I saw myself back in the woods, a voyeur to my own memories. Lightning crackled and ripped through the midnight sky, but there was no rain, just a goddess tied to a plank with her chest exposed. She was surrounded by the priests of Hekate, nervously chanting as they tried to maintain a solid enough concentration to keep the magical bonds holding her intact. The ties twisted, like red snakes, around her wrists and ankles. A stick was wedged between her teeth for her to clamp down on. I recognized the magic of Anteros, the god of unrequited love, buzzing about the robed priests who had borrowed it from him. It was the only thing that could hold a goddess, the magic from another god.
I was stoic as they cut her skin, my skin, with a knife, blood splattering the forest floor. The ancient Hekate withstood the pain until one of them took tools to her ribs, cracking open her chest. She screamed and thrashed, but the magical bounds held her firm. The priests trembled with fear as one brave soul came forward, sticking his hand into the gore of her insides to rip out her still-beating heart.
A random bolt of lightning struck a nearby tree, which promptly burst into flames. But the priests did not cease their work, the heart still shuddering as they bound it and captured it in a jar. Somehow the branch had fallen out of Ancient Hekate’s mouth, and her screech reverberated throughout the forest, forcing the men to their knees. The strongest amongst them fought against her power, now freely radiating from her body. His voice turned to a shout as he yelled the incantations to piece her back together again. He eventually collapsed like the others, dead, but not before her chest was magically sealed. The bonds that held her dissipated, the sky calm.
“Well, that was intense,” a voice said from next to me.
“You!” I whipped around to lunge at Phobetor, but he jumped out of the way.
“You shouldn’t be worried about me,” he said. “You’re the one who refuses to wake up from this nightmare.”
“You’re the one who put me here!”
“Do we really need to rehash everything?”
I turned back to watch my ancient self, chest jaggedly sealed, limping to retrieve the encapsulated heart.
“I hid it away,” I suddenly remembered. “For millennia. That’s why I never loved anyone again after my husband. Then how did I fall for…”
I turned, but Phobetor was gone.
I had been ported back to the Underworld, the dream Underworld, of course, to witness yet another memory. I was in my castle, the old furnishings enabling me to place the date. It was right around the time Phobetor and I had broken up.
I was holding the door open as I stared at my front steps. Waiting there was a bouquet of dead, black roses. I looked highly annoyed, but I bent to pick them up. The moment my fingers touched the bouquet, I collapsed into a deep sleep. My hounds, which had grown concerned, approached me only to fall asleep themselves.
“What the hell?” I murmured. I couldn’t recall this memory at all.
That’s when I saw Phobetor appear on the front steps.
My eyes widened as I watched him enter, gently flipping the sleeping me over. He pulled a jar out of his coat pocket with one hand while his other pooled together his dark magic.
My chest split open painlessly, I didn’t even open my eyes, and he unscrewed the jar to expose my old heart. It had long since ceased its beat, now black and decayed, as one might imagine a dead heart to be. His magic brought it to life, giving it an internal red glow that grew stronger, forcing it to shudder out a single beat. Then he dropped it into my gaping chest. It immediately attached, as if grateful to be reunited with its goddess.
His hand hovered over me until my chest sealed, then he grabbed the jar and leaned to plant a kiss on my forehead. Then he was off into the night, and the slumbering me was left none the wiser.
I was dumbfounded. I looked down, fingering my chest. My heart was back. No wonder I’d fallen so deeply for Nikolas. That part had been real. Unfortunately, I’d fallen in love not with a sorrowful mortal with gentle eyes but with a shape-shifting trickster who I couldn’t trust as far as I could throw him. And I really, really wanted to throw him.
I felt a tongue on my cheek.
My eyes popped open to see all four of my Underworld hounds staring at me. I was finally awake.
Before I could say or do anything, I noticed a pair of red high-heels staring at me from where I lay on the floor. I bolted upright.
“Why are you sleeping on the floor?” Atë asked, confused.
I looked up to see my goddess best friend standing in the doorway, perfectly coiffed, as usual, in a glorious shade of red. She held a pair of black stilettos in one hand and a black slinky dress in the other.
“Why are you here?” I asked her, groggy and confused.
“Duh,” she laughed at me. “The party is tonight. Good thing I brought you some clothes. You’re a mess.”
I rubbed my temples. “I had a really rough night.”
“Well, you’d better get your shit together,” she suggested. “You wouldn’t answer your phone, so now we’re running late. You know how I hate being in the Underworld as is.”
I tried to clear the cobwebs out of my brain, but all I could think about was everything I’d just learned from my dreams. “Well, when we get back, I need your help killing Phobetor.”
Atë sighed. “Now what? On second thought, save it. Party first, catch up later.” She thrust the dress and shoes into my arms.
I internally groaned. It felt like it was going to be a long night.