Shivalik Hills, Nepal
The towering pair of boulders stood as gatekeepers and markers of the way. A steep path snaked between them until farther down the hill, the road disappeared in thick fog. Leaning on the closest rock, Hagen steadied himself to catch his breath, then pushed on.
Bloodlust crippled his Titanian vision. Still, he stumbled, rolled, and crawled over jagged rocks and gnarled roots with single-minded determination to reach his appointed meeting place, the cavern at the base of the Shivaliks, and the sole entrance to Hades’s domain on the earthly plane. A perverse satisfaction filled him each time he
scraped and sliced his exposed skin, as this was only a precursor to the punishment he deserved. If he could shred his flesh to strips in anticipation as he had done with his clothes, so much the better.
Hagen advanced through the haze, seeking the deity’s promised signal. Images of his frenzy during the last skirmish prodded him. He strained past gore-filled images, and the effort paid off. There, deep within the haze, a faint red light marked the spot. Alecto had not forgotten. A hitched breath escaped his lungs as he stood and trod on a
more secure step.
As the haze dissipated, the cavern’s hungry mouth gaped before him. Healing and deliverance acquired through pain would soon be his. As he inched closer to the wavering light, he removed the last remaining strips of clothing. The offering had to be bare and unadulterated. Nothing but skin would satisfy the Fury, purify his spirit, and
postpone the horror of termination for another ten years—a mere blip in the lifespan
of a Titanian. And yet, a decade offered hope and an opportunity to continue
his search for true salvation: his eternal mate.
His brother Soren had been at the edge of obliteration when the universe revealed Maya’s symbol in his scrolls. He’d been given a Simurgh, no less, the most powerful of all phoenix mates. Soren’s joy and deliverance had pleased Hagen without reservation or a covetous thought. His brother had earned such a high reward.
But what about him? Was he unworthy of an eternal mate, of love, and companionship? He’d only wished for a small slice of heaven. His cousin Roald had found eternal happiness with Ginny. Staring at an endless existence of service and loneliness was a frightening prospect for a Titanian of any rank.
Hagen could never be the brilliant fighter Soren was, and had, on occasion, not followed every command to the letter. Nevertheless, he’d proven his mettle and unwavering loyalty to the Titanian cause in and out of combat. Many a night, he’d promised to change his unorthodox ways and toe the line, if only the universe would grant him a phoenix mate.
Alas no, he’d been denied time and again. After witnessing from the sidelines the mating ceremony and resulting Titanian bliss, frustration burned a hole in his chest. Before the emotion turned to bitterness, he’d escaped to his old daemon hunting grounds in Asia.
On his flight back, he realized that his cherished airplane and state-of-the-art electronic gadgets no longer satisfied or entertained him. Even that last bit of gratification had been taken from him. Because seeing happiness unfold for Soren and Roald had displayed in real time what mattered: the completion a mate brought to a
Titanian’s soul. The beaming couples had stepped up onto a new plane of
existence. After witnessing their ascendance, no fancy equipment could ever
The hole in his chest turned black and cold.
Blood hunger, the deadly lust, awoke.
Visions tortured him. Rage drove him to living nightmares. He searched for minion hideouts and sought conflict at every turn. In the heat of these encounters, bloodlust blinded him to allies and friends who’d trusted him with their lives. Asian black bear and clouded leopard shifters had perished under his hands. While his bewildered, dying friends pleaded for their lives, he’d only seen minions. The red haze
controlled him, and he’d indulged the insatiable hunger to spill all blood.
The last clash had been the worst. Standing on a promontory, Hagen viewed an endless battlefield stained with red blood, green ooze, and mutilated remains. And as the mental fog cleared, horror captured his soul and he fell on his knees, begging the universe for help.The chthonic deity, the implacable Alecto, heard and replied in his mind.
“Await my arrival at the place of atonement.”
Explanations had not been necessary. Hagen’s Titanian spirit, same as every supernatural in the earthly plane, knew the location of the terrible gate. In eras past, he’d avoided going near it. Now, stripped to his natural state, defeated and humbled, he entered the darkness with a bowed head and an anxious demeanor.
To his right, four stonelike posts, spread in a rectangular formation, jutted out of the rock wall. Hagen studied them, unsure of what to do.
“Step in. Face out and clasp the posts. Place your ankles outside each one,” the Fury instructed.
“Receive and accept the pain, Titanian. Do not flinch or resist. Show your contrition. Only then will the universe accept your offering.”