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AWAKENED (Chapter 1)
A disquieting sense of irritation awakened Neferet. Before she had truly departed that amorphous place between dreams and reality, she reached out with her long, elegant fingers and felt for Kalona. The arm she touched was muscular. His skin was smooth and strong and pleasing beneath her fingertips. All it took was that small, feather-like caress. He stirred and turned eagerly to her.
"My Goddess?" His voice was husky with sleep and the beginnings of renewed desire.
He annoyed her.
They all annoyed her because they were not him.
"Leave me … Kronos." She had to pause, and search her memory to remember his ridiculous, overly ambitious name.
"Goddess, have I done something to displease you?"
Neferet glanced up at him. The young Son of Erebus Warrior was reclining on the bed beside her, his handsome face open, his expression willing, his aquamarine eyes just as striking in the dimness of her candlelit bedroom as they had been earlier that day when she'd watched him training in the castle courtyard. He'd stirred her desires then, and with one inviting look from her, he'd willingly come to her and futilely, though enthusiastically, attempted to prove that he was god in more than namesake alone.
The problem was that Neferet had been bedded by an immortal, thus she knew all too intimately just how much of an imposter this Kronos truly was.
"Breathe," Neferet said, meeting his blue eyes with a bored glance.
"Breathe, Goddess?" His brow, decorated by a tattoo pattern that was supposed to represent ball and mace weaponry, but to Neferet appeared more like frilly Fourth of July fireworks, furrowed in confusion.
"You asked what you'd done to displease me and I told you: you're breathing. And in much too close a proximity to me. That displeases me. It's time you depart my bed." Neferet sighed and flicked her fingers at him in dismissal. "Go. Now."
She almost laughed aloud at his undisguised look of hurt and shock.
Had the youth really believed he could replace her divine Consort? The impertinence of the thought fueled her anger.
In the corners of Neferet's bedchamber, shadows within shadows quivered in anticipation. Though she didn't acknowledge them, she felt their stirrings. It pleased her.
"Kronos, you were distracting, and for a brief time you gave me a measure of pleasure." Neferet touched him again, this time not so gently, and her fingernails left twin raised welts down his thick forearm. The young warrior didn't flinch or pull away. Instead he trembled beneath her touch and his breathing deepened. Neferet smiled. She'd known this one needed pain to feel desire the instant his eyes had met hers.
"I would give you more pleasure, if you allowed it," he said.
Neferet smiled. Her tongue flicked out slowly, licking her lips as she watched him watch her. "Perhaps in the future. Perhaps. For now what I require of you is to leave me and, of course, to continue to worship me."
"Would that I could show you how much I long to worship you again." The last word was spoken as a verbal caress, and—mistakenly—Kronos reached for her.
As if it was his right to touch her.
As if her wishes were subservient to his needs and desires.
One small echo from Neferet's distant past—a time she thought she'd buried with her humanity—seeped from the entombed memories. She felt her father's touch and even smelled the reek of his rancid, alcohol-soaked breath as her childhood invaded the present.
Neferet's response was instantaneous. As easily as breathing, she lifted her hand from the warrior's arm and held it, palm outward, at the closest of the shadows lurking at the edges of her chamber.
Darkness responded to her touch even more quickly than had Kronos. She felt its deadly chill and reveled in the sensation, especially as it banished the rising memories. With a nonchalant motion, she scattered the Darkness at Kronos, saying, "If it is pain you so desire, then taste my cold fire."
The Darkness Neferet hurled at Kronos penetrated his young, smooth skin eagerly, slicing ribbons of scarlet through the forearm she had so recently caressed.
He moaned, though this time more in fear than passion.
"Now do as I command. Leave me. And remember, young warrior, a goddess chooses when and where and how she is touched. Do not overstep yourself again."
Gripping his bleeding arm, Kronos bowed low to Neferet. "Yes, my Goddess."
"Which goddess? Be specific, Warrior! I have no desire to be called by ambiguous titles."
His response was instantaneous. "Nyx Incarnate. That is your title, my Goddess."
Her narrowed look softened. Neferet's face relaxed into its mask of beauty and warmth. "Very good, Kronos. Very good. See how easy it is to please me?"
Caught in her emerald gaze, Kronos nodded once, then fisting his right hand over his heart he said, "Yes, my Goddess, my Nyx," and backed reverently from her chamber.
Neferet smiled again. It was unimportant that she was not actually Nyx Incarnate. The truth was Neferet wasn't interested in being cast in the role of an incarnate goddess. "That implies I am lesser than a goddess," she spoke to the shadows gathered around her. What was important was power—and if the title Nyx Incarnate aided her in the acquisition of power, especially with the Sons of Erebus Warriors, then that was the title by which she would be called. "But I aspire to more—much more than standing in the shadow of a goddess."
