(contains violence and sex)
Sworn virgin, instrument of the god’s vengeance—helpless in her target’s arms.
Maya, leader of the temple maenads, has learned nothing but contempt for the weakness of her human body. She lives for the ritual that transforms her into maenad form, ready to administer the vengeance of the volcano god.
Killing a fugitive shifter is not just her duty, but her delight—until, against all odds, he captures her, trapping her in her worst nightmare. Her vulnerable, easily controlled human form.
Marked for destruction by his forbidden gifts, empath and shifter Philos fled the city years ago to become a warrior for persecuted people like him. Now he has the enemy at his mercy—a maenad desperate to regain her power. But when they touch, he finds his empathic power not so much a gift as a terrible danger. To his people, and his heart.
Gradually, Maya realizes Philos is not a monster deserving of death. Yet even as she hesitantly offers to help in the war against the priests, she can risk no more than the bare beginnings of friendship with the man she was supposed to kill. Anything more, and she will forever lose access to the power she cannot bear to live without…
He’d been careless. And now he was going to die for it.
Even as Philos dropped from the rope onto the desert sands outside the city wall, he knew he wasn’t going to make it. He’d known it as he fled through the narrow streets, over the rooftops, as he’d slid down the rope of the escape route he’d prepared months before, known it like a cold sickness in his belly, a weakness in his knees. He didn’t have time. They were going to kill him.
Half an hour’s start. It would be enough, if they sent only the soldiers after him. But he was their worst kind of criminal—blasphemer, wielder of an unholy gift. They wouldn’t send only soldiers after him. They’d send the maenads.
That thought set him off running as soon as he hit the ground, a fast lope out across the desert where it swept glittering under the morning sun. This early in the day, heat was not yet beating up from the sand to blind and bake him, but as the sun climbed higher the moisture would evaporate from the air, the ground become hot as a griddle-iron, the interior of a furnace of blazing white sand and mercilessly cloudless sky. Already he was sweating from the combined fear and exertion of the last half-hour—another few hours without rest or shade or water and he’d be dizzy, sun-sick, helpless as a crawling beetle on a stovetop.
He’d forced himself to stay in good shape over the months in the city. Homeless and in hiding or not, he hadn’t dared to let his muscles soften. All the same, he couldn’t keep up this pace for more than another half-hour. He stumbled, fear clutching at his joints so his knees weakened and he nearly fell. He had no hope of outrunning the maenads.
How could I be so stupid? How, after all this time, could I let my guard down, make a mistake like that, then, there?
When he’d come to the city this latest time, a year ago, he’d known all too well he needed to be wary. He’d never stayed so long before on what had become enemy ground, and he carried with him the constant knowledge that he alone could betray himself, give in to his weakness, bring his whole mission crashing into disaster.
And for a year, a year, he’d stayed on guard, he’d kept it from happening.
I managed for that long, why could I not manage even longer?
He hadn’t so much as seen it coming, the mistake that had given him away. Looking back—gods, he should have been so much more careful. He’d been short on sleep, his concentration shredded. The nights had been getting colder, and even in the shelter he’d rigged at the base of the city walls, he’d been waking, shivering and unable to sleep, well before dawn. He should have remembered his barriers would be down, should have resisted the unwary impulse that had driven him to make that last, foolhardy attempt. In a crowded marketplace, of all the stupid places to use his gift.
It had been the fear and misery on the boy’s face that caught at him. He’d been there himself, remembered it all too well. So, despite the fact he was blurry from lack of sleep, he had summoned his gift and, concealed, whispered the words, the hope of escape, the rumours of another place, different countries where no gifts were punished. The words that would give the boy the idea to escape, the hope it would work, the belief that somewhere existed a place to which he could run…
And then his concentration, worn thin by fatigue, broke, and his gift had dropped from him.
He’d realised he’d failed when he saw people’s faces change, saw them suddenly looking at, rather than through, him. He’d seen them recognise what he was, the fear and anger flash identically over every face. He hadn’t needed his gift to sense their emotions. One of them. Hiding here. Amongst us.
He’d run, of course. Fought his way from the market, hearing the call for guards go up behind him as he fled, then taken to the back streets, the slums. His protection was patchy, flickering in and out, but it got him through the less crowded streets, up onto the roofs and over to one of his prepared escape routes down the outside of the city wall.
But he wasn’t going to make it.
He’d been careless, and his carelessness would kill him.
A mile outside the city wall, he threw a glance upwards, squinting against the reflected glitter of the sunlight. Far ahead, like a bank of storm clouds, rose the first of the foothills that led to the mountains. A day’s journey. He’d made it there before, but that time he’d escaped undetected, unpursued.
