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With My Last Breath, Page 2

Courtney Cole

  ‚Of course we do, Harmonia. I promised our father that we would watch you while you slept. I’ll also be leaving a handful of warriors to guard Cadmus when we leave in the morning to search for the sword.'

  I studied the fierce warriors that circled me.

  ‚Who will stay?' I asked quietly. Louder, I added, ‚Who is willing to protect my husband in my absence?'

  Every single warrior raised her hand and stepped forward. A chorus of ‚I will’s'

  rang throughout my room and my heart warmed a fraction. All of these warriors were brave and loyal. And I knew that each of them would guard Cadmus with her life.

  ‚It’s an honor and I thank you,' I murmured as I slumped back into my bed, curled onto my side. I numbly watched as Ortrera chose the women who would stay. Four of them stepped forward and stood at attention at each corner of the table Cadmus rested upon. Their fierce, hawk-like faces gave me a small amount of comfort and I closed my eyes to rest.

  I had no sooner closed them when I was standing in a blinding, white windstorm. I blinked in confusion against the raging wind and braced myself as I pivoted in a circle.

  Where was I? God, I hated dreamwalking. Yet here I was.

  It seemed as though I had been dropped into a winter white-out, a blizzard, yet I didn’t feel cold. Everything was black and white at the same time. I couldn’t see a thing and my eyes stung from the furious wind gusts. The wind howled and I shivered, not from cold, but from the eeriness surrounding me. It was haunting and frightening, Courtney Cole 9

  With My Last Breath, Book Three

  a desolate, barren place. I also recognized a strange heaviness in my arms and legs, as though they were weighted. I felt heavier every moment that I was here, weighing on my chest, making it difficult to breathe. It made me panicky.


  Floating to me above the chaos, the familiar deep voice stilled my heart and I whirled, trying to locate my husband. The wind gusts persistently whipped my long hair into my face and I held it out of the way in frustration. I needed to find Cadmus.

  And then I did. Keeping his head bowed against the horrid storm, he pushed toward me from what looked like a bleak row of withered trees. I fought to get to him, the churning wind continually holding me back. I struggled onward and within twenty steps, I was in his arms.

  ‚Cadmus!' I cried as I melted into his chest.

  His strong arms shielded me from the strange storm and I felt a blissful and wild relief at once again being with him. I was in his arms where I belonged. I glanced up to find his eyes, his normally warm and vivid brown eyes, staring down at me starkly. I startled at his cold expression and drew backward.

  ‚What is it?' I asked, looking around for a threat. ‚Where are we?'

  He shook his head. ‚I don’t know. I was in the courtyard speaking with the Keres and then suddenly, I was here. It seems as though I’ve been here forever. Time has ceased to exist. How long have I been here?'

  ‚Not long, my love,' I murmured into the wind. ‚Not long at all.'

  I allowed myself the time to truly examine him and it caused my heart to race. His beautiful face was weary, his eyes hollow. His body was ice cold. As he exhaled, I could see his breath in the air. I gasped. The only other time I had seen that had been with Alexi, the lapdog of the Fates.

  ‚Where are we?' I cried again. ‚What has happened to you?'

  He shook his head sadly. ‚Harmonia, I don’t know. But I don’t feel like myself. I feel… dead inside.'

  ‚Dead inside? My love…' my voice trailed off. I could see it written all over him.

  He was emotionless and cold, just as Alexi had been. My Cadmus was gone. It was as though he was… soulless. I froze again.

  ‚Maybe they have your soul,' I suggested hesitantly. ‚Perhaps we are in some strange purgatory.'

  He stared at me humorlessly. ‚ I am in purgatory, you mean. You are not really here, wife. Thank the gods for that.'

  And although the words were something that he would normally say, something protective and strong, his tone was flat and cold, as though there was no true emotion behind them. I took a step back. This wasn’t truly my husband. This was his body, his Courtney Cole 10

  With My Last Breath, Book Three

  shell. His soul was no longer here. The strong heart that I loved so desperately wasn’t beating in this cold chest.

