"Wake up, pet."
Vera surfaced from the dark of restful sleep. The torches were lit, but burning low, and darkness flooded in through the gaps between the trees. She rolled on her back and stretched.
”Is Balanis back with the others?” Vera asked.
"Not yet. Soon, I think."
Shadows danced across the Goddess' face. Reaching out, she trailed her fingers over Vera's bare breasts, teasing her nipples to hardness.
"You were incredible last night,” Artemis said, warm fingers drifting over Vera’s skin.
"It doesn't take a lot of skill to get trussed up like a goat."
A twist of Vera's nipple made her gasp and the Huntress' expression turned stern. "A little early for sass, don't you think?"
Heat spread beneath Vera's skin like warmed honey, flowing thick and sweet after the sting subsided.
"Never." She pressed herself to Artemis’ side. The Goddess’ flesh was unblemished as the statues in the Temple of Gaia's gardens. But instead of cool stone, she burned with life.
"Are you this much of a brat with Evander?"
"I don't doubt it, poor man, and he's got to contend with your Sam as well?” The Huntress traced Vera’s throat with her tongue, her voice dropping to a growl. “I would love to see how he manages the two of you."
Vera quivered with desire, imagining Artemis watching the three of them making love. Their joining offered not as a formal tribute, but as a sacred gift. Her hands ghosted over the Huntress' body, whispers of touch that made her muscles twitch beneath her fingers.
"May I?" she asked when she reached the border of soft curls at the juncture of her lover's thighs. Tucking her face into Artemis' neck, she inhaled the scent of sleep and wood-smoke while she waited for her answer.
Plush folds of skin, wet with slick, surrounded the well of Artemis’ sex. The Goddess sucked in a breath when Vera's fingers lingered over her clit, the swollen head shining out from beneath its hood.
“Please, can I taste you?"
"Of course," Artemis said, spreading her legs. Vera settled between them, basking in the Goddess’ warmth. Want pulsed in the well of Vera’s sex. Ignoring her own need, she teased small shivers of anticipation from Artemis with feather-light kisses and kitten licks around the border of her entrance. The Goddess moaned, rearing under her tongue.
"Do you think you can keep still while I take what I need?"
She nodded and Artemis tugged on Vera's ear. "I mean to work that mouth until I come, pretty. I need your words."
"Snap twice if you need me to stop."
"I will. I promise."
Strong fingers twisted in Vera’s hair and her scalp, still tender from the night before, tingled, sending bolts of desire straight to her core. The Goddess’ hips bucked chasing the pressure of Vera’s tongue on her clit.
Vera’s mind was calm, her own arousal fading into the background like white noise. It had become secondary to the anticipation of drowning in the soft, wet heat of Artemis’ sex. Vera was swept along like a flower being carried out to sea on the tide.
Surging up, Artemis gathered her in her arms and flipped Vera onto her back as if she were light as a doll. Breathless from the whirling of the room, Vera panted, open-mouthed, writhing as she reached for Artemis’ hips, trying to pull her closer.
Artemis laughed, straddling Vera’s head. She spread the lips of her cunt, “Beg me to use your mouth, pretty.”
“Please, I want you to use my mouth,” Artemis rolled her hips, giving Vera a few moments to suckle on her clit before pulling away. Vera whined, “Please.”
“You’re so good to me, pet.” The Huntress said and lowered her sex to Vera’s lips again, hissing as she took her pleasure with unabashed delight.
Vera savored Artemis' essence on her tongue. It was like the first bright notes of sweet tobacco and currants in a fine whiskey. Her jaw ached, but she held herself, open-mouthed, a devoted supplicant reveling in her Goddess’ pleasure.
The campfires were lit when Artemis and Vera returned to the main encampment. Last night's revelers gathered around in clutches, chatting and passing plates of toasted bread, figs, and cheese from hand-to-hand.
Vera stood on the periphery listening for the heralds to announce the arrival of her lovers and their party. Artemis busied herself, going from group to group giving orders for their upcoming journey. It was a familiar scene, if not for the weight of anticipation roiling in her belly.
