I take the steps down from the western end of the patio to the lower terrace. Hades has strung up a hammock between two palm trees. He’s stretched out, at ease with the world. At the sound of my voice, he looks up from his book and smiles.
“Here I am.”
Shutting his novel, Hades beckons me towards him, tucking a hand behind his head. I give him a suspicious smile, bumping the hammock with my hip, setting him swinging. “Hammocks are terrible for sex, Hades.”
“Don’t know until you try with me, Skía,” he grins, stretching a little longer.
He has a point, my mind says. Do it, my body agrees. I laugh, letting him think I’m laughing at him as I pluck at the edges of the hammock.
“Not sure how I feel about rope burn. Or the prospect of ending up on the ground halfway through. But it’s tempting,” I say with a smile, rolling myself into the hammock alongside him. His scent makes me relax even more. “So, what are you reading?”
Hades gathers me tightly against him, turning over the book in his lap to show me the cover. “Olympos still. I am a slow reader when on vacation.”
“I like that you read so much. That you aren’t too proud to learn.” I run my fingertips along the edge of my wager that he is using as his bookmark. “I should have brought something with me to read. I don’t want to disturb you.”
Hades tucks the card deeper into the pages and kisses the top of my head. “You are the last thing on my list of disturbances, I assure you.”
I tilt my face up to his and kiss him slowly, savoring him. His mouth is sweet, a trace of sangria from dinner still on his tongue. His hand slips around to cradle the back of my head as he pulls me deeper into the kiss. With a curse, I jerk away, breath hissing between my teeth.
My fingertips probe inside the neck of my gauzy blouse, seeking the point of pain just below my collarbone. Hades looks down and frowns. I know what he sees. I can feel the glowing lines of the rune burning beneath my skin.
“Artemis,” I whisper, lowering my hand as Hades traces my collarbone, careful not to touch the mark.
“What magic has she burned into you? And why?”
“Before she left on her quest to help her dragon, Sayeh, I gave her a talisman that would summon me,” I explain. “She needs me, Hades. Something’s wrong.”
I extract myself carefully from the hammock and dart up the stairs to the patio, Hades close behind me. Magick isn’t exactly a line-of-sight thing, but it helps my mind if I feel like there’s less in the way. And the balconies of Hades’ house give an unobstructed view for miles.
I don’t know where Artemis is. She didn’t tell me. All I know is she went on the cruise with the others. That’s one tiny immortal needle in a hell of a planet-sized haystack.
Pressing my thighs against the balcony railing for balance, I extend my arms wide, pushing my awareness out, feeling for anything immortal. Then, other things begin to register. This is the Caribbean, the home of Obeah and Voudoun, and the resident Loa stir at my call. I nod respectfully to them and expand my senses into the Atlantic.
That’s strange. I feel a breath of Artemis’ energy that is swept away before I can hone in on it. I try again with similar results. It is like she is caught in a storm, her energy signature passing in and out of its eye. I mutter a curse, an old one I learned from Nyx, as Hades comes to my side.
“I can’t get hold of her.” Closing my eyes, I try again and still nothing. “She’s almost due east, but there’s nothing but ocean that way. Every time I think I have her, she slips away like a fish.”
Hades’ eyebrows knit together. “I would try.”
Threading his fingers into mine, his magic brushes against me as he pushes outward, searching as I did. Rugged and luxurious, that’s what Hades’ magic feels like. Like the Alpines. His fingers squeeze mine abruptly, releasing my hand equally as quick.
“I felt nothing but a faint drift of her, but there was something else. Persephone’s energy is entwined here.”
“They were on the cruise together,” I tell him. “I don’t like this. Something feels wrong.”
“I have an idea,” he says, going silent for a few moments. I can see his mind working. “What if we attempt to find Artemis together? Our powers combined. Triangulation, as it were. Granted, the distance is far, but if we both try to pinpoint her location, the signal may come into focus.”
I nod at him. It’s a good idea. “Let’s try. Can you tune Persephone out well enough? I don’t know how that…bond of yours works.”
Hades nods once. “I can mute it, yes.”
I close my eyes and extend my awareness again, reaching eastward. Hades lays his power over mine. It is weighted, comforting, and full of intent that will not be denied. The last time we were like this was in the warehouse, taking down Ostasus, coordinating our efforts like pack hounds to bring down prey. There was desperation in that.
