Evander had disappeared the moment that he set foot on Elysium’s shore. There had been no sounds or flashes of light. He was there and then he was gone.
It’s useless to panic, she thought, forcing herself to believe her own words. Hades’ and Kronos’ responses to Evander’s disappearance had been immediate. Kronos summoned guards and ordered them to scour the whole of the Elysium Fields. Hades sent Charon to demand the other client-kings in the Underworld join in the search.
Like father, like son. It was strange, Hades had surpassed his father in terms of power and yet it didn’t appear Kronos resented him. Vera studied them, alert for any ill-will that might interfere with finding her missing bond-mate. The two Gods addressed each other with ease. Hades deferred to Kronos, displaying respect that was out-of-character, if the stories of his relationship with his father were to be believed.
Kronos suggested they gather at his manor hall to plan their next step. It was a short walk from the river and Hades and Kronos led them along a worn path that bordered a wheat field, the tasseled heads bursting from the stalks like sprays of gold.
Balanis, Niva, and Hylon had flanked Vera. Sam, Dar, Artemis, Zephyr, and Ossa stayed behind to search the riverbank for any sign that might lead them to Evander. Cerberus stayed with the Huntress and offer her aid and she had offered a single bark before racing off to locate Evander’s scent.
Waiting was torturous and Vera paced the length of Kronos’ receiving hall, Vera was grim-faced, fury roiling beneath a veneer of reserve. She sent her mind out to find Evander again and again. It was Kronos who finally dared to approach and beg her to sit and rest while they waited for the Huntress and their other companions.
Kronos’ kindness confounded Vera’s expectations. He was modest, yet his voice rang out clear and loud like the chime of a cathedral bell. Shorter than Sam, he was slender and youthful, despite his full beard and eyes that reflected knowledge as ancient as the earth herself.
Artemis and the remainder of their party returned within the hour, their search had born no fruit.
“It was a trap, but the shores of the river are a tangle of magic. There’s no way to sense which thread to follow,” Sam said, sitting beside Vera. She dropped a kiss on his forehead, giving herself a moment to breathe in the sharp caramel and cedar scent of his skin.
“We’ll find him, love, and when we do, Lethe will pay," Vera said.
”Do you think she's still in the Underworld?" Sam asked Hades, fearing that Lethe had escaped.
“If she’s left, I’ll make sure that there isn’t a soul in the Beyond that doesn’t know we’re looking for Lethe,” Ossa answered, determination written in the crease of her brow. Vera stared at her, eyebrows skating to her hairline in surprise.
Ossa snapped, frustrated, “What, like I can’t help? He may not trust me, but Evander’s never been unkind, even after I dicked around with the Mound of Gaia.”
Vera nodded, “Thank you.” She turned to back to Hades and Kronos, “Well, is she still in the Underworld?"
"Of course, no one crosses the border without leave from the Underworld’s King,” Kronos said, looking to his son for confirmation.
“My father’s right, she wouldn't have been able to bring him back to the Beyond without my leave," Hades said. A low rumble from Cerberus caught his attention, “Or yours, my girl.”
"How would Lethe have known to put a trap on Elysium's shore?" the Huntress asked.
"She must have them everywhere," Hades answered.
"So, you're saying she just dropped them everywhere like breadcrumbs and waited for Evander to stumble into one? How does that make sense?" Sam's said. "Unless she is using a seeking spell."
"Like a tracker?" Artemis said.
Hades groaned, scrubbing at his face with his hands.
"What?" Vera demanded.
"Souls with no memory tend to wander off. The borders, like the riverbanks, are enchanted. Anyone exposed to the River of Oblivion who then steps on the land is transported to her stronghold on the Plateau of Lamentation.”
“Then that’s where we should start,” Vera said.
"She wouldn't stay there," the Huntress offered. "Lethe would know we're coming for her."
“She’s got nowhere to go,” Kronos interjected. “No one interested in staying out of Tartarus is going to help her,"
"I'll find him," Artemis added, cupping Vera’s cheek, "I promise you, pretty."
