Nightmares never plagued me, but nightmarish visions of my life came back to me in flashes. When you have existed as long as I have, that is how memories exist. I don’t consciously remember my creation in Ancient Greece, nor the millennia that followed. It is nothing but a hazy blur. Memories surfaced at will, most often at the worst time. They first hit me in my bed, as I refused to rise even though I’d spent the better part of four days in it.
“Don’t look at me like that,” I told Crowley, one of my four Underworld hounds. Crowley loved to lie with me in bed, even while his brothers, Lucifer, Draco, and Malachi went exploring. He wore an expression of concern, emotion radiating out of his dark little eyes as they examined me from inside his skeletal but endearing face.
“Nikolas betrayed me,” I argued. “He had so much life ahead of him. He promised me he would live.”
The memory hit me so hard I almost fell back into the silken black sheets of my four-poster bed.
The moon had been snuffed out by dense rain clouds, only allowing fleeting slivers of white to illuminate the gravestones. It was getting colder, signaling the time when I left my earthly home to go to the Underworld for the winter months. I tried to spend as much time as I could outside before it happened. A few leaves had already begun to crisp and fall. They swirled around my feet as I sat leaning against one of the stones and staring out into the darkness. Cassius and Dante, two of my earth hounds, had come along for the walk, the other two exhausted from their afternoon hunt.
I scratched under Cassius’s ears, provoking a gentle, happy growl from his stomach. “I’ll miss you, too,” I told him with a sigh.
Our tender moment was interrupted by a tug, the old familiar pull when someone was summoning me for spellcraft. It was a duty that helped pay the bills but often came at the worst times. I groaned, for I had been enjoying my breezy cemetery perch between my hounds. Even though I looked at them with pleading eyes, they understood and pushed me to go.
In an instant, I found myself at the Crossroads. It was an intersection of dirt I’d created to help Persephone and I descend into the Underworld but was used any time someone needed to travel the realms. Since the construction of the God Complex, it was rare that anyone pulled me here. Most modern witches were far from being true psychopomps, nor did anyone have permission to move between the realms. Nevertheless, I was here pooling power around me for protection as I looked around to see who else stood in the woods with me.
I froze when I saw him.
“Please don’t be angry,” he quickly began, stepping forward. He was carrying a torch rather than a flashlight which was both odd and endearing, like a nod to the past. The flames brightened his hazel eyes, and I recognized Nikolas, the boy from the sea.
“How dare you,” I began, though I couldn’t muster sufficient venom in my voice.
A wave of worry washed over his face. “My sister told me everything,” he explained. “I wanted to thank you in person for what you did for me.”
I raised an eyebrow. “I thought you were dismayed that I interrupted your plans.”
He sighed. “I’m trying, for the first time, not to give in to…to how I feel. For my sister to summon a goddess…I can’t keep hurting the ones I love.”
I crossed my arms. “I don’t know how you managed to summon me here. You’re obviously not a witch, and the only way to summon a goddess without proper tools…” My voice caught in my throat.
He smiled, and dammit, it was a lovely smile. “The summoner must want to see them with every ounce of their being,” he finished for me.
I tried very hard not to appear flattered or flustered. “You don’t even know me.”
“I’d like to.”
“Well. I appreciate the sentiment, but I have things I need to attend to.”
“Oh?” He looked interested. “Like what?”
“Like…goddess things. I work as a witch for hire when I’m on Earth. I like to enjoy my time here before I have to go to the Underworld.”
He looked intrigued. “Fascinating. Why do you have to go to the Underworld? What exactly is the Underworld, anyway?”
“You ask too many questions.”
He laughed. “Sorry, you’re just interesting. May I join you?”
He looked so earnest and hopeful, my steely resolve melted. “I was sitting in the cemetery,” I admitted. “With my dogs.”
“Oh, I love dogs,” he said, looking genuinely impressed.
I sighed and grabbed his hand. In an instant, we were back where I had been sitting. His knees buckled, trying to steady himself from the journey.
I blinked before I realized what I’d done. “Oh, sorry, I forget what it’s like for mortals. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he managed as he uprighted himself, though his face looked a bit white.
I was surprised that neither Cassius nor Dante growled at him. Instead, they evaluated him carefully, like I had when I first met him. Nikolas found his footing and approached them. My jaw dropped as they both allowed him to run a hand across their backs.
I tried not to look so surprised when he turned back around. “They’re beautiful,” he told me. “Like their mother.”
Again, I felt the conflict of being flustered and flattered. Fortunately, it was overwhelmed by anger. My old defense mechanisms were still on point. “Don’t try to sweet-talk me. I am far older than you can even imagine.”
My words didn’t push him away as I’d hoped. Instead, he peered at me curiously. “You don’t look it. And your eyes…when you get upset, your pupils get so large they black out the beautiful blue.”
I looked away, my patience wearing thin. What he didn’t know was that for the better part of a thousand years, I’d been alone, and there were reasons for it. He could give me doe eyes, sheepish smiles, and compliments all he liked, but nothing was going to change that. And I definitely was not about to fall for a mortal. That never ended well.
In the most perfect timing of all timings, I felt the call of a mortal witch. “I am being summoned,” I told him.
He nodded like it was the most natural thing in his life. “Can I wait for you here?”
“Do whatever you’d like,” I told him as I promptly ported.
I wasn’t prepared for what I stumbled upon. It was a young woman lying in the grass, sobbing. I rushed to her side. Her clothing had been ripped and torn, and makeup smeared down her cheeks. I didn’t have to ask what happened. I already knew.
