I stood perched high above the city, my hand resting on the head of an ancient gargoyle as I watched the flurry of activity below. Mortal children filled the streets, hurrying from one house to the next. Their harried parents followed behind, seeming both exasperated and proud. It was the condition of parenthood, regardless of era or location.
I had no children, but being my mother’s firstborn by thousands of years, I had helped raise most of my siblings. Many of them were more mine than hers. My thoughts fell to my conversation with Eris, the complexities of that being were extraordinary and unique. They were glorious in their chaos and yet I knew without knowing the story that they had bound themselves in a labyrinth of madness. It weighed on me that I had not noticed.
Ky’Elli brushed up against me, breaking my reverie. I looked down at her and couldn’t help but remember last Samhain and her arrival in my life. She was crouched next to me, her wings extended as she peered over the edge of the church. I knew from the ground she would just appear as another gargoyle. As I watched her body went stiff and her gaze intensified. I could feel the pulse of excitement come down our bond as she exclaimed, “The Thano!”
I followed her gaze and saw a man dressed in a grim reaper costume. I started to chuckle until I saw the costume of the child at his side. The little girl was dressed as an old-fashioned rag doll and as I watched him pick her up, memories flooded my mind.
The world was celebrating its era of love, and August 1969 found me at Woodstock, surrounded by mortals and more than a few immortals. Do I really need to mention Eros and Dionysos? Whose brainchild do you think Woodstock was?
I went mostly out of curiosity and hoping it would be a prime hunting ground for me. But everyone was so about peace and drugs and sex, there was no room for thoughts of revenge. Out of boredom, I allowed Dion to talk me into a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Amidst all the proclamations of brotherly love, my thoughts couldn’t help but turn to my brother.
Feeling nostalgic, I ported to the Underworld. My flowing skirt flared about my knees as I turned, dancing over the desolate stretch of shore that bordered Lake Aveinos. The cottage that crouched beneath the cloud-laden sky blended into the rocky terrain, looking as if it had sprung from the ground itself. A darkly beautiful growth born from magic and ancient power.
I ran onto the porch, the grainy black sand clinging to my feet. Able to sense Thanatos within, I pushed through the door, entering onto a small landing. The magic of this realm had folded, creating a pocket of space within the cottage. The inside was much larger than what the small outer dimensions should be able to contain.
The decor could only be described as creepy chic. Three steps led down to the cozy main living area. Large, plush recliner chairs flanked a coffee table. The larger of the two sat next to a black, old-fashioned, wood-burning stove and a large window that overlooked the lake. A small but functional kitchen graced the back of the cottage, and a bed rested in the opposite corner.
Flashes of white, red, and purple broke up the black that would seem oppressive to most, but to me felt comforting, the shadows deep and reassuring. Shelves lined the walls of the weird maze of rooms, filled with items Thanatos had collected from the shores of the River Styx. Things that had washed up from the mortal world, full of broken hopes, dreams, and promises. All was tidy and neat, everything in its place and shining with near-pristine cleanliness.
Thanatos, the God of Peaceful Death, known to mortals and immortals alike, and my youngest brother, dropped his book as I slammed my way into his home. I twirled about the room, my dark hair flying in all directions and my laughter echoing off the walls, filling the space with sound. His normally staid expression turned to shock at my unexpected arrival and my even more out-of-character behavior. He slowly stood from his chair, his lips quirking just the slightest bit, which on him was a full-out grin.
“Good gods, Nem. Where have you been, and what are you wearing?” he asked, plucking a flower from my loose black curls and taking in my flowing skirt and peasant blouse.
“You should have come, Thano! It was so much fun! Well, first it was boring, but then I found Dion, and it was so much fun after that!” I replied, dancing around him and then flopping back onto his neatly made bed, staring up at the ceiling.
“Ahh, I see,” he said, stepping into the kitchen, “and what did Dion offer you that made things so much more fun?”
“Oh, I don’t know. A little of this and a little of that! A nip here and a sip there! On her a lick, on him a di–”
“Nemesis!” Thanatos interrupted, horrified laughter filling his tone.
I laughed and curled up on my side. My voice trailed off as sleep dragged my eyes closed. “You should have come, Thano. Would have been more fun with you there.”
“I am sure, Nem, but somehow I do not think I would have fit in.”
“I didn’t fit in, either. Would have been fun to not fit in together,” I murmured as sleep pulled me into sweet darkness.
I woke to the smell of pancakes and sausage filling the house. I stretched on the comfortable bed, cozy beneath the soft blankets. Memories surfaced of the last few days and my arrival at Thanatos’s. Good Chaos, what had I let Dion do to me? I closed my eyes again, mortification staining my cheeks pink. You would have thought after this many years of existence, I would know better. But then maybe I had just needed something to break up the monotony and loneliness.