A new voice spoke. “She’s taken him to the Mourning Fields."
Vera's head snapped up, heat pricking at the corners of her eyes. The voice was as familiar to her as the lines of her own palm. The rest of the companions looked around for the speaker. A woman stood apart from the group. The lines on her face reflected a life of laughter and joy. Her ebony hair was streaked with silver, curls piled high and held in place by a crown of golden myrtle.
Dar was the first to move, love shining in their expression. They fell to their knees before the newcomer. "My Great Lady," they said lowering their forehead to her bare feet, "Petra, my wife."
A sob exploded from Vera's throat, breaking the stillness that had held her in place. She threw herself forward into the woman's arms.
"Enough of that, my little wood lark, there is much to tell you and not much time."
Vera swiped at her eyes. "Yes, Granny."
"And you.” She touched Dar's shoulder. "Stand and let me look at you while we talk. I thought I would have to wait another lifetime to see your face. I mean to enjoy it while you're here."
Dar rose to their feet, staring in wonder. "I missed you, but I must have been foolish to think death might curb your demanding nature.”
Kronos snorted. "Petra has been a thorn in our garden since she arrived."
She smoothed the hair from Vera's face. "Ignore him, he enjoys complaining. Listen, Lethe has taken Evander to the Mourning Fields. You'll find them there."
The Mourning Fields were a broad expanse of land that followed the River of Oblivion. Dried vines crawled over arbors that had fallen to ruin from neglect. Wasted casks of wine littered the ground.
It was the land of decay and loss, the sky was frozen in perpetual dusk. The shadows of bare trees stretched like grasping fingers scratching at the earth.
Artemis sped ahead of the group. Accustomed to chasing her quarry through dense woodland, she covered the flatlands with ease. Cerberus ran at her side, barking when the scent changed course.
Can you feel if Evander’s close? Sam asked, fear, clenching and desperate, accompanying his thought.
No, but I haven't been able to sense him at all since he was taken, Vera answered and quelled the panic that threatened to overwhelm her. Her companions running by her side gave her strength. Sam was just ahead of her, following Artemis and Cerberus in his human-form. Hylon’s hooves thundered against the earth. Niva’s and Balanis’ feet skipped over the ground, preternatural grace in the bend and flex of their limbs. Zephyr and Ossa flew above searching the distance for signs of Lethe and Evander. Dar, Hades, and Kronos followed, forming a powerful rear guard.
They had drawn even with the river bank when Artemis dropped out of sight just beyond the crest of a low dune.
“They’re over the dune,” Zephyr shouted and dropped to the ground to run at Vera’s side. Vera shouted after her, receiving no reply. Sam shifted into his hound-form and put on a burst of speed, pulling ahead and disappearing. Minutes later she came over the hill. All of the companions skidded to a halt, gaping at the sight that greeted them.
Below, the river flowed, sedate but strong in its banks. Evander stood with his back to the water holding Sam, in his human-form, before him. One of Evander’s hands clutched Sam’s hair, bearing Sam’s neck, the point of Evander’s sword pressed to his throat. Artemis was lying on the ground clutching her knee, her leg jutting out from her hip at an unnatural angle. Cerberus crouched in front of her, growling to warn Evander and Lethe away.
Lethe was at Evander’s side, smirking like she had won the day.
"Evander of Tharros, I order you as your Queen, to drop your sword."
Evander's face was expressionless. No recognition. No fear. He looked as empty as the discarded wine casks they had passed. Vera fought against her own protective nature and lifted her arms, channeling her fury.
"I wouldn't do that," Lethe cautioned. "My soldier doesn't know his own strength,” she motioned toward Artemis, "I think he broke one of your toys."
Vera's eyes darted over to the Huntress, confused. Evander was ferocious when he fought, but the struggle with the Goddess could not have lasted more than a few seconds. If Artemis was breathing she could nock an arrow. It made no sense that Evander wasn’t on the ground with one piercing his heart.
Breathing in, she released all extraneous thought and focused on calling forth her power.
Sam, I'm going to knock Evy on his ass, try not to get killed, when I do, she thought to her bond-mate.
