“Archie. Knock it off…” Dumuzi swiped at the side of his face as he slowly came awake. His ears tuned instantly to the night peepers chirping in chorus all around him. Dammit. He wasn’t at home in bed. He’d had another episode and was outside, somewhere in the Blue Hills. He paused. He tensed. That wasn’t all. Something else was off.
The god of vegetation was used to being licked awake by his dog, but… A shiver ran down his spine as a cool breeze wafted across his wet cheek. Shit. He could feel the actual dog slobber, not just the vague sensation of a tongue’s touch. Was he imagining things? Could he feel the wind stirring? Dumuzi cautiously raised his head. He moaned deep in his throat. It was no illusion. The late spring dampness of the dark forest blanketed him.
He attempted to swallow around his dry tongue and forced his eyes to open. Archie was a few feet away, watching him with head tilted, holding an air of expectancy. Dumuzi didn’t like it. He slowly sat up and brought his gaze to his feet. Holy hell. Visible. A whoosh of air left his lungs, and he dropped his hands to the ground for support.
His fingers flexed in the moist layer of last year’s leaves where they covered the ground next to his body. Dumuzi grasped handfuls to anchor himself…then couldn’t resist. He brought full palms up to his nose and inhaled deeply. Oh, gods. Plant matter. His senses tingled. He, the god of vegetation, was touching and smelling composting leaves for the first time in nearly four hundred years. His eyes filled with tears…which quickly dried in panic. The only reason for his visibility weaved its tendrils into his brain.
No. Push it away. Don’t think. Stay grounded.
“Come here, Archie.” The border collie’s tail wagged violently, and the dog’s mouth, full of white teeth, split into a wide grin. He bounded to Dumuzi’s lap and nearly toppled the god with his enthusiasm.
“Yeah, boy. I’m real again.” Dumuzi wrapped his arms solidly around the wriggling bundle of fur and hugged for all he was worth, trying to keep his trepidation at bay. “Gods, you’re warm, and…whew. Archie, you need a bath.” The smell of dank dog fur was, unfortunately, only a temporary distraction. Trembling, the god reluctantly put the dog aside and rose to his feet. Dumuzi let the implications of his sudden turn to the physical wash over him. Dammit, he wasn’t ready for this.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. He spun and punched a tree to his left. Ouch. The pain felt good, and the blood that seeped up from the broken skin had a mesmerizing effect as he attempted to come to grips with the facts of his visibility. Right. Facts. Deep breath. Somewhere nearby, gods be cursed, was his Chosen—the woman with whom he would mate for the rest of eternity. It was the only explanation.
Of course, it had been proven among the gods they could become visible in the presence of someone whose bloodlines they’d contributed to back in colonial times―when they’d last been corporeal―but Dumuzi had only fucked one woman in Merrymount. It had been a brief, anonymous fling that had ended nearly a year before fate had overtaken the group and rendered them bodiless. He hadn’t left behind any children from his loins. He was sure of it. Therefore, the woman he was about to set eyes on was certain to be his gods-damned destiny.
Dumuzi had known it would happen sooner or later, but he wasn’t ready for it…would never actually be ready for it. Not with the big-ass problem he’d bring into a relationship. In the past, he’d spurned most personal interactions by keeping a mantle of vagueness wrapped around himself. His Blue Hills god-buddies teasingly called him the stoner-god for his lazy, don’t-care-about anything attitude…and in his early years, they would have been correct. He’d spent decades well-acquainted with alcohol and opiates before he realized they weren’t of any use battling his problem. Once he came to terms with that, he’d perfected his “out-of-it” demeanor which kept people from prying into his fucked-upedness. Better to look like he didn’t care at all than to let folks know how ruined he was on the inside.
The Blue Hills gods were a great bunch, putting up with him and always including him in their more important quests and battles, but the rest of the time? They left him alone to mellow out by himself. They were no fools. All of them were aware of Dumuzi’s problem and had made sure to let him chill when duty didn’t call.
When the veg-god had found Archie―or more accurately when Archie had found him―he’d tried to push the dog away, but the canine would have none of that. The intrepid collie stuck by him, especially during Dumuzi’s worst moments, and it seemed, surprisingly, to work out okay…so far.
Hanging with Archie was one thing, but hitching his troubles to a human female would be completely insane. Not only that, he didn’t want to become mate, keeper, and/or nursemaid to a Chosen. He’d seen how it altered the lives of his fellow gods…and yes, they all seemed supremely happy, but that’s because they had great communication with their forever spouses…and great sex. Dumuzi could look forward to neither.
The immortal sighed. His feet dragged. It was time to get a look at the hapless woman. She wasn’t aware of it, but she was doomed to mate with him for the salvation of every god and goddess in the compound. An Underworld decree had made it clear all the thirteen gods in his group had to be mated by September fifteenth―a mere four months away―or every one of them would be pulled back into hell, fighting demons for eternity. He would never be selfish enough to relegate his friends to that fate, so he would do his duty and get mated. But his Chosen would have to be selfless enough to also sacrifice herself for the good of the group. It was a huge thing to ask, but he had to make sure it would happen.
Dumuzi tuned his acute hearing to a sound not far off in the dense trees. A group of humans of course.
