Five hundred years ago, William would have been embarrassed by passing out during a fight. Now being older and wiser, he was just glad to be opening his eyes.
“Alright?” Vladislaus asked.
He had dislocated a shoulder and broken two fingers—nothing that wouldn’t heal shortly…and painfully. But William had grown used to the agony of having an immortal body. “Once a knight, always a knight,” he joked instead, wincing as Vladislaus helped him up. “Your timing is impeccable,” he slurred, “I was just getting warmed up.”
“Oh, I’d be careful about that,” B’Ollithiranon warned. William hadn’t realized the former god was in the room. “There are things in the Underworld that even a vampire would find difficult to tango with.”
It was hard not to bristle at the Ferryman’s statement. Was the shadow monster really that strong, or had William spent too much of the last few centuries playing mortal? “Yes, well, thank you for saving me. I’m sure it was alarming to…” he glanced around the room, “Where is it?”
“Where is what?” Vladislaus looked perplexed.
“The shadow monster! The thing that kicked my sorry arse!”
“There was nothing in here when I arrived,” Vladislaus replied, “Merely you on the floor in a pool of your own plasma,” He paused and sniffed the air, “Yes, definitely your plasma. It’s like the former Sage of Untamed Magic is standing in the room with us.”
William groaned. He had been single for centuries, and how he was in love. Was it too much to expect a little more support? Rubbing one of the open puncture wounds in his neck, he shot his friend a warning look, “Well, clearly I’ve been attacked; you needn’t flounce around making declarations that suggest I imagined it.”
“No, obviously, you had it on the ropes,” he drawled, “I imagine that’s why it hasn’t taken this opportunity to eat us too.”
Cyrus frowned, and Valeria marched over to William, gripping his chin to examine his injuries like he was one of her children.
“I’m fine,” he croaked.
“Stop squirming,” she snapped. “I know toddlers that are better at holding still than you.” William wanted to point out that he was ten times her age, but he was a little afraid of her response. Mothering was not a thing he had experienced in ages, and now that it was upon him, he found it unsettling.
“He is fine,” Vladislaus’s tone was cool as he echoed William’s statement, “Aurelius is no mere mortal, and he’s certainly been in worse fights.”
“He is not fine,” Valeria poked a finger in Vladislaus’s chest, “Some days, hell, all days, I don’t know what my daughter sees in you. He is your friend, and it wouldn’t kill you to act like you give a damn!”
Valeria was wrong. He did give a damn. That arrogance was a mask, a language they’d created long ago in a place where showing emotions was akin to showing weakness. Many a night, he’d watched Vladislaus carelessly declare him “fine” only to find his old friend in the barracks later with bandages and a poultice, ready to patch him up.
“And I don’t care if he is a vampire,” Valeria continued, “He needs tea and a rest. And we need to wake the rest of the house up in case they’ve got shadow monsters too.”
“I see, and you’re in charge?” Vladislaus purred, the glint in his eye dangerous.
“Vladislaus,” William chided. They had long since left Josef’s castle; it was high time they found a new way to be, “She’s Alice’s mother, not a—”
“Martin women are always in charge,” Valeria interrupted.
William watched a series of emotions play over his friend’s face as she swept from the room. Laughing, he placed a hand on Vladislaus’s shoulder and squeezed. “I’m surprised that after six months, you don’t know that already.”
“I’m surprised you’re able to comment after sustaining such grievous injury from an imaginary creature.”
William chuckled as Vladislaus shook off his hand and stormed from the room. The beast was not imaginary, clearly. But the fact remained if it was so powerful that even the former God of Death couldn’t control it, why did it go running?
And why hadn’t Vladislaus seen it?
Downstairs, with the sun peeking through the windows, Valeria stared at the former God of Death. “What in llama’s wool would possess you to make a creature like that?”
“Mom, please,” Alice was bleary-eyed, along with the rest of the household. She tilted her head, indicating Gwendolyn. For all the trouble the child gave Vladislaus at bedtime, the Underworld’s tiny queen was curled up in Alice’s lap, snoring softly.
Valeria lowered her voice, “Well, Benjamin, what’s your explanation?”
“It’s not Benjamin—”
“Just Ben,” he finished mildly. “The Underworld is full of things that others would consider terrifying,” the former god conceded, “We welcome all kinds. It’s part of our aesthetic!” He laughed as if making a joke, but no one else joined in.
“Declarations of a fool,” Morgyn sneered. William was wrong before. Everyone was bleary-eyed except Untamed Magic. They looked flawless. He shot his paramour a soft look and received a scowl in response.
“So anyone can just wander in, and you just add them to the decor?” William asked, trying to cover the flash of hurt at Morgyn’s response. Why were they upset?
“No! Not at all!” B’Ollithiranon declared, “We’ve got tight security. In fact, the monsters help with that. You can’t just barge in here willy nilly if the shadow beast or something equally terrible is waiting to eat you.”
“Yes, well, it’s not helpful if the security measures eat the things they are supposed to be protecting.” Vladislaus leveled B’Ollithiranon with a dark look, and the mortals in the room shivered as if the temperature had dropped a few degrees.
Suddenly, the answer was clear. That was why he didn’t see the shadow beast! Phobos was a thing even the Underworld didn’t want to tango with. William sprang to his feet. “I think it’s high time Vladislaus went hunting.”