If it’s too good to be true, then you’ve probably been had.

She walked up and sat down next to me at the bar.

“Hi,” she said in a friendly, easy voice.

I was well familiar with that tone. I had used it myself. Even so, this woman was gorgeous, far, far out of my league, but she made my heart jump; she made it flutter. It was the sound of her voice really, for there was a mysterious note to it, something strange and fay, alien yet beautiful all the same.

“I’m Zenobia,” said the gorgeous lady.

She was a little taller than me, about five-foot-eight minus her black high heels. She was blessed with an hourglass body and green eyes set like emeralds in her beautiful face, that face ringed with raven-black curls that she had tied back into a bun decorated by loops of tightly-braided hair.

She was pale, so pale in her skin, but this accented the pinkish-red of her sultry lips. She had on a tight, burgundy, sleeveless one-piece with a miniskirt, the sections separated by a thick black belt with a gold buckle, and this really showed off her beautiful hips and legs…She was truly to die for. Dear God, was she something to drool over.

“Hello,” I said politely, though my voice wavered a bit. “I’m River.”

Ooo, River,” nodded Zenobia. “That’s an unusual name. I guess we have that in common, huh?”

“I guess we do,” I replied.

“Aren’t you a little young to be in here, River?” she asked.

“No, no,” I said quickly. “I’m twenty-two.”

“Oh, really?” asked this beautiful woman. “You’re very boyish for an adult. You look sixteen. Even your voice is…you know…a little immature.”

“I get carded all the time,” I shrugged. “It’s in the genes.”

That was a pun, a little joke on my part, but she didn’t need to know that.

She nodded once, smiled, and looked me over as if I were some work of art she was studying.

“You’re cute,” said Zenobia.

Those two words really sank into me. I had heard “you’re cute” so many times that I’d lost count, but I had never been interested, not like, interested, in the people who had spoken those words before, not like I was with this goddess.

I decided to play it cool. I didn’t want to chase her off, but I had heard guys liked to be nonchalant, ambivalent, that sort of thing. I was a newb when it came to hooking up with anyone anyway. Comes from living a sheltered life with strict parents.

Anyway, I was going to play it cool. Knowing my luck, she was simply trying to get me to buy her drinks, but that was okay. I didn’t mind.

“I try,” I shrugged. “I don’t know if I’m cute or not, but I do try to look presentable.”

“Good enough for me,” smiled Zenobia. “Let me buy you a drink.”

Of course, this shot an arrow through my heart. A woman who buys you a drink? How amazing is that?

Needless to say, this flustered me.

“I…Oh…I…Okay,” I stupidly replied.

She giggled a bit, and that mild laughter was like a simple melody that sang to my soul. Oh, I felt so flushed and warm inside, and I had just sat down not more than a few minutes ago. I hadn’t even ordered anything yet.

“You’re so cute,” giggled Zenobia. “You’re just a little angel…You’re bite-sized, you know that? I think I might actually be taller than you…How funny…You know, you’re not like the others in here…You’re…something different. Are you gay?”

That was abrupt and kind of rude…Not to mention that I didn’t want to answer that. That wasn’t something I fully understood myself. Besides, I…No. I’d only just recently changed my style, and I really didn’t understand what was going on with me lately, but she didn’t need to know about any of that anyway.

“That’s…kind of a personal question,” I said after a second of thought.

“That’s okay,” she said. “I understand…Are you from around here? You look like a college kid.”

“Aren’t you?” I asked.

“Oh, honey, I’m everything,” chuckled Zenobia. “I asked because of the choice in your clothing…white dress shirt…forest-green sweater vest…tan slacks…good brown dress shoes…Honestly, you remind me of one of those little private-school teens.”

“I’m twenty-two,” I nodded. “I assure you. I’m not lying about that. My ID is real.”

“Well, you’re slender, well-dressed, neat haircut…” continued Zenobia. “I do love that whole ’50s straight-arrow style of your hair…Are you sure you’re not gay?”

“Let’s say I was,” I shrugged. “Would that turn you away?”

She chuckled, shook her beautiful head, and grinned.

“Oh, no, precious,” she said slyly. “It just means some experimentation is in order.”

“Experimentation?” I asked. “Who’s experimenting? Me or you?”

“Both of us,” grinned Zenobia.

I had to admit…I was smitten. She was so gorgeous, like way, way out-of-my-league beautiful…and she was right, of course. I did look like a sixteen-year-old boy…Maybe she was one of those weird perverts who was into kids or something?…I don’t know.

You know, upon further thought, this had to be a trick.

“I don’t know, Zenobia,” I frowned. “I have a hard time believing you would be interested in talking to someone like me. We don’t really mesh in the looks department. You’re way out of my league, and that kind of makes your motivations suspect.”

“Oh, come now, River,” said the beautiful woman as she gave me a light push. “Don’t be like that.”