Soon she would be ready to take her next step, and Neferet knew some of the Sons of Erebus would be manipulated into standing beside her. Oh, not enough of them to actually sway a battle with their physical force, but enough of them to fragment the Warriors' morale by setting brother against brother. Men, she thought disdainfully, so easily fooled by the masks of beauty and title, and so easily used to my advantage.
The thought pleased her but wasn't distracting enough to keep Neferet from restlessly leaving her bed. She wrapped a sheer silk robe around herself and moved from her chamber out into the hallway. Before she'd given conscious thought to her actions she was heading to the stairwell that would take her to the bowels of the castle.
Shadows within shadows drifted after Neferet, dark magnets drawn by her increasing agitation. She knew they moved with her. She knew they were dangerous and that they fed on her unease, her anger, her restless mind. But, oddly, she found a measure of comfort in their presence.
She paused only once in her downward descent. Why am I going to him again? Why am I allowing him to invade my thoughts tonight? Neferet shook her head as if to dislodge the silent words and spoke into the narrow, empty stairwell, addressing the Darkness that hovered attentively around her. "I go because it is what I wish to do. Kalona is my Consort. He was wounded serving me. It is only natural that I think of him."
With a self-satisfied smile Neferet continued down the winding stairwell, easily repressing the truth: that Kalona had been wounded because she had entrapped him, and the service he performed for her was a forced one.
She reached the dungeon, carved centuries ago from the rocky earth that made up the Isle of Capri at the bottommost level of the castle, and moved silently down the torch-lit hallway. The Son of Erebus Warrior standing watch outside the barred room couldn't hide his jolt of surprise. Neferet's smile widened. His shocked look, tinged with fear, told her that she was getting better and better at appearing to materialize from nothing but shadows and night. That lightened her mood, but not enough to add the softness of a smile to temper the cruel edge of command in her voice.
"Leave. I wish to be alone with my Consort."
The Son of Erebus hesitated only a moment, but that slight pause was enough for Neferet to make a mental note about being sure in the next few days that this particular Warrior would be called back to Venice. Perhaps because of an emergency regarding someone close to him …
"Priestess, I leave you to your privacy. But know that I am within the sound of your voice and will respond to your call should you need me." Without meeting her eyes, the Warrior fisted his hand over his heart and bowed—though too slightly to suit her.
Neferet watched him retreat down the narrow hallway.
"Yes," she whispered to the shadows. "I can feel that something quite unfortunate is going to happen to his mate."
Smoothing the sheer silk of her wrap, she turned to the closed wooden door. Neferet drew a deep breath of the damp dungeon air. She swept the thick fall of her auburn hair back from her face, baring her beauty as if girding herself for battle.
Neferet waved her hand at the door and it opened for her. She stepped into the room.
Kalona lay directly on the earthen floor. She'd wanted to make a bed for him, but discretion had dictated her actions. It really wasn't that she was keeping him imprisoned. She was simply being wise. He had to complete his mission for her—that was what was best for him. If his body regained too much of its immortal strength, it would be a distraction for Kalona, an unfortunate distraction. Especially as he'd sworn to act as her sword in the Otherworld and to rid them of the inconvenience Zoey Redbird had created for them in this time, this reality.
Neferet approached his body. Her Consort lay flat on his back, naked, with only his onyx wings as a veil-like covering. She sank gracefully to her knees and then reclined, facing him, on the thick fur pelt she'd ordered placed beside him for her convenience.
Neferet sighed. She touched the side of Kalona's face.
His flesh was cool, as it always was, but lifeless. He showed no reaction whatsoever to her presence.
"What is taking so long, my love? Could you not have disposed of one annoying child more quickly?"
Neferet caressed him again; this time her hand slid from his face down the curve of his neck, over his chest, to rest on the indentations that defined the corded muscles of his abdomen and waist.
"Remember your oath and fulfill it so that I might open my arms and my bed to you again. By blood and Darkness you have sworn to prevent Zoey Redbird from returning to her body, thus destroying her so that I might rule this magickal modern world." Neferet caressed the fallen immortal's slim waist again, smiling secretly to herself. "Oh, and of course you shall be by my side while I rule."
Invisible to the Sons of Erebus fools who were supposed to be the High Council's spies, the black, spider-like threads that held Kalona trapped against the earth shivered and shifted, brushing their frigid tentacles against Neferet's hand. Distracted momentarily by their alluring chill, Neferet opened her palm to Darkness and allowed it to twine around her wrist, cutting ever so slightly into her flesh—not enough to cause her pain that was unbearable—only enough to temporarily sate its unending lust for blood.
