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An obnoxious sound polluted the air, loud enough to make Anteros wince. It took to the count of three to realize the annoyingly repetitive groan was coming from him.
That couldn’t be good.
Had he gotten drunk with Charon again? His brain cells were sluggish coming back online, but didn’t miss the cold cramp of muscles and aching bones currently housing him. Shit, he was probably on the crap end of another of his friend’s oh-so-hilarious practical jokes.
The last one entailed a term of servitude to the Furies before he was able to buy his way out of their lair. Given the nature of his indenture, time with them wasn’t all bad, but that wasn’t the point. No one wanted to piss off a woman created to rip a man’s soul from his still breathing body, let alone three of them, so wiggling his way out of that one had been tricky.
Was he on the banks of the Styxx this time? Why else would he be so cold? It wasn’t like the Underworld had an air conditioning problem or anything. Or worse, had the bastard dumped him on the shores of Acheron, the River of Woe?
A shard of dread lodged in his heart. In either case being a god himself didn’t mean there wouldn’t be Hades to pay – literally – and Anteros already owed his uncle too much after that last ill fated poker game. Contemplating the consequences made his head spin even worse.
A nudge in his ribs interrupted his conjecture, shooting a spike of warning up his spine. It really didn’t matter which of the Underworld Rivers he was languishing beside, anything corporeal enough to touch him was bad news. Here, only the damned, stuck without coin for the Ferryman, had substance. To them anything that might pay their way to the other side, especially some other poor sap’s soul, was fair game.
“Hey? Are you…”
Knowing surprise was his best shot, Anteros snaked his arm out and grabbed the prodding limb before it could drag him into the river. Charon had been his friend longer than either could remember, but there was no way he’d give a soul back, even Anteros’s, if he ever got hold of it.
With a hard yank and a yelp from the thing, he pulled his assailant down and flipped his body. Scissoring his long legs he trapped the other and pinned it beneath his superior mass. A wave of corresponding vertigo hit before his besotted brain caught up to the lighting fast movement.
Keeping his stomach in check wasn’t easy, but he’d be damned if some soul-sucking vagrant was going to drag his ass into in that disgusting water, especially hung over.
It took as much determination to open his eyes as it did to beat back the lingering nausea, but he clenched his teeth tighter and forced himself to blink away the blurriness. He needed to see what he was up against before the thing regained its equilibrium.
As his vision cleared, shock drove the remaining miasma away. The thing was hideous! Its upper body was bloated and lumpy, and there were stiff mangled strands where its face should be. Though much smaller than him and vaguely human in shape, it had enormous rubbery feet and red blobs instead of hands. Had they been cut off before the thing died?
Worse yet, it was making a pitiful noise, as though screaming with its mouth sewn shut. It was actually kind of pathetic. Deciding the thing wasn’t such a huge threat after all, Anteros began to lift his weight, planning to simply roll it back into the river where it belonged and be done with it.
Before he could get a good hold, the thing jerked violently under him and suddenly every molecule of air in his body evacuated in response to the worst explosion of pain he’d ever experienced in his life. Fireworks shot off, blinding him beneath his puckered eyelids and his breath burst painfully from his insta-paralyzed lungs. His beleaguered stomach filled with acid and his limbs gave out all at once, dropping him to the ground like a stone. Not in all his eons had he felt pain like this. Apparently he wasn’t the only one who could use the element of surprise.
The bastard had canned him!
“What the hell do you think you’re doing? Are you crazy? God I thought you were hurt. I just wanted make sure you were okay and you freaking attack me!”
With the bells of Hades ringing in his ears, it took a minute for Anteros to realize it wasn’t ‘Dead Soul Speak’ wailing at him, but what sounded suspiciously like the annoying screech of a mortal female.
What was a mortal doing here? He must still be drunk. That was it. He’d heard enough Ambrosia could make you think things were real, which must be true because he could swear the apparition fidgeting a few feet away was really there.
“I’m so sorry. Are you going to be okay? I didn’t mean to hurt you, but you caught me off guard when you grabbed me. Scared me, you know?”
Anteros braved another glimpse, cracking one eye open; yup, an ugly one to be sure, but a mortal female nonetheless. She hadn’t come any closer probably to stay out of range should he retaliate. Smart girl, but he could hear the genuine regret and concern in her voice.
“Mister? Hey really, are you going to be okay? Should I call for help? A doctor or something?”
His tongue might as well have been coated in cement for all the good it did him. “In fin, unky dorky. Kint you till? Jus gim me a sick to gatch my bret.”
“Excuse me I didn’t quite get that.”
He flopped over onto his back, hoping his lungs would remember what to do with the first full breath of air they’d gotten in what seemed like an eternity, and cleared his throat to try again. “I’m fine, hunky dory. Can’t you tell? Just give me a second to catch my….”
