Authors: Courtney Cole
Tags: #Fiction, #Fairy Tales; Folk Tales; Legends & Mythology
“It okay to cry,” he told me. “It doesn’t make you weak.”
“Doesn’t it?” I asked with a sigh.
“No,” he answered firmly. “It does not. Em, we’re going to have to talk about this. You know what I have to do.”
“No,” I answered tiredly. “You do not have to do anything. I won’t allow it, Brennan. I mean it. You will not be sacrificed to pacify Zeus for something my mother did. I just need to think on this. I’ll figure something else out. I just need to think.”
I knew I was babbling, I wasn’t making any sense. But Brennan could feel what I was thinking, he could feel the emotions that pulsed through my heart. His face was pained and I realized that for the first time, I couldn’t read his mind. He had accomplished a new skill.
“You’re blocking your thoughts from me,” I pointed out in astonishment. “Of all the times to learn a new trick, you choose that particular trick at this particular moment? Right when I need to know what you’re thinking?”
He smiled, a beautiful grin that took the air right out of my lungs.
“Yes. Aren’t you pleased? You wanted me to master more of my abilities.”
I glared at him.
“No,” I grumbled. “No, I’m not pleased.” He grinned again and jumped to his feet. Reaching down, he offered me his hand. I took it, placing my cool fingers inside his warm, strong grip.
“Brennan, what are we going to do?” I whispered. “For the first time in my life, things aren’t clear to me. I don’t know what to do.”
“And for the first time in mine, things are perfectly clear,” he told me, his amber gaze focused on me.
“No,” I answered firmly.
“Yes,” he replied, just as firm. “It’s not a question, Empusa. If Zeus wants me and it will save you and the
entire mortal world
, then Zeus can have me. I just need to decide how to go about it.”
He held up a hand. “Empusa, please. It will be hard enough just walking away from you. I don’t know if I can do it if you are begging me to stay. Please. I love you. You know that. Don’t make it harder for me.”
I gulped. A hard knot had formed in my throat and I was having a terrible time trying to swallow it, to breathe around it. “Brennan,” I whispered. Just saying his name pained me.
“We have to decide how to stop the game,” Brennan said calmly. I knew he was trying to ignore my distress so that it didn’t do him in.
“The game is going on even as we speak,” I reminded him. “There is a chance that it will finish out- that all of those mortals in Zeus’ gauntlet will die. Just know that right now. You don’t understand. This is entertainment for the gods. They will be ill-inclined to stop it.”
“I understand,” Brennan answered evenly. “Perhaps more than you think. If we provide them even more entertainment, perhaps they will be inclined to cooperate.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Meaning?”
“Meaning, if we drop into the very arena that they are sitting around, if we explain our intentions—my intentions- right there on the playing field, perhaps they will comply. Perhaps they would rather see me die alone than continue with the gauntlet. It’s just shifting their focus, that’s all.”
“Yes. Shifting their focus to watching you die,” I said sadly. I couldn’t even think about it without my heart constricting painfully in my chest. In my head, a vision of Brennan dying in the middle of an arena on Olympus while the Olympians all watched with their strange silver eyes flitted through and I squeezed my own eyes closed. I couldn’t believe we were even talking about this, much less considering it a real option.
“Brennan, there has to be another way. There has to be.”
“I don’t think there is,” he said quietly. “And I can’t take the risk of waiting too long before I act. I need to take a little walk and clear my head. I’ve got to think of how to do this.”
“Do you want me to come?” But even as I asked, I knew the answer. He wanted to be alone. And sure enough, he shook his head.
“Not this time,” he answered, picking up my hand and kissing it with his perfect lips. “I need to focus.”
I nodded silently as he kissed my forehead and then watched quietly as he turned around and walked quietly into the night. I felt like he took my heart with him. I bowed my head and cried.
I felt his presence a scant moment before his voice, as smooth and soft as silk, drifted toward me from the shadows and enveloped me like a blanket.
“Empusa, no man should ever make you cry.”