Wait. Sam’s words burst through to her and she winced. Evander's sword arm twitched.
He's going to kill you.
Listen to me. Not. Yet. You have to wait.
For what? She searched his face, frantic for some clue as to what was happening. A tingle began at the base of her skull. It was a familiar, comforting presence that she had been missing since Evander had winked out of her sight.
Lethe stepped behind Evander and Sam, shielding herself.
The thought, Now, exploded in her mind in Evander's voice.
She howled, threads of sparking power surged from her hands. Evander tossed his sword aside and fell on Sam to protect him from the searing blast.
Lethe was thrown backward, struck in the chest. She landed with a splash in the River of Oblivion. The undercurrent, strong enough to have wiped away the memories of millions of lives, pulled her under the surface, and she was gone.
"Tell me again," Vera said, reclining on a pillow. The night air was balmy and scented with the cedar.
“Not another retelling of hero’s ordeal, pretty? Take me back to my mountain, I can’t stomach it,” Artemis teased, flicking Vera’s ear.
“You heard the Temple Healers, you’re not allowed to hunt for another week, at least.”
“It appears you’re stuck with us until then,” Sam added.
Artemis rolled her eyes. “I suppose the three of you aren’t horrible. And this one is lovely when she’s not overwrought.”
“Once more, please?” Vera asked again.
Evander shook his head. "You've heard this story at least twenty times in the past twenty-four hours. I'm getting tired of telling it, you must be sick of hearing it.”
Vera smiled when he looked at her, his eyes filled with passion. “Me, get tired of hearing about how the people I love most in all the worlds kicked ass? Never.”
The expedition to the Underworld had been long. Artemis had not been able to travel at first and Vera refused to leave until she was sure Lethe’s threat was over. The would-be usurper had washed up on the River of Oblivion’s shore the day after their confrontation, alive, but with her memory gone. Pleading with Hades, Vera convinced him to spare Lethe a sentence in Tartarus and instead keep her as a servant in his palace.
The Huntress had agreed to convalesce in the High Votaress’ villa until she was able to hunt again. The night they returned, the Valley of Gortyna was alight with torches and the Midsummer drums rang out from the hills. Vera had insisted they pile their private balcony with pillows, blankets, and pallets, So Artemis can enjoy the moon on her skin, she had reasoned.
Evander's head was pillowed on Vera’s stomach and Sam was tucked up against his side, listening to his heartbeat. Artemis was stretched out above them on a pallet, her broken leg swaddled and splinted.
“At least tell me about Granny.”
His eyes softened and he gave in. “The water from Lethe’s wand put me to sleep. I figured I was done for, but when I woke up, I realized I still had my memories. Then the Great Lady's voice was inside my head. I thought I was dead, I even asked her if I was and you know what she told me?"
"What?" Vera asked, though she knew the answer.
"She told me that she hadn't trusted her granddaughter to Achilles or Alexander. I put her life in your hands and your life in hers, don't make me regret my choices, young man."
Artemis choked on a sip of spiced wine. "That's a serviceable impression.”
“I wouldn't let Dar catch you doing it, though,” Vera added.
A furrow appeared in Evander's brow. "They miss her, more now than ever."
“How could they not after seeing her again,” Sam said.
Sadness dragged the corners of Evander’s lips down and he continued. "She said the draught from the River of Memory was lifelong, whatever that means, and that you were coming for me. I wish I could have been there for you when you saw her."
“Stop.” Sniffling, Vera tapped Evander's forehead. "Only happy thoughts when we're naked, please."
He chuckled. ”After that, it was just waiting for you folks to catch up. I wanted to tell you, but I couldn't risk Lethe finding out."
"And Artemis?” Sam asked, tracing his fingers along the border of the thatch of hair at the base of Evander’s shaft.
"Evander tackled me when I came over the dune,” Artemis said. She rubbed her throat like it pained her, "Whispered his ridiculous plan while he was trying to strangle me.” Her scolding was playful and Evander chuckled.
