The mountain walls shake and tremble as Artemis clutches the nautilus shell tightly to her chest. She turns to Selene as debris hits the stone floor.
“We can save Sayeh,” she whispers, eyes jumping between the Titan and the spirit. However, the spirit exudes worry, and the touch of his curse slides easily between the Veil.
“Go, Artemis. This place is not far from collapse. Hekate and I need to finish business with the spirit.”
I let my eyes trace the air where Hekate’s horns had been a few moments ago. Ebony skin already receded. I could not shake the memory of her transformation, but I would wait for a better opportunity to ask her about it. Artemis and Selene sprint out, taking the light with them, leaving us with the spirit.
Hekate conjures fire to push back the darkness. The orbs of flame hover to either side of her, handleless torches, as she turns to the spirit and says, “That was a benevolent thing you did. You did not have to help us further.”
The spirit shifts uneasily, lowering his eyes. “For so long, I have been a slave to my curse. A torment to others. It felt…good. A bit of freedom in this endless prison.”
“How did this curse come to be?” Hekate says. “It is some powerful magic that would keep the Lord of the Dead from having his due.”
“Like all who come to the island,” he begins, “I was a sailor of some fashion, a deckhand seeking a better life in the New World. I had a lover. Oh, she was a bonny lass. Lips the color of heather in bloom. I told her I would return for her when my fortune was made. Only, I did not know that the captain of my ship had taken a fancy to her the day she came to see me off. That was a black day, for it sealed my fate. The captain, unbeknownst to me, flew the skull-n-bones, hoisted it the moment we lost sight of land. I will not speak of the horrors I witnessed, the things my hands were forced to do to stay alive.”
“There was nothing to betray the captain’s intentions, spirit?” I ask, crossing my arms. It was not uncommon for such things to happen that many years ago. Pirate crews were either survivors or prisoners. Very little room for the truly willing. “Go on.”
“We plundered every vessel we came across with fewer guns, once even a galleon that should have sent us into the deep. Then, one day, the weather signs pointed to a storm at our rudder. We used the winds as best we could, but our holds were too heavy. This island came into sight. The captain had us anchor in the lagoon and offload the treasure, bringing it here for safekeeping in the mountain. He had appointed me an exchequer of sorts, because I could write, and had me tally every bit of shine piled in the cave. He ordered everyone back aboard while I completed the final tally. Then everything went dark.”
The dead haunt the living, but the memory of life haunts the dead. I have seen the look on his visage far too many times to not know what it is, and it is always the same. No matter who they are.
“I woke to find myself lashed across the back of a chest, the captain standing over me. I knew he intended me to die. Then he told me why. The anguish I felt in that moment was worse than everything that was to follow, knowing I would break my promise. That I would be unable to protect her from him. Then he pulled out a scroll and began reading words. Latin, I think. I was never a God-fearing man, and the mumblings of the Church were nothing to my ears. But that’s when I felt the weight of the curse laid upon me, heavier than the chains that held me down.”
“He took the scroll with him, I imagine?” I say, the spirit nodding before I finish.
“I thought I was meant for a slow death, the delirium of hunger and thirst. And then, I felt the water touch my toes, saw the dark line of the tide on the wall. I knew then what my fate would be.” The spirit looks at the collapsed entrance to the cave. “The volcano sealed the cavern years later, making it impassable. I do not know if he ever returned. But his curse has held.”
“Curses have duration, spirit. A geas that must be fulfilled.”
“I am here and bound to guard the treasure until its owner returns to remove it from the island. I am certain the captain is long since dead. And I am long since doomed to remain.”
I rub my jaw, walking to the other side of the cave to think. It is not an artifact that holds him here, per se, or another immortal. Pure magic and intent are at work, and for it to have lasted this long means this treasure, whatever it is, must have meant a great deal to this long-dead captain the spirit spoke of. The treasure…
“I have a suggestion.” Pacing back to the spirit and Hekate, I clasp my hands behind my back. “What if I were to take possession of the treasure? Your bonds would pass into my hands.”
The spirit peers at me cautiously. “And then what? I’m already dead, m’lord.”
“Correct. I would move the treasure to my personal vaults and release your bonds.” I shift my weight from foot to foot. “You would be free, and you may find a home within the Underworld.”
The spirit casts hopeful eyes at Hekate, then looks back to me. “W-what price would you ask of me for this?”
“You have paid already by aiding us. I do not ignore bravery or the heart. Hmm.” I step towards the spirit, who takes one back. “What is your name? I would hear it.”
“Jeremiah, m’lord, at your service.”
“A good name. And your lady’s name?”
Jeremiah shuffles, eyes sliding over the cave walls until he replies, “Amelia, sire. Her…her name is…was Amelia.”
“I see. Well, this is not normally my duty, but…” I snap my fingers, and two gold coins appear, “it is time you went home, Jeremiah.”
