Cold air nipped at the bare skin on Jo’s arms. She grumbled, wishing she had thought to close her bedroom window before falling asleep.
“Go get Vera and tell her we’ve found Jo,” Evander barked the order, his voice colored with concern.
Jo had been dreaming about a barren place. A sloping land of rock and dirt, dotted with anemic tufts of grass. She was freezing and reached out for her duvet. Pain, strident and burning, tore through her head and she curled into a ball, whimpering.
“Stay still,” Sam said.
Sam? she thought. What’s Sam doing in my room? She heard cracking, like a stick snapping beneath a boot and something snuffled and huffed against her hair.
Not my apartment. The Beyond. Vera’s Temple. What the fuck is wrong with my head?
The sound came again, followed by Sam’s voice, “She’s not enchanted with anything but the curse. It looks like she just took a wicked blow to head.”
The weight of soft wool settled over her body. It was warm, like the ghost of heat that lingers on a lover’s pillow. The ache behind her eyes intensified and sour bile clawed up from her stomach. She gagged and spit, forcing herself to take long, slow breaths.
“You have a hell of a cut on your head,” Evander said. Jo tried to open her eyes and moaned.
Fingers prodded at her temple. She jerked away, fighting another wave of nausea. Jo heard the pop of a stopper being plucked from a bottle and smelled a pungent aroma, like the earthy sweetness of old wood and tar. Evander held something smooth, like glass, to her lips.
“Drink this, it’ll help.”
Jo grimaced but opened her mouth. The draught was bitter and oily, underscored by the harsh bite of liquor. She recoiled, mewling when she felt the palm on the back of her head that held her in place and forced the liquid into her mouth. “I know it tastes foul, but it works fast.”
She swallowed. The effect of the drink was immediate. The nausea and pain receded, and a fire blazed through her muscles. It burned at first and then eased into a pleasant, all-encompassing warmth, like the first stinging touch of steaming bathwater against cool skin. Jo opened her eyes and looked up into the branches of an apple tree. The transient light of false dawn washed everything beyond the circle of Sam’s torch in shadow.
“Better?” Evander asked, and Jo nodded, “Can you tell us what happened?”
Jo tried to recall what had occurred after she and Quinn had made love, but no memories came. She reached up, brushing against the knot on her temple, hissing when she prodded the spot where her skin had split, the ridges of the wound tacky with dried blood.
“I was scared. Afraid of losing the bond if Zeus lifted the curse. Quinn found me out here,” Jo offered, “I can’t…” Her eyes darted between Sam and Evander, “why don’t I…? What am I missing?”
“Are you sure she’s not under some enchantment?” Evander asked.
Sam nodded, “Yes–”
“Where’s Quinn?” Jo asked.
She looked around. The gardens and orchards surrounding the Temple bustled with activity. Hundreds of torches beat back the darkness, each flickering like a firefly in a jar. People called out as they walked between the rows of trees and flowers. Jo tried to catch the individual words, but all of the voices jumbled together.
Jo’s bond with Quinn was less than 24-hours old, but within that time, she had grown accustomed to the constant thrum of his emotions. She closed her eyes to concentrate and was assailed by an implacable darkness within her own mind. It swallowed her thoughts, leaving a mute emptiness in their place.
“I can’t hear him,” Jo was on her feet, trembling from the effort, “I can’t hear him. Why can’t I hear Quinn anymore?”
The clamor of voices grew louder as Vera led a group of Guardians in their direction. Each warrior was outfitted in bronze and leather, like they were prepared for battle. Vera wore similar garb, a short linen chiton with an outer shell of leather.
“Quinn’s gone,” Jo said when Vera reached her. The words tasted like ash in her mouth.
“I know,” Vera tilted Jo’s head toward the torchlight, examining her wound.
“How–” Jo started by Vera cut her off.
“I’ll explain later. Are you well enough to walk?”
“Then come with me, there’s a man at the south entrance. He says he has information about Quinn.”
Jo was surprised when she saw the rising sun brightening the horizon with a band of gold. It had to have been close to midnight when Quinn found her in the orchard. She remembered making love and laying together in the moonlight, but then her memories blurred and time slipped away. She had no memory of the attack. One moment Quinn had been in her arms and the next she was waking cold and alone.
