“Are you in danger, Nyx?”
The Goddess met his gaze. “I do not know.”
“These ridiculous tests! They keep me from you. I should be beside you, protecting you!”
She studied him carefully, not reacting to his outburst. Eventually he felt foolish, and he stared out at the lazily flowing river.
“You are eager to speak about human strife and the dangers of Darkness. You are quick to leap to my defense.”
“Always!” he assured her, wondering why she suddenly looked so sad.
“But you say nothing of my eternal loneliness.”
“I thought I need say nothing—that you understood that if I was your protector, I would be by your side, your lover and mate, eternally watching over you.”
“Kalona, perhaps a good lesson for you to learn is to never presume you know what a Goddess, or any woman, is thinking,” Nyx said. With a smile she motioned for him to join her as she settled on a smooth driftwood log and began to pick through the pebbles by her bare feet, choosing some and discarding others.
Kalona sat and, not knowing what to say next, blurted, “Is earth really like the Otherworld?”
“Yes and no,” she explained. “The earth is to the Otherworld as the People’s Great Spirit Tree is to a Goddess.”
“Then the earth is only a wan reflection of the Otherworld,” Kalona said, unable to keep the relief from his voice.
Nyx’s gaze flicked up to meet his briefly before she went back to choosing rocks. She continued, “Though only a reflection of the Otherworld, there is a unique beauty on earth that is made even more special and precious because nothing remains the same here. Humanity lives and dies and then lives again. The seasons change. The continents shift. Human life happens here, love happens here, birth and death happen here. Humanity’s time is brief but fascinating and heartbreaking and exquisite. I hope that someday you will come to value humans, and the earth, as I do.”
“I value you, above all things,” Kalona said.
Nyx met his gaze. “I know you do. I could feel our connection when first I looked into your amber eyes. Since then I believe you have intoxicated me.”
Kalona went to his knees before her. “Tell me what I can create that would please you most! I want only to make you happy and to be by your side always as your protector and mate.”
“Kalona, son of the Mighty Moon I love so well, I cannot tell you what to create for me. That would be unfair to my friend, Mother Earth. It is she who is responsible for you coming into being. It is she who has devised the tests you must endure. I cannot, will not, usurp her responsibilities. What I can tell you is that I wish only for you to be yourself—strong, honest, and unique—in these tests, and during the eternity I hope we might share together.” She took his hand then and stood, pulling him up with her. “Now I’d like to share something with you about this world, this changing, funny, fabulous world. Come with me!”
As lithe as a maiden, Nyx skipped away toward the sandy edge of the riverbank. Willingly, Kalona followed the music of shells she left in her wake. They reached the riverbank, and Kalona noticed she was holding up the skirt of her buckskin dress so that a pouch had been created in which she carried a pile of stones she had chosen.
“This is what you do. You pick a rock, the smoother, rounder, and flatter the better. Then you throw it thus!” With a deft flick of her wrist, the Goddess let loose a rock, tossing it into the slowly moving river.
Kalona laughed aloud in surprise as her stone didn’t sink. Instead it skipped over the top of the water, as gracefully as Nyx had skipped to the edge of the bank. Then the Goddess jumped up and down in happiness. “Five times! It skipped five times! That one was special. Here, you try.”
Hesitantly, Kalona chose a rock, hoping it was smooth and round and flat enough. He furrowed his brow in concentration. He tried to aim. He flicked his wrist several times in practice, not letting the rock go yet, intent on getting it as perfect as possible.
Nyx’s voice was soft. He turned to her questioningly.
She leaned into him, lifted up onto her bare toes, and kissed him gently, gently on his lips. His arms went around her and he drank in the unique scent of her skin. What was it? Something sweet and something earthy that drew him to her and made him want nothing more than to be close to her forever. “This is fun, not a test,” she whispered. “Relax, mighty Killer of my Enemies. I believe you can be playmate and warrior.” Obviously reluctant to leave his arms, she pulled free slowly, letting her hand linger on his chest. “Now, have fun!” she said, shoving him backward so that his wings had to unfurl to keep him from falling on his firm behind.
