Darkness blanketed the Valley of Gortyna, though dawn was not far off and the eastern sky was lightening. The Temple of Gaia’s domed roof rose up from the Valley’s labyrinth of gardens, orchards, and vineyards as if it were a jewel at the center of a living crown. From her perch on the low wall of her balcony, Vera Desailliers watched small flickers of light dance around the Temple like fireflies floating in the dark.
So many torches, she thought. Each one held by a Guardian who loves Evander and wants a piece of whoever or whatever tried to take him from us… from me.
It had been less than 24 hours since Evander was stripped of his memories of Montreal escort ladies and left to drown in the Pronoe River. Upon his recovery, Vera had insisted they retreat to the Beyond where there was an army of Guardians and Familiars to watch over her lovers.
There’s something I’m not seeing, she mused, frustrated by her own inadequacy. Each waking moment since Evander’s mind was restored had been dedicated to unraveling this particular Gordian knot. She’d pulled at the loose threads with no success.
Why use all that energy to attack him with magic from the Underworld?
Why use magic at all? Wouldn’t it have been just as easy to kill him with a mundane weapon?
Her fingers prickled with anxious pins and needles. It would have taken tremendous power to curse a living being with waters from the River of Oblivion.
She hated that her first instinct was to secret Evander and Sam away. They were both fierce warriors in their own right, but the realm of Hades was a world unto itself.
And if someone was willing to spend that much power, then there’s no telling what else they might do, she thought, remembering her frustration when Evander had dismissed her concern.
“Why are we running back to the Temple?” Evander bounded up from the bed, still naked. He spun in a circle. “There isn’t a scratch on me. Not to mention, I can handle myself in a fight, so can you and Sam.”
“I don’t care how good you feel or how good we are in battle. It doesn’t matter when we have no idea what we’re up against. It’s safer there where we have a literal army to protect us. It’s not up for discussion,” she added.
Evander shook his head. “You’re being ridiculous and overprotective.”
There was no mistaking Evander’s frustration at the idea of others being placed in harm’s way to protect him. He was a leader, a warrior, and had never cowered from danger. Vera knew she was asking him to do something that challenged his nature, but they needed to regroup somewhere safe, regardless of their strength.
“We’re going,” Vera said with finality, crossing her arms over her bare breasts.
The draught from The River of Memory did more than bring back Evander’s memory. It fueled the magic that opened their minds to each other. After they made love, Evander heard Vera’s thoughts and responded to them as if they had been spoken aloud. For the first time in his life, he was no longer alone in his own mind. It was an unprecedented psychic power for a Guardian to possess and it would take time for Evander to learn how to shield himself, for knowing Vera’s thoughts meant hearing the thoughts of every living being in the Mound of Gaia.
“You’re just as worried as we are,” Sam added, “or have you forgotten that we can hear you clear as day, you stubborn ass,” he said tapping Evander’s temple with a slender finger.
Evander held his hands up in defeat. “Heard and understood, but I’m fine. We all are.”
The fear of an unknown enemy, the unsettling twist in her gut that told her she was missing something obvious, and Evander’s burgeoning power all troubled her. She tossed and turned until she gave up on sleep altogether, leaving Sam and Evander to their peaceful dreams so that the disquiet of her mind would not disturb them.
The patchwork of meadow and forest that dotted the hills surrounding the Valley offered Vera no answers, nor did the brightening eastern sky. She slipped off her perch and stole from their room like a wraith. The villa’s marble floor was cool on the soles of her feet. The halls were quiet, but through the open windows, she heard the first trills of birdsong heralding the dawn.
Vera passed a stone archway and stopped to listen to the soothing the sound of water tripping over stone. The wide, circular courtyard at the center of the High Votaress’ villa had always reminded Vera of a clearing in the woods. Ivy crept up the walls and friezes depicting the Goddesses and Gods peeked out from behind the vine leaves, like children playing hide and seek in a forest. Lemon, fig, and sweet bay trees were planted in wide-mouthed pots and stone benches were placed among them, encouraging those who entered there, to linger in peaceful repose.
The floor was flagstone, except for a ring of exposed earth where a sacred spring gushed upward. It spilled around the feet of a statue of Gaia who cradled the earth in her outstretched hands. A lone figure stood beside the fountain, darkness shrouding their features, but Vera was not afraid.
I’d know you anywhere, Dar, she thought.
“It seems I’m not the only one who can’t sleep,” Vera said, taking a place at Dar’s side. The Guardian did not startle at her sudden appearance. Vera was sure that Dar had heard her wandering long before she approached. Dar had come to the Mound of Gaia from the Refsi, a tribe of warriors who could discern the fall of a single leaf in an autumn forest. They had been the Great Lady Petra’s Guardian Consort and lover from before Vera was born.