“You’ve asked me if I’m gay,” I said warily. “That’s a really forward question, so I’ll ask you a forward question now.”

“Fire away,” shrugged Zenobia. “Go for it. I might not answer it, though. You didn’t answer mine, but go right ahead and ask anyway.”

Fair enough.

“Are you a predator?” I asked.

“Mmmm…more like a huntress,” she replied.

This was not the answer I’d been expecting. I’d actually thought she was going to deny any kind of predatory behavior, but I was wrong. Hmm…how funny.

“How so?” I asked. “I mean, what’s the difference?”

“Predators are bestial in nature,” said Zenobia. “They’re ruled by instinct…The huntress is intelligent. She lures in her prey and then strikes when the timing is right.”

“Am I your prey tonight?” I asked.

It was a coy little question to throw out there.

“You could be,” she shrugged. “The truth is, I could have any man in here, but look at these louts. They’re all the same ridiculous frat boys that only think with their other heads. Same cheesy pick-up lines every time…Hey, beautiful, you got a nice rack…Nice butt, babe…We’re having a party over at blah, blah, blah fraternity…Come with us…

“Blech…I’m so tired of them…They have no class, no spark, and they all taste the same…So bland and blasé. Now you?…You’re delicious in a different way…I suspect you’re gay, and you’re not telling me the truth about it…but you know what? I could go for a little gay…Like I said before…you’re something different.”

“Well, I’ll agree to that bit,” I said with a slight smile. “I am different.”

I couldn’t help myself with that upturn of lips. Zenobia was the first woman I could think of who had actually noticed me, and she was…well…dear, God…

She gave me another gentle push and giggled.

“Look at you!” she chuckled. “Is that a smile I see!”

I couldn’t help but grin. She was infectious that way.

“So tell me, River,” said Zenobia as she cocked her head to one side. “Have you ever been with a woman?”

I immediately knew what she meant by that because I wasn’t born in a barn, but I didn’t want to answer that question. The truth was embarrassing…No, I had not been with a woman, but I really, really wanted to be with one. I’d had sex on the mind for far too long now, and my mind was currently wondering what she looked like naked.

Was that wrong? Was it wrong to fantasize about a real person who was right in front of you?…Whatever the case, Zenobia was very flirty, and I wanted to capitalize on that.

I decided to lie.

“Sure,” I said in an easy tone. “I’ve been with lots of women.”

She snorted out a stark laugh and then gave me another light shove.

“Liar,” she chuckled. “Here, I’ll change the subject, but first…let’s get some drinks.”

This was truly exciting. I’d never felt like this before, so energized, so wired over someone I had just met. I was happy for once, and I hadn’t been happy in a long time.

She ordered two tall mugs of beer for us, and I was carded again, but she only found that amusing. I thanked her for my drink after she tipped the bartender, and we went right back to talking again.

“So what do you think about the Y2K problem, River?” asked Zenobia.

Well, true to her word, she had changed the subject.

“It’s a thing,” I shrugged. “I don’t really understand it.”

“It’s going to be the turn of the century at the end of the year,” said Zenobia. “Aren’t you scared everything’s going to fall apart?…Heck, I’ve seen so many people buying up supplies, building bunkers…”

“Eh,” I said. “People are always saying the world’s going to end. It never has.”

“True,” said Zenobia, a thoughtful look on her face. “Still…doesn’t it scare you even a little?”

“Not really,” I said.

“Aren’t you scared of death?” she asked.

There was a strange sheen to her emerald eyes to match the equally strange connotations behind that question.

“I…well…” I said as I gave it some thought. “I think everyone’s scared of that. I just…I’m just trying to discover myself, so I…haven’t really thought about it…I haven’t given it much thought. I’ve been preoccupied with other things. Let’s put it that way.”

She looked me over, looking me up and down as if inspecting every part of me, and I blushed a little under her obtrusive gaze. She found my shyness amusing, of course, and she spoke as much.

“You are a little darling,” she chuckled. “So tiny and precious…I could just eat you up in one bite!…Now, that’s an idea…How about I show you my secret treasures, huh?…The night is young…Come on, let’s get out of here.”

“What?” I asked.

I was a little confused over this. That was an extremely sudden and blunt come on.

“You’re not deaf, hon,” she said firmly. “Let’s get out of here…Come with me. We’ll go to my place and have a really good time…Oh, come on, you’re not stupid, River; you know what I mean…Oh, and I’m rich, you know. Just throwing that out there.”

I should have questioned her further as to why she would want me, specifically me, to come with her and have you-know-what with her, but I stupidly asked about her money instead.

“You’re rich?” I asked. “How much?”

“Oh, I’m worth about forty-two million,” she said matter-of-factly. “But that’s not important…What’s important is what’s under this dress…Don’t give me that blank stare…Good, grief, could I be any blunter, River?…I’m asking you over for sex, silly. Come with me.”