His very presence was tangible and my head snapped up to look for him. Hades possessed a magnetic pull, an innate ability to draw anyone, men and women alike, to him. The longer I was in his presence, the more the attraction built in my belly and even though I knew it wasn’t real, it was difficult to resist.
As my eyes flitted along the perimeter of shadows, I found him. He was standing just on the edge, half in the moonlight, half in the shadows. As always, his beauty was staggering.
Hades was a dark presence, both physically and emotionally. He carried an air of danger with him, a feeling that lingered in the air around him. His glossy dark hair curled slightly at his shoulders. His eyes, as black as onyx, glistened in the night. He wore a crisp white shirt with flowing French cuffs, open at the wrist and casually unbuttoned at the collar. His black cape fluttered in the wind and his black leather pants fit him perfectly.
His delicious scent wafted to me on the breeze and without meaning to, I closed my eyes to inhale it. Before I re-opened them, Hades was standing behind me, his hands on my shoulders as he murmured into my ear.
“Why has he left you alone, Empusa? At a time such as this, when you are feeling so very alone and vulnerable, he shouldn’t have left you.”
I wanted to step away from him. I truly did. The fact that he could reach into my mind and my heart and see what I was feeling was alarming and dangerous. But it was difficult to move. His voice was tying me to him like a ribbon of steel and it grew stronger by the second. Gathering my most inner reserves of strength, I gritted my teeth and yanked away. Whirling, I faced him from three feet away. For good measure, I took one more step backward. He smiled. He was well aware of the effect that he had on me.
“Why are you here, Hades?” I asked tiredly. I really wasn’t in the mood for this. He looked surprised and I had to give him credit for appearing genuine.
“I’m here because I’m concerned for you, of course,” he answered. “If you continue on your current path, things will grow very dangerous for you, very quickly.”
“And you care because…?” I knew I was being sarcastic and unfriendly. But I was dealing with the god of the underworld. He always had an ulterior motive and I wasn’t in the mood to try and figure out what it was this time.
“Honestly? I care because it’s in my best interest to ensure that you win.”
And that honestly surprised me.
“What do you mean?” I asked suspiciously. “Are you still under the assumption that if I win, Brennan and I will cause an apocalypse and all the mortal souls will come knocking on your door? That might have been the case, but no longer. I’m sure you are aware of the new developments. You’ve probably been lurking around here and saw for yourself.”
Again, he looked genuinely surprised. “What new developments?”
“You honestly don’t know? I find that hard to believe.”
“Believe it,” Hades answered patiently, his gleaming teeth white in the night. “Please fill me in.”
I took a few minutes and explained my mother’s visions to Hades and included the part where Brennan thought he should offer himself to Zeus in exchange for my life and that of the entire mortal world. When I was finished, Hades looked flabbergasted.
“Apollo’s son would sacrifice himself in such a way?” he asked in surprise. “He doesn’t take after his father, that is for certain. Apollo doesn’t have the depth for an act such as that.”
“I think you are formed more by who raised you than by your genes,” I said absently. “Clearly, it is so in Brennan’s case. His mortal parents are good people.”
“I know,” Hades replied. “His mother dwells in the Underworld now. She passed on years ago. I know her personally. She has pure energy.”
“You know his mother?” I exclaimed. “You should tell Brennan. He would be happy to hear any news of her.”
“I care not, Empusa,” Hades said quietly. “You mistake me for having a soft-heart. You know that is not true. Brennan will see her for himself in the near future, I am certain, one way or another.”
“No. Not if I have anything to say about it,” I answered angrily. “Brennan owes the mortal world nothing. If I can help it, he will not sacrifice himself. It likely will not appease Zeus anyway. He will find entertainment in it, then he will demolish the mortal world anyway. He will certainly carry out this foolish game.”
“It is true that my brother has grown hardened throughout the years,” Hades acknowledged. “In fairness, it is hard not to become that way. Time turns us calloused, I fear.”
“Are you defending your brother?” I asked. “Because that is not like you.”
