It took three days for Connor to completely recover from his run across Greece, but I didn’t waste all that time fawning over the beautiful boy. I knew what would be waiting for us in Scotland, and I needed to prepare. I left him sleeping beside my fire, as hard as that was to do.
First, a visit to my dear friend Chloris – mortal laws be damned, I knew she would be able to find what I needed, and she had come through as I knew she would. An armful of blood-red poppies were waiting for me, richly scented with the sweetness of dreams that led into a peaceful death, and a basket of sticky, sap-coated seed pods, bluish-green eggs cradling oblivion. She smiled at me as I took the flowers, and her eyes held a note of concern along with sympathy.
The concern thawed me a little, and I smiled back. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to smoke myself into a stupor and do something stupid. I have to feed the ritual fire, and the poppy smoke helps…helps to do things. I’ll be fine, I promise.”
I left Bloomin’ Good with my flowers and basket, juggling them with the paper cup of tea Chloris had insisted I take. Chamomile, valerian, and lavender, intended to calm and soothe. It smelled like a tomcat had taken a piss in a flowerbed and tried to bury the evidence under a lavender bush, but the intent was kind and I recognized it as such. I also dumped it into a potted plant as soon as I was out of sight of the florist shop.
I had already spoken to Nyx, and tomorrow night would be dark and moonless in Scotland, just what we needed.
We arrived at the clearing just as the sun was sinking below the trees. A night wind was rising, the sharp kind of wind that cut to the bone, and the sound of hunting horns and pounding drums greeted us. This was one of those nights when wild things stalked the world, and good little humans stayed tucked up safe indoors.
Connor stood at my side, his goatlike eyes getting red-tinged with hunger. He hadn’t eaten since he had arrived on Olympus, and nor had I. Chloris’ poppies were tucked in among the braided mass of the seni crines, the complicated seven-layer braid that my priestesses wore on the highest holy days. Their subtle perfume mixed with the smell of woodsmoke and the scent of the wild places, and I took a deep breath.
“No a fit night for man nor beast,” Connor growled, and he began to shift as I watched. His shoulders broadened, his torso thickened to barrel chested brawn, and I heard the telltale grunts and cracks as his knees bent backwards, strong hooves tearing into the soft meadow grass. His beautiful horns appeared, not tiny little goat nubs but thick, twisted arcs of gleaming black horn, magnificent as any beast ever pursued by Herakles. He towered over me, seven feet if he was an inch, and threw his arms wide, bellowing a challenge to the world.
“Good thing you are neither one nor the other,” I said, and unabashedly admired the view as he stretched. I had loved Chiron. I would always love Chiron, but tonight, I was not the Lady of the Hearth, demure and veiled, domestic and sweet. Tonight, I ran with the last pack of direct-descended Satyroi of Pan, the guardians of the wilds between worlds, and there was more than one hunger to sate. An answering bellow came from the grove before us, and I smiled up at him as we walked towards it. He really was a beautiful creature, savage desire given form, and I mentally decided that I might keep him around after the hunt, if he survived.
We approached the fire that burned brightly in the heart of the grove, and I felt the shimmer of the wild magic that would shield us from prying eyes. Connor roared, and was answered again, this time by the baying of the rest of the pack. His father and grandfather stood beside the fire, in full primal form, waiting for us.
As I approached the fire, the drums adjusted their rhythm to match my step, and it felt like every footfall shook the earth. THIS was more like it – the fierce adulation of strong warriors, just as heady as the prayers of new brides. I closed my eyes for a moment, basking in the sheer power of it. It was so hard, so very, very hard, to go back to Olympus and try to court the favor of mere mortals after two millennia of worship that went down to the blood and beyond. They may have forgotten me, but there were others who never had.
“Hail, Goddess of the Sacred Flame,” Hector growled, his silvery mane shining in the firelight as he dropped to one knee, hand crossed over his chest in salute. His horns had thick bronze cuffs at the base, signifying his rank as chieftain. They both still had their human faces, for now.
“Hail, Goddess of the Hearth,” Seamus said, his reddish pelt even redder in the flames. He looked like he was carved of molten bronze, scars and all, as he kneeled next to his father and repeated the salute. His ram’s horns were deeply carved, the grooves filled with dull black iron – the mark of the war chief.
“Hail, guardians of the grove,” I responded, handing my basket to Connor and giving each of them a kiss between their horns as a blessing on tonight’s hunt. “I come to join the Pack.”
“You honor us,” the entire horde chanted in response. Connor handed me back the basket of seed pods, and I dumped them onto the fire. A moment, while the eager flames devoured them, then a bloom of thick bluish smoke, and I inhaled deeply. The satyrs did as well, and their muzzles grew from their skulls, full of sharp teeth.
The four of us stepped back, and the horde surged in, shoving and pushing, eager to breathe the smoke, to see beyond the veil and begin the hunt. The drumming reached a crescendo as they jostled and snorted, wanting to run, wanting to chase their prey. These were no chubby little satyrs, content to ogle at nymphs and play their pipes for the amusement of that bitch Aphrodite and her cohorts, those that mocked them as beastkin and beneath their notice.
A full-throated bellow from Hector, and they were off, bolting through the darkness of the Scottish forest, hooves plunging deep into the dirt, bouncing off boulders, darting between trees. I ran with them, shedding my mortal appearance as I ran. I became taller, paler, longer-legged, fuller of breast and hip, glorying in the sheer adulation of the satyrs and their lusts. The opium was kicking in as we ran, and I began to see the spirits of the forest running alongside us, glorying in our recognition of the sacred hunt.
Something died with a scream off to my right, and I veered with Connor at my side, running to get our taste of the kill. It was a sheep – the stupid thing must have gotten lost – and the satyrs were already gorging themselves on slick, bloody meat. I knelt by its head, dipped my hands into its blood, and painted sticky crimson stripes down my face and arms, accepting its death as a sacrifice.
Seamus loomed over me, extending his hands, the beast’s heart cradled within. I inhaled the coppery scent of blood and took the heart from him. It burst into flames as I concentrated, and the smell of burning blood and meat was exquisite, every bit as good as the highest holy days in Athens.
Gunshots rang out, and the pack bellowed, turning as one entity to head towards the fight. Out here, those only meant one thing – poachers. The wind whipped my hair back, leaving the scent of poppies and blood in my wake as I followed the pack. Tonight’s hunt was far from over.