At the sound of Artemis’ voice, Selene took off up the path faster than an arrow loosed from her lover’s bow, knocking Athena into the center of a massive fern. Cries of joy drowned out the whispering rush of the waterfall just ahead. I extended my hand to Athena, which she ignored, gaining her feet without my help.
“Hell of a place for friendly fire,” she muttered as she brushed deadfall off her clothes. “I suppose I’d shove a bitch in a bush if my lover were missing, too.”
I smirked and stepped aside for her to go ahead of me, trying to keep the urgency off my face. Persephone could be just around the bend. I did not hear her voice, but that did not mean she was not there.
Artemis cried out my name as I emerged from the jungle. I think she would have run to embrace me, but Selene had her in a death grip. Glassy-eyed, Athena embraced Medusa, as Urania stepped toward me and held out her arms. Seeing that Persephone was nowhere in sight, I folded the slender Muse into a hug as much for her sake as my own.
Artemis craned her neck to look behind me. “Wh-where’s Persephone?”
“We were hoping that perhaps she was with you.” I heard the tremor in my voice as I released Urania.
“We did find her necklace,” Selene said, handing it to Artemis. “It was far up on the beach. Well, out of tide range. She must have dropped it. There’s no other explanation.”
“None that I am willing to entertain, anyway,” I added, surveying the area.
Surrounded by jungle on all sides, a broad waterfall spilled into a bright cerulean pool. In a clearing off to the side, blackened stones sat cold in a circle, holding only the memory of fire. I looked at the sky, trying to judge the time. It was hard to say, given the latitude and the dense foliage around us. Athena followed my eyes and nodded.
“It will be dark soon,” she said, bouncing her spear lightly in her hand. “We should stay put for the night. See if we can hunt down some food.”
Artemis broke her—at least—fifteenth kiss with Selene and grinned. “Did someone say hunt?”
The two goddesses convened, discussing what might be found, who would search where. I knew that their duo was going to be a trio. Selene was not letting Artemis out of her sights.
“We’ll return soon,” Artemis announced, plunging off into the undergrowth after Selene and Athena.
Medusa was already gathering downed wood and palm debris and piling it beside the fire ring. Urania knelt beside the pool and splashed water on her legs and arms, cleaning the grime from her skin. I aided Medusa until we amassed a nice pile of tinder and larger fuel, then followed Urania’s example.
Crouching down, I bathed my face, glancing at my reflection in the water. I removed my vest and laid it aside, stripping off what was left of my shirt with a frown. It was one of my favorites. I folded the torn remnants and pocketed them. They could be used later for bandages if needed.
I slipped my vest back on, buttoning it, then dipped my hands in the pool to wet my hair. The cool temperature of the water felt heavenly in the heat. I let it trickle down my scalp, sighing, focusing on the physical sensations to keep my mind from wandering. My body was here by the pool. But if my heart had its way, all of me would be off crashing through the jungle, calling out Persephone’s name until either I found her or my voice failed.
“She’ll be all right, Morpheus,” Urania said softly at my side.
I looked at her, startled that I had let my mask slip that far. “Thank you, Urania.”
Our heads snapped around at the sound of laughter behind us. Laughter and more noise than a hunter should make. Then again, Artemis was not alone. Nor was she empty-handed. The huntress strode into the clearing with a deer slung over her shoulder. She broke off a large palm leaf and placed it on the ground before laying her kill upon it.
Low slanting sunlight glinted off the edge of the blade she drew from some hidden place on her body. With the skill borne of countless kills, Artemis began skinning and gutting what would soon be our dinner. I allowed myself to get lost in her movements, so much so that I did not see Selene approach me or hear her say my name.
“Morpheus! Look!” Selene said, touching my bare arm. I started and looked down at her, then at the small bunch of white flowers in her hand. I took the bouquet from her, seeing but not seeing. Then, it hit me.
“Snowdrops…” I whispered, eyes darting back to Selene’s. “But, they’re not…”
“Not native, no. Wrong season, too,” Selene said with a grin as wide as my own.
She’s alive. I felt my heart come back to life in my chest. “Where did you find them?”
“Growing along one of the side trails while we were hunting. I followed them back toward the beach. We were so close, Morpheus. If we’d taken the next trail up the beach, they were all along the path there.
I watched her face fall. “What is it?”
“The flowers… the trail of them disappeared. I followed it for a while, switched back, tried other paths. Nothing.” Selene held out her other hand. “But I found this.”
I took the finely tufted dart centered on her palm and examined it. A dark, sticky residue coated the base of the shaft near the sharp tip. I raised it to my nose and sniffed. The substance smelled acrid. I reached into my pocket for a scrap of my shirt and wrapped it around the dart. It was a primitive weapon of primitive people, and it stirred another primitive thing in me—a fierce protectiveness that would not be brought down by a needle, poisoned or not.
“Morpheus,” Artemis’ calm voice broke through the red murmur of rage in my mind. “We’re on a strange island. It’s nearly dark, and we are all tired from our ordeal. We will all help you look. Just…patience.”
“Patience?” I said coldly. It was a wonder the pool did not freeze behind me. “Would you be so patient if it were Selene?”
Artemis crossed her arms. “I did not say it would be easy or instinctual, Morpheus. But the only way the hunter prevails over the hunted is to be better prepared, more rested, more focused. And right now, we are not.”