Chilled morning air wheedled its fingers under Vera's riding cloak. She shivered and readjusted her breastplate. The armor, a perfect fit for her, had appeared beside Artemis' bed at some point in the night.
She accepted it without a fuss but squawked when the Huntress attempted to strap a short sword to her waist. It'll be a sad day if we have to rely on my sword-work to save our lives, she had argued. Artemis was patient and silent, until Vera relented, fastening the scabbard to her belt.
Vera watched as the sun peeked his head over the curve of the earth. A line of fire appeared above the eastern horizon. Niva broke away from the group and brought Vera a mug of mulled brandy and plate of food.
Vera sipped, the heat and snap of the alcohol combined with the flavors of honey and star-anise chased away the cold. "That's good."
"I made that concoction myself. It keeps you on your feet."
She smacked her lips. "I imagine too much of it will knock you on your ass."
"Nothing but true. Now, you need to eat something while you can."
"Did Artemis send you over to mother me?"
"No. I'm capable of doing that on my own."
"I'm not hungry."
"Too bad." Niva held out the plate.
"I'm not arguing."
"I could have you dealt with."
"Big talk from our pretty little Queen," Niva said. "Now, eat."
"Fine." She crunched a crust of bread between her teeth, making a show of chewing and swallowing. "See, all gone."
The dryad eyed the remaining food. Vera growled but acquiesced. Breakfast was hearty, sharp and sweet, and the company kept the worst of her worries at bay. They talked about the details of their upcoming travel. Success and failure lived in the small decisions, like the number of water skins to carry or the type of food that would not spoil over a prolonged expedition.
Vera grew concerned as the sun climbed higher in the sky. She was debating whether to bother with another mug of brandy when the camp heralds began a chorus announcing Balanis' return. Minutes later Balanis entered the clearing with Dar at her side. Sam, Evander, and Zephyr came next. Ossa walked behind them, her face sour as curdled milk.
The travelers looked well. Vera ran to Sam and Evander, throwing her arms around both men. They embraced, exchanging kisses like they had been separated for far longer than one night.
A night with Artemis did you a world of good, Evander thought as he nuzzled the tender skin behind her ear. The sensation of her bond-mates against her, combined with the memory of Artemis' lovemaking was a potent mixture of sensations and she trembled.
"That good, huh?" Sam whispered against her lips.
She nipped at his chin and tugged on Evander's ear. "Both of you, stop. If you don't irritate me, I'll tell you about it later. Maybe even teach you a few new tricks, puppy."
"I'm not moving until I'm told where we're going," Zephyr demanded, his wings trembling with anger, the feathers standing on end.
He reminds me of an angry chicken, Evander thought, and Vera bit her cheek to keep from laughing.
"We don't have time for your temper tantrums.” Artemis jerked her head toward Ossa. "Leave your jackdaw behind and I'll tell you whatever you want to know."
"You're being unreasonable,” Zephyr said.
The air around Zephyr and Artemis was thick with the sharp, metallic scent of their anger.
And it was going so well, Vera thought.
They had decided that a party of ten would set out to the Gate, equipped with provisions to last a week. The Goddess chose Balanis, Niva, and Hylon for the journey. Sam, Evander, and Dar would accompany Vera.
Zephyr insisted Ossa join them and Vera agreed that leaving Ossa to her own devices was unwise. Her faithfulness to Zephyr would not impede whatever petty vengeance she would think to exact if she took offense at being left behind. Acknowledging what was in her nature was safer for all of them. That included keeping the location of the Gate a secret until they reached their destination, no matter how angry Zephyr became.
"Try to understand," Vera said. "One word dropped along the way could ruin us."
Zephyr narrowed his eyes, measuring her resolve. After a moment he sagged. "Fine, but once we reach the Underworld, no more secrets. Agreed?"
“Yes,” Vera said, relieved they had avoided a full-fledged confrontation.
I don't trust her, love, Sam thought.
Everything will be alright as long as we don't forget that Ossa is Ossa. She won’t betray her nature, she answered.