And there is familiarity in this. Since defeating the Titan, much has changed between Hades and me. What hasn’t changed is how well we work together. It’s breathtaking how the intimacy between us has bled over into the way our magic flows. There is depth and immediacy, a strength that wasn’t there before.
Slowly, as Hades predicted, Artemis’ energy comes into focus, strengthening instead of weakening when I grasp at it. “There she is,” he mutters. I open my eyes to see him flick a portal into existence, and we step through, Hades never releasing my hand.
We emerge underground. I frown at Hades, unsure we have the right place. Then, I realize that I can see and should not be able to. I can feel the crushing weight of the mountain above me, drenched in the kind of magick that used to pervade the world. That was before humans became skeptics and started cleaving the world in two, dividing reality up between science and mysticism.
A flicker of torchlight ahead reaches my eyes, and I hear the distinctive lilt of Artemis’ voice, followed by Selene’s. I let go of Hades’ hand reluctantly. Whatever the situation is, we don’t need it muddled with a thousand questions.
I don’t know where this island is. But just looking at Artemis, hell is a fair guess. The expression on her face when she sees me chokes me up. Then, her eyes land on Hades, and confusion replaces the relief. She recovers quickly.
“You came!” The tremor in her voice makes me wonder if she feared I would not.
“Of course,” I say, returning her embrace. Selene looks as rough as Artemis does. “Where are we? Forgive me for saying so, but you both look like shit.”
Artemis laughs and hugs me tighter for a moment. When she releases me, her expression has darkened. “It’s a long story. The ship sank. There was a storm at sea, and it went down.”
“Where is everyone else?” I shoot a look at Hades. Suddenly, him saying he sensed Persephone makes so much sense. The concern on his face seems to sharpen his chiseled features.
“Was Persephone with you?” He looks between Artemis and Selene, slipping his hand back into mine. It does not go unnoticed. Artemis and Selene look at us, then at each other. The smiles on their faces make me glad it’s dark in the cavern because my cheeks are burning as hot as the torch in Artemis’ hand.
“She’s fine, Hades.” The way Artemis says it hints that, at some point, she was less than fine. Hades picks up on it immediately.
Selene steps forward. “She is. Morpheus is with her. The others, too.”
The tension on Hades’ face ebbs, but his eyes are still dark with concern. It is the same concern in my heart. Persephone has been put through enough hell recently. The thought of imagining more is hard to take.
“Why did you call me?” I ask, refocusing the conversation. The anguish in Artemis’ voice is a knife in my heart.
“We have been through so much, Hekate. You just don’t know.”
Exhaustion, anguish, and love for Sayeh spill from her words. She tries to keep the tremor from her voice, but cannot. Artemis takes Selene’s hand. The look that passes between them is deep and yet haunted. What has this island asked of them? And yet, it asks more?
“This leads to the heartfire,” she continued, pointing down the passageway. “But there’s a spirit here who won’t let us pass. He has some power over this place. I tried everything to reason with him, to communicate. But spirits are not animals. I cannot bridge that divide between life and death. I-I need you.” She shoots Hades a look, then turns her eyes back to me, an apologetic look on her face. “It won’t solve everything, but anything you can do will help.”
There is a reason mortals often associate me with Artemis, and it is not because of the moon. It is because we are strong, fierce, proud. This quest has pushed Artemis to the edge of that strength and honed the sharp edge of her spirit. But now, there is something blunting the pride. It’s a heaviness I recognize. It is the weight of guilt from having to ask for help.
“If I learned anything from the Titans escaping, it’s that we all need each other. That we cannot do it all alone. We’re not supposed to.” I give Artemis a reassuring smile. “I can help. Step back for a moment. I need some space.”
I let go of Hades’ hand, summoning a long, rune-etched staff of yew. The cavern floor is stone, but it doesn’t matter. This staff could rend the Veil if I willed it so. I trace a broad circle on the floor, the stone parting beneath the tip of the staff like clay to a potter’s blade. Inside it, I trace another circle, then begin to fill the banded space between the two circles with markings.
Summoning is not a pretty art. It is painful for the spirit to be ripped through the ether at someone’s whim. The only way it stops hurting is to go where it’s called. That’s the reason for the circle. If something is likely to arrive angry and sore, best you welcome it in a cage.
