto his other side.
Lydia lay unconscious to the left.
Demeter was on the right, scooting herself along the floor . . . to where Persephone lay, throwing up.
y throat was raw and the taste in my mouth was beyond vile. Hades’s shredded finery had disappeared and, somehow, I was dressed in the jeans, shirts, and socks I’d left home in. I had aches like you wouldn’t believe. But I was vertical, sitting at the big dining room table because my kitchen looked like a tornado had been through it. It was a mess—salt, candle wax, goddess knew what else was still strewn about. I didn’t care. I was home.
Hunter sat across from me suffering a bad case of the yawns. Vilna was slumped next to her, trying to recover from a bout of sleep deprivation.
Nana sat in another chair, icing her knee. She’d re-aggravated her arthritis. Lydia, looking like she’d come back from the dead herself, leaned against the counter with a bruised hip and a wounded ego.
“What happened to you?” I asked Johnny, who had lifted his shirt to examine his side.
“Vilna kicked me.”
After snorting a laugh I popped a couple of ibuprofen tabs into my mouth and washed them down with several swallows of milk. I remembered everything about my nightmarish evening—that was why I chose milk.
I may never drink water again.
“Deserved it, too,” Vilna grumbled.
She’d explained what Johnny had done to rescue me.
Her tone was 100 percent complaint, but somehow she also conveyed a sense of admiration for his “damnably foolish, dangerous” actions.
I was not going to think about any of it right now. There was plenty to ponder from the experience, but I wasn’t ready to analyze anything yet—including what my next move as Lustrata would be. I’d already dealt with the devil—or close enough—and suffered for it. As for the deal I’d made with Hades, I had no idea if it still held, but I was far too wobbly right now to think about it—or much of anything else. Other than my bumps and bruises, staying so long in a meditative state had weakened me physically and mentally. And the time I’d spent with Hades seemed much longer than the few hours I’d been “gone” from my physical body. I guess in the underworld human time was irrelevant.
I was just happy to be home, happier still to know the vampires had found Beverley and that she was safe. Goliath’s phone call had been brief—maybe too brief to be completely reassuring—but positive. I knew there was more to it, but I was told not to worry about the kiddo, she was in good hands and they’d bring her home soon.
I slugged down the last of my milk. Without a word, Johnny took the glass from my hand and sat it on the countertop. Looking at me with all the hurt and affection I could stand, he lifted me and carried me upstairs.