“I’ll sleep when I’m sure you are safe.” The lines and furrows of age that framed their eyes were deepened by concern.
Vera considered Dar for a moment. “I’m afraid you’re going to be awful tired.”
“There’s nothing new there.” Their eyes sparked as a hint of humor broke through the worry. Vera tucked herself into their side and Dar’s arm wrapped around her shoulders, pulling Vera close.
Vera’s grandmother had worn the mantle of High Votaress for centuries, and when Vera’s mother Jocasta disappeared days after she was born, she left a gap in the line of succession that could not be broken.
It was clear that her grandmother’s power was fading and Vera would be forced to take control of the Mound of Gaia far sooner than any of her predecessors. The Great Lady’s sole focus then became raising Vera to take her place, which meant that Vera’s education and training came before any bright moments of tenderness from her grandmother. Dar had stepped into the role of protector and parent, confidante and mentor.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Vera confessed in a whisper, leaning into the lee of Dar’s arms. Exhaustion and confusion swept through her, racing like a river swollen with rainwater. “It was awful. Someone erased his mind. If it hadn’t been for the draught, the Evander we know would be gone. There was nothing Sam or I could do. We were helpless.”
“You weren’t though, were you?” Dar smoothed their hand up and down Vera’s back, comforting Vera like one would an anxious child.
“No, we weren’t.” The relief that had followed the restoration of Evander’s memories, Evander’s new powers, and the need to retreat to safety had eclipsed all of Vera’s other thoughts until now. The idea that she had possessed the exact remedy to cure Evander’s memory loss evoked an uneasiness that she could not define. Vera closed her eyes, pursuing the elusive feeling until the reason for her concern coalesced, appearing in her mind like a ship materializing out of the fog.
Words tumbled out of Vera’s mouth in a rush. “Whoever it was must have known that Granny had passed the draught to me instead of giving it to the Elders. They meant for me to use it. Who else knows I had water from the River of Memory?”
Dar’s expression was grim. “Besides myself? I don’t know. It was a gift that she received at her ascension. She never told me who it came from, just made me swear to make sure that it was passed on to you when she died.”
“You didn’t try to kill Evander did you?” Vera joked.
“I would take my own life first, my little woodlark.”
“I just thought I’d ask,” Vera wound her arms around Dar’s waist and hugged them close. “I don’t know even know where to start.”
“Do you remember when I taught you to track?”
“How could I forget?”
It was a humid summer day. The forest was alive with birdsong and the rustle of creatures skittering through the undergrowth. Dar led Vera to a clearing where there were fewer trees and the sun was free to warm the earth. They told Vera that a stag had been to the clearing that morning and asked her which way the animal had gone.
Vera was flummoxed. The leaves and branches festooned with greenery and a breeze made the shadows of the trees dance until everything looked the same. She spent two frustrating hours stomping through the surrounding thicket, frustrated by her inability to find what she knew was there. She was picking nettles out of her hair and complaining at the top of her voice when Dar took her by the shoulders and pointed her toward a thick bramble of blackberries.
“When a fish breaks the surface of a calm lake, it changes the shape and movement of the water,” Dar said. “You don’t look at the water to see a fish, you look for the ripples and waves that they create. Stop looking for the stag itself, and look for the signs of life the stag has left behind.”
Vera’s eyes widened and Dar smiled. “Do you see?”
“What would I do without you?” Vera’s voice was thick with love.
“It’s a question I hope you don’t have to answer for a long time. Now get yourself back to bed, child. Running this monster down is going to be a hard road. You’ll need all the rest you can get.”
Vera stood on her toes and kissed Dar’s stubbled cheek before retiring to her room for what remained of the night.
The next time Vera woke, the sun had risen and bright daylight was flooding through the open archway that led out to their private balcony. The morning air was heavy with muggy heat.
Vera stretched, the lengthening of her muscles creating a delicious pull after having fallen into such a heavy, restful sleep. She sat up, taking a moment to gaze down at her sleeping lovers. A bead of sweat slipped down her neck, ticking her as it made its descent. The uninitiated world was still stuck in the muddy throes of a chilly spring, but it was high summer in the Mound of Gaia’s corner of the Beyond.
Sam’s lithe arms were wound around Evander’s waist and his face was tucked into his lover’s neck. Evander was splayed out on his back, one leg kicked out wide across the mattress.
“Wake up,” Vera said, trailing her fingers over Evander’s forehead, brushing his sleep-mussed hair away from his face.
Evander dreamt that was suspended in a web of silk. The gossamer strands that held him were alive with the thoughts and feelings of those he loved. Above him was a speckless sky of robin’s egg blue and below him were fields of golden flax that rippled in the wind like the surface of the sea.