I offer him my hand, and Jeremiah stares at me for a long moment, then at Hekate, before shaking my hand firmly. I press the two coins into his palm and nod once. “Charon will be waiting for you. One is for your passage. The other is for Charon, as a favour. Please let him know I need you to wait in my office when I return.”
Before Jeremiah can speak a word, he melts away, leaving Hekate and me alone. I let out a long breath, my chest feeling tight, before turning back to the Queen. The flames hovering beside her throw wavering shadows across her face. She is smiling.
“That was well done, Hades.”
“His suffering should have ended long ago. I merely assisted. But thank you.” I snap a portal open for us, the edges of it tearing slightly. “Wait.” I hold my arm out to stop Hekate from going through, examining the tears.
“The energy here is thick, volatile. It’s going to be difficult to keep doing that on this island,” Hekate warns, eyes gliding over the jagged opening. We step inside as the roof crumbles, dust and debris following us to the other side.
Brushing off Hekate’s shoulders, I look up at the rumbling exterior of the volcano. “That solves that, I suppose.”
Hekate looks at the mountain, frowning. I know she is thinking of Artemis and Selene, still in pursuit of the volcano’s heart. I close my eyes and rub my face before facing her.
“You are concerned.”
Hekate nods slowly, never taking her gaze from the blackened slopes before us. “She can’t call me again. Not like that, anyway. The talisman was only good for a single summons. To focus its power to reach me anywhere, I had to limit its scope. It’s nothing but a trinket at this point.” Hekate slips her hand in mine. “I can’t leave. Not until I’m sure they’re alright.”
“Then, we go back. Do you know where they went? The center?”
“That’s where the Spindle is. Yes. There is an island in the center of a lake of fire. The heartfire is there, on that island. That’s where they’ll be.”
“Then that is where we go.” I flick my wrist to take us there, but nothing happens. Frowning, I try once more. A pressure surrounds my hand and squeezes it tight, as if I had stuffed it into expanding foam. On the fourth try, the portal appears, albeit in complete tatters.
“What in the twin hells is this,” I mutter, running a hand along its edges. “The magic here is intense. Let us make this count.”
I step through first, toeing the other side for solid ground and finding it. Hekate follows behind, and the portal melts away, seeping into the igneous rock below our feet. Molten lava spreads out before us in a lake, the heatwave sending sweat rolling between my shoulder blades almost immediately. And before us, standing at the very edge of the lake of lava, are Artemis and Selene.
Artemis is nearly beside herself. Even in the roaring furnace of the volcano’s heart, her anguish carries clearly. Selene tries to calm her down with hushed tones and side glances at the lava, but Artemis paces the edge of the lake like a tiger in a cage. The situation looks delicate, and Hekate and I approach with care. Selene sees us first, her eyes fluttering shut as her mouth moves in a silent word of thanks.
She whirls around, eyes wide like captured prey. There is a madness in her gaze. The Artemis that I have known for millennia, that was still here when she summoned Hekate, is gone. Her gentility, her wild grace, all consumed by utter, desperate need.
“Hades.” She points her finger at my chest. “You could do it. You could help me.”
“I will need to hear what is to be done, but yes, that is why we followed you,” I reply, glancing at Hekate with a small smile.
Artemis jabs her finger at the lava and towards a column of dense, golden light rising from an island at the center of the lake. Like a spear, it cuts through the liquid fire, hurling itself straight into the blackened skies, a warning. “The heartfire, it’s right there, but I can’t reach it! My teleporting doesn’t work, and neither does Selene’s. But you could do it, right?”
I move to Artemis’ side to survey our issue. There is no floating debris, no masses of rock to stand upon, nothing safe.
“I will try.”
The previous portal still on my mind, I rub my hands together, charging my fingers with my own energy, before snapping them. Nothing. I try once more, and still nothing.
“Hades…” Selene asks, wringing her hands as she watches Artemis’ face contort from my failure.
“It happened when we tried to come to the lake. The energy is too strong, it is tamping down on anything not its own.” My jaw works silently, trying to think of a way to bolster it.
Hekate steps forward, moving to lay a hand on Artemis’ shoulder, reconsidering given her state. She looks at Selene, trying to explain, thinking aloud. “It’s like a mirage. Teleportation requires fixed focus. Everything here is so volatile, it wavers.”
“You mean… y-you… you can’t…”
The disbelief in the Artemis’’ voice is heart-rending, but not as much as the keening wail that follows. Selene pushes the nautilus shell into Hekate’s hands and rushes to Artemis’ side as the Huntress falls to her knees. Her voice holds the sound of loss. Of loss that falls just shy of victory and has to watch hope die. And it burns.
“Hekate,” I murmur, taking her hand. Hekate sets the nautilus shell down and lets me lead her away. “I have an idea, but I will need you as well.”