This shocked me right down to my good dress shoes. She wanted me? This gorgeous, incredibly-rich goddess wanted me? Little tiny me?

“I…I…uhhh…” I stammered.

She shone me an amused grin and shook her head.

“I’m beautiful, I’m rich, and I’m interested,” she said firmly. “You’re coming with me, hon. I’m going to show you a good time, loosen that stick shoved up your butt. You look like you need to get laid, babe. Just saying.”

I felt weird inside over this. This was…unexpected. I really, really wanted this, to be with her, even if it was only for one night, but, I mean, she had to know, right? She had to know, but she was asking me over anyway?…Wow. She really did want something different.

Screw it. I was doing this.

“I…I…Okay…” I complied.

“Good,” she said firmly, and that was that.

We left the bar and headed down the street to a small lot where her car was parked, and upon seeing that car, I knew right then that she hadn’t been lying about being rich. Her car was a brand-new, devil-red Lamborghini Diablo.

“Told you I was rich, baby,” she said with a laugh as we got in. “Welcome to 1999, River. This is the end of the millennium, so let’s go have some fun before the world ends!”

Hear! Hear! Oh, my God, was this going to be a night! I was finally going to have sex, and it was going to be my first time, and it was going to be with this gorgeous goddess…

No, no. I needed to calm down. I was losing focus. Okay, so we were going back to her place to have sex…Maybe after that we could hook up on more than just a temporary basis? I mean, she was obviously the kind of girl that goes barhopping, but maybe there was a chance I could actually snag her as my girlfriend…

It was a thought.

We drove on for a while as I hoped and dreamed that I could make her mine. In fact, it was all I could think about.

Also, riding in that car was something I could check off my bucket list, not that I had a bucket list, but if I did have one?…riding in a Lamborghini Diablo would have been on it.

“You really are fun-sized,” said Zenobia. “How tall are you, hon?”

I winced at this. My size wasn’t something I was proud of.

“I’m five-six,” I said, but I couldn’t hide the disappointment in my voice.

“Well, I’ve had all kinds,” she replied. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of, love. I can tell you’re nervous and unhappy about your body…You know, it’s not what’s between the legs that counts anyway…I’ll have fun with it; don’t worry about that. I’m quite experienced…

“I’ve done this before, if you haven’t figured that out already, so don’t worry about what’s down there. I know I’m not what you were expecting, but you’ll have fun with me, too. I already know I’m going to have fun with you.”

“I really hope you mean that,” I said unhappily.

She laughed and shook her head over my self-deprecation.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” she grinned. “Experiment a little! I can tell you’re trying to figure yourself out, so I’m going to help you with that…You’re just a darling little thing anyway, a real cutey-bear. Oh, trust me, I’m definitely going to have fun with you.”

This made me feel really weird, a twisting inside, a knotting in my stomach, because I wanted this more than anything, but there was always that fear of rejection. There was always that fear that someone will take one look at you and just say, “No.” I was scared she was going to be very disappointed upon seeing the real me, but…

Zenobia reached over with her right hand and massaged the back of my neck. She steered with her left, barely looking at the road as she drove with a preternatural sixth-sense.

“Loosen up, baby,” she said. “You’re tense and scared…It’ll be all right…That’s better. This is difficult for you, isn’t it?…I don’t think you know what you really want in life.”

Her touch turned me to jelly, and I felt like melting into the passenger-side seat of her Lamborghini.

We drove out of the city, driving for a good forty minutes until we went off the highway and onto some side roads that led into thick woods. I had no idea where we were going, and the truth was, I didn’t care.

It didn’t take long before we drove up to a large estate, a big plantation-style mansion with an old-Southern feel. She drove through a large, black, wrought-iron gate and parked the car in a huge garage that lay apart from the main building.

You know, this place was gigantic, like big, big, like nothing I was used to. Even the garage was bigger than my entire family’s house, that garage filled with expensive car after expensive car.

“Here we are, darling,” said Zenobia.

She turned off the engine and proceeded to turn on mine. She leaned over, grabbed the back of my narrow head, and kissed me, her lips embracing mine, her tongue in my mouth, and I went with it, but I could tell she knew I had no experience…like none, zero, nada.

She pulled back after a few seconds and gave me a sly look.

“You’re a very light kisser,” she said gently. “You were even gentle touching my breast, no squeezing at all. You know, I’m really beginning to think you’re a blossoming gay…You’re at least bi. You’re too darned gentle to be fully straight.”

I blushed, feeling the hot burn on my cheeks as she grinned over at me.

“It’s okay, baby,” she said softly. “You don’t have to be macho for me.”

“Good,” I said unhappily. “If it’s one thing I’m not, it’s ‘macho.’”