Vera’s voice echoed around him, filling him with light. It lifted him up and he rose toward the sound like a diver surging upward from the cold of the ocean’s depths towards the sun.
“At least you’re both safe,” she whispered. Outside there were twenty Guardians protecting the villa, each chosen from among the Mound of Gaia’s fiercest warriors. Every one of the Temple of Gaia’s Guardians had volunteered for the duty when news of the attack on Evander had spread.
Whatever is coming, I’ll keep you alive, even if it takes my final breath.
Vera sensed she was being watched and looked across Evander’s sleeping body. Sam was staring at her. His hair hung in tangled waves and his eyes were as wide with shock.
“It won’t come to that.” His voice was sleep-rough, but his tone was resolute and unbending. There was no question in his expression, just dogged certainty.
“Are my thoughts that loud?”
“Like you’re screaming in my head. I’ve got no idea how Evy’s sleeping through it.” Sam propped himself up on an elbow and looked down at their sleeping lover. Evander’s eyes were still closed and his breathing was even and calm.
“The Healers need to take it easy on him,” Sam said.
“They can’t. We have to know what the extent of this new power and he needs to learn how to use it.”
“They whisked him away the minute we got here and didn’t let him go until well after midnight. He almost died yesterday.”
Vera’s eyes swam with tears. “Do you think I don’t know that?”
Sam’s expression softened. “I know. I’m worried, too, but your Gran wouldn’t have passed on that draught if it was harmful.” Sam reached out, stilling when Evander shifted in his sleep. After he settled, Sam brushed the tears from Vera’s cheeks. “We’ll keep each other safe. You’re not in this alone, remember?”
Sam leaned over Evander and slotted his lips against Vera’s. The kiss was a forceful exclamation of Sam’s love. The slide of his lips against hers was a promise that he would fight for their family.
Vera’s sadness withered in the face of Sam’s passion. It set a carnal hunger alight in her veins. She needed to feel both Evander and Sam and bask in the joy that came when they played together. They gave of themselves to one another with complete trust. It was safe to submit or to rule without fear. She wound her fingers in Sam’s hair, curling them into a fist, and he whimpered into her mouth. He bent his head, collapsing into her grasp like the strength of her touch was a relief. She drank in the hungry, pleading sound.
Evander let the last scrap of his dream go when his body and mind were suffused with the unrestrained ardor emanating from his lovers. The images of the web were swept away like chaff being caught by the wind and he opened his eyes.
“What’s this?” Evander said. He shifted beneath Vera and Sam, propping himself up on his elbows. Vera and Sam were both nude with streaks of sunlight painting their skin.
You are both so lovely, he thought, turning his awareness outward. He shared how he saw them and the sensation of heavy sweetness that swirled in his blood as his cock hardened.
“My beautiful boy,” Vera stroked his cheek.
The lassitude of the morning dissolved as their want for one another grew. The newness of having the full force of Evander’s thoughts within their connection heightened the excitement that surged between them.
A wicked smile bloomed on Sam’s face and he brushed his lips against Evander’s. The touch was brief and brimming with desire. It was a tease and a promise that had Evander panting when Sam pulled away.
“I think you got his attention, puppy,” Vera said.
Evander slid a hand between Vera’s legs. He alternated between gentle circles on her clit and stroking the folds of her sex. His fingers were soon coated with her slick and he raised his hand to Sam’s mouth. Vera groaned, their combined arousal left her breathless. Sam’s tongue darted out to lick Evander’s fingers clean.
“What’s your color?” Evander asked.
“Green,” Vera said and ran her hand over Evander’s bare chest.
“Green,” Sam pulled down the sheet to reveal Evander’s body.
Evander’s cock jutted upward against his stomach. The head was glistening and ruddy with blood. There was raw power in his sculpted musculature, but instead of being encumbered by his size, he moved with the graceful ease of water over a rock face. Evander sat up and leaned back against the headboard. He slid his hand up and down his length, slow and tight, trembling with yearning.
He turned to Vera and took her lips in a searing kiss. Evander loved the way she whined when he pulled away. “Lie down, hands above your head, and don’t move them. Can you be good for me?”
Vera nodded and gripped her pillow. She slid her legs together, delighting in the slip of skin on skin, desperate for some form of relief.
“None of that,” Evander said. His hand snaked out and he laid a quick slap on her bare thigh. His touch was light, leaving a slight blush in its wake.
“You’re mean,” Vera said. Her thigh tingled and she fought the impulse to reach down and feel the heat that had risen to the surface of her skin.