The last word formed on his lips, but as his eyes focused, he lost track of what he was saying. He was snared by a pair of green eyes fringed in enough frost to stick their edges together, giving them a disturbing mismatched shape. They were peering at him out of a blotchy pink face, complete with a hint of chapped lips, a runny nose and a mess of icicle spiked hair sticking out in every direction like some frozen parody of Medusa.
She was beautiful.
Huh? Where the Hades had that come from? What in the Nine Hells was wrong with him?
As though struck by a God-bolt, his memory came crashing back and with it the truth of how he ended up here.
He hadn’t been drinking with Charon at all. No, he’d been coming in after a particularly painful fix of another of his brother’s careless mistakes…. Suddenly the last piece of the puzzle clicked into place, filling him with an overwhelming sense of dread and anger.
The miserable little shit shafted him! HIS OWN BROTHER!
He’d barely entered his temple home on Olympus when something behind one of the marble columns had caught his eye. He lived alone, and rarely did any care to visit, so he immediately recognized the movement for the threat it was.
He remembered reaching behind his shoulder with one hand and bringing his black titanium bow to bear with the other, but not fast enough. Flickering torchlight caught a golden flash flying straight at – no, through – him. Anger turned to bitterness as the memory played across his mind.
As darkness pulled him under, Eros had emerged from the shadows, still holding his own glistening bow, a triumphant grin on his handsome face. Not a moment later their mother had materialized directly behind him, her face void of emotion, but her words had said it all.
“Perfect shot, my son, you’ve done well.”
He’d been shafted all right. The love of Psyche, Eros’s wife, had proven too much for his brother, causing his fall to ambro-fever, an irreversible condition many gods developed after an overload of what they personified. The result in Eros’s case was him periodically running amok, so drunk on love he couldn’t see, let alone shoot straight, willy-nilly nailing any poor sucker who got in his path.
It had fallen to Anteros as the God of Requited Love to run damage control by canceling out his brother’s diamond-tipped silver arrows with his opposing obsidian-tipped lead ones. Instead of being the final reckoning for those who deliberately preyed on the hearts of others, it became his job to save mortals suddenly in love against their will with people who would never love them in return. Anteros was the only one able to free Eros’s shooting-spree victims but it meant absorbing their heartache as his own to do it.
And what thanks did he get for spending the last several centuries drawing in and carrying the pain of all those hearts? His beloved brother, the one at fault in the first place, shot him - and on their mother’s orders no less! And not with just any arrow either. No, it had to be one of his thrice cursed golden ones. His fate was sealed.
Within twenty-four Olympian hours, roughly one week on earth, his heart would be hopelessly lost to the first creature to cross his path. Anteros’s eyes were involuntarily drawn back to the lumpy-limbed figure in front of him. He could feel the pull starting already. Hades Balls! He’d imprinted on the hideous creature with the rubbery feet and runny nose. A mortal! A groan escaped his pursed lips. Why a mortal and why’d it have to be so damn ugly?
Anteros’ heart bashed up against his chest wall and the last of his fog cleared. Zeus’s beard, they might as well have condemned him to eternal torture in the lowest levels of Tartarus as this.
He was doomed. With the use of a golden arrow, not only was his heart forfeit, his soul would soon be irrevocably tied to hers. When she died, she’d take him with her.
Not only had they ruined his life, they’d killed him by robbing him of his immortality!
Anteros couldn’t decide which was worse, the burning in his heart from the arrow’s path, the hole in it from the enormity of his family’s betrayal, or the fact he would never know a moment’s freedom from the monstrous ice encased mortal currently hoping from one foot to the other screeching like a banshee as she hovered over him.
“Hey Mister? I’m sorry, really. Oh gosh, what can I do? Can I help you up maybe? Do you need a doctor? Or is there someone else I can call?”
The concern in her eyes pulled on his heart strings and, to his horror, other things as well. Stupid arrow was working all right.
“Who are you? Can you tell me your name?”
Uh, tell her his name? Come to think of it, probably not. Hmm, let’s see, how did one explain such things to a mortal?
Hello, I’m a pissed off god who’s been shot with the equivalent of a super love potion slash aphrodisiac by ‘Stupid Cupid’ and you, you lucky thing, are now the target of my every superhuman desire. Something, by the way, that will build in potency to a point I’ll no longer be able to resist and will very likely jump all over you. Which really isn’t working for me because the second I do, the arrow’s magic will pierce you too - lovely little golden bugger that it is - and you’ll fall for me against your will. In turn, my immortality goes up in smoke and I’ll die the second you do.
Oh and since you asked, my name is Anteros, God of Love Returned, Dread Avenger of Unrequited Love, brother of Eros and son of Aphrodite and Ares. Let’s have sex right now. How do you like me so far?
Oh, yeah, that should go over real well.