Authors: Paula Altenburg
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 by Paula Altenburg. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Entangled Publishing, LLC
2614 South Timberline Road
Fort Collins, CO 80525
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Edited by Kerri-Leigh
Cover design by Kim Killion
Ebook ISBN 978-1-62061-038-1
Print ISBN 978-1-62061-037-4
Manufactured in the United States of America
First Edition March 2013
For my mother Carroll, my sisters Andrea and Kathryn,
and my brother Brad
It always amazes me how many people it takes to bring a story to life. I’d like to thank the staff at Entangled Publishing, in particular my editor, Kerri-Leigh Grady, for all her hard work. I liked the story a lot before she got her hands on it. Now I love it.
I’d also like to thank Catherine Verge/Cathryn Fox/Cat Kalen for being such a terrific friend. This new series wouldn’t exist without her. While I’m on the subject of friends, thanks to Carolyn Stewart White, Melanie Young, and Suzanne Durkacz MacNeil for getting me started, way back in college. More thanks go to Anne MacFarlane, Victoria LeBlanc, and especially Deborah Hale, who dropped everything when I needed her to read this for me. Writer friends are the best.
Year 330 PD
(Post Demon Occupation)
The Goddesses’ Mountain
The mountain was on fire.
Only a few days prior, ten priestesses had dwelled in its catacombs. Now, none but Desire remained. The haven the goddesses had built against demons had proved to be no haven this day.
She shivered despite the intense heat, thankful that the demon fire no longer had enough force behind it to sear the entire world. That did not mean it wasn’t devastating still.
She ran a hand over her shaved head—a symbol of her service to the goddesses—and tried to suck a few extra breaths into a chest almost rigid from exhaustion. Pain from her failing heart shot through her left arm.
A shriek rang from one of the deeper chambers, splintering the unnatural silence, and Desire hurried toward the sound. Murmuring a small prayer at the door, she crossed the gleaming marble floor to the shrouded bed where a woman, belly grotesquely swollen, panted through the last of a contraction. Desire had suffered three stillbirths of her own in her younger years, and could only stand by and watch helplessly now.
The contraction passed. The woman on the bed opened eyes of such a vibrant shade of indigo blue that Desire never failed to marvel at them. Sweat-dampened skin glowed golden in the muted light, the only indication that the woman was not what she appeared at first glance. In this world, the goddesses assumed mortal form and lived a mortal existence. Here, their lives were as fragile as any other.
Yet no goddess had ever before given birth.
After a few ragged breaths, the goddess’s eyes again drifted closed. “I am dying.”
Desire feared she was right. “As soon as the baby is born, you can rejoin your sisters,” she said.
The goddess shook her head. “I can never rejoin them now. Not after what I have done.”
“Have you done something so terrible?” Desire asked gently. “You fell in love. That hardly seems such a great crime.”
The goddess grabbed Desire’s arm. Her voice dropped, taking on an edge of formality. “Hear my confession, Priestess. I have lain with a demon.”
“It is not my place to hear your confession,” Desire protested. She tried to draw back, afraid to listen to secrets not meant for mortal ears, but the goddess would not release her. “You are above this.”
Not only was she above it, she had been forced into it. Her sisters had demanded this of her, yet had turned their backs and fled when she needed them most. Desire felt the pain and depth of their betrayal as if it had happened to her.
“No one is ever above the laws of the universe. This isn’t our world. Death is to be my punishment for what’s happened here.” Tears choked the goddess’s weakening voice. “The child will be punished for my sins as well. It will be a monster. If it somehow survives the birth, you must promise to destroy it.”
Desire had seen demon spawn born before, from demon matings with mortal women. They clawed their way into the world through their mothers’ bellies and fed off their mothers’ flesh. They were indeed monsters—but this spawn would be born of a goddess, not a mortal.
“You had no way of knowing that falling in love would result in a child,” she said. “You should not be punished for that. Not even goddesses can tell their hearts whom to love.”
“All of this—the destruction of the goddesses’ mountain, and the danger to our people—is because of me. He will not rest until every last trace of me is banished from existence. He believes I betrayed him.” Golden tears coated the goddess’s lashes. “I may not be able to tell my heart whom to love, but I knew what to do to make him love me. He will never forgive me for it.”
There was little else Desire could say. She limped from the room to the fireplace in the center of the greater common area, where the priestesses received supplicants and offerings, and scooped a bowlful of warm water from the reservoir. An artesian well provided plenty of fresh water, and the storerooms remained well stocked, so Desire would not have that to worry about in the days to come.
She carried the bowl back to the goddess and wiped the lovely, gleaming face with a soft cloth.
Soon after, a baby’s cries replaced its mother’s shrieks of pain.