She gave me a strange look, something I could not define, but I could see a disturbing shine in her green eyes, something predatory, and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

It was a stupid feeling, and I didn’t want her to get offended, but I had to ask. I had to.

“Are…Are you sure you’re being honest with me?” I asked. “You’re not planning anything bad, are you?”

“Bad?” asked Zenobia. “What does that even mean?…I offered you sex, silly. Is that bad?…Don’t answer that…Look, you got me. I do have an ulterior motive. I didn’t just bring you here for fun. I brought you here to offer you something.”

Was this some kind of con?…No, it couldn’t be. Zenobia already had money; that was clear. What little money could she gain from me?

Still, I wasn’t stupid. I decided to fish a little, play dumb.

“Offer me something?” I asked. “What are we talking about? This isn’t about sex?”

“Not that,” she said as she waved me off. “We’ll get to that, honey. No, I’m referring to something else.”

“Something else?” I asked. “Like what?”

This was the moment of truth. Was she going to be upfront with me or not?

“Aren’t you even a little bit afraid of dying?” she asked.

Oh, boy.

There was something sinister about that question, and I had to reply to it with all honesty, even though I knew she wasn’t going to like that reply. It had just now occurred to me that she might be a serial killer and not just a wild flirt hunting for some action, and stupid me had followed her out here like a dumb animal looking to mate.

“Well, I wasn’t afraid of dying before, but I am now,” I said nervously. “You’re not going to kill me, are you, Zenobia?”

She gave a tremendous laugh and shook her head no.

“Oh, no,” she chuckled, that wicked gleam in her green eyes. “Quite the contrary…I want to offer you the opposite.”

“And that is?” I asked anxiously.

“Okay, baby,” she smiled. “Let me ask you something. If you could stay young and beautiful forever…would you?”

I had no idea where this was going, so I answered the best I could.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “I’ve never really thought about it…My life is…complicated…right now. I don’t really know what I want or what I’m doing in it or where I’m going or anything…I’m just…experimenting…right now.”

“So am I,” grinned Zenobia. “You’re not the typical lover I like to bring over. I want you because you’re different…I want you to be my special one.”

“Your special one?” I asked.

In spite of all of my previous misgivings and internal warnings, my heart was flying around in my chest like a World War I biplane.

Honestly, though, this was way too good to be true.

“But you don’t know anything about me,” I said in marked uncertainty.

“That doesn’t matter,” said Zenobia with a shake of her beautiful head. “No one knows anything about anyone when they first meet…but you never really answered my question, hon…No, you danced around it…Now…answer my question and be honest with me…If I could give you eternal youth and beauty, would you take it?”

This sounded…weird…but I was used to weird, because I was weird, so…

“Would that make you happy if I did?” I asked.

“It would make me very happy,” smiled Zenobia.

Okay, I could play along. I knew how to answer these types of questions anyway. You answered these questions with more questions. That’s how you knew if you were being played.

“Okay, would I die?” I asked.

“No,” said Zenobia firmly. “You would not die. Not in the normal way anyway. You would outlive any normal person.”

There was actually a question I had wanted to ask for a while now, and though it was kind of a stupid question, I still wanted to ask it. With her pale skin, her unnatural beauty, her vast wealth, and her strange line of questioning, I was beginning to think, impossible as it sounded, that she was a vampire.

“Are you…like…a vampire?” I asked.

“What if I was?” asked Zenobia.

My heart skipped a beat. Could she really be…?

“I…don’t…know…” I drawled out.

“You don’t know?” asked Zenobia.

“Are you going to make me into a vampire, Zenobia?” I asked.

“No, honey,” chuckled Zenobia. “And, if you’re wondering, no, I’m not a vampire, so you don’t have to worry about that. I’m not going to kill you, and you’d have to die to become ‘undead,’ so there’s that.”

“Oh, thank God,” I breathed out.

This was a giant relief. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a vampire anyway. That was something for the Goth crowd, not me.

Zenobia laughed and shook her head.

“Oh, you are so precious!” she said. “You are going to fit right in!…I know exactly what to do with you, too.”

“And what’s that?” I asked nervously.

She leaned over and kissed me again, and this time I kissed her back. We kissed in a passionate heat for a few seconds, and I even took some initiative and squeezed her ample breasts. After those few hot seconds, she let me go, fanning her own face with her left hand, and I could tell she was flushed.

“Whew!” she said excitedly. “I’m getting worked up!…Okay, okay…I was being serious when I said I could offer you eternal youth and beauty, so let me explain, okay?”

Okaaaay…” I said warily.

“Every twenty years, I bring someone here to partake in a ritual with me,” continued Zenobia.

“Every twenty years…” I repeated.