Vera led them back to to the Temple and straight to her bedchamber where one of the younger Sisters helped Jo change from her silk dress to a light wool tunic and leather breastplate. The armor was stiff and weighed heavy on her shoulders, but she welcomed whatever protection it might offer. She had forced herself to drink more of Evander’s healing tonic before they were on the move again, winding their way through hallways of stone to the temple’s southern entrance. Jo’s skin prickled as they drew closer to their destination and the wolf within huffed and panted agitated by the presence of danger.
The group rounded a corner and a broad archway came into a view. Torches on either side of the entrance obscured the visitor’s face, but his silhouette was massive. He was broad-shouldered and at least a head taller than each of the Guardians that flanked him. The wolf growled a warning and Jo stumbled, her senses overcome by the sudden sound of rushing water and the scent of pine and cedar.
Sam caught her arm before she fell. “What is it?”
The torchlight chased the shadows from the man’s face when he stepped forward. Jo’s heart stuttered. “It’s him,” she said.“The man from the store.”
Evander and the other guards drew their swords and the man laughed, the sound of his voice hoarse and deep-throated, like the roar of a wildfire.
Vera thrust her right hand out, palm forward. A chain, the links alight with power, streamed from the center of her hand and circled the man’s neck. Jo’s vision cleared. She lifted her eyes to meet the stranger’s gaze.
“Hello again, pretty,” the man said, his lips pulled into a hate-filled smirk.
“Who are you?” Vera demanded.
“I am Nicos of Ilias and I bring you a summons from my mistress.”
“You’re in no position to summon anyone,” Vera said, her tone threaded with impatience, “Tell us what news you have of our Brother Quinn. I will consider releasing you, if you can guarantee that he will be returned to us unhurt.”
“The mongrel is waiting for his darling,” Nicos hissed, jerking his head toward Jo, “But this little puppy is going to have to scrap for his freedom. Do you feel up to that, my darling daughter?”
The wolf's ferocity bled through Jo’s voice, undergirding her gentle alto with a savage growl, “I’m not your daughter.”
“Oh, but you are, blood of my blood. And tonight, my mistress will feast on your flesh.”
“Silence,” Vera commanded. She pulled a dagger from her belt and stalked toward the prisoner. Nicos watched her with detached curiosity, paying no heed to Vera or the blade she pressed to his throat.
“You obey my commands, or I will butcher you here, like the animal you are,” Vera said, her voice calm. “If you have news of our Brother I suggest you share it now.”
His eyes slipped down to meet Vera’s and his smile widened, “He is a captive. A hostage until you answer for the debt of blood you owe my mistress, Kallisto of Arcadia.”
Jo looked to Sam and then Evander. Both were pale, and her own apprehension grew. Vera regarded Nicos with a shrewd eye, “Your mistress, Kallisto of Arcadia, she is the daughter of Lycaon, the great white wolf?”
“She is, and she demands combat to answer for the murder of her father.”
“I owe her nothing. Her father’s treachery was met with justice and his death was swift. It was more than he deserved for his cowardice,” Jo shivered at the steel in Vera’s voice.
“And yet the old laws give her the right of challenge. Will you honor the ways of our land or have you become so corrupted by your mortal pets that you would betray the oath you swore to uphold?”
It was Vera’s turn to laugh. “Fine. If Kallisto wishes for a fight, she’ll have one. Tell me where and when she chooses to meet.”
“She does not wish to fight you, witch.”
“Is she looking to battle the one who dealt the killing blow? Then she can choose between my Guardian and my Familiar. It’s anyone’s guess whether it was Evander’s blade or Sam’s fangs that ended his life.”
Nicos vibrated with anger, his body blurring.
“Great Gaia, he’s trying to shift,” Sam shouted, horror-struck.
“Don’t be a fool,” Vera screamed over the din of breaking bone and ripping skin, “the binding chain won’t allow you to change.”
Her words were useless. Nicos screeched and shook like he had been set aflame. Jo stared, unable to look away while the wretched creature tried to force his way past the binding magic.
Nicos’ efforts proved worthless and he fell to the floor. His shape was neither man, nor beast, but caught in some half-life between the two, a broken, bleeding thing. He howled with rage.
“You will pay,” a wet gurgling sound came from his throat and he spit a clot of blood at Vera’s feet, “But not with your blood. My mistress has leave to choose her challenger from any among your clan; she chooses the newest one among you,” he lifted one of his ruined arms and pointed it in Jo’s direction. She staggered backward.
“No,” Vera said, “She was not of the Mound of Gaia when Lycaon was killed.”