“Look,” Desire said in a hushed, awestruck tone, arms trembling from relief. She held the blanket-wrapped bundle up for its reluctant mother to see. “She is beautiful. Not a monster at all.”
The goddess twisted away. “Destroy it,” she said. “It is demon spawn. An abomination to the universe. It belongs to no world.”
Something deep inside Desire twisted. She had wanted so much to hold a baby of her own in her arms and three times had been denied the opportunity, yet here was a mother with a beautiful, healthy child and she would not so much as take one look?
This small creature radiated nothing but innocence, and had come into the mortal world by natural means. It was no abomination.
Far from it.
“She is a girl!” Desire insisted. “See? Spawn are male. And she is beautiful. She is no spawn, nor is she a monster. If anything, she is a goddess.” The baby in her arms puckered a tiny, rosebud mouth, then opened dark, astonishing eyes rimmed with thick black lashes. Love shot through her with all the fierceness of a bolt of lightning, and she knew she could never destroy something so wonderful. “Let me keep her.”
“I cannot,” the goddess said, but Desire sensed her hesitation. She was, after all, a goddess—and now, a mother. Both nurtured life. They did not destroy it.
Desire pressed her small advantage. “No one need ever know. I can raise her as mine. I feel nothing but goodness in her. I can teach her the ways of the goddesses.”
The goddess bit her lip, her face alarmingly pale. “You forget that she has two birthrights, not one.”
“But she is a female,” Desire insisted. “Not a demon. If you would only touch her, or look at her, you would see for yourself.”
Before the goddess could protest, Desire placed the baby on its mother’s chest.
Instinctively, the goddess’s arms came up to keep the child from falling. She cradled her daughter for long moments while Desire held her breath, until a single golden tear slid down the goddess’s cheek.
“Keep her, then,” she finally said, and Desire reclaimed the precious bundle. “But she remains my responsibility. I cannot leave the world unprotected if you are mistaken about her.” She lifted a finger. “Bring me that coffer.”
Desire took the small silver box from the shelf and lifted the lid for the goddess. Inside were two amulets. One, round and flat and carved from a red soil hardened with several layers of natural desert varnish, bore the symbol of a lightning bolt. The other, more delicate in structure, was crafted from a common mountain stone that glimmered with all the colors of the rainbow.
Desire recognized the rainbow. It was a favorite stone the goddess had once worn often, but now that Desire thought about it, she had not seen it on her in recent months.
The other amulet, however, was ugly and unfamiliar to her. It was not goddess-made.
“The rainbow,” the goddess said, “is for the baby.” A second golden tear chased the first. “I would like for her to have something of mine in case she should ever want it or need it. Let her know she was born of love, not hate. No child should ever have to live with such a burden. Not even a monster. The other amulet,” she added, indicating the lightning bolt, “has been invoked by the Demon Lord himself to protect its owner against others of his kind. Keep it until you are certain you no longer need protection from her. Then, it is to be sealed in a container and dropped in the river so my Chosen may find it. He’s to be her protector, if she ever has need of one.” She ran the tips of her fingers over its surface. A flash of gold light suffused it, and she murmured a few words in a language the priestess did not know. “There. It has been invoked by a goddess now, too, so that only the two of you may wear it.”
Desire did not like the lightning bolt amulet or the energy that pulsed from it. She slipped it into a small leather pouch she carried, not wanting it next to her skin.
The goddess looked at the baby with wonder in her eyes, then up at Desire. “May the goddesses watch over you both. And maybe someday, her father can find it in his heart to forgive me for my part in this.”
The goddess’s form on the bed began to fade, becoming a translucent, golden light that surrounded Desire and the child in her arms. In minutes, she vanished completely.
Tears filled Desire’s eyes. She did not know what happened to immortals after death. They were not meant to die. In some ways it was better to be mortal and return to the earth, where at least something of substance remained behind.
The rains came soon after, extinguishing the fire, yet the goddesses did not return. Neither did the other priestesses, so Desire was left to maintain the temple alone.
In honor of the baby’s mother, and the father her mother had loved, Desire called the baby Airie, a name meaning rainbows and lightning. And, when Airie turned six months of age, Desire took the lightning bolt amulet, sealed it in a watertight container, and threw it into the mountain river to be lost in one of its many eddies as the goddess had instructed. She had no need for protection from Airie.
Airie, however, might someday have need of the protector her mother had chosen for her.
Many miles away, across the vast expanse of desert, a blond-headed boy in the Borderlands played in one of the local springs fed by an underground river. He dipped his hand into a shallow pool, searching for freshwater mussels, and found a container wedged in the rocks instead.
From inside the container, he withdrew a red amulet marked with the carving of a lightning bolt.
He slipped its gold chain around his neck, liking the feel of the amulet’s warmth against his skin. Ignoring the light goddess rain that had begun to fall, he went back to his game.