I awoke with a start.
I was in Nikolas’s bed again, in the realm he’d created for his afterlife, as if the events that transpired leading up to that moment had never happened. He was fast asleep, turned away from me with the blanket draped over his bottom half, exposing his bare back and the dip of his waist. A cool breeze drifted in from the open window, tossing his hair.
I knew it wasn’t Nikolas. I knew I was still in my nightmare, but I laid back down to snuggle against the warmth of his back. I knew he wasn’t real, but he smelled like Nikolas, his skin soft and smooth against my cheek. I closed my eyes, pretending the moment was real life. That I wasn’t trapped in a labyrinth of my own nightmares, that we were just us for a while. As angry as I was at the sequence of revelations that had followed that moment, I wanted nothing more than to rest there, in the fantasy of what could have, should have, been.
“I told you you love me,” he murmured.
“Shut up, you’re not real,” I said softly, without getting up. “Let me keep pretending you’re him for a bit longer.”
He rolled over and pinned me with his body before I could escape, his mouth on mine, kissing hard and deep. I knew it could have very well been Phobetor who was now caressing my breasts and grinding against me, but at the moment, I didn’t mind. I was swept up by the way he, Nikolas-Phobetor, knew how to bend me to his will, to play my body like a precious instrument until he created an orchestra of pleasure within me that drowned out the roar of the sea.
After I was quite sure I couldn’t handle much more, I jumped up to straddle him, keeping my eyes closed as I slowed things down to my own rhythm. Yet, when I opened them, it was not Nikolas’s face I saw beneath me, but another man’s. I was jolted so hard that I nearly fell off the bed.
At some point during our escapades, I’d ported back to the ancient world and now sat inside the seaside villa I’d once lived in with…
I was in complete shock as I stared at the man below me.
I was sitting astride my husband.
He looked up at me with his kind, royal blue eyes, now marked with concern. “What’s wrong, my love? Did I hurt you?”
“No,” I whispered, trying not to shake. “I just don’t feel well right now.”
The man I’d once met on the beach so long ago, the one I’d fallen in true love with, the one who decided to marry me even though he knew I was a goddess, gently removed me from on top of him. He scooped me up into his arms, cradling me like a child. “Can I get you something to make you feel better?” he asked as he stroked my hair.
Before I could reply, I was ripped out of his loving arms and violently thrown into another dream.
I was on the same beach where we’d met, but the sky was a dingy grey, ghostly fog hovering over the waves and blanched sand. I looked up to see my friend kneeling before me, an old mortal man who looked at me with somber eyes. “Oh, sweet Helen. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
I was crumpled in the sand, my face wet with tears, confused for a moment before I felt the searing pain, the excruciating reminder of where I was. I screamed as my heart abruptly shattered, my entire body succumbing to the agony that tore through me upon my revelation. I tried desperately to hold back my emotions, lest the weather respond and the mortal friends surrounding my husband and I realize I was much more than I seemed. My oldest friend helped. He hugged me close, keeping me afloat as my body was wracked with sobs.
I could hear the crackle of the fire before me, but I couldn’t look up. I didn’t want to witness the body of my sweet, elderly husband eaten by the funeral pyre’s flames. He and I had made this choice long ago. He would die a mortal death, and I would let him, drachma on his eyes so he would rest in peace. But the day finally came, and I’d held him in my arms as he took his final breaths. I knew we’d made the right decision, but it took everything in me to allow it to be.
I had loved him completely. He was my husband in every sense of the word. I’d known the warnings about mortals and gods falling in love, yet from that moment on the beach, I knew I wanted to spend as many days with him as I could. He accepted that I would be young and barren forever, and I accepted him even as he withered away. My love for him never stopped, just like it hadn’t then, as my friend held me sobbing in the sand.
I was ported out of the repressed memory and put back in the forest where I’d seen myself conducting the necromancy ritual. It was quiet, the priests long gone. The pyre was cold ash, rivulets still in the dirt where the snakes had roamed and left. My face was still tear-streaked as I looked up to see a black dog, my Cassius, staring at me with solemn chocolate eyes.
I knew it was just a dream, but I was still embarrassed by my display of emotion. I never let anyone see me weak, not even my canine companions. “I didn’t kill that young man,” I told him, motioning to the extinguished pyre. “I never brought my husband back through the ritual. I chickened out.”
Cassius had a voice in my dream, echoing telepathically in my mind. “You chose to let the innocent boy live and your husband rest,” he corrected me.
“Why am I still asleep?” I asked him. “I faced my worst nightmare. I faced his death. I remember now what I’d forgotten.”
Cassius cocked his head to the side. “Yes, but what did you do after his death?”