I opened my eyes to the swirling celestial ceiling of my foyer, the one I’d enchanted to look like there were stars and planets dancing above me. I was lost to the sparkling gold and purple orbs dancing against the infinite black home before my hellish night of memories came trickling into my consciousness, answering the question of why I was waking up fully dressed and dazed on my marble floor. I sat up to see all four of my hounds staring at me.
“I’m losing it,” I realized out loud. “I need to get out of this place.”
I could have ported, but I felt like running. I dashed out of the house and across acres of wasteland, enjoying the rush of heat in my limbs. I flew past the forest of dead trees that housed all the skeletal wildlife of my realm, and straight to the gates crawling with wailing shades. “You can go back to your homes, you know!” I reminded them as I walked right through the cruel iron spikes, picking up speed as I headed out of Propalyia into the depths of the Underworld.
I took pride in the eternal homes I created for the shades trapped in my realm, those buried with no drachma to pay the ferryman. I didn’t make the rules, but I took pity on them, creating a perfect eternity beneath their respective cemetery plots. And yet, still, they moaned.
The wind grew crisp and cold as I entered the Underworld Caves. I ignored the slithering, demonic creatures guarding the cavern that I boldly waltzed into, continuing until I reached the palace of the God of Nightmares himself.
Phobetor must have known I was coming, for he was wearing the face he donned when I was around. Tall, muscular, bright eyes, perfect teeth, complete with an arrogant smile that he promptly broke into. “Hekate in my neck of the woods,” he commented. “She must need something.”
I ignored the comment. “I need to get the hell out of here. Can you cover for me, so no one knows I’m gone? You can have all the snacks in the fridge.”
He raised an eyebrow as he crossed his arms. “Last I remember, shape-shifting was your least favorite part about me.”
I clenched my jaw, refusing to let my mind go down that route of memories. My mind was quite exhausted as it was.
“Please.” I tried to soften my voice, though I knew it bristled. I hated asking for help. “I need to go above ground. I’m going crazy down here.”
He stared at me for several uncomfortable moments, then sighed. With a snap of his fingers, he shifted, and my identical image stared back at me.
I frowned at the bloodshot eyes and rat-nest black hair. Apparently, I was quite disheveled. “Thank you,” I mumbled as I promptly ported out of the Underworld, not wanting to look at my reflection any longer.
The weather on Earth was colder than I’d anticipated, my leather jacket inadequate against the icy blast of late autumn. Although I shivered, I took a minute to enjoy the sweet scent of decay in the air. I spent every fall and winter in the Underworld, and I’d come to miss the cold seasons. Again, I could have ported directly to the God Complex, but my body needed to move, so I strolled down the street.
I knew Atë was already aware I was headed her way without me having to call her. It was strange how she and I remained connected over millennia. I was the one who had softened her time in Tartarus the best I could, and she’d never forgotten it. Even when an imposter tried to take over my role years before, determined to set us at odds with each other, our true bond pulled through. Who made a better pair of friends than the goddess of witchcraft and the goddess of mischief?
I sighed, relieved that thoughts other than Nikolas were now in my mind. However, I did feel a twinge of guilt for asking Phobetor for help even though we’d agreed years ago to give each other space. I wondered how Atë would react if I told her I was trying to deal with one ex by asking my other ex for help.
If there was one Hekate Love Fiasco that transcended all in angst, it was my tumultuous relationship with the God of Nightmares. We met shortly after I became Queen of Propalyia, after I decided I’d never fall in love again. But a woman does have her needs, and I was intrigued by the concept of bedding a nightmare, something that wasn’t real, able to shift into whatever—or whoever—I wanted at any moment. I’d loved it, lost for a time in a world of intangible fantasy and never too deep emotions, until inevitably, I’d craved more. I’d let my guard down, enjoying him way too much, and despite my best efforts, I realized I was falling in love. So naturally, I ruined everything.
I could almost hear our last conversation echoing through the cavernous halls of his palace.
“This is what you wanted,” he exclaimed in exasperation. He was sitting upright in his bed, which we’d somehow broken before the subsequent pillow talk spiraled into a full-blown argument.
“I just want you to be you,” I insisted, stomping around in a bedsheet as I gathered my clothes.
“I am me.”
“How? You shift into anyone I want you to be.” I snatched my bra off one of the horned demon skulls mounted above his fireplace.