  He took a look at my face and chuckled a mirthless laugh.

  ‚I know, wife. I don’t like me much, either.'

  ‚This isn’t you,' I stuttered. ‚Cadmus, I will save you. I promise. Somehow I will figure this out and I’ll find the sword and I’ll bring you back to where you belong.

  You’ll be whole again.'

  ‚Will I?' He looked at the white vastness surrounding us. ‚It doesn’t feel as though that will ever be true again.'

  ‚I promise you. If it takes every breath in my body, I will save you. You are my life. I don’t want to live without you.'

  He grabbed my wrist with his frigid fingers, his grip pinching my arm.

  ‚Don’t say that,' he said coldly. ‚You must live. Regardless of what happens to me. You’re too beautiful inside to fade away. But promise me this, wife.'

  I turned my eyes hesitantly to his cold, beautiful face. I swallowed hard. I knew I wasn’t going to like what I heard.

  ‚If this cannot be reversed, find a way to kill me. I do not wish to linger here like this.'

  He dropped my arm and stared at me blankly. There was nothing in his eyes. Not pain, not desperation, only nothing. Just stark emptiness.

  ‚Promise?' he asked.

  I gazed at him wordlessly as horror rose in my chest and I opened my mouth to speak.

  And then I was being shaken.

  ‚Harmonia, it is time to go, sweetling.'

  I opened my eyes to find my mother, Aphrodite, bent over my bed. Her chestnut hair was twisted into a simple knot at her neck and her silvery eyes were gleaming. My gaze flew to the window. Early morning light flooded my room. I had been dreamwalking with Cadmus all night.

  The four Amazon warriors stood quietly, still at attention, guarding my empty husband. I knew he was empty, because I knew where he was. I felt a tear slip down my cheek as I scrambled from the bed to where he lay. Unlike in my dream, his body here was warm. It was an enigma. His heart no longer beat, but his body was still warm and unchanged. It was as though he was peacefully sleeping.

  But he was empty.

  I bent and kissed his soft lips, running my fingers along his chiseled cheekbones.

  ‚Cadmus, I will bring you back to me. I promise.'

  I held his limp body tightly for a minute more before I flew into action, fluttering around the room readying myself for a journey. I quickly dressed and packed a Courtney Cole 11

  With My Last Breath, Book Three

  knapsack. This would be the first time I traveled without Cadmus, a fact that had not slipped past my attention.

  When I was ready, I stood in front of the warriors.

  ‚Guard him with your life,' I instructed them needlessly. I already knew they would.

  ‚We will,’' the one in front of me confirmed with a nod. I nodded back and met my mother at the door. I glanced over my shoulder only once before we descended the grand staircase to the courtyard below.

  Ares, Ortrera and four of her warriors were congregated in the gardens. I overheard them muttering about the box of souls but I was distracted by the number of the warriors.

  ‚Only four?' I asked curiously. Ortrera looked at me once again as though I was a toddler.

  ‚I must leave eight,' she explained. ‚So that Cadmus has a constant guard. My warriors must sleep, too,' she added with a small smile.

  ‚Of course,' I murmured, feeling foolish. She patted my shoulder in an attempt at sisterly tenderness.

  ‚It is alright, sister. You have much on your mind.'

  ‚What were you saying about the box of souls?' I turned to Ares. His expressio
n turned dark as he scowled.

  ‚Somehow, before the Keres disappeared last night, they managed to steal the box of souls from where we were keeping it for Zeus. It must have been Annen.'

  I thought back and recalled Moros telling me that their ancient priest Annen was performing a task for them. Of course the task had been to hunt for and procure the box of murderous souls. That made perfect sense. My old Aegis, Ahmose, had hidden it for me and I knew that it must have a use, but we hadn’t needed it on Ogygia. The box contained every murderous soul that the Keres had ever punished. I had no idea what kind of havoc they could wreak with them.