Well, one of two things was happening here. Either Zenobia was crazy, or she was the real deal. Whatever was going on, I needed to find out and deal with it. The odds were pretty darned good that she was just nuts, in which case, I still wanted to sleep with her—don’t judge me—but if she wasn’t crazy…if she was the real deal…hoo, boy.

“How old are you, exactly?” I asked.

“I just turned a hundred and sixty-seven,” she replied matter-of-factly.

Yep, she was crazy…Oh, well…I’d just play along with it. There was still the matter of hot sex with this gorgeous, if crazy, goddess.

“You look gorgeous for your age,” I nodded.

“Oh, honey, I was always gorgeous,” shrugged Zenobia. “Look, every twenty years, I bring someone here to bask in the glorious presence of my goddess. She bestows eternal youth and beauty to my guest, but as her priestess, I already have that, so I get other rewards, like money, for instance. It’s the reason I’m filthy stinking rich, baby. It’s kind of like one of those ‘referral’ bonuses you get whenever you refer someone to a company or something. Think of it that way.”

Okay, this was really weird. Nevertheless, I knew the right questions to ask.

“I see,” I nodded. “So, if I bask in your goddess’s presence, I’ll live forever, too? Because eternal youth and beauty aren’t the same as eternal life.”

“You’ll live until you die of…unnatural means,” said Zenobia. “In other words, you won’t age, so you won’t die that way. Someone has to end you, or you have to have a fatal accident, or nature does you in, or whatever.”

“Do I have to sell my soul?” I asked.

Yyyesss,” drawled out Zenobia. “You’re giving your soul to my goddess. That’s how it works. It’s a pledge-of-allegiance kind of thing.”

There it is, the catch.

“So I’ll be, like, tortured by the Devil or something after I die?” I asked. “I don’t want to go to Hell, Zenobia.”

“You won’t go to Hell,” said the beautiful woman with a shake of her head. “You’ll actually be admired by my goddess for all eternity. You’ll be treated like the priceless work of art you are, darling. I only choose the best for my divine lady, and she only accepts the best…Doesn’t that sound like a great alternative to Hell?”

Uh…huh…Well, as far as afterlifes went, that wasn’t such a bad deal.

“Who is your goddess, then?” I asked.

“Her name is Artemis,” said Zenobia. “Have you heard of her?”

I shook my head no. Unfortunately, my ignorance was showing on this one. I didn’t know much about anything like that.

“My parents are very strict Christians,” I said sheepishly. “Southern Baptists, actually. I’m afraid I’m a little sheltered when it comes to that sort of thing. Is that a Pagan goddess?”

“Ancient Greek,” said Zenobia. “Look, if you turn yourself over to her, she’ll grant you eternal youth and beauty, and even better, she’ll take you under her watch for all eternity. And when all is said and done, I’ll get my referral bonus, so to speak.”

At this point, I didn’t care about that. As far as I was concerned, Zenobia was a goddess unto herself, and she had taken an interest in me, so I just decided to go with it, go along with her brand of crazy.

The facts were—and I wasn’t ashamed to admit it—that more than just my hormones were at play here. My heart was burning like a furnace…I wanted to please her, but more importantly, I wanted her for myself, and I was willing to do whatever crazy thing she wanted in order to achieve that goal.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll do it, but only if you promise to be with me afterwards. I want you and I to be together.”

Zenobia grinned, held my face between her hands, and kissed me on the nose.

“Oh, honey, I’ll be with you every day from now on,” she said happily. “You won’t have to go to school anymore, and you’ll live here with me…every day…here, right here with me, and I’ll adore that precious little body of yours every…single…day…How does that sound?”

My breath caught in my throat.

“Too good to be true,” I said in a wavering voice.

“Out of the car, sweet heart,” grinned Zenobia. “Let’s head to the shrine. We’ll do the ritual there.”

I nodded yes with my head still in her hands. This whole thing was really weird, but this beautiful, beautiful, crazy woman wanted to be with me, little tiny me, and I was all for that. Dear, God, was I for that.

There was nothing else to be said. She let me go, and we exited her Lamborghini.

We left the garage via a side door, and Zenobia led me around the grounds. There were huge lights on poles lit around the area so that we could see, and we walked around her mansion grounds until we entered a large hedge maze. After traveling through the hedges for a couple of minutes, we entered a clearing that was paved over with white marble, and in that clearing was a ring of statues, seven total, seven statues of nude young men in various artistic poses.

“Here we are,” said Zenobia with a wave of her hands. “This is my humble shrine to Artemis. Do you like it?”

I nodded out of amazement. I knew she was crazy, but good God did she have the money to really accent that crazy.

“That pedestal over there?” said Zenobia. “The empty one in the very center of this big circle? I want you there.”

“Okay,” I said.

I walked over to the pedestal, stood upon it, and waited for further instructions.