I opened my eyes, my gaze focusing on an item resting on a shelf above me. My brow furrowing, I stood on the bed and reached for the brass metal urn. Black with age, the screaming face of the demon molded into the front glared malevolently back at me. I ran my fingers over the surface. Odd, this belonged to me. How had it ended up in Than’s cottage?
I hopped off the bed with the vase held in my hands. “Hey, Thano?”
“Hmm?” he asked, not turning away from the stove.
“Where did you get this? This is mine.”
He glanced over his shoulder. “Oh, yeah. I meant to take that back to your house. It was very odd. I came home one day, and it was sitting on my porch. I just haven’t had a chance to return it.”
“That is odd,” I said, turning the metal over and over in my hands. “Maybe since I am here, I should stop by. It has been 75 years or so since I have been back to the house.”
“We can go after breakfast if you would like,” he offered, “and on the way, you can tell me all about this Woodstock you had so much fun attending.”
I scowled at the devilish glint in his eyes. “I seem to recall you were none too eager to hear the details last night, Thano.”
His cheeks flushed lightly. “Uh yeah, you can leave those details out, thank you very much.”
I grinned at him and stole a piece of sausage. Wrapping a pancake around it, I took a bite, savoring the salty-sweet taste. I poured each of us a cup of coffee and, not looking at him, whispered, “I have missed you, Thano.”
“Missed you, too, Nem.”
After breakfast, we ported to the island I had claimed early in my existence. The trees grew high here, the bark dark, and the trunks twisted about themselves. The leaves overhead were a light green and filtered the light, creating deep pockets of shadow. A mischievous breeze blew my hair into tangles around my face, welcoming me home with soft caresses. It had been doing so since I arrived, seemingly ecstatic at my return.
The Underworld was an assault on the senses. The scents, while not all pleasant, were rich, the color of the light unique to this plane, and while the sounds would have been alien to mortal ears, they spoke of home to me. I inhaled deeply as we rounded the bend in the path, my bare feet silent on the forest floor.
We halted as my manor came into sight. It was a monument to my youth, an edifice that proclaimed my vanity and arrogance. In truth, it was a monstrosity. Gothic in design, formed of massive, cut stone blocks and elaborately carved lintels. Gargoyles stood as silent sentinels on either side of the broad stone steps that led to the large, heavy embellished front door. Spiked metal railings crowned the rooftops, and every last bit of it was black. How very cliche and dramatic.
It wasn’t the usual flash of embarrassment that I normally felt upon seeing my house that made my brow furrow and raised both my concern and ire. “Chaos’ great balls, what has happened here?” I had never kept the grounds pristine, preferring the wilder tangle of the natural flora, but like a dark English cottage garden, things always had a place. Currently, that was not the case. The exterior of the house itself had been neglected, with dark green glowing veins of what looked like moldy tendrils marbling the stone. I turned and glanced at Thanatos, his eyes concerned as he stroked his chin thoughtfully.
“Have you seen anything like this before?” I asked, looking back at the house.
He didn’t answer but resumed walking. I followed, my eyes scanning the surroundings. I took notice of how quiet it was. There was no bustle of activity. No movement in and out of the house, as there should be at this time of the day. There were no sounds of creatures from the forest, but most notably, no one had come to greet us. The household would have sensed and been alerted of my presence back in the Underworld, and yet no one had come to meet us. I reached out and pulled Thanatos to a stop just as the door swung open.
“Something is very wrong here, Thano,” I said under my breath.
“No doubt. You should have known that if you built what looked like a haunted castle, it would someday become haunted.”
“Thano. We live in the Underworld. The whole place is haunted.”
He nodded and shrugged. “True. Well, let’s go see what beasties lie in wait, shall we?”
I slipped by him and entered first, going preternaturally still as I stepped into the entryway. Where golden light usually filled the castle, today there was a putrid green cast to the air. Dust motes swirled past, seeming to glow in the murky light. The frayed tapestries, now drab and grey, hung precariously on the walls. The remnants of the furniture that once graced the spacious foyer littered the floor and the wide central staircase. We were accosted by the combined reek of the sickly sweet scent of rotting food and the underlying stench of unwashed clothing and bodies.
I padded silently over the stone floor, noting the paths carved through the dust and dirt that coated its surface. I felt Thanatos following silently behind me, both of us on alert, both of us sensing that the house, my house, was not happy we were here. Without pausing to even think about it, leather pants and a fitted black shirt replaced my flowing skirt and blouse. Between one step and the next, dark boots covered my bare feet.