Daylight had chased the last vestige of darkness from the sky and they took to the road. The Huntress guided them west, leaving the mountainous forests behind for the low-lands with their farms and villages.
Hearty bushes and tufts of grass interspersed with marshy wetlands replaced the hills as they drew closer to the ocean. Gulls greeted them like a welcoming chorus when they reached the Ionian Sea.
They rode south along the shore, grateful for the cool wind that whipped at their hair and their horses’ manes. It was late morning when the party turned back to the east, following the Neda River inland.
Artemis called for a halt when they reached an open floodplain. The river slowed to a shallow ribbon of water, the land dry and firm on either side. It was a perfect spot to rest the horses and discuss what would happen when they reached the Gate.
“Refill your water-skins,” the Huntress called out, her voice loud enough for each member of the party to hear. “Once we pass through the gate we’ll have nothing but the food and water we carry in with us.”
“Accept nothing that we haven’t brought ourselves once we pass the gate,” Vera added. “If you eat or drink anything from the Underworld you’re stuck there, and I won’t be able to get you released.”
“That’s a strange definition of hospitality,” Evander said, bending down to drink from the stream.
“Isn’t that how he tricked Persephone into marrying him?” Sam asked.
“Even my father called that a dick move,” Artemis said.
“He kidnapped her. Just because Persephone’s got some eternal version of Stockholm syndrome doesn’t make it okay in retrospect,” Vera interjected.
“What’s a Stockholm?” Artemis asked, her mouth twisting into a confused frown.
“It’s a city in the uninitiated world. It’s not important,” Vera said, placating the Goddess with a chaste kiss. “How much farther to the Gate?”
All eyes slid toward Ossa, she was crouched by the river, close enough to overhear their conversation. They waited for her to finish refilling her skins and return to Zephyr who was a few meters away tending to their horses.
Ossa stood up, hoisting her water-skins over her shoulder, and grimaced at their silence. “It won’t be long now, my lady,” she colored the deferential title with disdain. “We’re making for the Neda Gorge.”
Artemis bristled. “Who told you?”
“No one needed to tell me. I’m not blind and I’m not an idiot,” Ossa said. "Did you think I wouldn’t recognize the direction we were heading?”
"Swear to me you didn’t betray us-" the Goddess’ spat, but the last of her words were lost.
A howling wind that swept along the river bank. Devil's tails of sand skittered at their feet and the horses reared, whinnying in terror. Clouds spread across the sky, roiling like boiling water until daylight faded and everything around them was cast in shadow.
"Is this you, Zephyr?" Evander shouted above the din.
"No," Zephyr yelled, his eyes widened with panicked surprise.
Evander and Zephyr drew their swords. Sam shifted into his hound-form and herded the members of their party together for protection.
Balanis and Niva brandished oak staves, and Hylon nocked an arrow from her quiver.
Returning to Vera's side, her Familiar transformed back into his human skin and armed himself with two slender daggers.
Vera squinted, shielding her eyes, and sending her thoughts to Sam, What is this?
I don't know, Sam answered, It’s magic, but no one here’s responsible for it.
Darkness rose from the earth, wrapping around them like a funeral shroud. The wind died as fast as it began, and all light, sensation, and sound disappeared along with it.
Sam and Evander's minds reached out for Vera’s. Forcing herself to remain calm despite her blindness, she raised her arms to channel a flame and her vision returned.
The ten travelers stood in a circle, weapons at the ready. The polished stones beneath their feet glimmered. Above them, a garrison of flying buttresses supported a vaulted ceiling that had been painted to resemble the star-strewn night sky.
A man with a broad-chested dog at his side greeted them. A chiton, red as a pomegranate, was draped over one shoulder and a light dusting of hair covered his muscular chest. His pale skin was accentuated by the darkness of his beard and the mess of curls that fell around his forehead. The beast's fur was brindle, amber with streaks of ebony and its three sets of eyes looked at Vera with frank curiosity.
"I am Hades.” He bowed, one hand on his waist, the other outstretched in a pantomime of courtly behavior. "Welcome to my kingdom."