“Give me a moment while I get ready,” said Zenobia. “As you can see, I have a little locked box over here. This has my scroll in it…Oh, and that scroll is for the ritual…Let me just get into my box here…”

She took to fiddling with a large metal black box that had been placed upon a white dais, so I took that time to look around.

This clearing we were in was surrounded by hedges, of course, and the floor below us was all white marble as I’d mentioned before, but I just now noticed the large painting of a nude young woman with a bow and arrows surrounded by various wild animals, her right bare foot upon the head of a prone naked man. I could only assume that within this painting upon the marble was Zenobia’s goddess, Artemis, so Zenobia’s previous description of herself as being a huntress now made much more sense.

The painting gave me a strange feeling, however, as I did not know what to make of the prone naked man beneath the goddess’s feet, but I figured Zenobia would just explain the meaning of that later.

But something else caught my eye.

The circle of statues around me was odd, very odd. There were at least twenty or so stone pedestals in this “shrine,” but there were only seven statues to adorn those pedestals, and those statues were unevenly placed, an almost random placing on pedestals that didn’t align with each other in a symmetrical sense.

I could see the statues well enough due to the lighting on various poles around the hedge maze, but every statue was very different in the way that individual people are very different…They didn’t have that uniform “Greek style” I was so used to seeing.

These men were all nude and attractive, but they were, first of all, very well detailed in all of their parts—if you know what I mean—but even those parts were of different shapes and sizes. It was like Zenobia had commissioned a completely different artist for each statue, and each one of those artists had brought with them a very different vision of their art.

Something pulled at me, an omen of sorts, a warning that all was not right here, but I brushed it off because I was stubborn. I just took it that Zenobia was nuts, and okay, this was the real catch. Zenobia wasn’t just crazy, she was really crazy, but I still wanted her. Stupid me still wanted her, and if this kind of thing was what she did, then who was I to judge?…especially me. I certainly wasn’t one to judge someone else for being “different.” I had no room whatsoever to talk there.

This crazy gorgeous woman I so wanted in my life turned around and had what looked like a very, very old scroll of parchment that was stretched out between two golden rods she held firmly within her beautiful hands.

“Undress for me, baby,” she commanded.

My heart practically stopped beating. I had not been expecting that command.

“U…Undress?” I stammered.

“Yes, hon,” nodded Zenobia. “Get naked for me.”

“I…I’m not sure I want to do that yet,” I said in a shaky voice.

I didn’t think I was ready for that. I wanted that to happen while we were in the heat of passion, so to speak. She might reject me otherwise…I mean, I didn’t think she would, but there was always that fear, you know?

“Don’t you want to be with me?” asked Zenobia.

“I…I do,” I said nervously. “It’s just…my body…I’m just not comfortable with showing it off yet…”

“Look,” sighed Zenobia. “I’ll turn around, and you get undressed, and then I’ll turn around when the ritual is finished so I can see you in all your naked glory…You’re beautiful, River. You shouldn’t be ashamed of who you really are. You can show me your true self.”

Yeah, yeah, okay, that really resonated with me. I really did want to show her my true self, so I caved.

“I…Okay,” I nodded. “Okay. You turn around, and we’ll do this, and then you can turn around after it’s finished, and I’ll…I’ll show you myself…all of myself.”

“Good,” grinned Zenobia. “First, though, I need to know if you really are going to pledge yourself to my lady, Artemis.”

“Only if I get to be with you,” I said firmly. “I won’t do it unless you promise me that.”

I had to throw that in there. Yeah, she was coocoo, but I still wanted her, and…I didn’t want her to reject me. I needed that promise.

“I promise you,” smiled Zenobia. “You’ll be here with me forever, okay?…Now, I’m going to turn around, and you get undressed. You tell me when you’re ready to start.”

“Okay,” I nodded, and this time I was the one who grinned, because this was my dream come true.

She had promised, so I felt like I had some leverage, some hope. Maybe she really was going to be with me now. She was rich, beautiful, and built like an hourglass…Oh, God, I really wanted this…It was like holding a lottery ticket and getting all but one of the numbers right, but that last number hadn’t yet been announced. I was just waiting on that last number.

She turned around to give me my privacy, so I kept my end of the bargain and undressed, throwing my clothes to the side of the center pedestal I was standing on. It felt weird and unnatural being naked like this in the open air, but I had kept my promise, so I was hoping she would keep hers as well.

Zenobia stood at the edge of the circle of pedestals and statues, spread out the scroll in her hands upon a marble dais in front of her, that dais lit up by two small braziers on each side of it, and she read from the ancient parchment, though she translated the words into English, because I was pretty sure it was written in another language, probably Ancient Greek.

“Do you, River, give unwavering worship to our goddess, Artemis!” called out Zenobia.

“I…I do!” I called back.

This was exciting. It was like getting married at a really bizarre wedding.