I entered the main dining room and wrinkled my nose in disgust at the dishes caked with food in various stages of decomposition piled on the table. I scanned the room, searching the dark corners for any movement. Slowly, stealthily, I began to gather the shadows to me. Typically when I called, they sprang to my bidding like well-trained pets, eager to please. These were reluctant, sullen, sluggish, and foul. The moment I had a hold on them, I released them back. Like everything in here, they were tainted and would do nothing but cause me and mine harm. They would wrap around me, then likely turn on me.
I bypassed the kitchen, really not wanting to see the condition of it considering the dining room, and moved through the doorway into the main hall. I froze, and my wings exploded from my back, hitting Thanatos across the shoulder and chest, stopping his forward momentum. I had been wrong. We were expected.
Thanatos carefully pushed my wing aside so he could see. His voice was calm and measured as always. “It’s a doll.”
“Nuh-uh. Nope. Nope,” I denied, shaking my head.
“Hmm. Pretty sure it’s a doll, Nem.”
“I do not do dolls, Thano,” I said through clenched teeth.
Thanatos raised one eyebrow but didn’t look away from the room. People knelt, paying homage at the base of a makeshift throne. A large wingback chair I recognized from my library sat atop a dais built of wood and furniture. A porcelain doll sat perched upon the seat. Her dark brown eyes shone with red highlights and were encircled with black. Crackle lines spider-webbed over the white of her face. Her auburn hair was sparse and sticking up, hanks of it missing, exposing the speckled scalp. She wore a Victorian-style dress with a high lace collar, the material yellowed and wrinkled.
My attention was so focused on that creepy little doll, I somehow missed the giant, swirling green and black dimensional hole in the ceiling until a shadowy tentacle snapped from the void and whipped towards us. I had been alive for a very long time. My brother, Thanatos? He was the God of Death. I lived in the Underworld. I knew creepy. I had seen creepy, but that doll and the malevolence pouring from that hole in my ceiling made my blood run cold.
I tipped my head to get a better look, the light emanating from that void a vile, near physical caress. “Chaos’s balls…”
“What in Tartarus…?” Thanatos gaped.
I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and reluctantly looked back at the doll. I was sure she had turned towards Thanatos when he spoke. A child stepped from behind the chair, her demeanor regal, but her clothing ragged, and her hair and body unkempt. She was thin and small. The putrid green glow that filled the room only emphasized the sallow cast of her skin.
Looking at the others, she was in the best condition. I saw illness and exhaustion stamped into the lines of the bodies that held so still on the hard stone floor. Some were in nightclothes, a few wore jackets, and others still were naked. Those with no shoes had bloodied feet, the wounds infected. These were my people. They were under my care, and I thought they were safe. They should have been safe. This was my home! Their home! Many had been with me through generations.
Anger filled me, and I focused once more on the child. “What has happened here? What has happened to my people?”
The young girl lifted her chin, attempting to look down her nose at us. “I do not have to answer you. You are no longer the Mistress of this house. I am! These people do what I say!”
My gaze shifted between the girl and the doll. I carefully took a step to the side, feeling Thano move a bit in the opposite direction. The girl turned towards me, and the doll’s eyes tracked Thanatos.
“You think you are Mistress here, little one?” I said, keeping an eye on Thanatos. He had frozen, his gaze locked on the doll and his feet rooted to the spot. His eyes were their usual ebony, but his skin had gone impossibly pale, and shock radiated from him.
“Nem,” he whispered, “we might have a problem here.”
His gaze flicked up towards the dimensional hole and then quickly back to the doll, as if he was loath to lose sight of it. He took another step forward, his scythe appearing in his hand, angling his head to get a look at the faces of the people on the floor. I heard him murmur, “Please, no cannibals…”
“Thano, what is happening here? What are you talking about?”
“I don’t know how it can be, Nem. It doesn’t make sense,” he said, staying close to the edges of the room, ensuring that he didn’t step beneath the swirling green mass. His gaze skipped from the people to the doll, only to flick back to the people as he tried to get a look at their lowered faces.
I reached back, my sword appearing in my hand. Drawing it forward, the blade glowed with ebony light, a physical manifestation of my power. I did not know from what direction the threat would come, but there was no doubt this was a trap. The little girl’s face morphed into a sinister sneer, her eyes flashing with an unholy green.
Thanatos and I both froze as the doll suddenly stood, its gaze focused intently on him. “You have finally come to play, you coward! As always, you ran away! You killed all of my friends, took away my toys, and left me alone, trapped in the rubble of that house! But this time, I was able to find a way out.” She giggled, the sound tittering and high-pitched. The eerie laughter began in the otherwise silent room, growing deeper as it echoed through the house.
“Emma?” Thanatos gasped, his eyes bulging. “Son of a bi—”