There is a rhythm to the pain. The whips are black arcs, rising like snakes, striking down in turns, biting into me. My flesh opens like a flower, like it was made for no other reason than to bleed. I feel the sharp head of the flail lick across nerves and bones, drinking me, funneling me back to Ostasus, who stands with arms outspread at the far end of the warehouse, sucking down everything I can give.
Wide open like this, I can give a lot.
As I give, he takes. As he tears me open, his own wounds close.
I grit my teeth as the head of the whip withdraws, sticky with blood, glowing from the spellfire in my body. As it pulls back, I feel my flesh heal itself. A Promethean moment later, my immortality renders me a blank and bloody canvas. Virginal. Wet. Begging to be opened.
“You’ve grown stronger, Hekate. I thought I’d be done milking you by now.” The sensuality in the Titan’s voice makes my skin crawl. “What has happened to you, I wonder, to build such a capacity for pain?”
As the flails strike again, I can see Skía darting around the girders in the open building. She noses the cooling bodies of her packmates, Ayen and Stéri. Her whimpering causes another wave of rage to crest inside me and flow to Ostasus.
I can’t stop it. Not now.
I will burn until I burn out. And then, I will die.
The sound of the metal warehouse door screaming open barely registers over the pain as another whip strikes my thigh. Ostasus lifts his eyes and looks past me.
“It’s time to go back, Ostasus. You got your taste of the surface, but it’s over.”
At the sound of his voice, his name rises like a prayer to my tongue. And dies there as another scream crawls from my mouth.
“You’re a little late, Hades,” Ostasus says, as the flail heads retreat from my flesh. “The witch is almost spent.”
With a forward sweep of the Titan’s hand, all three whips dive below the surface of my skin again. I grit my teeth, unable to move. Hades steps up on my left, his steel-blue eyes meeting mine for a moment.
“Nonsense. She looks in perfect form,” Hades says to Ostasus, turning again to look at me. “Aren’t you, dear?”
He turns further, putting his own body in Ostasus’ line of sight. His left hand slides down, pushing up the dark sleeve of his sweater over his right forearm, revealing a finely inked tattoo of a pocket watch.
“Look at the watch, dear.”
I glance down, pulling my eyes away from the whips that are rising away from me. Arcs of spellfire leap up my body as the wounds close again. Hades doesn’t move, but I feel his presence lean in. My gaze scales his arm, crosses his shoulder, back to his eyes.
“He’s feeding off your emotions,” Hades whispers. “Let me shield you. I can protect you, but you must turn yourself, your emotions over to me. It must be a conscious decision.”
Relinquish control?! Fear surges through me. The whips dance and weave behind Hades, sensing the fresh flood of energy.
Ostasus laughs, greedy. “Oh, I don’t know what you just did, Hades, but I approve!”
I close my eyes. I know what Hades wants me to do, and it’s against everything I am. Witches do not give up their power. Ever.
“Hekate, look at me.”
His voice is soft, the same softness I use with my hounds. It’s the tone that makes me look up, not his words.
“Do you trust me?” His brows arch, waiting. “Now is the time to show me.”
Without even looking, his left arm darts out and grabs the incoming head of a whip, holding it away from me. Not once do his eyes leave my face. I see the crimson inferno of my eyes reflected in his cold blue ones, ice cradling fire.
“You don’t…what you’re ask…asking…”
But the pain is too much, I take a screaming breath in and let myself leap. I nod my head once, hard, so he knows I’ve agreed.
“I will not break your trust,” he says.
I feel a smile threaten my face. “…not be wise…”
The angry whip lashes in his grip, straining toward me. The muscles of his forearm tighten further. I can hear Ostasus laughing again.
“You have to tell me,” Hades says. “Tell me you concede.”
The thought of those words crossing my lips is enough to summon every primal instinct I have — rage at myself for being unable to do this alone, fear at letting my control slip from my hands, hunger…the realization that I need him, or I’m going to die.
I take a breath, look up into his eyes, and gasp words I vow I will never say again. “I concede…my power…to you. Take it, Hades—”
Pain strangles me, but it’s done. Spoken.
My surrender is more than words — it’s the key to a spell he’s been unable to cast without my help. The instant I submit, his tattoo flashes gold and power surges through him and into me. Like an explosion reversed, all my emotions contract as he wraps himself around them like a shield.
His aura settles around us, as though we stepped into the eye of a storm, one that is still twisting just beyond the still center he has created. And within the center of that calm, another storm rages, this time inside him, as he alone wrestles with and subdues all that I am.
All my unfinished business.
All the lost wars.
The mad and merciless whole of me.
“A trick from one of those books you didn’t tell me you had?” I hear the grudging respect in my voice. For once, I don’t mind.
Ostasus groans and then screams, shattering the remaining glass in the windows high above. It rains down like stars. “HADES!! What have you DONE?!”