I found the frat boys who’d hurt her in their house, laughing and chugging beers as if nothing had happened. They barely saw me before I lifted them to the ceiling, breaking their bones—one boy’s arm, one boy’s leg, one boy’s wrist—until they all pitiably cried for mercy. I was filled with fury. My eyes blackened, power vibrating every cell of my being, but I’d long ceased killing mortals when I could avoid it. I let them fall. They gripped their cracked limbs, moaning in agony. “Next time, I will remove them,” I warned.
I ported back to the girl sobbing in the grass and helped her to her feet. “I took care of it,” I told her. She was small and thin, with wispy fawn hair at her shoulders.
“You didn’t hurt Mike, did you?” she said in a shaking little girl voice.
“Who the hell is Mike?”
“He-he’s the one who let them do this. He’s not bad, though. He’s my boyfriend. They were all just really drunk…”
“Do you hear yourself?” I sputtered.
“I love him,” she told me.
I shook with anger. “Love isn’t abuse.”
She met my eyes with a look of ignorant defiance. A look I knew too well. “You hurt him, didn’t you?” she cried. She bolted without waiting for an answer, running back to the house where I’d left the miserable frat boys.
I stared after her, disgust rumbling in my stomach. Where normally I would comfort the hurt woman who’d summoned me with her pain, perhaps even enchant her memories to help her sleep, I was left alone. I ported back to the Crossroads. Some humans cannot be helped. I knew this. It took every last bit of me not to rush after her and shake her for her foolishness.
I planned on a hot bath and tea upon my return, perhaps more snuggles with the dogs, but when I looked up, Nikolas was there waiting. I’d forgotten he was there.
I scowled. “I am in no mood for this,” I told him as I brushed past to gather my hounds.
“Wait.” He caught me by the arm.
On reflex, still juiced up from my anger, I threw him off me with my powers. He slammed into one of the gravestones, breaking it in half. I gasped, realizing what I’d done. I rushed over to where he’d fallen. “I’m so sorry!”
He groaned. “I thought you saved me from death, not be the one to kill me.”
I helped him to his feet. “It’s a really bad idea to be around me,” I told him.
He met my eyes as he stood. “You’re going to have to try harder than that.”
“You’re going to have to try harder if you want to get rid of me.”
I was speechless.
“Look,” he said as he dusted gravestone dust off his pants, “I’m already bruised up. Why don’t you do that disappearing thing you do and let me take you to my house? I think we both could use a cup of tea.”
I was suddenly frozen in place, unable to speak. I knew I must look crazy to him. A dark, unbreakable dam holding squalls of emotion behind sharp blue eyes and pursed lips. I wondered if he could see the goddess behind the youthful face, feel the ancient power pulsating through me, begging for release.
But he did the unexpected.
He hugged me.
I instinctively stiffened, for I hated to be touched. But his hug was light, not forceful, and I could feel the warmth of his heart as it pulsed near mine. I imagined his—soft, red, full of radiant life—and mine, old, black, made of flesh that could not die. He deserved better than me, and still, I softened against him.
Draco broke me out of my trance, nudging my hand as I gazed out my bedroom window at the Cemetery of Restless Souls, lost to memory. The rest of my hounds had returned, Crowley jumping off the bed to greet them, creating a chorus of clinking bones.
I’d created individual places of rest for all the poor souls trapped in my realm, my way of softening their torment. For Nikolas, I’d given him a cabin by the sea, a place I knew would make him happy. A part of me longed to visit, to witness him in his own paradise, to curl up against him by a bonfire as we watched the waves come into shore. It infuriated me how easily he was able to soften my resolve. “I need to leave,” I told my hounds. “I cannot remain this close to him.”
All four beasts stared at me with the same expression.
I scowled, grabbing my leather coat before stomping out of my room. I was going back to Earth. Persephone would have to deal. I was granted the 13th floor of the God Complex long ago, and maybe it was time to finally occupy it.
No sooner had I reached the main hall did another memory come. It hit me harder than the first, knocking me to my knees. I grabbed my head in anguish as I was plunged into the ancient world. I heard the screams of women trapped inside the Temple of Hekate as they burned, saw the carnage I’d created with their murderers, their viscera coating the temple walls like horrific frescos. How I’d almost been banished to Tartarus for the destruction and mayhem I’d caused. It would have happened had I not received a special pardon from the King of Gods himself.
It was quickly replaced by a more recent memory of Nikolas standing against the tempestuous skies, waves crashing angrily around us. A storm crackled on the horizon.
“Tell me to leave you alone.”
I stared at him, entranced by how his eyes seemed to shift color, like waves of earth and sea, wondering if he was as entranced by mine, a color I’ve been told rivals the skies.
“You know I can’t do that.” I looked away.
“Well, I don’t plan on going anywhere. So it seems we are stuck with each other.” He smiled.
The fiery rage that usually surfaced when a man attempted to possess me was not there, leaving me with a swirl of emotions I did not want to feel or sort through. I needed to get out of this place, this beautiful spot by the sea that seemed to ooze romance. The place where we first met, weeks before this moment. Before we slowly fell for one another, despite my internal protestations.
“Are you ready to run then?”
“Stop reading my mind,” I snapped at him, though I was far from angry.
He chuckled. “I thought you’d be the mind reader, being a goddess and all.”
Thunder rolled in the distance, creating turbulence in the waters.
“Look, you don’t want me,” I told him. “I am capable of horrible things.”
He shrugged. “So am I.”
A wave crashed against the rock we stood on, the intensity matching my building frustration. “You have no idea what horrible is,” I growled as I grabbed both of his hands. “So, I’m going to show you.”