Nyx giggled, then clamped her hand over her mouth and giggled some more.
Kalona thought her laughter was as infectious as her scent was alluring. He righted himself, strode to the edge of the water, and without aiming at all, tossed the rock into the river, where it landed with a liquid plop and sank immediately.
He looked at Nyx, who was trying, unsuccessfully, to stifle more giggles. “Well,” he said with mock seriousness. “It appears that unlike you, I can only do one thing well at a time.”
Nyx swallowed another giggle and cocked her head at him. “What one thing are you doing well?”
“I am being intoxicating,” he said, and reached up to brush a patch of lingering wood dust from his chest.
Nyx’s dark eyes were alight with humor. She grinned at him and said, “Good. Then I will continue to beat you in stone skipping and anything else I put my mind to.” The Goddess flicked another rock over the surface of the river and shouted in triumph when it skipped six times before disappearing beneath the surface.
Kalona rubbed his chin. “Perhaps I should work on being less intoxicating.”
Nyx smiled at him. “Please don’t. I prefer you just as you are.”
“So you have spoken. So mote it be.” Kalona caressed her cheek gently with the back of his hand before snatching a flat stone from her pile and flicking it into the river, where it skipped three times before sinking.
Nyx’s cheers joined his and, laughing, Kalona began skipping rocks, one after another, side by side with his Goddess.
At that moment, Kalona was absolutely content.
I MISS YOU THE INSTANT I AM NOT IN YOUR PRESENCE …
“I know I am favoring Kalona,” Nyx said, staring into the mirror of her looking glass as L’ota combed out her silver-blond hair and began braiding it in an impossibly intricate pattern. “I don’t mean to. It isn’t as if I dislike Erebus. On the contrary! Every time I see Erebus he makes me laugh. He is so clever and talented. Did you know he can sing and play the lyre? Actually, it was his voice that yesterday drew me from the Otherworld to Greece. He was playing and singing so beautifully that all of Delos had named him winged Apollo Incarnate. They were placing olive branches at his feet and worshipping him.”
Not to be worshipped. The skeeaed whispered disapprovingly.
“Oh, no, he didn’t allow them to worship him. Even before he knew I was part of the watching crowd he laughed at being called a God and made a big show of missing notes, pretending that he was a traveling musician—and not a very good one at that—and that his wings were part of his costume. With a sleight of hand too swift for mortal eyes to follow, he called Air and mixed it with Divine Energy, and suddenly he was wearing a mask that made him look like a silly bird. Within moments he had the audience laughing and following him in a preening dance, and utterly forgetting how godlike he truly is.” Nyx smiled as she remembered how sweet and silly Erebus had made himself look, just for the benefit of the watching mortals.
She wondered if Kalona would have done the same had she not appeared to intercede between him and the people of the prairie. Her smile faded. He had been denying his godhood, hadn’t he?
You think of the other one, L’ota said.
“I do. I think of him often. Something happened when I first looked into his eyes—something wonderful.”
Must be worthy of you, the skeeaed said, her whispering voice sounding unusually forceful.
Nyx gave her a curious look. “L’ota, they both were created for me—Erebus and Kalona. Mother Earth’s tests are but a formality. She is, after all, acting as mother, which means she is being fondly, but predictably, overprotective.”
The skeeaed didn’t meet her Goddess’s gaze in the looking glass, and Nyx shrugged her shoulders. “No matter. I do not expect you to understand, little L’ota. Erebus and Kalona are not your concern. Now, where are the dryads I summoned?” Nyx stood and walked to the wall of windows that overlooked the exquisite grounds of her palace, not noticing that the skeeaed had gone silent and sulky at the Goddess’s dismissive words. “I asked a group of dryads to gather gardenias from the mortal realm so that you might weave them into my hair. Have you noticed that since I allowed them to visit the earth, the dryads always seem distracted?”
Only notice what you command to notice, L’ota murmured too softly for Nyx to hear.
