I opened my eyes and stretched, savoring the feel of the soft sheets. It was such a relief to wake in my room and in my own bed. I smiled and glanced toward the window where early morning light filtered in through the curtains. I threw back the blankets and stood, refreshed from a peaceful night’s sleep.
Padding into the bathroom, I washed my face and brushed my teeth. I met my gaze in the mirror and gasped. Staring back at me was my half-crazed reflection. My face was twisted into a sly sneer, my hair tangled and hanging about my face in unkempt strands. But it was my eyes that were the worst. They were Hypnos’s black and gold-flecked eyes, glittering with malevolence. I flew backward, crashing into the stone wall. I panted for air, unable to turn away as the me in the mirror laughed.
Her voice was cajoling, and a little insane as she said, “Nemesis, don’t you want to find the Master?” Her cracked lips formed a little pout. She tipped her head, her gaze holding mine. “Don’t you want to free the Master, Nem Nem?”
I shook my head, my body frozen, unable to move as the Nemesis in the mirror held my gaze. She whispered in Hypnos’s voice, “Come on Nem, come find me.”
I whimpered, fighting against whatever force was holding me in place, desperate to leave, to end this.
“Find the Master, Nemesis. You know where to find him. If you want to end this, you only have to free him,” the mirror Nemesis said, this time in my voice.
My heart pounded as if it was going to break itself open, my muscles aching as I strained for my freedom.
“Don’t you want to be with the Master? You know you want him. You always wanted him.” my reflection sneered in a suggestive tone. I covered my ears and shook my head, the pressure on my mind becoming unbearable.
“Nooo!” I screamed, and the Nemesis in the mirror laughed with satisfaction.
“Come find me. Free me. Kill any that stand in your way! Go now!” my reflection ordered in Hypnos’s voice.
I wrenched my body away from the wall and threw myself through the doorway. I expected to end up back in my room. Instead, I was thrust into the deepest part of Tartarus. Screams carried on the air, and the smell of rot filled my every breath. The darkness was impenetrable, which made no sense. I saw perfectly well in the dark. He had blinded me and every sound became more of a threat. My feet moved of their own accord, carrying me deeper into the pit.
I did not fear Tartarus. I did not fear the Underworld. It was my home. But I knew fear now. I tried to stop, fighting each and every step. I used every bit of my will and power to turn away from this path. Nothing I did made any difference. Then, to my absolute horror, I felt my will pushed deeper and something else took over my mind. I heard my voice, light and filled with a sick kind of sing-songy joy. “La, la, la, la, I am going to free the Master. I am going to find the Master and then we will be together!”
My scream of rage and denial never reached my lips. It just echoed in the prison of my mind. I battered at the cage he had trapped me in, throwing myself violently against the barriers around my mind. Desperate to break free, I bruised and bloodied myself to the echoes of Hypnos’s laughter. He taunted me, whispering that I would free him, that I would be his. Bloody images of Ky’Elli and Thanatos played through my mind. I saw myself standing over their corpses with a small smirk of satisfaction on my face.
“I don’t know why I ever thought I needed the Titans, Nem. All I needed was you! Look at all this power you carry. You hide it so well. Thanatos is the only one that even pretends to care about you. Once you kill him, and that baby demon of yours, you will be alone. You will be mine.”
I screamed over and over, denying his words and the horrors he played through my mind. And all the while my feet moved forward as I whispered with sick excitement, “I will free the Master. I am coming, Master!”
The darkness eased and my eyes focused, hungry for my sight. What I saw made my blood run cold. The special coffin Thanatos had trapped Hypnos in sat at the heart of Tartarus, pulsing like a festering wound, infecting everything around it. Excitement shivered through me. Disgusted, I tried to pull myself off course once again. The horror of this violation ripped through me, and I felt something inside of me threaten to break. I continued to fight, even as I jerked to a halt beside my brother’s prison, and reached out, flinging the cover aside.
I peered into the depths of the bottomless coffin. An icy wind blew my hair back and Hypnos’s voice, filled with triumph, hissed, “Mine.”
The word had barely registered when another male voice echoed all around me, pressing against the prison caging my mind, “No! Never!” Flames belched from the coffin, washing over me, licking at my skin. I felt myself burn to ash, then rise again.
My eyes opened slowly and I could tell by the haze over my vision that they glowed amber. I stood beneath the tree, the sound of the lake whispering in the background. My skin rippled with goosebumps, the memory of the flames a visceral pain that still resonated through my body.
I stood petrified, afraid to move. A part of me had gone quiet and still, frozen and in shock at the breadth of this violation. In needing to create distance from the horror of the nightmares, I had become prey. I had become a victim. I wanted to scream my denial but was not sure I would be able to stop if I started.
I forced my shaking body to move and took a few unsteady steps. I reached for the trunk of the tree, refusing to go to my knees again. My power roiled around me, filling the shelter of the low-hanging branches, a maelstrom of angry energy searching for a target. I bit my lower lip, refusing to give voice to the pain of the violation. I gripped the trunk of the tree, holding tightly to it, seeking the comfort that it offered.
Ky’Elli glided over the soft ground, her footsteps silent. She wove her way through the snapping energy of my power, unconcerned with the danger. Her trust in me terrified me. Her mental voice was soft and soothing, “I am here, Kiri. I am with you. You are not alone.”
I rested my cheek against the tree, the trunk smooth and cool, helping to ground me. My nails dug into the bark and warm black ichor-like sap wet my fingers.
I could feel my fear and pain echoed in Ky’Elli, her impotent anger at not having anything to fight. No way to protect me. My shame and powerlessness were reflected at me in her concerns.
“Kiri, maybe I should go get the Thano. I think you might need him.”
I shook my head, struggling to pull in a deep breath, the sap pooling beneath my hands and twining over my fingers. I could feel the language of power manifest in runes on my skin, traveling down my arms to meet the black sap. Every piece of me on defense. “No, mikros. It will be ok, I just need a few minutes,” I responded, my mental voice hoarse and unsteady.
I inhaled deeply again and reigned in my power. As it returned to me, clearing the space around me, Ky’Elli padded closer. I pulled my hands away, the black ichor still staining my skin, the tendrils creating delicate vine henna-like designs over my fingers. I turned, pressing my back against the trunk, and slid to sit on the ground. Ky’Elli lept, landing in my lap and pressed her forehead against mine.
I leaned into her touch, breathing deeply of her familiar and beloved scent, hot cinnamon and smoke. “Elli?”
“Why don’t you climb this tree?”
Ky’Elli looked up at the dark braided bark and the glow of the red leaves. “It doesn’t like to be climbed. It says no. It is obviously your tree, Kiri. It says no, just like you.”
My lips curved in a slight smile as I leaned my head back against the trunk, my body still shuddering from time to time. I closed my eyes, focusing on the hum vibrating along my back and the warm weight of Ky’Elli on my lap.