This time… Oh gods. They’d have his scent already—any minute the maenads would come pouring from the temple and it would all be over.
There’s no hope. I should give up now, let it be done with faster. No hope. I’m finished.
His pace slowed to walking speed, the soft sand dragging at his feet. I can’t escape them. I can’t escape him. He saw me come back, he knows I seek to steal his servants and sacrifices, overthrow his priests. He knows I’m guilty. And no one guilty can escape the god.
He stopped walking. A sort of peace fell around him, dull and deadening, the calm of five minutes before a storm. Death would find him here, unresisting, giving himself to the god, obedient at the last if never before. Only justice, after all. Only what I deserve.
It was the inevitability of the thoughts that saved him, the words’ familiarity hitting him like a slap across the eyes. How often had he had those thoughts—how often had he fought them off? How often had they—all the refugees—talked about how easily their minds were drawn into those long-familiar patterns? And how dead would he be if he’d let himself listen to them before?
All the usual self-accusation. It’s no use. I can’t escape, I can’t stay free, I can’t hope to rescue anyone else. I’m wrong to have ever tried, ever thought of it, ever wanted a different life. The god, the priests—I rebelled against them. Sinful. Unclean. Guilty, guilty, guilty.
The hold the priests had on them all could not be brushed aside in months, even years, of freedom. Raised in the city, in the caste system, not one of them had managed to grow up free of it.
It was why he had only dared to make brief visits over the time he’d been living outside the city. It was not until he had been a whole ten years away from that world that he’d been able to risk returning for as long as a year. This time he’d felt ready to do what he would not have dared before. He’d lived within the city walls, trying to help the others still trapped there, the others who didn’t know the world held anything else for them.
Enneas, Lilia, who’d escaped more recently, even Aera, with all the power of the volcano in her veins—they’d all understood they would not be able to do it. They couldn’t go back under the shadow of the temple. Not yet. Not till the old patterns in which they’d been made to walk had disappeared, blown away like lines drawn in the sand.
But he, one of the first refugees, had done it and survived.
He dragged in a breath, willing his heartbeat to steady, making himself think. He couldn’t reach the mountains, not with the maenads on his scent. So, what else, what other paths, did he have?
Far to his left a couple of tiny oases showed in scrubby patches of green, the cliffs dropping away beyond them to the ocean. There were ways down, but nowhere to hide on the naked white sands, and the currents were fierce and unpredictable. He could not swim strongly enough to strike out far into the ocean…nor fast enough to outstrip the maenads.
Ahead of him, a ragged edge of darker green, lush and shadowed, betrayed where a canyon cut northeast through the desert, the scar of an ancient earthquake, carved deeper by the river that raced through it. Dimness, a cover of vines and creepers, a concealed route farther north… Instinctively, he started towards it, his skin prickling with the desire to get out of sight, before he checked himself. It promised safety, but the promise was a treacherous one. Choked with vegetation, its foot thick with mud, the canyon would do nothing but slow him down, keep him toiling, stuck as a herd beast in the mud traps, waiting for the maenads to arrive.
Which left nothing but, even farther ahead, another half-hour run away, the tumble of loose boulders that marked the head of the canyon and the entrance to the caves.
The maenads would see him making for them—out on the desert floor there was no hiding, not once they’d left the temple walls—but when he reached them there would be a hundred different places to hide, chimneys to climb inside, underground streams to kill his scent. The caves ran for miles beneath the desert, out under the tablelands to the east, west to the ocean. He could hide within them for days, if need be, long enough for the maenads to give up, tire and return.
He had to force himself to change course, though. The canyon, a mere five minutes away, drew him like a magnet, its whisper of safety as seductive as the faint sound of the trickling water at its base.
No. No, the temptation was as much a trap as the thoughts of giving himself up. It was the caves or nothing.
He set off, running again, his thigh muscles protesting, his head already thick with heat and thirst.
From behind him, from towards the city, shrill enough to drag stone-cold shivers down his back, rose a wild wordless yelling. The voice of the maenad pack, women who were no longer women, who had not been women for years, blood-mad, incarnate claws of the volcano-god, set loose to hunt him down.
They were not dangerous before the ritual.
Maya, standing in her place in the circle, limbs chilly in the underground air, glanced down at herself: the thin fingers with their bitten nails, the scuffed bare feet, the slight curves of her body under the knee-length tunic. She hated how weak she looked, how unthreatening, like a blunt knife, an empty poison vial.