Remember your sworn oath …
The words sloughed around her like the winter wind through denuded branches.
Neferet frowned. She need not be reminded. Of course she was aware of her oath. In exchange for Darkness doing her bidding—entrapping Kalona's body and forcing his soul to the Otherworld—she had agreed to sacrifice the life of an innocent Darkness had been unable to taint.
The oath remains. The bargain holds, even should Kalona fail, Tsi Sgili …
Again the words whispered around her.
"Kalona will not fail!" Neferet shouted, utterly incensed that even Darkness would dare chastise her. "And should he, I have bound his spirit as mine to command as long as he is immortal, so even in failure there is victory for me. But he will not fail." She repeated the words, slowly and distinctly, regaining control over her increasingly volatile temper.
Darkness licked her palm. The pain, slight though it was, pleased her, and she gazed at the tendrils affectionately, as if they were simply overeager kittens vying for her attention.
"Darlings, be patient. His quest is not complete. My Kalona is still but a shell. I can only assume Zoey languishes in the Otherworld—not fully living and, unfortunately, not yet dead."
The threads that held her wrist quivered, and for an instant Neferet thought she heard the mocking ring of laughter rumbling in the distance.
But she had no time to consider the implications of such a sound—whether it was real or just an element of the expanding world of Darkness and power that consumed more and more of what she once knew as reality—because at that instant Kalona's entrapped body jerked spasmodically and he drew a deep, gasping breath.
Her gaze went instantly to his face, so she witnessed the horror of his eyes opening, even though they were nothing but empty, bloody sockets.
"Kalona! My love!" Neferet was on her knees, bending over him, her hands fluttering around his face.
The Darkness that had been caressing her wrists throbbed with a sudden jolt of power, causing her to flinch before they shot from her body and joined a myriad of sticky tendrils that, web-like, hovered and pulsed against the stone ceiling of the dungeon.
Before Neferet could form a command to call a tendril to her—to order an explanation for such bizarre behavior—a blinding flash of light, so bright and shining that she had to shield her eyes from it, exploded from the ceiling.
The web of Darkness caught it, slicing through the light with inhumane sharpness and entrapping it.
Kalona opened his mouth with a soundless scream.
"What is it? I demand to know what is happening!" Neferet cried.
Your Consort has returned, Tsi Sgili.
Neferet stared as the globe of imprisoned light was wrenched from the air and, with a terrible hissing, Darkness plunged Kalona's soul through the sockets of his eyes and back into his body.
The winged immortal writhed in pain. His hands lifted to cover his face, and he drew panting, ragged breaths.
"Kalona! My Consort!" As she would have done when she was a young healer, Neferet moved automatically. She pressed her palms over Kalona's hands, quickly and efficiently centered herself, and said, "Soothe him … remove his pain … make his agony like the red sun setting into the horizon—gone after a momentary slash through the waiting night sky."
The shudders that wracked Kalona's body began to lessen almost instantly. The winged immortal drew a deep breath. Though his hands trembled, he clasped Neferet's tightly, removing them from his face. Then, opened his eyes. They were the deep amber color of whisky, clear and coherent. He was completely himself again.
"You've returned to me!" For a moment Neferet was so filled with relief that he was awake and aware that she almost wept. "Your mission is complete." Neferet brushed away the tentacles that clung stubbornly to Kalona's body, frowning at them because they seemed so reluctant to withdraw their hold on her lover.
"Take me from the earth." His voice was gravelly with disuse, but his words were lucid. "To the sky. I need to see the sky."
"Yes, of course, my love." Neferet waved at the door and it reopened. "Warrior! My Consort awakens. Help him to the castle rooftop!"
The Son of Erebus who had annoyed her so recently obeyed her command without question, though Neferet noted he looked shocked at Kalona's sudden reanimation.
Wait until you know the whole of it. Neferet speared him a superior smirk. Very soon you and the other Warriors will take orders only from me—or you will perish. The thought pleased her as she followed the two men out of the bowels of the ancient fortress of Capri, up and up until finally they emerged from the long length of stone steps onto the rooftop.
It was past midnight. The moon hung toward the horizon, yellow and heavy though not yet full.
"Help him to the bench and then leave us," Neferet ordered, gesturing to the ornately carved marble bench that rested near the edge of the castle's rooftop, affording a truly magnificent view of the glistening Mediterranean. But Neferet had no interest in the beauty that surrounded her. She waved away the Warrior, dismissing him from her mind even though she knew he would be notifying the High Council that her Consort's soul had returned to his body.
That didn't matter now. That could be dealt with later.
Only two things mattered now: Kalona had returned to her, and Zoey Redbird was dead.
AWAKENED. Copyright 2010 by P. C. Cast and Kristin Cast.