“I promise to show you some other time, Kate.” The shadow of a smile crosses Hades’ face as he steps around to reposition himself behind me. “Her energy is no longer yours for the taking. Mine is unavailable as well. It’s over, Ost. Your time here is done.”
Hades wrestles the whip in his hand to one side, making an opening for Skía. Eyes glowing red and tongue dripping hellfire, she lunges at Ostasus and buries her teeth deep inside him, holding him still by his own guts.
Even if Hades were still staring into my eyes, I wouldn’t need their reflection to know my own eyes are now dark as the Void itself. My heart is soaring on wings of rage, and retribution is my song.
“I’m going to kill him,” I whisper, salivating as I watch Skía eat her way towards Ostasus’ spine. I can feel my anger, but held inside Hades; I’m removed from it. Everything sharpens, intensifies. All the power with none of the vulnerability. Hades, at my back, is soaking it all.
“Hekate,” he gasps in my ear, “your emotions are hard enough to contain now. You must not rage. You must not fear. That is what he is feeding on. Contain it, bottle it, and box it for now. We must give him nothing.”
The growing strain in his voice makes me pause. I’m making it harder for him. My anger unclenches its fist, and I release my urge for revenge into Hades’ keeping.
Hades stretches out his hand toward the Titan. An instant later, the ground begins to shake. All around Ostasus, the earth heaves, rising around him one shard at a time, building a cage. I can feel Hades’ heart pounding between my shoulder blades, hear his breath coming faster as he divides his power — one flow to contain Ostasus, one to contain me.
He’s trembling behind me with the strain. It sets me in motion. I trace a symbol in the air and feel myself split into three — Katai’s skin crackling with lightning as she goes left, a tempest swirling in Díni’s eyes as she goes right. I whistle at Skía, hard and sharp.
“Out, girl!” I call, and Skía obeys, tearing flesh one last time and scrambling over the steadily rising barrier of black stone.
“I will give you back to yourself now,” Hades says by my ear, grunting with exertion. He holds me in check a moment longer, then releases me.
His arm still outstretched toward Ostasus, I watch the tattoo fade from its fiery gold, cooling through shades of carnelian and blood garnet before settling back into black. My emotions flood back into me, vitriol cooled from circulating within the icy grip of Hades’ control.
He is a wall against my back, the line beyond which we will not yield. His lips brush my ear as he speaks, “Remember. Calm and frigid. He cannot feed off that.”
The wall Hades has conjured around the Titan begins to narrow at the top. As I step forward, my mirror images do the same, the three of me converging on Ostasus from all sides. Díni lowers her hands to the ground and raises them sharply, drawing water from the nearby river. As it rises through the floor, she funnels it into the container of stone. Ostasus’ cries of pain dwindle to a gurgle as he goes under. Katai waits for the submerged silence, then speaks an ancient word of power, calling down fire from the sky. Lightning splits the roof, hurling itself into water and stone.
Hades and I both flinch away from the searing flash of light as the water amplifies the lightning’s power. Another bolt strikes the water, and another, each time turning the wall Hades has raised into smoky, transparent glass. Ostasus floats there, immobile, suspended in pale liquid fire.
Silence bends, groaning. The stone barrier shatters, spilling water across the floor, scattering shards of rock. Lightning grounds itself wherever it can as Ostasus, unconscious, falls in a heap on the floor.
I feel power thrumming behind me. I turn in time to see Hades conjure a pair of heavy shackles from thin air. I can clearly see Hephaestus’ forge mark on the side and know them for what they are, and what they are for.
I clap my hands together and summon the disparate pieces of me back into a single whole, blurring myself together before Hades’ eyes. He strides past me, manacles in hand. There is no wasted movement. Only focus.
“Help me with his hands, Hekate. Get the shackles on, and he is ours.”
We work quickly, watching Ostasus for any trace of movement, any evidence of consciousness. I stand up first, wavering, weak and trying to hide it. As the last lock seals shut, Hades rises, straightening slowly. He closes his eyes for a moment, murmurs a word, opens them again.
“Thanatos can handle this from here.” He turns to me, lips curved in a soft smile. “You did well. But you really need to ask for help more often.”
I can feel myself bristling at his words, but the realization of the risk he took tonight makes me stand down. “Can’t have that. It would ruin my reputa—tion…”
Something in me snaps, stealing my breath. All at once, I feel brittle, just shy of broken. The floor tilts beneath me and I stagger. Hades’ arm is suddenly around me, though I never saw him move. I leverage myself on the steel of his arm and fall anyway, collapsing against him.
In one fluid motion, he wraps himself around me and sinks to the floor, cradling my head in his lap. The floor beneath me isn’t moving, but I can feel everything inside me shifting, rearranging itself around him.
My eyes blink slowly, trying to focus on his face, his voice. I can hear rain on the metal roof. The sound starts dragging me under.