“The old ways don’t draw such… distinctions,” Nicos tried to stand and fell, his legs too twisted to hold his weight, “She will meet my mistress tonight at moonrise on the Plateau of Muses. If your pet does not present herself or does not change with the moon, then your Brother dies.”
“Jo, you can’t fight her.” Evander said once Nicos had been taken to the Temple Healers, “It’s not happening. We’re going to Zeus and find another way.”
“It’s not your decision to make,” Jo struggled to stay calm, torn between the fear of her human consciousness and the frenzy of the wolf.
“We’re leaving for Mount Olympus now,” Vera said.
“Okay, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m going to fight this Kallisto when the time comes.”
“You can’t,” Sam snapped, “You’re not even going to know how your body works. She’ll kill you within moments of your transformation.”
“Enough, if, and I mean, if, Zeus cannot help us, then the choice to fight is Jo’s and Jo’s alone,” Vera said, her voice laden with fury and apprehension.
They raced through the halls, passing clutches of people returning from the search of the orchards. News of Quinn’s kidnapping and the challenge had spread fast and the Temple was quiet, like all the living things within were holding their breath. Vera led them to a small room close to the east entrance. There were torches on the walls, but it was otherwise empty. The only ornamentation was a gold circle painted on the floor.
“I thought we were leaving for Mount Olympus?” Jo asked, toeing the circle’s border.
“We are, but it’s on the mainland,” Vera explained, “We’re taking the Sacred Passage. I’m sorry, the first time you go through is…disconcerting.”
“Just try not to puke on anyone when we get to the other side,” Sam said.
They stepped into the circle together. Jo immediately felt her body stretched taut, elongating and thinning like a rubber band. The sensation lasted the span of one heartbeat and then she was snapped forward, hurtling through a tunnel of light. The sense of movement ceased seconds later, and there was nothing. Just the black. The moment Jo opened her mouth to scream, reality righted itself.
She dropped to her knees, her stomach heaving. Vera rubbed her shoulders, “Sam wasn’t kidding about the puking,” Jo said.
“No,” Vera helped Jo to her feet.
The room they appeared in was grander than the one they had left. Morning light streamed in through a wide, ivy-covered archway that opened onto a balcony, lush with hanging vines and fruit trees.
A clap of thunder echoed around them, despite the speckless sky, and a man appeared. He was naked. His body was masterfully shaped, and his skin was bronzed and smooth as marble.
Vera stepped forward, “Honored Zeus, Father of Olympus. The Mound of Gaia brings greetings.”
“Welcome to Mount Olympus,” Zeus’ voice boomed, “It has been too long, my friends…” He stopped in front of Jo, studying her, like an artist scrutinizing an unfinished sculpture. Jo’s own curiosity won out and she returned his gaze.
“You are exquisite, child,” Zeus said and cupped Jo’s cheek in his hand, “It is not often I meet a mortal brave enough to look on a god without fear.”
Jo stuttered, “Thank you, I think?”
“Zeus, we’ve come to petition you for mercy for this woman,” Vera said.
“Mercy?” He leaned forward and sniffed at Jo’s hair. “The Were-curse. Once afflicted there is no mercy.”
“Lycaon and his sons are dead. The line of the King has ended. There’s no reason to allow this exquisite woman to suffer.”
“By my count, one of Lycaon’s offspring is still alive.”
“The daughter? She’s of no consequence.”
“She’s consequential enough to invoke a blood debt in her father’s name,” Zeus flashed Vera a feral grin, “Do you think I sit alone up here with no news from the world below?”
Vera ground her teeth, the muscles in her jaw ticking, “If you’ve nothing to offer, then neither do we, and we’ll be on our way.”
“You’ll find I have no patience when those under my protection are in danger.”
“Dull. The witches of Gaia never cared a wit for the game, I see nothing has changed,” Zeus grumbled. “What do you have you to offer?”
“It depends on what you have to give?”
“I won’t lift the curse, not while a member of Lycaon’s bloodline lives, but I can alter it, if I choose.”
“Alter it how?” Jo said, finding her voice.
“I can dispense with the agony, allow you to make the change in peace.”
“That’s not enough. I intend to fight Kallisto. If you want Lycaon’s line to end, why not give me what I need to beat her? I want you to take away the pain of transformation and give me the knowledge to beat her in combat.”
“Jo, stop,” Vera warned.
She ignored Vera and continued, “When I win, you can lift the curse and allow Quinn and I to maintain our bond.”
