Once, he'd been the Seducer, the Executioner, the High Priest of the Hourglass, the Prince of the Darkness, the High Lord of Hell.
Once, he'd been Consort to Cassandra, the great Black-Jeweled, Black Widow Queen, the last Witch to walk the Realms.
Once, he'd been the only Black-Jeweled Warlord Prince in the history of the Blood, feared for his temper and the power he wielded.
Once, he'd been the only male who was a Black Widow.
Once, he'd ruled the Dhemlan Territory in the Realm of Terreille and her sister Territory in Kaeleer, the Shadow Realm. He'd been the only male ever to rule without answering to a Queen and, except for Witch, the only member of the Blood to rule Territories in two Realms.
Once, he'd been married to Hekatah, an aristo Black Widow Priestess from one of Hayll's Hundred Families.
Once, he'd raised two sons, Mephis and Peyton. He'd played games with them, told them stories, read to them, healed their skinned knees and broken hearts, taught them Craft and Blood Law, showered them with his love of the land as well as music, art, and literature, encouraged them to look with eager eyes upon all that the Realms had to offer—not to conquer but to learn. He'd taught them to dance for a social occasion and to dance for the glory of Witch. He'd taught them how to be Blood.
But that was a long, long time ago.
Saetan, the High Lord of Hell, sat quietly by the fire, a hearth rug wrapped around his legs, turning the pages of a book he had no interest in reading. He sipped a glass of yarbarah, the blood wine, taking no pleasure in its taste or warmth.
For the past decade, he'd been a quiet invalid who never left his private study deep beneath the Hall. For more than 50,000 years before that, he'd been the ruler and caretaker of the Dark Realm, the undisputed High Lord.
He no longer cared about Hell. He no longer cared about the demon-dead family and friends who were still with him, or the other demon-dead and ghostly citizens of this Realm, the Blood who were still too strong to return to the Darkness even after their bodies had died.
He was tired and old, and the loneliness he'd carried inside him all his life had become too heavy to bear. He no longer wanted to be a Guardian, one of the living dead. He no longer wanted the half-life a handful of the Blood had chosen in order to extend their lifetimes into years beyond imagining. He wanted peace, wanted to quietly fade back into the Darkness.
The only thing that kept him from actively seeking that release was his promise to Cassandra.
Saetan steepled his long, black-tinted nails and rested his golden eyes on the portrait hanging on the far wall between two bookcases.
She'd made him promise to become a Guardian so that the extended half-life would allow him to walk among the living when his daughter was born. Not the daughter of his loins, but the daughter of his soul. The daughter she'd seen in a tangled web.
He'd promised because what she'd said had made his nerves twang like tether lines in a storm, because that was her price for training him to be a Black Widow, because, even then, the Darkness sang to him in a way it didn't sing to other Blood males.
He had kept his promise. But the daughter never came.
The insistent knocking on the door of his private study finally pulled him from his thoughts.
"Come," he said, his deep voice a tired whisper, a ghost of what it once had been.
Mephis SaDiablo entered and stood beside the chair, silent.
"What do you want, Mephis?" Saetan asked his eldest son, demon-dead since that long ago war between Terreille and Kaeleer.
Mephis hesitated. "Something strange is going on."
Saetan's gaze drifted back to the fire. "Someone else can look into it, if anyone so desires. Your mother can look into it. Hekatah always wanted power without my interference."
"No," Mephis said uneasily.
Saetan studied his son's face and found that he had a hard time swallowing. "Your . . . brothers?" he finally asked, unable to hide the pain that the question caused him. He'd been a flattered fool to cast the spell that temporarily gave him back the seed of life. He couldn't regret Daemon's and Lucivar's existence, but he'd tortured himself for centuries with reports of what had been done to them.
Mephis shook his head and stared at the dark-red marble mantle. "On thecildru dyathe's island."
Saetan shuddered. He'd never feared anything in Hell, but he'd always felt an aching despair for thecildru dyathe, the demon-dead children. In Hell, the dead retained the form of their last living hour. This cold, blasted Realm had never been a kind place, but to look upon those children, to see what had been done to them by another's hand, for there to be no escape from those blatant wounds. . . . It was too much to bear. They kept to their island, unwilling to have any contact with adults. He never intruded on them, having Char, their chosen leader, come to him once in a while to bring back the books, games, and whatever else he could find that might engage their young minds and help wile away the unrelenting years.
"Thecildru dyathe take care of themselves," Saetan said, fussing with the hearth rug. "You know that."
"But . . . every so often, for the past few weeks, there's another presence there. Never for very long, but I've felt it. So has Prothvar when he's flown over the island."
"Leave them alone," Saetan snapped, his temper returning some strength to his voice. "Perhaps they've found an orphaned Hound pup."
Mephis took a deep breath. "Hekatah has already had an altercation with Char over this. The children are hiding from everyone who approaches because of it. If she had any authority to—"
Before Saetan could respond to the sharp rap on the study door, it swung open. Andulvar Yaslana, once the Eyrien Warlord Prince of Askavi, strode into the room. His grandson, Prothvar, followed him, carrying a large globe covered with a black cloth.
"SaDiablo, there's something you should see," Andulvar said. "Prothvar brought this from thecildru dyathe's island."
Saetan assumed an expression of polite interest. As young men, he and Andulvar had become unlikely friends and had served together in a number of courts. Even Hekatah hadn't severed that friendship when she'd strutted around, gleefully carrying a child that wasn't his—Andulvar's child. It didn't turn him against the only man he'd ever called a friend—who could blame a man for getting tangled up in one of Hekatah's schemes?—but it had ended his stormy marriage.
Saetan looked at each man in turn and saw the same uneasiness in three pairs of gold eyes. Mephis was a Gray-Jeweled Warlord Prince and almost unshakable. Prothvar was a Red-Jeweled Eyrien Warlord, a warrior bred and trained. Andulvar was an Eyrien Warlord Prince who wore the Ebon-gray, the second darkest Jewel. They were all strong men who didn't frighten easily—but now theywere frightened.