“And you love it, brat,” Evander chuckled, a dark rumbling sound that vibrated in his chest. “Puppy, crawl over here between these gorgeous thighs,” he ordered.
Sam slinked over Evander’s legs like prowling lynx. Vera spread her legs to make room for him. She craved their touch and sensed the way Sam and Evander hungered for her. It was a thrilling sensation, like peeking over the edge of a cliff.
Evander cupped Sam’s balls in his palm, giving the tender sack a tug, and commanding his attention, “Look at your Queen. Isn’t she beautiful?”
“Do you want to worship her?”
“Of course.” Sam’s words came out on a sigh and Vera felt his gaze like the touch of a feather being drawn over her skin.
“Good boy,” Evander said. Sam’s eyes lit with delight from the praise.
Sam began a journey over Vera’s body, like an acolyte mapping a holy site. He followed Evander’s careful instructions, licking the curve her breasts, suckling on her nipples. It was like watching the tidal surge as a storm blows in from far out at sea and the calm waters turn from calm blue to a roiling verdigris trimmed with silver. Vera’s eyelids were heavy and she gasped when Sam’s path led over the delicate skin of her stomach to the thatch of hair at the juncture of her thighs.
“Spread yourself open for us,” Evander said. Vera’s legs opened further. The rosy glow on her cheeks deepened, and both Sam and Evander were struck by a wave of insurmountable want.
“Please,” she cried, her hips undulating. “Touch me.”
“Taste her,” he ordered and Sam touched his tongue to Vera’s clit.
The tang of her sex quickened Sam’s desire. He lapped at her with broad strokes, his own hips grinding into the mattress. Evander brushed Sam’s hair from his face to watch Sam honor their Queen. Evander’s heart soared and his hand returned to his prick, to chase his own release.
“Do you want to come, my beauties?” Evander asked and Vera and Sam moaned in tandem. “Then come.”
His thoughts were overtaken by images of their lovemaking from his lover’s perspectives. He saw Vera’s body through her own eyes. Her back was arched, breasts heaving while she watched Sam drive her higher with each pass of his tongue. Sam was shivering, his eyes trained on the lush glistening skin of Vera’s sex while he pumped his own cock. Evander shouted, his orgasm flooding his body with a powerful wave of unfettered elation. The sheer force of Evander’s release thrust Sam and Vera over the precipice of their own pleasure.
Vera delighted in the cool splashes of water against her heated skin while she bathed. The clip-clop of horses hooves and the calls of the grooms filtered up from the villa’s dooryard. These were the sounds of a busy household and Vera smiled, pleased and comforted by their familiarity. They would leave for the Temple as soon as Vera was ready to travel. The Healers that had seen to Evander the previous evening would accompany them on the half-day’s ride and confer with the Temple Elders about Evander’s new abilities.
A change in the pitch of the voices piqued her interest, and then she heard Dar’s voice, its usual lilting tenor turned sharp and demanding, rise above them all, barking a call to arms and ordering the gates closed.
What now? Vera thought as she dried off and dressed with haste.
Their saddle-bags were piled in the center of the room when she emerged. Sam and Evander were speaking with one of the Guardians who had been assigned to the villa. They were both dressed for travel, each outfitted to their station as Guardian and Familiar Consorts. Evander wore a short linen chiton girded by an outer shell of metal and leather armor. Sam was similarly dressed, but in place of armor, he wore a red riding cloak draped over one shoulder and clasped at the throat.
“What’s going on?” Vera asked.
“Riders were spotted on the road. They sent a messenger ahead to ask for an audience.” Evander said.
Vera stalked out to the balcony and saw a cloud of dust far off in the distance. She called back over her shoulder, “Do we know who it is?”
Dar appeared at the door. They dismissed the Guardian and shut the door behind them.
“I take it we’re not going to be leaving for the Temple any time soon,” Sam said.
Dar shook their head, “No, we’re not. The Wind Court’s Messenger is downstairs. Zephyr wants to see you.”
It was not out-of-character for Daemons to demand meetings with the High Votaress. They were selfish and thoughtless when it came to anyone’s needs save their own, but it was rare that any of the Daemons would choose to violate the privacy of the High Votaress’ villa.
“Ossa is downstairs?” Vera growled. The Wind Court was a staunch ally to the Mound of Gaia. They had taken charge of Pandora’s Jar after Ossa, the court’s own Messenger had stolen it from the Temple of Gaia as a cure for boredom. Vera wanted to charge downstairs and tell Ossa she could ride back out and tell Zephyr to turn around and meet them at the Temple tomorrow.
“And they’re ambushing us here why?” Vera asked.
“Because Zephyr has information about who attacked Evander.”
Outside a western wind was rising and the rattle and clang of the approaching travelers echoed off the rocky hills.