He scowled. “You know who I am on the inside.”
“Yes, I do, and I want the real outside too,” I insisted.
“You wouldn’t like my true form.”
He caught my full attention as he growled his threat, his eyes shifting from light to a menacing black.
“You won’t even give me a chance to decide for myself,” I snapped back, my eyes turning from blue to black, matching his intensity.
But before we rocked the Underworld with a godly war, he disappeared and ran away, both of us avoiding each other until the distance solidified what we didn’t want to vocalize—our end. We were never able to fully leave each other’s orbit, however. Though we kept our distance, his realm remained next to mine. Neither one of us moved.
“There you are,” Atë’s sultry voice broke through my thoughts. I’d reached the cafe.
The Goddess of Mischief looked beautiful and coiffed as always. She gave me a quick hug before adjusting her red blouse and sitting back down.
I slid into the booth across from her, noting that she’d ordered a large spread for brunch. Although the waffles drizzled in syrup and strawberries ripened to the shade of her shirt looked delicious, I had no appetite. “I can’t even think about eating right now,” I mumbled.
I looked up to see she was studying me. “Hekate, I mean this in a please don’t turn me into a toad type way, but you look awful,” she said, wrinkling her nose.
I ran my finger sheepishly through my wild black locks. “That bad, huh?”
She raised her coffee to her lips as she quirked a brow. “I mean, I’m not surprised. The Underworld doesn’t seem like a decent place to sleep. Tartarus certainly wasn’t.”
I was quiet, staring at the untouched coffee in front of me.
“Hekate, what’s wrong?”
I sighed, wincing as I spoke. “Okay, so did I ever tell you about that mortal boy I kinda fell for a while back?” I paused and at her nod, continued. “Well, he died. He was buried without the drachma to pay his toll to enter the Underworld, so he’s now in Propalyia, my realm…with me. Forever.” I felt a twinge in my heart as I spoke. “That’s why I’m up here on Earth. I had Phobetor pretend to be me so no one would notice I was missing.”
Atë set her coffee down slowly before meeting my eyes. “So you’re telling me the mortal is cursed to walk the shores because he forgot his toll? I mean…do you love him?”
The question caught me by surprise. I found a cup of water nearby and took a sip. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “We ended things…and he chose to be in my realm—against my wishes? That’s crazy.”
“If you don’t love him, then is there a way to get rid of him permanently? Maybe I can steal some drachma to pay his toll? Oh, or like a weird Underworld exorcism?”
I blinked. “You might be onto something there. Or maybe I just need to find an excuse to stay up here for a while until I sort this out. Need anything? Potions? A good hex?”
A waitress interrupted, but one look at me and the scowl I must have thrown her way made her disappear as quickly as she came.
Atë thought about my question. “Mmmmm, I don’t think so. Erebus and I are actually not trying to kill each other at the moment…” The apples of her cheeks turned the faintest shade pink. She cleared her throat. “But, I mean, I’m sure I can always find someone to ruin…”
I smiled genuinely. It was good to see her happy. “Well, it’s nice to see someone’s love life is going well.”
She snorted. “Trust me, my love life took going to Tartarus for a thousand years before anything actually happened, but I am always down to help you get over or possibly kill a ghost…after a little shopping, of course.” She threw me a wicked smile.
I looked down at my scuffed up boots and thought of the disaster wardrobe back at my palace. I realized I hadn’t done anything lighthearted like shopping in months.
A mischievous spark glinted in Atë’s eyes, and I was grateful we’d sat down to talk. What was another few hours with one of my favorite nieces? Phobetor had Propalyia handled. “I’m in,” I decided, standing up and tossing some bills on the table.
She grinned and popped out of her seat, linking my arm with hers.
After five hours of retail therapy, I returned with armfuls of bags to an empty house. I used my powers to float them up to my room as I searched the house for any sign Phobetor. The house was dark and still, almost eerily so. My hounds also seemed to be out for the night. I put my hands on my hips. “That’s odd…where is he?” I wondered out loud.
Then it hit me.
I flew out of my house, down the steps, to the Graveyard of Restless Souls. My heart pounded in my chest as I grew closer to Nikolas’s dwelling. I wasn’t ready to see him again, but I remembered that if there was one thing Phobetor loved to do, it was mess with me. And it just so happened, he was wearing my face.