  ‚Let us think of it later,' Aphrodite suggested. ‚There is no time to address that issue now.'

  She moved to stand next to Ares and he wrapped his meaty arm around her slender waist. He was wearing war armor, heavy metal plates on his chest and back. They were so heavy that a normal person would never be able to carry them. His jet black hair was freshly washed, still damp in the light of the morning sun. He smiled at me, the tender and loving smile of a father.

  ‚Are you alright, daughter?' he asked.

  ‚No,' I admitted. ‚But I will be eventually.'

  ‚We’ll find the box,' Ares assured me. ‚And the sword, as well. We will return everything to how it must be. You can count on it.'

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  With My Last Breath, Book Three

  I nodded silently, assessing the view from the courtyard of Zeus’ palace. The gardens were in full bloom this morning, brilliant blossoms of every hue hanging over our heads, lining the walkways and filling the courtyard with heavy floral scents.

  Lilies, honeysuckle, jasmine, roses. I let the sweet smells fill my mouth as I breathed them in. The city below us was quiet, as though the residents knew that things had changed so completely. No one traveled on the cobblestone streets and the normal hustle and bustle of the city was gone. The shops and marketplaces were empty. If anyone remained in the city, they were safely ensconced in their homes.

  ‚I saw Cadmus in the night,' I stated simply, my back still to my parents. I heard Aphrodite’s quick intake of breath before she flew to my side, her cool hand on my elbow.

  ‚Where is he?' she asked hesitantly. I could feel her silver goddess stare on my face, but I kept my gaze on the silent city below us. If I looked into her concerned eyes, I might cry again.

  ‚I don’t know,' I sighed. ‚Somewhere I’ve never been before. It seemed like a horrible purgatory and he wasn’t the same. He wasn’t Cadmus. I think they have his soul trapped somewhere.'

  Ares stared at me, his black stare unflinching. ‚Our first stop is with Hecate. We shall see if she knows anything about this place.'

  I thought of Hecate. It had been she, the goddess of witchcraft, who had pulled us safely out of Ogygia when we confronted the Fates and the Keres. Calypso’s island quickly pulled visitors into a blissful, unaware state where time was no longer relevant.

  If it hadn’t been for Hecate, we would all still be on the island, completely unaware of anything.

  I nodded. Of course Hecate should be our first stop. She knew things that we did not. They simply appeared to her in visions. If anyone would know of the strange purgatory, it would be her or her sidekicks, Circes and Medea.

  I lifted my head at Ortrera’s shrill whistle and watched her fleet of Pegasus’

  descending upon us from the sky. They were truly a sight to behold. A herd of magnificent mares of every color, each of their faces was painted with war paint. Their large wings pulsed quickly, radiating strength as they glided to a smooth landing in the courtyard next to us. They stood still now, perfectly trained as the war horses that they were.

  I walked around the lead horse, the one that I would share with Ortrera, and rested my cheek against her solid, warm neck. She didn’t move, she just absorbed my weight, letting me rest against her soft, sleek fur. My mind was numb and I let it wander, thinking of just yesterday when Cadmus and I had spent the afternoon feeding each other Lotus blossoms by a bubbling stream.

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  With My Last Breath, Book Three

  ‚Sister?' Ortrera inquired, her eyebrows raised. She stood next to her horse, ready to mount. Her bow and arrows were strapped to her back, a long dagger at her thick, muscled waist. ‚Are you ready?'

  ‚I’m ready,' I nodded. ‚Let us leave here.'

  Everyone mounted and I clung to Ortrera’s strong back as the horses flew into the sky. I absently observed the Spiritlands below us as we flew toward Hecate’s cave by the border. There was scarcely any life to be found, it was as though everyone in the land had gone into hiding. They probably had. They didn’t know what was coming and honestly, neither did I.

