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Bo Echidna ripped through the dense forest circling Rattlesnake Lake, the dim light of the quarter moon doing little to illuminate the rugged ground beneath his paws. Snarling as his shoulder broke through a low-lying branch, he added the sharp burn of the bleeding gash to the dull throb of his hangover and locked them both into the back of his mind while he gained the ground he’d lost early on.
Slowing long enough to scent the air, he changed course, veering in the direction his brother Ryan had gone. The woods began to thin out as he closed in on his fellow hellhound, and he pushed his muscles to overtake his older sibling, skidding to a stop when he hit the sandbar encircling the lake.
Chuffing his annoyance at losing the race, he used the back of his paw to shove his pitch-black fur from his eyes, grunting when fine grains of sand trickled onto his muzzle. Ryan stalked along the shoreline, assessing the solitude of the beach before padding back to the trees and nodding toward the frigid water.
With a gravelly growl, he rose to his feet, digging his paws into the ground to gain enough traction for a stronger start. Ryan’s tail slapped against his hindquarters and they bolted to the lake, Ryan breaching the still surface a split second before Bo barreled in, howling into the quiet night as the freezing water permeated his thick fur.
Adrenaline coursed through Bo’s veins as he swam deeper, rolling onto his back to stare up at the mountains surrounding their secluded winter swim hole. Ryan’s gentle splashing as he walked through the shallower waters of the shoreline was the only sound in the still night and he closed his eyes.
In this moment, Bo could almost pretend his freedom was real. Almost believe the Fates didn’t exist. Almost imagine he wasn’t a lackey for the God of Revelry. Almost think he was more than the show dog of a spoiled goddess.
But almost was never enough.
The temporary rush was already fading from his mind, the respite from his monotonous existence slipping from his grasp faster every time he reached for it. He couldn’t hit a peak high enough anymore. Couldn’t ride any wave long enough to stave off the restlessness deep in his bones. The thrill of the hunt wore off before his prey’s carcass hit the marbled floor beneath his master’s feet.
Nothing ignited him.
Not even the fires of hell.
Allowing himself to sink under the surface, he tracked Ryan’s movements through the relative stillness of the water, straining to listen as his brother moved in closer with the stealth of a trained hunter.
Knowing he was little more than a sitting duck in the middle of the lake, he righted himself, taking a deep breath and yelping in surprise as Ryan tackled him from above and dragged him back under. He kicked himself loose from his brother’s hold and burst through the surface, panting as Ryan swam off with an insolent flick of his tail.
Cursing inwardly, he dog-paddled to the beach and slumped along the sand to the tree line where Ryan sat waiting. Ensuring he was close enough to his brother for maximum spatter, Bo shook the water from his long fur and sauntered back through the forest toward the narrow road where Ryan’s car was parked.
When his vehicle came into view, Ryan trotted ahead, digging up the buried keys and taking up a sentry position at the bend in the path. Bo ducked into the shadows of the pines in preparation for his transformation, stilling when the treetops to his left trembled.
Anticipating his master’s arrival from the underworld, he braced himself for a shift of the land beneath his feet, holding position until he caught the scent of the God of Wine. With a roll of his eyes, he traded places with Ryan and padded over to meet Dionysus on the deserted road.
“Boreus, my boy,” the god called out, reaching over to scratch him under the chin with one hand while he set two amphorae on the roof of the car. “How’s my favorite companion doing?”
Ryan strode out from the shelter of the trees, transformation complete and the mark of Hades inked across his chest still dripping with lake water. “Your favorite companion is going to change before he even thinks of getting into my car.” Nodding pointedly toward the pines, he opened the trunk and grabbed his boxers. “What brings you topside, Dio?”
“Boredom,” the old god replied with a grin, kneeling down to give Bo’s ribs a vigorous rubdown. “What better reason is there?”
Dio’s influence warmed through his fur and into his body, the tendrils slithering into his head and narrowing his thoughts one by one until the need to partake in the wine of the gods monopolized his mind. Not bothering to hide out, he allowed his own transformation to take hold beside the vehicle, waiting until the tremor in his bones ended before he joined his brother, one eye on the amphorae. “Best fucking reason there is,” he concurred, grabbing his own boxers and hiking them up over his hips before he shook the water from his long blond hair, earning an unimpressed glare from Ryan.
“Hold still, boy. You too, Orion,” Dio commanded, smoothing his black beard as he stepped in close to examine the identical tattoos covering their backs. “That recent addition healed up nicely.”