“What was I supposed to do?” His incredulity was as much of a show as Artemis’ chastisement. “Anyway, somehow I managed to get my point across without getting an arrow through the chest.”
“Not before Cerberus and I went ass over teakettle and I broke my fucking leg,” she grumped.
"You're both lucky idiots,” Sam said and palmed Evander's cock, teasing the foreskin with delicate pulls back and forth over the crown.
Vera propped herself up on an elbow, watching her bond-mates. Evander leaned down and devoured Sam's mouth, tracing the blade of his jaw with tender touches. She stroked Evander's hair while Sam plucked at Evander’s nipples and left perfect bite marks in a circle above his lover’s heart.
“They’re gorgeous together, aren’t they, pet,” Artemis said, caressing Vera’s shoulder. Arousal swept across the surface of Vera’s skin, heightened by the sound of Artemis’ voice in her ear. It was thrilling to have another bear witness to the beauty she saw in her lovers.
Sam’s and Evander’s limbs tangled together as they moved. Pleasure existed in the quickness of their breath and the way they explored each other. Evander tilted his head back against her belly and whimpered as his lover took the head of his prick between his lips.
“Imagine what your puppy’s mouth feels like on his cock, pretty. Can you taste the excitement on his skin?” Vera followed Artemis’ voice and opened her mind to experience their passion in her own body.
Evander growled, hungry for both of his lovers’ attention, and dragged Vera toward them. Arranging Sam on his side between them, he molded himself to Sam's back, kissing along his neck while Vera bit at his lips.
“Do you want her mouth, puppy?" Evander panted in Sam’s ear.
“Yes,” Artemis purred, her fingers carding through Vera’s hair, “I want to watch you devour him. Will you do that, for us?”
“Yes,” Vera whispered.
“Suck on his nipple, just a hint of teeth. Good girl, do you see how he trembles when you pull away?” Artemis laid a trail of words for her to follow, each command stoking a flame in Vera’s chest. The Huntress noticed things that Vera had become accustomed to and made them new. She delighted in the way Sam’s breath quickened when Vera nipped at his thighs and laughed when his toes curled like a dancer’s as Evander caressed the furl of muscle at Sam’s center.
Sam panted and begged when he heard the click of the bottle of lube. Pulling back, Vera reached around and traced the skin where his hole was stretched around Evander's fingers.
She slid up his body and hitched her leg over his hip and enveloped him in one swift movement. Evander’s lips traveled over Sam’s neck and shoulders while he spoke, "She feels so good, doesn't she? Look at your Queen while she rides you, puppy."
Sam sobbed, his hips snapping up into her. She kissed him, little pecks over his nose and cheeks.
"Did Evy find that bright spark inside you, love?” Vera asked.
Sam nodded, his head loose, like a rag doll's.
“He's lovely, pet.” Artemis said. “He doesn’t know whether to grind back on Evy’s fingers or thrust into your pussy, does he?” Artemis added, her breath speeding up as her own arousal grew.
The walls of Vera's passage pulsed around Sam’s cock.
“Tease your clit while you fuck him, pretty,” Artemis ordered, her own voice hoarse with desire. Vera closed her eyes, while she pinched and stroked the delicate pearl, heightening the want that surged through her.
“That’s good, love,” Evander panted. “Don’t come until you feel him throbbing inside you. Can you do that, for me?”
“Yes,” she opened her eyes, locking her gaze onto Sam’s as she rode him, gasping for breath, “Please. Come in me, puppy.”
Sam cried out, his head falling back against Evander's shoulder, mouth gaping in a pose of complete surrender. She felt the heat of his spend within her and she shuddered through her own release. Evander followed them, guiding his length between his lover's thighs. He bucked against Sam, his face buried in the crook of Sam's neck. Artemis’ cry of pleasure was the final note of their symphony.
They collapsed together into the nest of pillows. Hands and lips found each other throughout the course of the night. Vows of love and laughter drifted from their mouths, rising past the ragged clouds, and echoing among the stars, where the universe began.
Anne Stagg's 'Mound of Gaia' series is a Bellesa exclusive.