  Within twenty minutes, I spotted the cave and the horses began their rapid descent.

  As usual, Hecate was waiting for us in the doorway because she had felt us drawing near. Her magic was unsettling at best.

  ‚Harmonia, how are you holding up?' she asked in concern, her beautiful face twisted into a scowl. ‚Blast the Keres, anyway. What did Ares do to them?'

  ‚Nothing,' he admitted, his shoulders slumping slightly. ‚They disappeared into the night. But there will be a reckoning, I can assure you of that.'

  She nodded, satisfied that he was telling the truth. No one could doubt it. The look on his handsome face was sharp and determined. He was the god of war, after all.

  ‚Come in,' she invited, ushering us into her home.

  We walked past her into the brilliantly gleaming cave. Every wall and every surface was filled with glittering white stalactites and stalagmites. It looked ethereal, not what you would expect a gateway to Hades to be. It was rumored that there was a direct path to the underworld from this very cave, although I had never confirmed it.

  Since one of the duties that Hecate had been given included ushering demons to hell, it just made sense that the rumors were true.

  Hecate turned to me now, compassion apparent on her lovely features. While Medea and Circes often appeared as ancient hags, Hecate always appeared as a young, beautiful woman. Her lips always gleamed crimson, her blonde hair always fell in long ringlets down her back.

  ‚How are you, really?' she asked me softly, placing a hand on my shoulder.

  A lump formed in my throat and I thought about telling her that truth… that my world had fallen apart in the space of a minute. But there was no need. Anyone who knew me was already perfectly aware of that.

  ‚I’m holding up,' I said simply. She nodded, leading the way to an inner room of her cave- a place I had never been.

  We ducked through a doorway and stood in a black abyss. The walls in here were gleaming black crystal but instead of reflecting light, they appeared to absorb it, to suck it in.

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  With My Last Breath, Book Three

  ‚Fire,' Hecate murmured, and a large ring of blue flame appeared in the center of the cavernous room.

  I watched the flickering fire in fascination. It burned with jewel-like colors, blue, green, turquoise… shimmering with metallic light.

  ‚Follow me,' Hecate instructed and she stepped through the flame and stood in the center of the blazing ring.

  With hesitation, I did the same. I was surprised to find that the flame didn’t burn me. It was cool to my touch. I turned and held my hand out to my mother. She was apprehensive, but obligingly stepped through, quickly crossing to my side and grasping my hand tightly. Ares and the Amazons rapidly crossed into the circle, exhibiting no fear. That didn’t surprise me; they never allowed their nervousness to show.

  ‚Hold hands,' Hecate instructed, closing her eyes.

  She began murmuring things that I didn’t understand and I felt a strange vagueness filtering through my body. My arms and legs felt light and airy and I began to feel as though I would float away if it weren’t for Ares on my left and Aphrodite on my right weighting me down. The sensation was a curious one.

  Hecate’s mutterings b
ecame more and more insistent and loud until it reached a feverish pitch and she was shouting in a strange guttural language that I had never heard before.

  She began nodding quickly and whispered, ‚A sword, a sword, a sword.'

  She rocked to and fro, still nodding, practically humming the words. ‚A sword, a sword, a sword.'

  And then she stopped and added, ‚In a stone. A sword in a stone.'

  She went completely still and in the silence of the vast room, a vision suddenly filled my head, a vision so vivid that it took my breath away and caused me to close my eyes in order to focus on it.

  A magnificent waterfall cascaded into a clear and sparkling lake. The sun hit the water and reflected into the sky in a million glittering prisms as the crash of the mighty waterfall fed it. At the top, rushing water spilled over large stone boulders covered in velvety green moss in a mad frenzy. A bone-handled sword was firmly embedded in one of the stones. It stood tall and proud, unmoved by the furious crashing of the water against it.

  A sword in a stone. Deep within my belly, recognition grew, larger and larger until I pinpointed it and couldn’t deny it. I knew this place. I had been there before.