Zeus’ laughter rang out, “You’re a bold little pup, I’ll give you that, but what makes you certain you can deal out death so handily?” The god’s joviality vanished, “Do you even know what it is to kill?”
“No, but,” Jo looked at each of her friends before she continued, “these people saved my life. I won’t lie, I’m terrified, and I don’t want to kill anyone, but if that is what I have to do to honor the gift they’ve given me, then that is what I am prepared to do.”
Zeus looked on Jo with genuine regard. “I would have made you a queen. It’s a shame that the Fates brought us together in the twilight of this life, not the dawn. I do not part with my magic as carelessly as I did when I was young. Since you intrigue me, I’ll give you a choice. I will either remove the pain of the change or give you the knowledge to best Kallisto, but I will not grant both.”
Jo’s answer was immediate. “I can live with the pain. I choose the knowledge I need to fight.”
“And what is it that you have to give me in return?”
Vera stepped forward, “She has been accepted as a Sister of the Mound of Gaia. As her Queen, I offer you the tribute of our Order.”
“Agreed,” Zeus said and clapped his hands, summoning his attendants. Four men rushed in carrying a wide sleeping pallet covered in blankets of silk and soft wool.
“How prescient of you to have such a marvel of comfort ready for your guests,” Vera said, sarcasm dripping from each word.
Zeus parried Vera’s jab, “Should we pretend that your visit would not have required a tribute, regardless of its outcome?”
The four visitors were given wine while the preparations continued. Censers burning spiced incense were placed around the pallet. A low stool was brought for Jo, followed by a golden chaise for Zeus. The sun was close to its zenith when the attendants finished their work.
“Are you sure this is what you want?” Vera asked.
“Having a painless transformation doesn’t help if Kallisto kills me five minutes later,” Jo answered.
“I’m proud to call you my Sister.” Vera smiled, her eyes bright with tears. The kindness on her face drained away when she turned back to Zeus. “She’s made her choice, bestow your gift, and we will make our offering.”
“Before your tribute? My lady, you act as if you don’t trust me to honor our agreement.”
Zeus let loose another peel of laughter, “Learn from your Queen, pup. She is wiser than most.”
The enormity of bartering with a god had been enough of a distraction that Jo had ignored Zeus’ nudity, but when he walked toward her then, his prick blood heavy and hard, her face flushed. She fidgeted, her hands flapping at her sides like restless doves.
Zeus leaned forward and dropped a single kiss on Jo’s brow. It left a tingling sensation in its wake, eclipsing all of her tension and fear, and replacing it with peaceful contentment. Vera laid her hand over Jo’s heart and closed her eyes. A soft breeze rushed over Jo’s skin.
Vera opened her eyes. Her relief was palpable, “It’s done, Jo. You don’t have to stay for this part.”
“Why? You’re not about to sacrifice a goat or a virgin, are you?” Jo asked.
Vera chuckled, “Tributes are bloodless. They’re a celebration more than anything, a gift we offer of ourselves. The energy comes from sexual ecstasy rather than fear.”
A yearning swirled in Jo’s belly as Vera spoke. It was the desire to embrace this new world and the freedoms that it offered. She was hungry to learn what it meant to give without reservation. Vera caught the flavor of Jo’s thoughts.
“You don’t need to do anything you’re not comfortable with, but if you wish to give of yourself, then lend us the spirit of your own pleasure.”
They embraced and the last of Jo’s inhibitions fell away, leaving her with a bittersweet sense of freedom. There was so much of life she needed to experience and no guarantee that she would survive to see tomorrow’s sunrise. She slipped out of her dress, while Vera did the same.
Vera climbed on to the pallet between her lovers. Sam pulled Vera against him, her back to his chest, and ran his fingers through her hair, then moved on to caress the skin of her face and her throat. Vera relaxed into his attention with perfect trust. Jo was struck by a sorrowful longing; she wished that Quinn was there. She tried to remember the sensation of Quinn’s calloused fingers while allowing her own hands to roam over her skin.
Sam teased Vera’s nipples to hardness and Evander prowled up the length of her body, feathering kisses against Vera’s heated skin. He worshipped her with his tongue and his lips, until Vera was writhing beneath his touch. Jo gave in to desire and rolled her own nipples between her fingers, increasing the pressure until it teetered on the edge of pain.