“Do you, River, give your eternal soul to our goddess, Artemis!” called out Zenobia.

“I do!” I called back, this time with more confidence.

“Repeat after me, then,” called Zenobia. “I, River, pledge my unwavering worship and eternal soul to the Goddess of the Hunt! My lady, Artemis, take me as your prize! I am yours to collect and to own for all eternity!”

“I, River, pledge my unwavering worship and eternal soul to the Goddess of the Hunt,” I repeated. “My lady, Artemis, take me as your prize. I am yours to collect and to own for all eternity.”

The confidence I had previously shown vanished in the wake of what happened next. Something I had never even thought possible happened, something absolutely horrifying, and it was a betrayal of the highest order, something I will feel the grief of till my dying day.

A brilliant light shone down from above, and I was yanked up a bit by an invisible force, almost to the point where I was standing on my tippytoes.

I couldn’t move. My arms were at my sides, my chest puffed out a bit, and I was forced to stare up into that light, an unearthly light that shone down directly from above me, no light source to reveal its origin.

“Oh, Goddess of the Hunt!” cried out Zenobia. “Goddess of virgins and enslaver of men! Grant this mortal man his everlasting youth and beauty in the way he deserves! Trap him in your prison of stone to look upon his arrogance and hubris at your whim! Protect the sanctity that is woman!

“Oh, Goddess of the Hunt! Defy the oppressors that deny us our freedom! Punish those that would harm your sisters in arms! Take this man as your gift from me so that I may be your faithful servant forever! Reward my diligence with your unending benevolence!…May this mortal man decorate your temple for all eternity!”

My skin tingled as I felt my bones stiffen, and my previous elation turned to shock and horror. I started to cry as I suddenly realized what was happening, as all of the pieces of this warped puzzle, this terrible farce, came together, but it was too late. There was nothing I could do at this point.

I was turning to stone. I was becoming a statue. That’s what was going on. That’s why all of the statues here looked so different from each other and why they all looked so masterfully sculpted.

“Stop!” I choked out. “I trusted you!”

“It’s too late, babe,” chuckled Zenobia. “You’re already my centerpiece. Besides, you just wanted to plow me…Men are all the same, you know. You should think more with your top head rather than with your lower one. Guess you’ll have the rest of eternity to think that one through.”

I felt myself change entirely to stone. The light above me stopped shining down upon me, and the weird thing was, I could still see and hear, but I couldn’t feel anything, or breathe, or smell, or notice the temperature, or anything like that. I mean, obviously I couldn’t move because I was a statue now, so immobility was a given.

But worst of all—and this was truly worst of all—I was still alive. I was a statue now, but I was still alive. That meant those other statues had been actual men, and they were still alive too, so that meant they’d been standing there for God knew how many years…unfeeling…unmoving…

I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream and shout and do anything but be like this, but I had stupidly screwed myself over by trusting a complete stranger because I had wanted her as my own prize. My own selfish desires had screwed me over…No, there was no other feeling inside me now but horror, just pure, unadulterated horror.

“I kept my word, baby,” I heard Zenobia say. “You’ll live here with me forever, and I’ll adore that precious little body of yours every single day, just like I said I would. You’re just the cutest little thing anyway, let me tell you…You wanted to be here with me, and you got your wish, but nothing is free, honey…Nope, not a thing. Even I had a price to pay…I’ve never had sex, and I never will. I must remain a virgin. That was my price to pay.”

I should have been seething inside, but all I could feel was the agony of a broken heart. Zenobia was supposed to have been my first, and she was also the first woman I had ever felt that pull for, that tug of the heart toward someone special.

How could she do this to me!

“What’s different about you, River, is that you’re my special one,” continued Zenobia. “You’re not like these other men. They were all used, but you have purity. That’s why my lady, Artemis, has put you in the center. My goddess loves virgins, and I could tell you were one the moment I—”

Her sentence ended in an abrupt gasp.

The stone flaked and fell from my cheeks and face as I took in a deep breath. This curse or whatever it was?…It was being undone. Something was up…Something had gone wrong for Zenobia, but it had also suddenly gone very right for me.

I stared down into the wide and shocked emerald-green eyes of my betrayer. Zenobia had finally turned around, and she was finally looking at me, at my naked body, although most of it was still stone. Only my head was flesh, but the rest of me was quickly turning back to the beautiful peach color I was so familiar with.

However, Zenobia’s expression did not stay locked in surprise. It quickly changed from shock to pure liquid rage, a Jekyll and Hyde transformation that was obvious to anyone with eyes.

“You’re not a man!” she screeched. “You’re not even a boy!…You!…You lying little pixie Tom! How dare you deceive me!”

Okay, that hurt. I had honestly thought she’d known, but apparently she had not…It was probably the hair that had thrown her off…I mean, I didn’t really know what I wanted out of life, but I did know that this was the real me. This was how I felt about myself.

