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Rihat knelt before the limestone statue of Marduk, more out of despair than reverence for the stern-faced war god. Tomorrow, Rihat would seek out the monster that was ravaging his village, and tomorrow, he would die.
Once he was dead, who would protect his sister from the beast?
Anger tightened its hold on his throat, and he growled, trying to clear the ache that threatened to choke him. He'd wasted too much time already, first begging his fellow soldiers to fight with him, then trying to bribe palace staff to give him an audience with the king of Babylon, and finally spending his last few shekels on a scrawny pig for Marduk's priests to sacrifice on his behalf, hoping they could tell him how to defeat the monstrous akhazu by himself. All for nothing.
What could he do now but face the beast himself and die with his honor intact?
If he died well, perhaps Marduk would protect his sister.
As he opened his mouth to repeat his prayer, a fierce prickling crawled over his skin. Invisible, fiery needles pierced every inch of him, stinging his arms and legs, burning his belly, inflaming his cock. The air turned thick and heavy, and he gasped, blood pounding in his temples, a sudden, involuntary erection straining against his loincloth, lifting his kilt. His strength ebbed; the muscles in his thighs trembled.
Had Marduk noticed the frustration behind his plea, and chosen to punish him for it?
Behind him, a scuffing sound. Rihat jumped to his feet and whirled, lightheaded with the effort, grunting with the pain of stiff knees forced to move too quickly.
Not just a woman. A beautiful woman. The most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
She wore a robe of white linen so sheer he could see the red-brown circles of her nipples and the dark, furry triangle between her legs. Her skin shimmered gold, like the desert sand at midday. Her hair, black as pitch, was unbound, flowing down her back to brush against the back of her thighs like a veil. A huge carnelian, like blood turned to stone, hung from the intricate chain around her neck.
His cock throbbed harder, as if trying to tear through his clothes to get to her. If he were naked, it would be pointing straight at her.
Why hadn't he heard her enter the room?
She examined him deliberately, head to toe. When her kohl-lined eyes paused at his groin, she smiled and licked her lips with a delicate pink tongue.
"Who are you?" he rasped.
"Rejoice, Rihat," the woman answered. "Your prayer has been answered."
* * * *
She could smell his arousal with every breath, a musky, salty scent far more pleasing than the smoky-sweet myrrh permeating the temple. He was clearly a soldier, dressed in the standard leather tunic reinforced with bronze scales, a fringed wool kilt and battered sandals. Alert brown eyes over his straight nose, broad cheeks tapering down to his strong chin, wavy black hair pulled back with a cord--she would have found him attractive even if she hadn't been half-mad with the need to feed.
Iltani reined in her hunger, ignoring the deep ache in her core, the dampness between her legs. She'd finally found a warrior who might suit her purposes. She couldn't risk frightening him off before she'd had a chance to talk to him.
Even if he doesn't accept your offer, he might let you feed anyway. Few men had the willpower to resist an ardat-lili. As much as she hated what she'd become, Iltani could only restrain her hunger for so long.
He looked like he was about to speak. "It won't help to call out," she said. "No one will hear anything until I'm finished with you."
"Who are you?" the tall, well-muscled warrior demanded again. His fingers twitched, clenched into fists. "How do you know my name?"
"I heard you praying. You may call me Iltani."
The warrior took a sharp breath. Sweat beaded on his brows, highlighting the rapid pulse at his temples. "What are you?"
"My father is Ea."
"A goddess," he breathed, fear flickering over his face. He banished it with a scowl that in no way distracted Iltani from the prodigious lump beneath his kilt.
She was so hungry. "Half-goddess. My mother was human."
"What do you want with me?"
The prayer Iltani had overheard was for his sister, and Rihat was clearly prepared to die in order to protect her. A man who could love that deeply deserved the truth. But was he brave enough to look that truth squarely in the eye? Or would he recoil with disgust as soon as he learned what she really was?
"I served as one of Ishtar's handmaidens, until the goddess caught her consort Tammuz ogling me." Even the anger roused by the memory of her exile wasn't enough to eclipse her swelling hunger for Rihat. She wanted to push him down, to kiss him, to drink in the vitality he radiated. The delicate linen of her robe, soft as it was, seemed to scour her swollen nipples with every breath she drew. The tingling between her legs grew stronger. "Ishtar cursed me to be an ardat-lili and banished me to live in your realm."
Rihat didn't back away, or start praying, or make that silly gesture humans believed would protect them against evil spirits. Was he that brave? Or did he simply love his sister that much? He asked, "Why me?"
Hope welled in Iltani's heart. Had she finally found a man who would help her? She'd already released three others from their vows of service--two because she caught them abusing their newfound abilities, and a third because he'd proven too squeamish about her curse to be reliable.
"I require a warrior to help me break the curse. In return, I can give you the strength to defeat your akhazu."
Rihat regarded her in silence.
"Once the curse is broken," Iltani added, "You'd be free again. But until then, you must serve me without question."
"Free," he repeated dubiously. "Why would you release me once I've agreed to serve you?"
She shrugged, tried to hide the trembling thrill she felt as his eyes followed the movement. "That is not your concern."
* * * *
"How?" Rihat asked, barely able to think for the thunder of lust through his veins.
"How would you help me kill the akhazu?" It was a mistake to bargain with her. How many men had she killed, seducing them and feeding on their souls? Sucking them to husks and abandoning them, the poor bastards still crying for her touch with their dying breath. No matter that her father was the God of Wisdom, this woman was a demon, and any sane man would run from her.
But if she could save his sister, he'd give up his sanity as willingly as he'd give up his life.
Iltani licked her lips again and the muscles in his thighs shivered, his aching cock shifting beneath the fabric that restrained it. He was certain all the blood in his body was gathering in his groin. Even knowing what she was, he wanted her more than he'd wanted anything in his life.
"The blood of the gods still flows through my veins," Iltani answered. "Drink from me, and you'll have the strength of fifty men. For a while."
He could barely talk, he was working so hard at restraining himself. He wanted to seize her, to back her up against the wall and take her. Right now. "How long is a while?"
"Long enough to save your sister."
"While I serve you, you'll...feed from me?" he asked.
"I won't take enough to weaken you. I need you to be strong."
Did he believe her? Did it matter? She was the only hope he had of defeating the akhazu. A deal with a demon. It was foolish, but he was desperate.
No doubt, he would enjoy serving her as much as he would regret it. "I'm ready."
The ardat-lili smiled. "Take off your tunic."
* * * *