The Wind Court's party arrived at the villa gates just before the noonday bells chimed. The horses kicked up clouds of dust when they clomped into the dooryard. Four guards led the group of visitors. They rode two-by-two, followed by Zephyr, the Wind Daemon, flanked by his two attendants. Four additional riders made up the rear. Their thick-bodied horses stomped and snorted as they drew to a halt.
Ten riders? A bit extravagant, even for a Daemon, yeah? Vera mused in silence, giving her thoughts to Sam and Evander.
An unnecessary precaution, unless..., Sam answered.
Unless Zephyr expected trouble along the road, Evander finished Sam's thought.
The Wind Daemon's display of protection piqued Vera's interest. Zephyr slid from his saddle, his guards and attendants followed suit. Four Acolytes moved forward to meet the guests, two bore shallow basins of cool water laced with lemon and verbena oils and the other two carried trays laden with goblets of wine.
Zephyr bathed and dried his face. He heaved a breathy sigh of relief when the first drop of wine touched his tongue. He appeared youthful, the blade of his jaw sharp and unsullied by stubble. Nothing in his bearing betrayed the fact that he was as ancient as the earth itself. His black-tipped wings glinted in the sunlight and cast a wide shadow when he spread them to stretch after his journey. The sun filtered through the feathers and illuminated the striae of grey, black, and brown.
"Daemon Zephyr, I'm afraid we're unprepared for your visit.” Vera stressed the honorific, hoping to avoid any offense that might prolong the Daemon’s visit.
As Zephyr shook his wings one last time and then drew them back, the relief fell away from his face. His brow furrowed, and his lips turned down in a moue of concern.
"Dispense with the formalities, my lady. I'm more than aware my presence is unexpected. Can we talk privately?"
Zephyr’s directness surprised Vera and she struggled to maintain a measured, calm expression with her response. "Your Messenger is in the courtyard, we can talk there undisturbed."
Dar stood by the door, their palm resting on the hilt of their dagger. Vera nodded to them, lifting an eyebrow at the waves of protectiveness that radiated from the older Guardian. They returned Vera's look with a tight smile and fell in beside Sam and Evander as they passed.
Ossa slouched on one of the benches in the courtyard, kicking at the flagstones with a sour, bored expression. Vera left express instructions that none in her household speak a word to her. She served as Zeus' mouthpiece and the Goddess of Rumor at the height of the Olympians' power. She often sowed disquiet for her own amusement. Ossa's most recent attempt at diversion resulted in a missing Votaress and the theft of Pandora's Jar. Limiting her contact was a necessary precaution, no matter how much it appeared to displease her. Ossa stood when they entered, inclining her head in greeting before taking her place at Zephyr's side.
Vera waved her arm in an arc. The hum of Acolytes passing in the halls and the quiet conversations of Guardians flanking the courtyard disappeared. The sound of water burbling from the fountain grew in the sudden quiet.
"Word of what happened to your Guardian has spread throughout our corner of the Beyond," The Daemon said. "I'm here to offer my assistance."
No doubt Ossa's responsible for that, Sam's thought.
Speaking of, Evander answered, How did he know to come straight to the villa?
Good question, Vera added, then spoke aloud, "News of trouble travels fast, but not faster than you. I'm wondering, how did you hear about our recent troubles?" Vera encircled both Zephyr and Ossa with her consciousness. She tasted the tone of their thoughts, searching for the bitter tang of deception.
"You don't need to do that, my lady. I won't deceive you; I'm here to help. There isn't much time."
"Then tell us what you know and how you learned it."
"It shouldn't come as a surprise that I employ Watchers on both sides of the Passage or that my elementals carry whispers from millions of lips straight to my ears." Zephyr's voice strained with impatience.
"And coming to meet us here instead of the Temple? "
"A calculated wager that paid out. Your grandmother retreated to the villa when trouble reared its head. I expected no less from you."
A reasonable assumption, Evander thought. The villa was warded in layers of protective magic and only the High Votaress and her Consorts could travel there by way of the Sacred Passage.
I'm not buying it without a little more proof, Sam added. The intensity of his distrust was cold like frigid tendrils of ice winding through Vera's thoughts. The past year full of challenges, from the wretched Curse of Harmonia to Kallisto's attempt at revenge, had changed him. His laughter still came easy and often, but there was a new sharpness behind his eyes, a wariness for the out-of-place and unusual.
"Zephyr, I mean no offense, but you must see how this looks," Vera said.
The Wind Daemon's frustration boiled over, "You'll rue every second you waste with these inane questions. What must I do to convince you that I'm here to help?"
"Give me your mind," Vera said, "If your information is of such tremendous import, then you should be willing to endure this brief interlude to satisfy me."
