Worth the risk, he thought.
He stepped forward and curled his fingers over the edge of the cage.
“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” a voice said from behind him.
He stiffened. “What do you think I’m doing?”
Anya, the incarnation of Anarchy and girlfriend of the keeper of Death, leaned against the door frame, her arms crossed over her middle. She was tall and blonde and one of the most beautiful females ever created; she was also one of the most troublesome, preferring chaos over calm. Today she wore a skintight blue minidress that looked—wait, it was painted on.
“Better question. Are you going to tell Lucien?”
“When he took off this morning to escort a few souls to the hereafter, he failed to wake me with a kiss and tell me he loved me. Therefore, I’m currently giving him the silent treatment.”
And Lucien was probably loving it. Not that Torin would ever say such a thing aloud.
He changed the subject, saying, “New look?”
“New form of torture for Lucien. He’ll never not kiss me again!”
“He probably thought you’d demand more than a kiss from him, when he wouldn’t have the time to give it to you.”
“There’s always time to give it to me.”
He wanted to smile, and the thread of humor, even as small as it was, surprised him. But then, Anya had that effect on people. “Want to try and talk me out of this?” he said, motioning to the artifacts.
“Nah. I want Cameo brought back as much as you do. But if you die, well, I call dibs on your room. I’m thinking about getting a pet that will eat Viola’s devil, and my baby will need a place all her own.”
She nodded, as if she’d expected nothing less. “Just know that I’ve always enjoyed looking at you. I’ll miss your sexy face.”
The smile bloomed to full wattage, unstoppable. “I’ve always enjoyed looking at you, too.”
She blew him a kiss.
Because he carried the All-key inside his body, he was able to unlock anything with only a touch. The cage was no exception. He entered. The door slammed shut behind him.
“I feel like this is the perfect time to admit I’m the Cage’s owner,” Anya said, tapping her chin and eyeing him thoughtfully. “Cronus gave it to me. I could command you to strip and you’d have to obey.”
Torin ignored her, looking over the painting. A man’s office. A glass display case. Artifacts. One of them was a small box made of bones. Pandora’s box? Maybe. Why had he not noticed it before? He picked up the Cloak and draped the material over his shoulders, just as he’d watched Cameo do. Then, he took off his glove, reached out and gripped the Rod. But…
“Well, that wasn’t disappointing,” Anya said drily. “See you later, Disease.”
She left him alone in the room, and he cursed. “You don’t want my disease inside you?” he growled at the Rod. “Huh? Is that it? Do you get to pick and choose the ones you accept?”
He tossed the artifact on the floor, exited the Cage, and, disgusted, followed the path Anya had taken.
* * *
CAMEO FELT AS though she was trapped inside a washing machine, being swirled and churned this way and that, round and round, never pausing. How many days…months…years…had passed since she’d climbed inside the Cage of Compulsion and touched the Paring Rod? She wasn’t sure. Time had ceased to exit.
“Viola!” she shouted.
She bumped into something solid—something that grunted and cursed. Definitely not Viola. Someone other than the goddess was with her in this dark, winding pit?
Hard bands shackled her waist, jerking her against a male…yes…and he had to be eight feet tall, and as wide as a building. He surrounded her with his heat and his scent…sandalwood and peat smoke…and even stopped her from spinning.
“Who are you?” he demanded in a deep, rumbling voice she didn’t recognize.
“Cameo,” she managed to grit out. She wished she could see him, but was kind of glad she couldn’t. He couldn’t see her, either, so he couldn’t know how close she was to vomiting. Her stomach hurt. “You?”
“Lazarus.” Warm breath caressed the top of her head, ruffling strands of her hair.
He knew what she meant. “The Paring Rod. We’re trapped inside it. You were hurtling through it—and you’re still being pulled toward something.” His tone was strained, as if all of his strength was needed to hold on to her. “I’m trying to keep you in place, and believe me, I’m as tough as they come, but whatever’s got you wants you desperately, because I’m being dragged with you.”
“Well, then, let go.” Translation: save yourself.
“Uh, that would be a no. If you’re being pulled out, I’d kill my own kin to go with you.”
“Could be…dangerous,” she said. Breathe. Just breathe.
“There are hundreds of people trapped in here and no one has ever escaped. If there’s a chance that is what’s happening with you, I’m going to take it.”
No. Not yet. She hadn’t had a chance to search. “I can’t leave without a little blonde who’s in love with herself.”
“Sorry, female, but you don’t get a choice in the matter.”
He tightened his hold, practically flattening her lungs.
“That’s not me,” he gritted, sounding just as winded as she was. “Walls…closing in.”
Suddenly, the pressure eased. Cameo slammed into something solid—a floor, maybe…yes, a floor, she thought, patting the area around her. It was cold, solid.
“The bottom of the Rod?” she panted. That would mean the Rod had shrunk her to thimble size, and she wasn’t okay with that.
Lazarus released her and rolled away. “I’ve been all over the confines of the Rod, and this isn’t part of it. I think we did the impossible and escaped.”
His excitement was contagious. Maybe Viola had escaped, too.
Blinking to clear her line of vision, Cameo clambered to her hands and knees. With the action, the urge to vomit increased, the dizziness careened out of control annnd—yes, she spewed the contents of her stomach all over the man’s shoes.
“Nice,” she thought she heard him say.
At least he hadn’t batted her away.