“Hekate…answer me. Are you okay?”
“Too much…I drew too…too much.”
His hands travel up my arms, my neck, until his fingertips find my temples. He closes his eyes and hums, low and resonant, and I feel power flowing through me again. Not from the earth or some forgotten font of magic — from him.
Hades hears me gasp and looks down, whispering, “Don’t try to get up. Just relax.”
“You’ve met me, right?”
“I know it feels different. Stop fighting it.”
That’s easier said than done, but I try, and soon relax against him. I feel like a husk. Dry. A wanderer lost in a sudden desert, trying to drown myself in the oasis that is him. The ground falls away as he picks me up, settling me in his arms.
I hear the words. I know I said them. I’ve already forgotten what they meant.
He looks down at me, genuine concern on his face. “Where do you need me to take you? Where do you need to be?”
I lay my head against his chest. “Not here.”
The sudden cessation of rain on steel tells me he’s teleported us somewhere. It’s quiet here, warm. I find my breath pacing itself to the slow thud of his heart beneath my ear. A door opens and closes. The bed is softer than, and inferior to, his arms, but I am too wrung out to complain.
Drifting in and out of consciousness, my awake moments are spent watching him measure out herbs, boil water, raise his head to check on me.
I hold out my hand and try to draw energy, to pull power — to make sure I still can. Fire flashes at my fingertips, then flickers, dies.
“You will need time to recuperate, Hekate,” he says, sealing up one of the jars. He walks toward me slowly, steaming cup in hand. “Ost stripped away your emotions, your feelings, and it seems even some of your thoughts. He laid you bare in a way that I doubt you have ever experienced before.”
“He’s not the only one,” I whisper, remembering everything Hades asked of me tonight.
Hades frowns for an instant. “I’m quite sure I don’t know what you mean.”
I try to sit up, stand, leave. He gently pushes me back down and places the cup in my hand. I smell mint and verbena, rounded out by other Underworld plants that only grow here, unable to bear the slightest caress of sunlight. I take a tentative sip, wincing as the heat from the cup sears a cut on my lower lip.
“Stay here for the evening,” Hades says, sitting on the bed beside me. “I will take my leave, but Alex will come to check on you. She’s my assistant.”
I swallow some of the tea, wetting my mouth enough for words.
“Are you always this bossy? Or do you save it for special occasions?” I smile at him over the top of my cup, and scald the cut on my lip again. “Fuck!”
“I am always this bossy.” His eyes follow the movement of my tongue across my lip. “But this is a special occasion.”
As I set the cup on the table, I catch a glimpse of my arm. Large sections of my sleeve have been reduced to ash, burned by spellfire. My gaze wanders down my body, charred and bloody and less covered than I feel comfortable with. Hades notices me assessing the damage.
“The armoire is self-filling,” he tells me. “Everything will be your size when you open it.”
We fall silent. I can’t tell what he’s thinking, but there’s movement behind his eyes. I reach for the tea beside me and try to lose myself in my cup.
“You helped me immensely today,” he says as I drink. “I’m just worried at what cost to you.”
I force myself not to laugh, knowing it would come out bitter and ungracious. I swallow my black humor, chasing it with another sip of tea. “I’m sure I’ve borne worse.”
He looks down, picking absently at a spot on his trousers.
He looks up quickly. “Yes?”
His eyes strike me to the core, another whip dividing me from myself, laying me open. I know what I need to say, but it’s hard to get my mouth around the words. I’m the one that breaks eye contact, looking away so I can gather myself.
“Thank you,” I tell him, braving his eyes again. “I…would have…”
A flush of color creeps up his neck to his ears. I envy the ease with which he accepts vulnerability. My gaze drifts down his arm to where the watch tattoo peeks out from under the edge of his sleeve.
“Thousands of years together,” I point out, tracing the edge of the tattoo, “and you finally get a chance to save my ass.”
“Perhaps when you are more up to it, you can come by my office. I will, uh, show you where I learned some of my ink magic.” He gives me a wry smile. “That way, next time, I won’t have to save it again.”
“No, next time, it’s your turn.”
A sharp pain skewers me, ripping the breath from my lungs, erasing his smile. I shiver and hand him the near empty cup.
“Would you like more? It should help you sleep. You need that as much as anything else.”
I shake my head and shudder again, feeling around the bed for a blanket I can pull over me. I force myself not to give energy to the idea that this frigid null is my new normal. That the fire within me might be gone for good.
Hades goes to the armoire and pulls out several blankets, layering them over me. With a gesture of his hand, the lights in the room dim, and he sits down beside me, closer than before. He brushes my hair away from my face so his fingertips can find my temples again.
His power flows through me unchecked now, a river that has found its course. I keep drifting off under the spell being woven by his hands, by the low baritone of his voice.
I drink his energy like water.
It moves through me like wine.