"This is absurd-" Ossa protested and Zephyr silenced her with a wave of his hand.
"Fine. Do it."
Vera approached the Daemon with deliberate steps, keeping her gaze soft and open. It was like watching a Horse-Mistress gentle an unsettled steed. Vera raised her eyes when she was standing before him and smiled, lifting her hands, "May I?"
Zephyr tipped his head forward and Vera's fingertips glided over his cheeks before they settled on his temples. She sent her mind into the Daemon’s, but even as he submitted, Vera felt shields rising up around her. The obstacles prevented her from searching any further than what he had experienced in her presence. The resistance was firm but malleable, and Vera thought it was not unlike sinking her hands into a block of clay. She pushed to move deeper and Zephyr growled.
"You have my word I won't search any farther than I must," Vera reassured him. He shook his head and the boundaries dissolved. Vera's eyes slipped closed and she sent her consciousness into Zephyr's mind. She found herself floating in a dark, vast expanse of emptiness when she opened her mind’s eye and called out to Zephyr’s memories. Pinpoints of illumination appeared, burning with intensity and then fading. The earth floated below her in the endless black of space. The immeasurable depth of Zephyr's mind was breathtaking. Millenia of experiences unraveled in spirals of light and Vera gasped.
The Daemon's impatience struck her like the chilled breath of the North Wind. Vera surpassed her urge to challenge his recalcitrance and called out for the memories she wished to see.
Bring me the events of the past day and no other. I warn you, if I sense you're lying or hiding from me, I will not be kind, Vera demanded. A cluster of lights came closer, encircling her like a galaxy of stars. She held out her palm and light after light flew forward, landing in her palm and opening to her.
The Palace of the Wind Court sat on the shoulder of a mountain, looking east toward the Aegean Sea. The forest that blanketed the mountain's feet thinned closer to the top where only a few cedars and oaks managed to survive in the rocky soil. The rising sun shone off the marble and stone of the edifice and it glimmered like gold.
The stillness of the moment was broken as the perspective shifted and Vera saw Zephyr rising from his bed. Time sped up, revealing Zephyr as he waded through his duties. There was nothing suspicious to see, no visitors or surreptitious meetings, just a steward going about the work of caring for his elemental kingdom. The movement of time slowed as the sunlight in Zephyr's chamber began to fade and the sky beyond his window glowed with the warmth of the westering sun.
Early evening, Vera thought. Around the same time we arrived at the villa.
Zephyr left the palace and walked among the trees, listening to the stories the winds brought him from their journeys across the face of the earth. He was nude, and Vera marveled at the graceful play of his muscles as he moved, delighted by unrestrained joy the Daemon took communing with his elementals.
A strong gust lifted Zephyr from the ground and he lay back, arms outstretched. Currents of air caught and lifted him from the ground, his body dancing like a fallen leaf caught by a breeze. Zephyr's fingers skimmed over his skin in swirling patterns, following the touch of his discarnate lover. He teased his hardening cock with light strokes, his body twisting and turning, suspended in mid-air.
The tableau that unfolded in the Daemon's memory excited Vera. She had offered her pleasure to the elementals in the past. It thrilled her to give herself over to the sensuous touch of water as it streamed across the folds of her sex. She relished the brief sear of melted candle’s wax dripping across the expanse of her bare breasts while she watched the flame’s light flicker. A tickling sensation of want flared beneath her skin. She took a cleansing breath to quell her own arousal and returned to watching Zephyr with renewed purpose.
Zephyr thrust into the channel of his hand, his motions quickening as his lust mounted. He howled with displeasure when a fierce torrent of air pushed the playful wind away and set theDaemonon his feet. The anger of being denied his release was plain, but that anger became concern as a cyclone whirled around him. The gale shrieked and moaned sharing its story. The Daemon's face darkened as he listened, his anger stirring small eddies of dust into devils' tails around his feet.
The wind dissipated once its message was delivered, like the slackening of a storm on a summer day, and Zephyr sprinted to the palace.
The vision of Zephyr faded, and the lights of his memories withdrew. Vera considered what she had been shown. The memories the Daemon shared evidenced no rips or seams and she sensed no alterations. He would have been within his rights to show Vera just those last moments when he was told of Evander's attack. Instead, he offered up the entirety of his day, including the intimacy he shared with his elementals. It convinced Vera that, aside from his poor taste in Messengers, his allegiance to the Mound of Gaia was genuine.
Vera opened her eyes.
"Are you satisfied?"
"Yes, now tell us why you set out with such haste."
The Daemon scowled, "The being who assaulted your Guardian is a Daemon of the Underworld. A bitter, jealous creature consumed by rage. She believes the Mound of Gaia is hers to rule by birthright."
