Of course not. Save for four others, Cronus had murdered everyone who knew about it. The four? Anya, the minor goddess of Anarchy and its former possessor; her father, Tartarus, who had given it to her; Lucien, who knew every one of Anya’s secrets; and Reyes, who had once dared to shackle Cronus and barter for his woman’s freedom. And the quartet lived only because Cronus had a use for them. Had they ever spoken of the key, he would have stopped caring about their usefulness, and they knew it.
“This key unlocks any door, any prison, any curse. Anything. Nothing can bind you. And if anyone tries to take it from you, they will die.” That did not mean Torin would be free of his demon. The two were bonded, two halves of a whole. One could not live successfully without the other.
“Sounds cool, but why me?”
Because Torin was solitary, spending more time alone than with his friends. Because he would never fall in love, nor betray his secrets to a female while they whiled away too much time in bed. Something that happened far too much for Cronus’s liking. Something he himself had once been guilty of doing.
“Should you tell anyone about this gift,” he continued, not deigning to reply aloud, “I will kill you as well as the one you told. Should you try and give it away, I will kill you and all those you love. And, when I ask you to return it to me, you will do so without hesitation. One moment of resistance, just one, and I will do more than kill your loved ones. I will hurt them in ways you cannot imagine.”
Torin’s purposeful stride never faltered. “Yeah, well, thanks for thinking of me, but I’d rather eat dirt.”
Cronus sent a wave of power slamming into the man’s temples, knocking him off his feet. He hit the ground, writhing from the pain of it, blood soon spurting from his ears.
Looming over him, Cronus said, “You were saying?” A wave of his hand, and the pain eased.
Torin lay there, panting, dripping with sweat. “I was saying dirt is delicious, thanks for the mouthful.”
His lips pursed. Breaking the Lords would clearly take more than his usual strong-arm tactics. They smiled when he hurt them, laughed when he threatened. As much as that frustrated and angered him, it also fascinated him. Despite everything, they were honorable. When they gave their word, they stood by it. A foolish practice, really, but one he’d come to rely on where they were concerned.
Only when he threatened those they loved did they fall in line with him. But Torin could not simply cooperate because of fear. Not this time. Not with something as important as the All-Key.
“Do this, keep the key safe for me, and I will grant you a boon,” Cronus said. “Anything you wish. Anything that is in my power to give, of course.”
Suspicion danced in the warrior’s eyes, and Cronus knew he was weighing his options. Refuse the king, and face punishment. Accept, and face potential trickery. Betrayal. But for the prospect of such a reward, he would not say no.
“I think we both know what you want,” Cronus pressed. “A chance to touch a woman without sickening her and starting a plague.”
Breath caught in Torin’s throat, and Cronus knew that he had him. “Can you give me that chance?”
“In a way. What happened to the vial of water the angel Lysander gave you?” If there was but a single drop left, Torin could touch a woman, then feed her the droplet and save her, for the water healed any wound on any creature. Would he be able to touch her after that? No, but his condition would have been met.
“Gone. And the angels won’t give us any more.”
Unfortunate, but understandable. The angels had to endure terrible, terrible things to even approach the River of Life from whence the water came. Cronus himself had never dared go near it. “There is a woman…I will force her to meet with you. You can touch her all you desire, and she will never sicken.”
“Yeah, uh, no thanks. I want to pick my own woman.”
“That, I cannot give you, and that was not the bargain. You wanted a woman to touch. I can give you one.”
A long while passed in silence while Torin considered the offer. “Is she dead?”
“No. She lives.”
“Old? A child?”
“No. She is neither too old nor too young.”
“How will I be able to—”
“Answers were not part of the bargain, either. Decide!”
Finally Torin nodded, as Cronus had known he would. “Very well. You have a deal.”
He did not allow himself to smile. When the All-Key left him, its powers would leave Rhea. He could imprison her. Have her at his mercy—or lack thereof.
What he did not mention to Torin: the All-Key wiped the memory of the one who gave it away. Except Cronus’s, and probably, because of their connection, Rhea’s. Cronus had created the key, and so had ensured it would never adversely affect him. However, no one else, Torin included, was extended the same courtesy.
When Torin bent his knees, as if to push himself into a stand, Cronus shook his head and reached down. “Stay there. This might hurt a bit.”
ON THE OTHER SIDE of the heavens, Lysander stepped from the cloud he shared with his Harpy mate, Bianka, his wings spread and gliding just enough to leave him hovering in place.
“I am failing you,” Zacharel said, the words gritted. The snowstorm that followed him constantly increased in ferocity, the flakes catching in his eyelashes, between the feathers of his wings, weighing them down.
“You have not failed me, and you will not fail me. I have complete faith in you. Now, what report do you have of the girl?”
He rallied and said, “While she thinks she will be able to walk away from Paris in a few days, the pair has grown closer. Worse, she now carries his darkness.” He’d seen the shadows swirling in her eyes after he’d carted Paris away from her.
“The war grows ever closer,” Lysander replied. “She will still be of great use to us.”
“Are you sure? Cronus has tricked her, convinced her to aid him. I expected him to lie to her, but I also expected her demon to catch on. He hasn’t. And now that Paris has learned of his marriage to her, he will fight for her to the death.” He’d thought Paris would never learn of the connection, which was the only reason Zacharel had helped tattoo him. Had he refused, Paris would have done it anyway and begun resisting him ahead of schedule.
“Cronus is a greedy fool, but Paris has surprised me. He might have shared his darkness with her, but she has shared some of her light with him.” Lysander thought for a moment. “If he wants her as I want my Bianka, he will not part from her easily.”