Stepping back, I kneel on the ground at the edge of the circle and close my eyes, beginning the chant. I realize I didn’t warn them what they are about to see, but it’s begun, and I cannot stop.
Many mortals who claim to have seen a god have never truly seen that god. The way I appear to mortals is not my shape. The way I appear to my family, though my power is closer to the edge, is still not my shape. When I am in Hades’ arms and lost to his body, I come closer to showing that, but again, no. I am still just a wild thing given tame form. But when the spirit comes to my call, he will see me true, the way all spirits do.
Few living have heard the Nekromélos. The Death Song is not meant for ears of flesh, which is evident in how Selene rubs her arms as a chill runs through her. I surrender to the power of my own spell, splitting my voice in two, a second tone droning and deep beneath the chant I started. Then Artemis gasps, her eyes going wide as I change before her eyes.
My skin darkens, deepening past black, its normal pallor flowing into my eyes. Those eyes are now aniridic, glowing with corpselight, the foxfire of death and decay. Like I am submerged in water, my hair floats around me, the dark strands paling, all cobwebs and starlight. My spine twists with pleasure as black horns sprout from the top of my head. I feel them growing, curling into lithesome glossy spirals above my ears.
I divide my voice a third time and begin the descant, high and keening above the other parts. The fire of my magic moves beneath my skin. Gone are the fine tracings of vines and runes and secret symbols. Strands of starfire braid themselves into living serpents that writhe and crawl over my body, glowing white-hot beneath my onyx skin. Circling me. Worshipping me.
As I sing in chorus with myself, the inscribed circle glows, pulsing with the same eldritch light in my eyes, readying the space. When the last sigil is filled with glowing silver, I stop singing and speak. My voice remains in triplicate: the keening wail of birth, the hungry moan of the flesh, the low rumble of the grave.
“Come, spirit. Your Mistress calls.”
The stone floor beneath me begins to shake. The spirit is fighting. I press my hands into the rock and stare at the center of the circle, repeating the command. This time, light flashes within the circle, edges solidifying into the shape of a man dressed in clothes from a time long past. The look on his face is pleasing to me.
Fear. The appropriate offering.
He flicks a glance at Artemis and Selene, then at Hades, before kneeling. “W-what do you require, Lady?”
“These are my friends, spirit. And I have been told that you bar their way into the mountain.”
The spirit swallows, a nervous physical response he has yet to set aside. “I-I meant no harm. My curse compels me to keep all away.”
“And I compel you to save your curse for those who cannot make you suffer for eternity.”
“Milady!” He crawls toward Artemis, butting into the invisible wall of my circle. Looking up at her, he pleads, “I meant no harm. Please, proceed as you wish. I will interfere no more.”
Artemis looks at him, then me, and nods. Her acquiescence sends relief flooding through the spirit. I can feel it washing against the inside of the circle like a wave as he turns back to me.
“Please, is there anything I can do to settle my debt?”
His words are moving, but Artemis has what she needs, so I do not wish to hold him any longer. “I require nothing more. Begone with my blessing.”
The spirit vanishes like smoke from an extinguished candle as the circle around him begins to fade. I remain kneeling, my weight pitched forward on my knuckles as I put on my illusion again and become tame. When my skin is the color of bone and my hair the color of night, I stand and look to Artemis.
“Why are you still standing here? You need to hurry. This whole mountain is unstable.”
Artemis looks at Selene, then back at me. “I can’t until we figure out which of these caves holds the nautilus shells. I have nothing that will withstand the heartfire to carry it home.”
I turn to Hades as Artemis and Selene discuss options, Selene doing her best to talk Artemis back from the edge of her desperation. Magma eyes smolder in my direction, molten rock slowly crawling up his neck to his jaw, to his mouth in a delightfully impressed smirk. I open my mouth to speak, just as the hair on the back of my neck stands up. The sensation whips my head around, my focus coming to rest on the blocked entrance of another passageway.
Stepping through the impassable wall of stone and debris, the spirit I summoned emerges. His eyes flash in my direction, nervous, for he alone still sees me as I truly am. He bows slightly, then walks to Artemis, his arm outstretched.
In his hand, rests a nautilus shell the size of a man’s head.
“I would pay my debt, milady. Please. Take it.”