We parked. Raphael hopped out and gently picked up Alex’s body. Alex’s white hair spilled over Raphael’s shaggy arm. Aunt B looked on without a word as the monster who was her son and my mate carried her lover’s body to her and held it out. A single word escaped his monstrous mouth. “Mother . . .”
Aunt B’s lips trembled. She slumped against the porch post. Her shoulders shook and she covered her mouth with her hand. Tears swelled in her eyes. No sobs escaped her lips. She simply stood there and cried, grief plain and raw on her face.
What do I do? She was the bouda alpha. Alphas didn’t . . . they didn’t show weakness. They didn’t cry.
She was just a woman.
I walked up on the porch and hugged her. “Let’s take him inside.”
For a moment I thought she would snap my neck, and then she nodded wordlessly and I opened the door. We took him in and laid him to rest on a table in the back room. She sank into a chair next to him. Raphael sat on the floor next to her and she stroked his head.
I went into the kitchen, brewed herbal tea, and took it to her. Raphael was gone and Aunt B sat alone. Her face was wet with tears. Her eyes glanced at me. Still sharp and hard. She took the cup. “Thank you.”
I nodded, not knowing what to do with myself.
“Are you and my son together?”
Everything inside me clenched, reminding me I was beastkin and she was the boudas’ alpha. “Yes.”
“That’s good,” she said softly. “I always liked you.” She glanced at Alex. “Make the best of it. The way we did.”
The magic surged, drowning us. The outline of Alex’s body shimmered. A pale glow broke free of the corpse and congealed into Alex Doulos. He saw Aunt B. His voice was like the whisper of dry leaves underfoot. “Beatrice?”
“Yes,” she said softly.
I tiptoed out of the room.
I found Raphael outside, on the porch. Too bulky to fit into a chair in his warrior form, he sat on the floor. Hard knotted muscle corded his back. His long arms lay folded on his knees and the claws of his right hand protruded, crisp in moonlight.
He truly looked monstrous. Just like the secret me.
I sat next to him.
“If I die, will you grieve for me?” he asked.
“Yes. But before I do that, I’ll fight to save you.”
I put my hand onto his furry forearm. “Because I feel good when you’re near me. It’s not just sex, and it isn’t loneliness, it’s more than that. It’s kind of frightening. I think that’s why I fought it for so long.”
The lawn before us seemed to go on forever, each grass blade slick with reflected moonlight. Soon Cerberus would come running, his paws mashing big ugly holes in the perfect grass.
“Do you think we’ll ever have what they had?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I think what they had grew over many years. We still have a lot of things to work out. But I’d like to try, Raphael. When I said you’re mine, I meant it. I don’t do things halfway. For better or worse.”
We heard light footsteps. The door opened. “He wants you,” Aunt B said.
Alex Doulos had a soft, kind voice. “My time’s short,” he said. “Do you know the myth of Hades and Persephone?”
“Yes,” Raphael answered.
“Good. That will make things simple then. I’m a priest of Hades. My family has served him for generations. One of our duties is to tend to secret shrines of Hades. They’re scattered all over the world and kept hidden. During the flares, one of the shrines randomly grows an apple tree, which bears fruit.”
“Hera’s Apples,” I said.
Alex motioned with his arm. “The Vikings call them Idun’s Apples, the Russians call them Apples of Youth, and we call them Persephone’s Apples. The name doesn’t matter. The apples are supposed to grant youth and long life span to gods. When eaten by normal humans, who don’t have Persephone’s gift or immunity to it, the apples produce horrible consequences. That’s why we guard the tree until the apples ripen and sacrifice the fruit to Hades. No part of the apples must remain in our world. It is my duty to make sure the apples are destroyed. It’s the purpose of my service. But I’ve failed.
“My body was kidnapped by a woman who calls herself Spider Lynn. She’s dying and she wants the apples for herself. She mustn’t eat them. It’s very, very important. She must not eat them.”
“Where is Lynn now?” I asked.
“I imagine she’s at the shrine. It’s in the woods behind my summer house. Raphael, you remember, we had a cookout at that house last year.”
I glanced at Raphael. “It’s across the wood, bordering our territory. Not too far,” he said. “How did she know the location of the shrine?”
Alex’s shade shuddered. “I told her. She realized that she couldn’t compel me to reveal it and she kidnapped my nephew. His parents are away and I was watching the boy. I couldn’t let the vampires hurt the child.”
I pulled the green toy car from my pocket. “The boy . . .”
“Yes,” Alex confirmed. “It’s his. Raphael, I know that you’re not my son and you owe me nothing. But I beg you, please, don’t let her get the apples. Save the boy. And whatever you do, don’t eat them.”
“I’ll do it,” Raphael said simply.
“The shrine’s guarded by a serpent, but it won’t last against Spider Lynn’s vampires for long. Take the bracelet off my arm. It’s keyed to the ward that’s guarding the shrine. Lynn has enough magic to force herself past the defensive spell, but it will leave her weakened. She’ll need time to recover. You won’t.”
A deafening roar shook the house. Cerberus had found us.
“He’s come for me.” Alex smiled. “It’s time to go. Take the bracelet. It will unlock the ward and let you pick up the apples.”
Raphael slipped the simple metal loop off the corpse’s right wrist and placed it over his own. The bracelet barely enclosed two thirds of his wrist. “Are you really going to Hades?”
“I don’t know,” Alex said. “But the last of my power is fading. My body is dead, Raphael. I can no longer hold on to it. Earth is the home of the living, not the dead. Don’t mourn me. My life was full and well lived. I was fortunate. Some might even say blessed. I only wish that I had lived a few days longer so I could destroy the apples myself instead of forcing this burden on you. That and your mother’s tears are my only regrets.”