“I thought you knew!” I choked out.

“Know!” screeched Zenobia. “Of course, I didn’t know, you vile, demented little camel toe! What is wrong with you!…Oh, by my lady, Artemis, do you know what you’ve done! Do you have any idea what you’ve done! You’ve defiled this holy ground!”

The stone surrounding me flaked and cracked off as I was freed from my eternal prison. I fell to my bare knees upon the pedestal, and that hurt, but that was nothing compared to the hit I was about to take.

“I’ll kill you!” shrieked Zenobia.

She rushed me, and before I could react, her right fist impacted my left cheek. I cried out as I was knocked backwards off the stone pedestal, rolling across the hard marble flooring as I did.

I was naked, afraid, and completely out of my depth with all of this. I started crying again, because what I had thought was a dream come true was now a nightmare, and it was unfair as well. I had honestly thought I’d met someone who understood me, who wanted to be with the real me, who wanted to see me as I truly was, but I had been betrayed, and I had been betrayed in the worst way, and that broke me.

I screeched as she kicked me in the ribs, and I felt something break. There came a swift and sharp pain after that, and then my tears were really flowing.

“I trusted you!” I sobbed. “I thought you really liked me!”

I looked up into her gorgeous face, but that face was nothing but sheer animosity directed solely at me.

“You noxious, lying little slit!” spat Zenobia.

“You said I was beautiful!” I choked out. “You said you wanted…to see… the real me…”

I couldn’t talk anymore. The only thing I could do was sob.

“You’re a fool!” hissed Zenobia. “The real you! The real you is a sick, perverted little gutter-slide with a phallic fetish!…Ugh…You are unworthy of my lady’s protection…I should beat you to death for this insult!”

Her flashing green eyes were nothing now but madness. She stood tall and proud upon the center pedestal where I had just been standing, her vengeful presence a beacon of unholy, if beautiful, fury, and my grief over this situation was suddenly replaced by fear, just good old-fashioned fear for my own life.

She kicked me again in the ribs, and oh…my…God, that hurt.

I squeezed my eyes shut and sobbed even louder, but this only angered her more.

“Please, stop!” I begged. “I’m sorry! I didn’t do anything wrong! I thought you knew! I swear, I thought you knew! Please, please, stop! Please!”

“Don’t beg, little Tom,” grimaced Zenobia. “You’re a disgrace to your own kind, and my lady, Artemis, has no place for you in her sacred temple…She would never kowtow to a phallus…Disgusting…No, you’ll get no mercy from me, you dirty little ditch. I’m going to beat the heathen out of you until there’s nothing left to beat.”

She pulled back her right foot to kick me again, but she stopped and looked up as a brilliant light shone down upon her from above.

“No, wait!” cried Zenobia. “I didn’t know!”

I watched in morbid fascination as Zenobia’s burgundy one-piece disintegrated into specks of light, and suddenly she was naked, revealing all of her glorious body to me, all of it, every beautiful feature of that incredible body I had so desperately wanted to hold in my own slender arms.

“Have mercy, please!” begged Zenobia. “Please! Please, I didn’t—”

My beautiful betrayer stiffened as she puffed out her chest, pulling her arms back at her sides, and then she began to turn to stone, starting with her perfect bare feet.

She choked out one last sentence, the last sentence she would ever speak.

“I didn’t know River …” choked out Zenobia.

Her beautiful legs greyed over to stone, that stone moving up across her wide hips to her narrow waist.

“Was…” she spat out.

The petrification process journeyed up her chest and across her ample breasts, upwards across her large nipples, up and up, all the way up to her flawless and slender neck.

“A woman…” she finished, and then she was gone.

The light from above vanished. Zenobia’s beautiful face was permanently set in stone, that face staring upwards into the night sky, and it was right then that I realized I had just been in her position, locked in that unfeeling stone, but by some miracle of fate, I had been the one to walk away from this terrible travesty.

I gathered up my clothes and took some time to dress because of the injury to my ribs, but I was still crying, because though I was still suffering from the heartache of Zenobia’s betrayal, hatred, and bigotry toward me, I had finally realized something about my own life, something I had needed to accept for a long time…

I was free. I had needed to accept what I was, and now that I had, I was free. I had broken free from more than just a stone prison; I had broken free from my own denial, and now that I was free, I was going to stay that way.

I ran my right hand down the smooth stone of Zenobia’s beautiful stomach, running my narrow fingers over her exquisitely detailed belly button, and I sucked in a tear-filled breath.

I had to admit that I was still heartbroken, but if there was one good thing that had come from all of this, it was the fact that I wasn’t ashamed of myself anymore. Zenobia had at least given me that.

Zenobia Copyright © 2022 bloodytwine.com Matthew L. Marlott

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