I walk us away and to the right of the distraught Artemis, my gaze never leaving the island that is her goal. “We need a bridge.”
Hekate’s gaze travels the distance between us and the island across the lake of fire. It takes her only a moment to make the leap, to understand. She laughs softly, turning her face back to mine. “Brilliant. What do you need me to do?”
I drop to one knee, releasing her hand to sink my fingers into the ash and rubble, letting my energy lap over the foreign magic of the island. “Ah, what a strange taste.”
“You can taste it?” Hekate stares at me, puzzled, then crouches beside me. Her slender fingers splay on the ground as she closes her eyes. She is quiet for a moment, tilting her head, frowning. “I will have to take your word, earthsense eludes me.”
“We may speak on it later. I’m going to draw magma upwards. I need you to stretch and harden it towards the island so Artemis may pass over it as a bridge.” I close my eyes, digging deeper into the ground. A spear of magma rises at the lip of the lake, slowly forming in a six-foot rectangle of heat. The appearance of the anomaly catches Selene’s eye, and she turns Artemis to face it.
Hekate arches a brow and looks at me. “How am I supposed to do that? You are Gaia’s favorite son.”
“The magma, the flowing rock is the source of the unstable magic. Much the same way that a flowing river is a font of magic.” Hekate smiles at me, her eyes twinkling with understanding.
Hekate stands, dusting her hands off and moving toward the slab of molten stone. She plants her feet firmly on the ground and stretches one hand toward the island, the other stretched over the molten river. The fiery tracings of her magic surge up her body in a matter of seconds, as if fueled by the tortuous heat and thick stench of sulfur. I feel her grappling with the discordant magic through the bond created by the piece of me I gave her.
“Stabilized, but it is a bit hot, Skía,” I mutter, sinking my other hand into the ground. Ancient magics press against me, prodding for holes or breaks in my work.
She doesn’t answer, but I feel the soft touch of her magic around me as she weaves her power. There is a moment of stillness, then an ecstatic surge as she leverages her magic to draw power from the chaotic energy that surrounds us. Her hands move in the air and I feel invisible fingers shape the glowing stone in a way that feels familiar. It takes but a moment to realize that I feel the same when working wet clay, but she is shaping scorching lava into a basalt bridge across the cavern. There, as here, the smallest movement affects thickness and form. I cannot see Hekate’s hands on the stone, but it bears the marks of her touch as she pushes it outward, arching up and over the lake to anchor itself in the island.
With a sensation that I can only describe as a sudden twist, the pliable material hardens, and Hekate withdraws her energy from around me, sinking to her knees, breathing hard.
I blink sweat from my eyes in time to see the Huntress scoop up the nautilus shell and spring full tilt across the still-cooling bridge, the golden light of the Spindle reflecting much too brightly in her eyes. Selene hurries over to us, a sense of wonder and joy on her face. Both change to concern as she sees us still reeling from the work we have done.
“Go. I can take it from here. You’ve done enough. More than enough.” She gives me a tender look. “See to Persephone. Your face would bring her joy after all she has endured.”
As Selene withdraws and returns to the foot of the bridge, I rise from the ground, dusting off my knees and hands, the taste of the volcano still thick on my tongue. Pushing myself forward, I crouch beside Hekate, looking her over. She gives me a stoic nod and takes my offered hand, rising slowly if a bit unsteadily.
“You did beautifully,” I say breathlessly, “may I ask one more favour from you?”
The infernal glow of the volcano sculpts her face with shadows. She gives me a lopsided smile as I reach up to thumb ash from her cheek. “So demanding, King.”
I chuckle, steadying myself against her a bit more than I want to. “I cannot open a portal here myself. Would you…”
As gentle as before, I feel her energy tangle itself with mine. This time, the flow reverses, her feeding power to me instead of me funneling it to her. “Can you sense her? Seph?”
I hold up a hand, fingers tendriled outward to create a shaky portal with Hekate’s help. “I will as soon as we leave this place.”
We step through one last time, arriving on a darkened beach, and the undercurrent of Persephone thrums through me immediately. I am exhausted, and Hekate looks to be on the same page. I scan the beach for any immediate danger, before pulling her into me and resting my chin on her head.
“You were magnificent. I do have a question.”
She pulls away slightly to look up at me, her eyes burning low in the dark. “Oh? What’s that?”
I smirk and tilt my head. “When were you planning to tell me you had horns, hmm?”
She buries her head in my neck and presses a kiss to the base of my throat. Her lips linger there long enough that I can feel her smile against my skin. “I wasn’t keeping secrets. I promise.”
“I know. But they are tantalizing.”
I lean down and kiss her breathlessly, taking Hekate in to replace the ash and stress of the volcano, before scanning the beach once more.
“Let us find Persephone.”