The air around us had grown thick and syrupy, laced with an electric sizzle that signaled an increase in magic. It was hard to tell if it came from me or my counterpart, as I stood before him quietly shaking with rage.
“Are you going to let me explain, or are we going to fight?” the being wearing Nikolas’s face asked me.
“Stop looking like him,” I snapped.
He gave me an amused smile. “Why? You like how he looks.”
Every single pane of glass in Nikolas’s bedroom shattered in response. I struggled to hold back my temper, but it was growing too strong for me to contain. Outside, the ocean waves picked up in intensity, the deep waters matching my fervor.
“Well, don’t go ruining his realm over it. I do like it here.” Nikolas’s face slowly lost its soft expression, chiseling into a sharper jaw as his hazel eyes darkened and hair lightened until he was exactly who I suspected: Phobetor, the God of Nightmares. My ex.
I was filled with more emotion than I felt comfortable showing, letting the sea churn for me instead. The waves hit the mountainside so hard it kicked spray through the broken windows. “Is there even a Nikolas?” I asked quietly.
“Yes, he is resting with his loved ones,” Phobetor said, not unkindly.
I expected pain, but my chest felt hollow, as if the last glimmer of hope I had for love had already been ripped out of me. I could almost picture my black, diseased heart shuddering on the ground before it sputtered and died. Goodbye, love, I thought. Good riddance. I knew finding someone perfect for me was too good to be true, and I was right.
“I know you’re upset, and rightly so,” Phobetor continued, rising out of bed. “But my intentions were good. I haven’t been able to get over you since we went our separate ways. I needed a way to get through to you.”
“You could have told me that!”
He raised a sandy eyebrow. “When? You never stay in one place for too long.”
“So you pretended to be the mortal I fell in love with?” I spat.
“Well, technically, you fell in love with me.”
He dodged the chair I sent sailing across the room. I hadn’t even meant to do it. I was losing control, my hair whipping my face as the wind now pummeled through the broken windows. “What do you mean I fell in love with you?” I growled through gritted teeth.
He looked dismayed by the dismantling of his room…Nikolas’s room. “Hek, if you don’t stop, I’m going to have to put you to sleep,” he warned. “Please, just let me talk.”
“This is my realm,” I reminded him as I took a step closer. I could feel my power humming through my veins, begging for a proper release. I thought of all the ways I could make him suffer, pulling off strips of skin or slowly breaking every bone in his body. He was a god. He’d be able to handle it.
“Yes, but we are still in the Underworld,” he reminded me. “We all have equal power here under Hades—”
“Oh, fuck this,” I pooled all my building power into my hands and slammed it into his chest. Just before it reached him, he blew into my face, obscuring my vision with spiderwebs. I tried to cry out in fury, but I was fading into a soft, peaceful oblivion. I felt my body crash to the floor, then everything went black.
When I opened my eyes again, I was still incensed.
I immediately jumped to my feet, realizing I was in the cave where I’d fallen in love with Nikolas. I glowered at the spot where we’d made love, where Phobetor was sitting, waiting calmly for me.
“Did you bring me here to cause me more pain?” I deadpanned.
“No,” he said softly. “I wanted to tell you that the man you fell in love with here was me. Nikolas is a part of who I am.”
“Long before I accepted my role as the God of Nightmares, I was deeply broken. Suicidal. I struggled to accept that my role was to bring others pain, while my brother gave them wonderful dreams. The man you met in this cave was me, the real me, long ago.”
“Then why couldn’t you tell me that?” I cried. “Why put on this whole show and trick me?”
“Right before we broke up, you said you wanted to know the real me. Well, this was how I could show you.”
“But you lied,” I insisted. “Why would you think lying would fix the irritation caused by your constant lies? That makes no sense.”
He jumped to his feet. “Did you fall in love with Nikolas? Because even if you’re not ready to admit it, I know you did. I know what we felt was real. And that means you fell in love with the real me.”
I scowled. “I didn’t ask to be mind fucked. I thought I was falling in love with an innocent mortal man, and I loved him for that. This is insane.” I looked around the cave, knowing it wasn’t real. “I’d like to wake up now.”
He merely looked at me, a trace smile on his lips, smug, as he crossed his arms. “You’re in a nightmare now, Hek. You can’t run away from here.”
“Then you’d better wake me up,” I demanded, preparing to lunge.
“I’m not doing anything. You know how nightmares work.” He shrugged. “I simply cast the spell that guided you to your nightmares. You have to wake yourself up. Maybe in the interim, you can cool down, and we can actually talk.”
I lunged for him, but he ported out of the cave.
I screamed in fury, unleashing my fists against the cave wall. I knew he was right. It was up to me to wake myself up. But I was lost to my emotion, twisted up in the barbed wire of my anger. I tried to calm myself, taking a few deep breaths and shutting my eyes to concentrate.
I was interrupted by a tiny imp squeaking at my feet. It was a decrepit, demonic-looking creature, the kind Phobetor preferred. I blinked in surprise.
“Hello, Witch Queen,” it chirped. “Has it been so long since you had a nightmare that you forget how this works?”
I suddenly remembered…and promptly groaned. “I have to face my worst nightmare,” I sighed.
“Well, what could it possibly be,” I said, exasperated. “I’m not afraid of very many things.”
“You’re afraid of one very big thing,” it pointed out.
I groaned as it dawned on me.
I was filled with fresh determination that the moment I woke up I was going to kill Phobetor. Because I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that the worst nightmare Hekate, Queen of Witches and Restless Souls, would have to face was something to do with love.