"Why not target me, then? Why bother with Evander at all?"
Zephyr's frustration waned, replaced by bone-deep fatigue. His entire body drooped, every facet of his appearance was dragged earthward from the downward turn of his mouth to the tips of his wings, "The explanation is for you, my lady, and your consorts to hear. No one else." He addressed Ossa, "Leave us and make no trouble in this house. Whatever patience I arrived with is gone. Do you understand?"
Ossa grumbled her assent.
Vera motioned Dar to her side, "Would you unite our esteemed Messenger with the rest of her party?"
"Of course," Dar said.
She waited for Ossa and Dar to disappear through the archway before turning back to Zephyr, "You were saying?"
"My elementals don't just see the lands over which they travel. They pluck the words from the lips of Goddesses, Daemons, and mortals alike."
Vera's eyes widened, "They saw and heard everything that happened?" The change in Sam's and Evander's minds was instant. The ferocity that emanated from both men left Vera breathless.
Zephyr nodded, “And they brought the news to me as fast as they could fly. It was Lethe, the Underworld's Daemon of Oblivion. She used a drop of water from her own river to obliterate your Guardian's mind."
"Why?" Evander asked. A nauseous, creeping sensation roiled in his gut and his neck prickled with cold, like Hades himself gripped him by the scruff.
"Because she's nursed a heart full of jealousy for millennia. When you failed to fall in the Battle of the White Wolf, I imagine she became tired of waiting for you to die. My lady, you have the two things that she desires more than anything in all the worlds and what lies beyond the Veil."
"The Mound of Gaia and your Guardian, Evander," Zephyr said and slumped on one of the benches. Silence held sway in the villa courtyard, save for the trip and fall of water from the sacred spring.
No one spoke.
This makes no sense, she thought.
Should I be offended? Evander's question was tinged with humor, but Vera felt the awakening of his warrior nature in the way his mind turned to strategy and safety. There was one mantra that undergirded everything. It shaped his thoughts the way submarine rivers carve canyons through the mountains at the bottom of the ocean; If it would save Vera and Sam, I would face my death with joy.
It won't come to that, love. Vera's certainty was absolute. She had not gone a day without his touch since she was fifteen years old and she had no intention of allowing anyone one to take him or Sam from her.
The two of you are exhausting, Sam interjected into the silent conversation. I'm putting a moratorium on the "I'll die for you" shit. No one is dying, not if I have anything to say about it. His distrust of Zephyr had faded and instead of the cold wariness that had ruled his emotions, Vera was overwhelmed by the warmth of his strength. It poured out toward Vera and Evander, accompanied by determination born of love and loyalty.
"My lady?" Zephyr was the first to speak. The Daemon's words jarred Vera and she raised a hand in an unspoken plea for another moment of silence, sucking in a deep breath, and releasing it in a slow, controlled stream.
"The Mound of Gaia is ours to protect. Lethe betrayed Hades and the Underworld when she brought her magic into the living lands to serve her own purpose."
"It's not the first time," Zephyr said.
Vera nodded. Lethe was a daughter of Gaia. She slipped from Gaia's womb like a phantom, along with the shades of her sisters and brothers. Each of them a Daemon, but not of wind or water. These creatures became the shepherds of the most destructive of forces like grief, rage, and falsehood and exerted their power over mortal and immortal alike. Lethe guarded the River of Oblivion. The souls destined to return to the mortal world drank from Lethe's River to forget their past lives.
"I suspect not," Vera paused, locking her gaze with Zephyr's, "I'm curious, it's one thing for your elementals to have seen Lethe with Evander and another to know what she hopes to gain. How did you come by that piece of information?"
"I've done many things in the service of my darker nature."
"That's no secret," Sam said.
"No," Zephyr cast his eyes toward the floor. It was a rare display of humility from any Daemon, let alone Zephyr, who was known to be unapologetic about his exploits. "But it might come as a surprise to learn that one has haunted me. I murdered the one I loved in a moment of hubris and jealousy-"
"Hyacinthus?" Evander guessed.
Sadness was etched in the pull of skin around Zephyr's downturned mouth and the way his eyes glimmered with unshed tears. "Yes. Over the years I have sought to atone. I once petitioned Hades to allow Hyacinthus to drink from Lethe's river and be reborn. Even if he chose to love Apollo once his life was restored, I would know I had unmade my own sorrow."
"And how did this bring you knowledge of Lethe's plotting."
"Hades denied my petition, the self-righteous prick. Lethe must have heard of my request. She came to me," The grief in Zephyr's eyes deepened. A shiver of cold dread tingled along Vera's spine. "She offered to bring him to me, reborn as a God."
"And what did she ask in return?" Evander asked.