She’d been eleven when the ritual took—which was early, really. But she’d been waiting for it for three years, every month standing in the circle with the other girls her age, hoping this was her turn, this time the change would come upon her. And every month coming back out into the sunlight, blinking half-blind in the dazzle, sick with disappointment, with the residue of the liquid they called volcano’s blood. Sick, also, with the knowledge that she must wait yet another month, weak and human, the smallest in her family, in her whole street, before she could try again.
Even now, ten years later, the memory of when it had finally happened remained starkly clear in her mind. She remembered the slow roll of the drum, so deep she’d felt it in the pit of her stomach, the chimes that seemed to seep into every part of her head, the scent of the volcano’s blood turning to vapour on the hot coals.
Then the change. The long-awaited, first-time change. The chimes had driven through her brain, the beat of the drum a rhythm in her blood, the power rising like a blaze of fire within her body. She’d looked around the circle of other girls and seen them as creatures completely different from her, weak, thin skinned, slow bodied. Scraps of people with no substance, whose voices and names she could no longer remember.
Despite the dreaming and hoping and fearing it would never, ever come true for her, she’d been scared of leaving her family. A maenad could scarcely return to say goodbye, after all. But once it happened, her family blurred just as her friends had done. The mercy of the god, taking care of those he’d called.
It was as well. She’d been the only eleven-year-old from her part of the city, and at the temple, she was for a while the youngest there. She was never treated as such, though. Maenads were not motherly, nor did they need mothering. She was the youngest, but after every ritual she was also the strongest, the fastest, the one whom the god’s madness filled so full there was nothing left at all of the girl she had been.
She was twenty-one now, not the youngest by a long way, but those abilities hadn’t changed. They never did, it was said, when a girl became maenad so young. The power, the madness had burned through her, tattooing itself on the inside of her skin, etching its gibberish words along every muscle and nerve and bone. In ten years she’d killed more people than she could count. Runaways, criminals, blasphemers, forsworn priests, the freaks—shifters and others—with their unholy, unsanctioned gifts.
The numbers had risen past counting a long time ago, but anyway, she would not have remembered them. Unlike a common murderer, she killed only during the madness, during the flood that wiped out her own awareness, leaving her nothing but a vessel for the god. When it ebbed and she washed away the tidemark it left behind—blood under her fingernails, shreds of hair and skin not hers, the scraps of horrible sound that to start with had woken her to sob in the night—she washed away the memory too. The memory and the bloodguilt, sending them out into the ocean, leaving her clean, sinless, holy as the god himself.
Outside their own complex within the temple, not one of the maenads had her own name. People knew them not for who, but for what they were, knew them only as a pack, like the troops of hunting cats used to supply both temple and palace with fresh meat. But although no one could speak of her by name, every person in the temple, the palace and city had heard of her. Everyone knew who she was.
But now, the ritual not yet begun, no one would ever recognise her for the most feared of all the maenads, no one would see how dangerous she could become.
The drum began, a slow beat that went straight to her bones. She let it sink through her, let the rhythm of her blood adjust to match it. She pictured her bones growing stronger, more able to withstand impact—she’d jumped from halfway down a cliff face once, and had suffered nothing but a little stiffness the next day—imagined the drumbeat soaking strength into muscles and skin just as dye soaks through cloth or wine through bread.
Then the chimes, bright inside her head, a white fire behind her eyes, like the lightning she’d seen sparking with the fire from the volcano mouth, jagged colourless brilliance like streamers torn from moonlight and flung against the night sky.
The vapour-scent reaching her nostrils, rising through her brain, rinsing away her own thoughts and replacing them with that same lightning brightness, words she could not quite hear, wildness that set her heart racing to double-time…
And the change began.
Her nails grew hard and knife-edge sharp, the toenails short and curved for easier gripping, the fingernails longer, itching to grab and slash and tear. Her muscles tightened, all at once more defined, taut under her skin. Her body took on a metallic sheen that turned the olive-brown to bronze. Her stance changed as energy—insane, furious energy—crashed through her, from toes to belly, throat to head.
The room was no longer dim. She could see into every shadow, every indistinct corner, and she knew her pupils had widened, huge and black, swallowing up half the eye.
She glanced around the circle and saw them all, her pack, twenty women, talon-fingered, brazen-skinned, eyes opening wide on madness.
Someone—a priest, probably, but everyone except the pack had retreated to the very edge of her awareness—threw a torn part of a garment and a length of rope into the circle. His voice echoed when he spoke, beating in her ears like the drumbeat, like the chimes.
“This one is a blasphemer. A monster. He’s left the city, he’s running north across the desert. He’s been living undiscovered—no one knows how long—polluting our people, drawing the god’s wrath upon us. The god demands his death.”
The words came without volition, from long-ingrained use, echoed from twenty throats around the room. “His death is demanded. He shall die.”