“We need to be quiet, Archie,” he told his companion. “No noise and no sudden moves.” The black and white border collie lowered into a herding stance and crept forward with his master.
The idiots they approached had started a fire and done nothing to lower their voices. That boded ill. It probably meant they were all young and stupid or…Dumuzi peered through a screen of new leaves. Right. Stoned and drunk. There were beer bottles strewn about and an open bag of weed next to one of the boys who was happily rolling a joint. Idiots. There was clearly more than an ounce in the bag. If they got caught, they’d go to jail instead of getting a ticket. Shit. Been there, done that. Hell, Dumuzi was an expert…but why were these kids self-medicating and self-destructing? And gods-dammit, which one was making him visible? He looked around the group, growing more and more displeased as his gaze hopped from one face to another.
There were three boys and two girls, and not one of them looked old enough to be legal. Dismissing the males, Dumuzi studied the female faces. One girl had large, stunning brown eyes and straight dark hair that hung down to her ass. The other was a pixy looking little thing with a gamine face surrounded by copper red waves. If he hadn’t been so sure of his non-parenthood status, he would have said the second girl could pass as his own. Their hair color was identical, and even at this distance, he could see pecan-hued eyes that mimicked his. Shit. Could he have…? No. Impossible. But the only other option was that one of these two young, untouchable-aged women was his Chosen. And that totally sucked.
He felt a gut-wrenching twist of guilt. These girls had barely begun to live, and now, one of them would be sacrificed to him for the good of all his friends. But which one…?
Before he could get his mind to settle on his next course of action, he heard the unmistakable sound of crunching boots tromping through the woods toward group. He’d know those footfalls anywhere. The state police had either been alerted there was a fire in the woods or had seen it on satellite. Either way, the authorities had come to take a look. Dumuzi groaned. The party was about to get busted, but his potential mate and her friends were oblivious. Should he intervene? Warn them? He thought quickly. No. A quick plan formed in his head, and he stayed back to watch and hope things unfolded the way he wanted.
“State Police. Don’t move.” The order came out of the darkness, and three flashlights clicked on. As Dumuzi assumed, instead of staying put as commanded, the kids scattered. Boys to the left of him, girls to the right. The three cops went after the boys, and Dumuzi fell into step silently behind the fast-moving girls.
“Riley, you head for the road, and I’ll go deeper into the woods.” The red-headed one pushed her friend in a northerly direction. “I’ll make a bunch of noise until I think you’re safe, then I’ll hide.” Dumuzi figured it was as good a plan as any, but he’d seen the troopers in action. They’d round up every one of the kids before the night was over. He’d bet money on it.
“Stay safe, Sienna,” the raven-haired one named Riley called back over her shoulder as she sprinted away into the dark. The girls couldn’t be too intoxicated, they were still able-bodied as they high-tailed it through the woods.
Dumuzi chose to stay with the girl named Sienna. He watched Riley as she ran away because in one hundred yards—the proximity he needed to his Chosen to stay visible—he’d either disappear or not. Dumuzi counted off as Riley absconded. Ninety-eight, ninety-nine… He looked down. Yup. Still visible. Tag. Sienna was it. Now he could only hope she was eighteen. Not that it would make any difference to the gods…or him, for that matter. The mating ceremony would still have to be performed. Afterward, however, he wouldn’t get anywhere near the chit for sex. He’d be mating in name only.
Still, she couldn’t just disappear off the map. That wouldn’t be fair to her loved ones. And underage meant her parents would have to give permission for Sienna to be “married.” He’d have to seek their approval while somehow assuring them there would be no consummation of the relationship.
An authoritative voice echoed across the forest. “Riley Jonnell. Sienna Dixinson. We have your friends, and we know who you are. Turn yourselves in now, or we’ll come to your houses and add ‘resisting arrest’ to your charges.”
“Fuck. Morons.” Dumuzi heard Sienna curse, and a muffled sound indicated she’d probably kicked something in her anger. “They couldn’t keep their mouths shut? I’m going to kill them. Assholes.”
He and Archie dodged back into the cover of some holly bushes as Sienna stomped past.
“I’m coming,” she groused loudly. “…and I’m totally screwed,” she added quietly to the heavens. “My father is going to be so pissed.”
Dumuzi followed and watched as the girl named Riley entered the clearing at the same time as Sienna. He shifted, foot to foot and kept a hand on Archie’s back as the entire group sat sullenly while the police gathered up empties, fulls, marijuana, and papers, then kicked dirt over the fire until only embers remained. “I’ll come back with water and make sure it’s out,” one of the officers said. “You kids are lucky it’s been a wet spring. You could have started a forest fire, and you’d be in worse trouble than you are now.”
Not one of the youngsters answered, but the god saw an eye roll from Sienna—bold girl. Dumuzi guessed the kids were thinking about what awaited once they were herded back to the police barracks. The god could commiserate. It might have been several thousand years since he’d been in the same position, but one never forgot what getting caught felt like. That Sienna could still affect sarcasm was a testament to her ballsiness. He didn’t know if that boded well…or ill.
Dumuzi left the group and walked back toward the compound, misting out of physical existence as he reached a one-hundred-yard separation. He knew what he needed to do now, but for his plan to work, he’d need to employ Shamash’s help. He hoped the god wasn’t too wrapped up in his new bride.