He paused, sadness etched in the deep lines surrounding his eyes. The mask of ageless youthfulness that Vera had noticed earlier, fell away. He pulled in a strengthening breath and spoke, his voice a quiet rumble, “She asked for your mother's life, my lady-"
"What?" Vera whispered.
"She believed the Mound of Gaia should have been hers to rule. That she had been cheated of her birthright and if she couldn't rule the Mound of Gaia she'd destroy those who did."
"How-" Sam began but Zephyr hurried to continue.
He faced Evander. "She also asked me to find a child for her. A boy born to a farmer named Tharros. I was to take him from his family and foster him until his eighteenth year, when I would bring him to her. She had loved him, his shade, at least, when he had come to her river to drink and be reborn. Lethe asked Hades if she might keep this one soul for her own, but he denied her. The soul’s fate was to reincarnate with his lover."
Vera thought of the stories she had overheard as a girl. She was a bright child with no interest in the matters of regency her tutors forced upon her. Vera yearned to learn the secrets of the Elders not what words to speak when greeting visiting dignitaries. She would sneak away from her lessons, hide in the Elders’ ante-chamber, and press her ear to the smooth wood of their inner-door. Most days all she got for her troubles were sore knees and hair that smelled of the orange oil the Acolytes used to polish the oaken doors. But there was one day when she had heard the Elders discussing two youths given in service of the Temple. Their voices had risen with excitement as they talked about the children who were the living souls Alexander of Macedonia and his beloved Hephaestion.
“You mean to tell me those rumors are true?” The words tumbled from Vera’s mouth, her mind reeling from the implications of everything that Zephyr had shared with them.
“What rumors,” Sam asked. Vera sensed his composure waning with each of Zephyr’s epiphanies.
“They don’t know?” Zephyr said, he directed his question to Vera, but he was watching Sam and Evander.
Vera shook her head, “They know as much as I do.” She turned to Sam and Evander. “That some of the Elders thought that you two are the reincarnation of Alexander and Hephaestion."
“That rumor? Those are just bored ramblings, aren’t they?” Evander chuckled.
“No. What you have heard is true.” Zephyr said.
Evander studied Zephyr’s expression and his eyes grew wide. Vera felt the wonder and concern warring for dominance in Evander's mind. Sam abandoned decorum and gathered both Evander and Vera to him and grasped Vera’s and Sam’s hands in his own, sending them as much peace as he could muster.
The Wind Daemon continued, “The Wind Court is the Mound of Gaia's ally. I refused Lethe and let your grandmother know about her scheming." Zephyr’s speech halted while he chose his words with care, "It broke her heart when your mother disappeared. The first thing she did was send an emissary to search the Underworld."
"Who?" Vera questioned. The shock of Zephyr's revelations wore away beneath a renewed sense of purpose.
"Artemis. They were friends. Your grandmother often talked about the precious gift that Artemis had given her when she ascended to High Votaress–"
"Wait, what was it?" Vera interrupted, hands shaking with excitement.
"I don't know. She only said that Artemis had brought her a drop of magic from the Underworld. That was why your grandmother asked Artemis to go; she knew that Hades would give her leave to search for Jocasta without interference."
Vera's pulse quickened. If she could enlist Artemis to their cause she might be able to gain them all safe passage to the Underworld. Lethe wouldn't be expecting a confrontation there and numbers would be on their side if both Zephyr and Artemis were to join the fight.
"If I asked you to accompany us to the Underworld, would you stand with us?" Vera asked Zephyr.
Pride lit the Daemon's face, "Yes."
"Your horses and riders are tired, we'll give them a few hours to rest. The villa grounds are safe." She turned to Sam and Evander, "We need Artemis to join us. She's been to the Underworld and had Hades' blessing to search it. I'll find her while you two gather the supplies we'll need."
"What do you mean "you two"? You don't think you're searching for Artemis on your own." Sam insisted.
"No way, what's stopping Lethe from pouncing on you the minute you step outside the villa's gates," Evander added.
"Do either of you feel like getting eaten by hounds today because I promise that's what will happen if you go anywhere near her encampment? I'll bring Dar with me. Artemis loves them. Trust me, I'll be fine, the Huntress and I do have history, remember?"
Sam's chuckled, Is that what we're calling her rope-play parties now? Interesting, he thought.
Puppy, I think you and I need to make a little history once we've got everything ready to go, Evander teased.
The familiar banter eased Vera's tension. They were facing down a fight in an unknown land, but they were strong together.
"Great fucking Gaia, Lethe is going to regret venturing into my world,” Vera said, waving a hand, and releasing the ward that had secured their privacy. The lilt of laughter echoed down the hall and the bells calling all the Acolytes to the mid-day meal began to ring.