Glancing over at his brother’s shoulder where the image of their last successful hunt was emblazoned with the mastery of an eons-old artist, he shrugged and picked up his shirt. Tugging it over his head, he cringed as the fabric brushed over the wound marring the exact replica on his own body. “They always do.”
Each face of the cursed Pirithous bloodline he and his two brothers were bound to eliminate was meticulously preserved on their skin as a macabre memento of their service to their master.
The mark of ownership on their chests hadn’t been enough.
Their boss had also desired a permanent tribute of loyalty.
And what Hades desired, Hades received.
With Persephone’s blessing.
Zipping the fly of his torn jeans, he snatched one of the amphora off the roof and opened it, taking a long swig of the heady wine inside. The incessant restlessness in his mind dulled as Dio’s liquor coated his tongue and temporarily satisfied the cravings the god’s touch ignited. “Nothing tops this shit. Best hair of the dog in existence.”
Uncorking his own vessel, Dio took a sip and grinned. “Let the revelry begin, boy.”
Someday, he’d fight the destiny the Fates had spun for him. Someday, he would break the hold Dionysus had over him with a single touch. Someday, he would tell the old god to find himself a new disciple to fuel his flagging power, to convince the spinner of Fate to tie another deity to him.
But today wasn’t the day.
Sage Marcellus rocked forward in her seat, urging her car to buck up and start for her. When it lumbered to life, she sat back in relief and set her phone on speaker with a laugh. “Sorry, honey. You still there?”
“Yeah, I’m here,” Nixon grumbled, the agitation in his voice piercing her good mood. “When are you going to take that thing in for repairs? Or, I don’t know, buy something newer?”
She closed her eyes for a moment, unwilling to rehash their monthly argument for the hundredth time. “Soon. How was work?”
While Nixon launched into a detailed account of a client he was wooing, she pulled onto the interstate and chugged her way to her shift at the library, her attention torn between her boyfriend’s work woes and the semis passing her at high speeds. When he went silent on her, she frowned at her phone. “I’m sorry, honey. What was that?”
“I said, I’ll be by around eight,” Nixon repeated.
“Damn,” she muttered, signaling as she exited the interstate and found herself in the wrong lane.
“Oh jeez.” She sighed, waving at the elderly woman who let her in. “Sorry. I got over too far on the underpass. I was asked to cover an extra shift at the library until two, then I’m at the lounge until eight. But I can meet you there at nine?”
Nixon went silent again for a moment. “You told me you weren’t going to take extra shifts anymore.”
Slowing to a crawl while she scanned the street for parking, she pulled into an open space, tucking her schoolbooks into her bag and touching up her lipstick in the rearview mirror. “I know, but Marie’s car wouldn’t start this morning and I was the only one available.”
“Fine,” he huffed, the annoyance in his voice loud and clear. “We can have a very late dinner then.”
“Sounds good, honey. See you then. Love you.”
“Yeah. Love you too.”
With a quick scan of the area, she hopped out of her car, heaved the clunky door shut, and placed the thick metal of her car key between her fingers. She tiptoed gingerly over the snow-covered sidewalk to the library and pulled the heavy glass door open, smiling at one of her regular patrons as she walked over to the desk and tucked her purse under the counter.
She was halfway through scanning the pile of returned books when the double doors swung open, a cold wind hitting her moments before she caught sight of the man who’d brought the gust in.
For a split second, her heart stopped.
He stood at the entrance and scanned the room with narrowed eyes, his thumbs hooked into the belt loops of his low-slung jeans. Well over six feet and broad-shouldered, his presence blocked the natural light coming from the exterior doors. The sun illuminated his long blond hair from behind as he walked over to her.
“Hey there,” he opened as he placed a hand on her desk and leaned in, his voice low and gravelly. “Do you have a phone I could use?”
Her eyes were drawn to the dark, slate-gray tattoo stamped across his chest. The symbol was vaguely familiar, and the thick lines reached deep into her memory while her fingers flexed with a subconscious desire to trace the ink.
“Miss? A phone?”
She blinked, her cheeks flushing when she looked up to find him waiting for her response. “I—”
“Sir,” her boss called over her shoulder. “You’re going to need to put a shirt on to be in here.”
The guy glanced down and tucked his tangled hair behind his ear. “Goddammit, Dio.” He met her eyes for a moment and she swore she felt her heart begin beating again before he turned and walked away.
She leaned forward a fraction to see the intricate tattoo covering his entire back, sitting back in disappointment when the door swung shut before she could make out the image. Shaking off the shiver the cold air had sent through her bones, she picked up the scanner, and the familiar stark tattoo faded from her mind as she got back to work.
End of Excerpt