Jo heard Zeus utter a soft groan and chanced a look at the god. He was dragging his fingers up the length of his prick and thrusting up into his fist when he reached the head. His unrestrained carnality excited the wolf and Jo moaned, her hands traveling over her stomach to the juncture of her thighs. She dipped her fingers past her opening, spreading her slick, and allowing herself to get lost in the delicious friction.
Jo shivered while she watched the three lovers twine together like the vines of ivy that twisted and climbed along the archways of the palace. Evander slid down the length of Vera’s body, spreading her legs wide, while Sam pressed against her from behind.
Evander’s tongue darted out, parting the folds of Vera’s sex. Jo recalled the softness of Quinn’s tongue and the gentle scrape of teeth on her most delicate flesh. She imagined how it would be, to have him kneeling at her feet, his breath hot and fast, fanning over her skin while he stroked her clit.
The lover’s tableau shifted. Sam reclined on the bed, his cock hard against his stomach. Evander crawled upward, taking Sam’s mouth in a kiss. They shared the taste of Vera and the desire they had for each other. Vera straddled Sam’s hips, spearing herself on his cock without delay.
Sam whimpered, his hips rising to meet the rise and fall of Vera’s body. Jo pressed two fingers inside herself, following Vera’s rhythm. Evander was up on his knees, brushing his prick against Sam’s lips and coating them with the drops of moisture that beaded at the tip of his shaft. Vera undulated against Sam, dragging her hands across his skin and Sam took Evander in his mouth, the bliss of surrender clear on his face as he lapped and sucked at Evander’s cock.
An unfamiliar heat coalesced at the center of Jo’s body. It flowed from her womb to her limbs like molten rock, moving honey-slow. She feared the unstoppable force might burn her alive, but instead of incineration and death, Jo was incandescent with desire. She gasped when her skin began to glow and looked to Vera, Sam, and Evander, who were enveloped by the same radiance.
The light that was emanating from them flowed toward Zeus, like a river of gold. It twisted and curled around Jo and her own passion joined with it, like a tributary flowing into a larger river. Jo’s body trembled, and her orgasm struck with shattering brilliance. Her vision greyed at the edges as she was overwhelmed by the power of her release and the sounds of Vera, Sam, and Evander reaching the peak their climax. Zeus thundered and shouted when he came, and the light around them all surged, becoming a blinding flash like a lightning strike.
Jo’s ears rang in the silence and a pinch of fear threatened the heady rush of fulfillment. She was afraid awkwardness would overshadow the beauty of what had happened once the lust had passed.
Zeus’ attendants brought wine and food, bowls of steaming water scented with citrus and rosemary, and fresh linens. Jo kept her eyes trained on the floor and wondered what happened to the certainty she had experienced before her clothes came off. She heard Evander and Zeus talking, their voices rising and falling with excitement as they discussed combat tactics. There was chuckling from Sam as he chatted with one of the young men that served in the palace and the splash of water as Sam bathed himself. A pair of small feet, delicate and slender, stepped into Jo’s line of sight and she raised her head. Vera was wrapped in linen, her cheeks still flushed pink. She reached out and took Jo’s hand.
“Come rest,” Vera led her over to the pallet, beckoning for another bowl of water. She wrung out a soft cloth in the scented water and tended to Jo, washing her, each pass of the cloth an affectionate reminder that there was no reason for shame. Jo’s reservations dissolved.
The heavy scent of Zeus’ incense had faded by the time the bedclothes on the pallet had been refreshed. Jo joined Vera and Sam and the three of them reclined together, letting the sunlight to warm them while they picked at a large platter overflowing with apples and grapes.
“Drink this, it’ll restore your energy,” Vera said offering Jo a glass of wine.
Jo took a sip. It was redolent with the snap of pepper and hints of currant and blackberry. Her senses sharpened as she drank more and the lassitude that had settled in her limbs receded.
“Where did Evander and Zeus go?” Jo asked.
“They’re talking strategy,” Sam said and popped a grape in his mouth. He closed his eyes to savor the sweetness and groaned, “If we live through the next 24 hours, I’m stealing a cutting from his vineyard.”
Vera shook her head, “Nope, bad things happen to folks who pilfer his shit.”
“Strategy for what?” Jo asked.
“It seems Zeus has taken a bit of shine to you,” Vera smiled, “Which is great, because we’ve only got about ten hours to train you to fight before you face Kallisto.”
Anne Stagg's 'Mound of Gaia' series is a Bellesa exclusive.