I gave Selene the dart before I snapped it in two or, worse, stabbed myself with it. The flowers I kept. The first faint stars had begun to appear in the night sky. Were I home, that sky would be blackened by a cast of Oneiroi winging their way to and from the mortal world, and I would be watching the Dream.
The Dream. There was no guarantee Persephone was asleep, but if she was…
I walked past the neat, yet bloody carcass on the ground and headed away from the fire, into the jungle. Not that the goddesses behind me knew that.
I turned back to explain. “I know how to find her. Wait here. I will return.”
The last things I heard as I folded myself into the Dream were the ripple of gasps as I disappeared, and Athena’s voice, hard as a stone.
* * * * * * * * *
I stepped out at my usual place, the fountain in the square, and immediately felt like I had lost my bearings. A few deep breaths later, things came back into focus.
I’m more exhausted than I thought. Maybe Artemis was right.
But I had to know. We could go after her in the morning. If I could find her now, see where she was, how she was…The Darkness inside my head whispered, stirred.
You are fooling yourself, Morpheus. It doesn’t matter how you find her if they have harmed her…
I shook my head to clear it, shoving the hungry voice deeper into my mind, refusing to feed it. I closed my eyes and extended my senses outward, seeking the furthest reaches of the Dream. Then, I spoke her name. And waited.
I strained, seeking the barest shift in the fabric of the Dream that would indicate that she heard me. But nothing moved. So, I said her name again, louder this time, and was rewarded with more stillness. Panic climbed my spine. As it did, the Darkness stirred again, rolling over, muttering words to twist me.
She’s dead, Morpheus. There are two kinds of sleep, you know. One leads to you, and the other leads to Hades. Ironic, is it not? I guess he just could not let her go after all.
I roared with rage, tearing a hand through my hair. “I am King here! And you will be silent!”
The voice said nothing more as I concentrated, blocking its fading laughter from my mind. I ran myself through a series of mental exercises to hone my focus. I had not had to use them in centuries. Not since the last time I heard that voice in my head.
It took a few minutes to clear my mind. With clarity came a heightened sense of awareness.
This time, there was no urgency in my voice. No emotion. Only cold and irresistible command. “Persephone. Answer me.”
The tug was faint. I am not sure I would have noticed it if the voice in my head had not pushed me to such extremes of focus and control. Before it could fade, I threw myself in its direction. This must be what dreamers feel like upon waking, scrambling after the trailing hem of a dream as it disappears around the corners of the mind. I felt the same, chasing that infinitesimal pull, seeking to locate its source before all went still again.
I was not prepared for the dead stop that followed as I slammed into an invisible barrier around a cluster of thatched huts. The crude shelters formed a staggered circle around an equal number of cooking fires. Wincing, I staggered backward and shook my head, first to clear it, then in wonder. How could these primitives manipulate the Dream so strongly?
There was no doubt I was in the right place. The volcano behind me assured me I was on the island. Persephone’s presence felt both near and far at once. She felt…diluted. That was the only word to describe it. Like something had watered down the essence of her.
I began a slow circuit of the village, edging along the perimeter. The dreamers here appeared and disappeared in ethereal flashes as they went about their dreams much the same way they went about their days—hunting, cooking, mending, sleeping. I walked among them unseen, my eyes scouring everything in sight for any clue of Persephone’s whereabouts.
Standing in front of the largest hut was a woman, ancient by primitive standards, half-naked and marked with dark sigils that I recognized as keys to certain doors within the Dream. Her beaded necklaces dangled in the sleeping face of someone bound to a stone altar. She mumbled words to her sleeping prisoner. The Dream knows only one tongue, regardless of what is spoken, so her words were clear.
“Soon, you will be prey for the Night Hunter,” she said to the captive. “And he will come for you and leave us with his favor for the gift we have made of your flesh.”
I did not need to see the face to know who laid upon the altar. The gold spun hair spilling towards the ground was a beacon my heart desperately needed to see. Dark blood dripped from Persephone’s bound hands, leaving ruby drops in the sand around the altar. I reached outward, attempting to touch Persephone’s dream, to find it, only to discover more walls. The barriers inside her mind felt thick, gummy…like the resin on the dart Selene had found.
There was nothing I could do from inside Persephone’s dreaming mind. I would have to find another way. There was always the option of going back, rallying the others. I counted the huts and the dreamers moving in the village. Even gods would admit those were unpleasant odds. No, if I could find a way to work this now, it would be for the best.
I continued my slow lap of the village and stepped into the largest hut, which seemed to be some kind of temple. I took a moment to scan the furnishings – carved masks, small crudely formed jars, a variety of strange items obviously gathered from other shipwrecks, and brought here as signs of some other world. One where gods lived.
My eyes slid up the side wall, to the largest mask hanging there. Blackened by fire, with painted claws of red and white, I knew the face instantly as one of my own. So, this primitive tribe not only worshipped a God of Dreams, but they elevated him above all others?
Instantly, a plan formed in my mind.
It was simple. They worshipped a God of Dreams. Well, that was exactly what they were about to get. A Night Hunter, come for his sacrifice, leaving vengeful gifts in his wake. There was only one way that I could pull this off at the level needed to take Persephone and walk right out of the village with her.
I sighed and reached back into my mind, seeking the voice I had silenced earlier. With a grimness that comes from desperation, I rattled its cage. The stench of anger rose as the Darkness within me rolled over and blinked.
“Wake up,” I told it. “We have work to do.”