The Goddess had turned from the window to glance at the skeeaed when her chamber exploded in a flurry of trilling dryads whose arms were filled with fragrant white flowers, shifting to and from dizzying shades of greens and blues and purples in their excitement.
“What are you—” Nyx stopped, realizing what must have caused the Feys’ excitement. “One of them is ready to begin his test!”
The Fey leaped and danced around her, dropping gardenias into her hair, and causing L’ota to scold them as she hastily rearranged her Goddess’s braids.
“Which one is it?” Nyx asked breathlessly, forcing herself to sit still so L’ota could finish her toilette and the overly enlivened dryads could quickly drape her body in the robes she’d chosen, which were the color of a maiden’s blush.
The dryads began trilling again and Nyx shook her head in consternation. They were too excited. Not even the Goddess could understand their high-pitched chatter.
L’ota understood her kin perfectly. She whispered one word to the Goddess: Kalona.
* * *
Nyx had no trouble finding Kalona. Over the passing days since his creation, she had learned that all she need do was to think of him—to picture his strong, handsome face in her mind—and she would be drawn to him.
She had tried finding Erebus the same way and had been unsuccessful. Nyx spoke of this failure to no one, especially not to Kalona or Erebus.
That day, the picture in her mind took her back to a familiar place—the grass-filled prairie not far from where Kalona had exploded the Great Spirit Tree. Though, she noted as she smiled and hurried to greet Mother Earth, this time he was not so close to the mortal settlement.
“One of your godlings has declared he is ready to be tested,” Mother Earth said after embracing Nyx. Then she smiled happily. “Ah! You have brought the Fey with you! I have so been enjoying their company.”
Nyx gave the frolicking Fey an indulgent smile. “You spoil them.”
“They are delightful! I enjoy spoiling them,” Mother Earth said, petting one of the trilling dryads fondly. “Oh! This is a new Fey!” she said, spotting L’ota. “What are you, beautiful one?”
“L’ota is a skeeaed. One that serves me personally.”
“She is lovely,” Mother Earth said, and then shared a smile with L’ota. “Please visit me often, and bring more of your kind with you.”
If Nyx allows …
“She does speak! How interesting.”
“Of course I allow, L’ota. You and the rest of the skeeaeds may visit Mother Earth whenever your duties allow,” Nyx said absently, searching the skies for Kalona.
“He is not here yet, though he did have Air summon me. Your Kalona should be taught Goddesses do not like to be kept waiting.”
Suddenly a flock of ravens as dark as a new moon sky circled above them and then perched as if watching in the nearby trees.
“Nyx! I have missed you.” Kalona dropped from the sky above them to kneel before his Goddess.
Her breath caught at his raw beauty. He was wearing elaborately stitched and fringed leather pants that had been dyed to match the white of his wings. His chest was bare, though swirls of ocher decorated its muscular expanse. She thought he looked like he could be a mighty God Warrior of the Prairie People. Eagerly, she took his hand, pulling him to his feet, flirting playfully.
“Missed me? But I spent much of last night with you climbing the boughs of the giant trees near the ocean and gazing out at the moonlit water.” She turned his hand so that it was palm up. “See, you still bear the stains of the sweet berries you harvested for me. How could you possibly miss me in less than one day?”
“I miss you the instant I am not in your presence.” Kalona words were not teasing, and his amber gaze held Nyx’s while he gently stroked her cheek with the back of his hand.
Mother Earth cleared her throat delicately. “You did summon me here because you were ready to unveil your creation, did you not, Kalona?”
“I did,” Kalona said. Without any more hesitation, he moved several long strides away from them. He faced the two women and the flock of Fey who hovered around them. “Nyx, I create for you something that demonstrates the power of the passion I will eternally feel for you.”
Kalona lifted his arms, unfurling his great moonlight-colored wings. His voice, filled with the ancient power of the Divine, intensified by Air, echoed across the grasslands.
Winds of force, I do call thee forth!
Through my blood, I do summon power!
Strength of passion, I do command you show!