“No. I’m not defending him. I would never do that. I am simply pointing out something that you already know. A thousand years ago, you would have been railing against Zeus and the unfairness with which he handles the mortal world. You would have been anguished over the fates of the poor mortals. But here you are. Not one tear shed, except over
precious mortal. Time turns us calloused.”
“Time is nothing!” I snapped. “Zeus will not touch one precious hair on
“What would you give to make sure of that?” Hades asked solemnly. “What would you do for him, Empusa? What would you give?”
I backed up one more step and studied Hades’ face. He was very serious, his dark eyes fixed on me.
“What are you asking me to give?” I asked stiltedly. “I think that is the question here.”
“You’ve always been an astute child,” Hades observed. “So smart, so impetuous. How will your impetuous nature serve me now, I wonder?”
In a flash, he blurred into motion and was standing behind me once again. With one slender, graceful hand, he grasped the back of my hair and bent my head back. Lowering his face, he ran his nose along the length of my neck inhaling me like a hungry man who hadn’t eaten in a thousand years. His chest was rock hard beneath my hand and as I gathered my wits, I pushed against it.
“Get. Away. From. Me!” I managed to rasp. Wrenching away, I stood with heaving breath, facing him once again. “What the hell was that?”
“My apologies,” Hades said quietly. “You just seem so fragile. And I have a weakness for beautiful, vulnerable women…I have a penchant for trying to save them, I suppose. Please accept my apology.”
He was completely unbothered, not a hair out of place. I, on the other hand, felt like I had come undone. My breathing was ragged, my hair was disheveled, and my heart was racing. I didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that Hades had a weird pull on me. I loved Brennan. My heart knew that. But my body- it was under Hades’ spell and I hated that.
“Please control yourself,” I told him irately.
“I would tell you the same,” he said with a grin, “But we both know how well
“Only around you,” I snapped. “I never have control issues otherwise. Now tell me, what were saying before you so rudely accosted me?”
He templed his fingers and stared thoughtfully at me around them. “I was asking you what you would be willing to do to save Apollo’s son?”
I returned his gaze unflinchingly. “I would do anything.”
“Anything?” Hades raised one dark eyebrow.
I shuddered at the thought of what “anything” might mean to him. But I answered clearly. “Anything.”
I had visions of becoming an enslaved bride to Hades, of living in the same house with he and his wife. So his next words truly surprised me.
“So you will help me with Brennan, then?”
“Help you do what with Brennan?” I asked. “I will never allow you to harm him.”
“I don’t want to harm him,” Hades answered, impatience showing for the first time. “I just want to restrain him so that he cannot turn himself over to Zeus. If he can’t get to Olympus, he can’t surrender.”
“You’re not taking him to the Underworld,” I snapped as soon as I understood what he was saying. “No way. I don’t trust you enough.”
“And well you shouldn’t,” Hades nodded. “I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t trust me, either. I will restrain him here, with your help. We can keep him in the sacred circle, if you’d like. I would just need your permission to breach the circle. Your mother has enchanted it to keep everyone at bay. But with your permission, we can keep Brennan here. He won’t have the ability to turn himself over to Zeus. He won’t die.”
Those three words were really all that mattered.
He won’t die.
Even though I had been running from Hades for eons, even though I didn’t trust him at all, I found myself considering the unthinkable. I was nodding before I’d even thought it through, because Brennan’s life was all that mattered.
“You grant me permission?” Hades asked.
“Yes,” I said quietly. “But you cannot hurt him.” But I looked up and found that Hades was gone. I had no idea if he had heard that last part of my statement or not. Shaking my head, I rushed to find him. I knew right where to begin looking.
All I had to do was find Brennan.
It wasn’t hard.
I made my way to the sacred clearing with inhuman velocity. I could smell them both before I even broke through the ring of trees. As I burst through, I found Brennan and Hades circling each other, each watching the other with wary suspicion.
“I’m fairly sure you are breaking a rule by being in this ring,” Brennan called out. He was crouched low and balanced evenly on the balls of each foot, prepared to spring in either direction. I found myself admiring his skill. He’d never had to fight for his life before- and he thought that was what he was doing now.