Hekate and I, along with the she-wolves, trotted through the subterranean passages. Our footsteps splashed as we moved, and shadows flickered eerily off the walls when the flashlights scanned about.
Now and again, I would check the chalk markings on the walls that I left in order to find my way back. “It’s right up here,” I said to the witch as I wiped my sleeve across my face. The odor wasn’t overwhelming, but it was close. Mold, garbage, and human waste had all made their way into the massive drain system and, in conjunction, were hard on the nose. We turned a final corner, and I pointed to the alcove. There, on the right, the Minotaur remained trapped behind iron bars. Calli and Ao had lured him in there, then escaped between the bars, which were too narrow for the Minotaur to pass. Now I needed Hekate to help me remove the mask and lift the curse to rescue Eleni.
Hekate hadn’t spoken since we entered the massive underground drainage system, but her eyes were constantly moving, scanning the walls and everything else. The creature was sniffing as we approached and snarled openly the moment we came into sight.
“Well, here it is,” I said to Hekate. “I have no idea what to do with it, though.”
Hekate stepped closer to the cage, looked at the Minotaur for a moment, then retreated to a safe distance. She indicated the bars. “This cage was your idea? Because magic and iron don’t get along.”
“Well, I had to work with what I had. But the iron bars are just on one side. Can’t we just magic our way around them?” I asked as I wiggled my fingers in front of Hekate. “The girls lured him in here, then slipped out. There wasn’t much else to work with down here.”
“Not criticizing your trapping skills, Din,” she said with a crooked smile. “In a perfect world, this would be great. However, that stone is reinforced with rebar. So. Iron cage.”
I stood for a second and let her words wash over me. If she was right, then it was likely magic wouldn’t work from the outside. I rubbed the back of my neck and asked hopefully, “Can you just stick your hands between the bars and, you know, zap him that way?” As I spoke, the monster paced back and forth, glaring between us and snorting angrily at its predicament.
“I appreciate your confidence in my abilities, but no.” She eyed the Minotaur and dug around in the pocket of her jeans. A moment later, she pulled out a large silver medallion, etched on one side with a labyrinthine symbol. As it flashed in the dim light of the sewer, the Minotaur stopped, as if hypnotized.
“First, I need to figure out what’s going on here.”
I moved closer to the bars, the Minotaur still stared, transfixed and unaware of anything else. Hekate stepped within grabbing range of the Minotaur, bringing the medallion close to her cheek, forcing the Minotaur’s eyes toward hers. For several long moments, neither moved. Then, Hekate stepped out of range again and palmed the medallion. I retreated as well.
“You want the good news or the bad news?” she asked after a second.
I hate when people ask me this question. I mean, who wants bad news?
“I guess I’ll take the bad news first, then we can end on a high note,” I replied as I looked over at her.
Hekate crossed her arms and turned to face me. “The bad news is…we’re going to have to go in there. With it.”
“I’m sorry?” I heard myself say. “You want to do what?”
“I don’t want to do a goddamn thing in that cage, Din. But for anything to work, we’ve got to either let it out and risk it running loose if it escapes us, or we have to go in there with it and do what must be done and take the risk upon ourselves.”
I rubbed the back of my neck again as her words sunk in, then replied, “You mentioned a ‘good news’ part?”
“Yes, good-ish.” Hekate stepped closer, away from the Minotaur, lowering her voice so only I could hear. “I found Eleni. She’s in there. And I know a way we can get her out.”
I looked at Hekate and thought about her -ish for a second. This thing was over seven feet tall. There could be several Eleni’s stacked in there. With the medallion back in Hek’s pocket, the creature was back to pacing and snarling. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, and I hadn’t even heard yet how we were going to do it.
“Alright. So you’ll hypnotize him with that medallion, then what? I go pull the mask off? I mean, I don’t even see the outline of it anymore.”
Hekate gave the Minotaur a nervous glance and tugged at my sleeve. I followed her back to the last junction of tunnels and the wolves padded along behind us. She bit her lip, obviously thinking about how to explain what we were going to have to do.
“Eleni is trapped inside her mind. While the Minotaur was distracted by the medallion, I was able to look beyond the mask, into Eleni. Well, what’s left of Eleni. On the outside.” Hekate took a deep breath. “There’s some sinister magic on that mask, Din. Whoever puts it on…well, they fold in on themselves. The part of them that would normally react to the danger of the mask and remove it gets spliced off and trapped inside a labyrinth of their own making. Like the one Daedalus built, but invisible. Inverted. Making sense so far?”
“Well,” I said as I thought about her explanation. “If that is true, she’s never going to remove it herself, I assume. So then what? How do we get her out? We can’t physically go into her brain and pull her out.”
“There’s a way.” She gave me an almost mischievous smile. “And you’ve already done it. Several times, actually.”
I frowned. I couldn’t imagine what it was I had done several times already. Hekate and I were close as kids, but we hadn’t been around each other in a long time.
“I’m almost afraid to ask.”
“Remember when we used to sneak into Dion’s rooms in the palace to find out where he kept his stash of the good stuff? Same thing.” Her lips pressed together in a grim line. “Higher stakes, though.”
I looked at her, then back down the passage where the Minotaur still paced and grunted. I remembered, I remembered it well. She would pull my soul out so I could then pass through doors and walls. From there, it was easy to find his stash, return to my body, and drink for a week sometimes.
“So you are going to pull my essence out of my body, and I go in the cage? Into her mind and look for her?
Hekate nodded. “Well, we go into the cage. For the magic to work, I can’t have those iron bars between me and it. But otherwise, yes. Just like before. I’m going to tether you with a thread of my essence, send you on belay into the inverted labyrinth to find Eleni. Meanwhile, I’ll…hold the Minotaur. The medallion won’t help much. The minute the spirit shackled to that mask realizes you’re trying to take Eleni back, it’s going to fight. We’ll have limited time.”
There was nothing more to say. If Hekate said this was the only way, then so be it. “Alright, let’s do this. Let’s get it over with.”
Hekate walked back to the cage. Her eyes were far off as she looked at the Minotaur. “I’m going to make a suggestion, Dinlas. And you aren’t going to like it.”
I didn’t respond, but rather just looked at her and waited for the suggestion.
“I’m going to suggest we leave your body outside. That way, if the worst happens, if we can’t save Eleni, if I can’t hold the Minotaur, I’ll have a chance of yanking you back out. Your spirit will seek its natural home and return to your body. Safe outside the cage.” She gave me a side glance through lowered eyes. “So, you can go home to Nyx.”
I looked at her evenly. “And what about you?”
“If we get to that point, Din, it will already be too late for me.”
“So I possibly trade you for Eleni? One friend for another? Or worse, lose you both?”
Hekate gave me a hard look. “This isn’t the time for philosophical bullshit, Din. Do you want to save Eleni or not? I’m trying to minimize casualties here.”
“Yes, of course,” I replied as I chewed on my thumbnail. “Okay then, what do we do?”
“Take a seat over there, out of range of this thing’s arms. But give me your key. I’m going to draw you out of your body and tether you, then open the door and shut it behind us.”
I grimaced at the floor and looked for a somewhat clean spot. There were none. I handed Hekate the key to the iron gate, then sat down against the wall. Once she took me out of my body, it would slump useless, so I laid down and let my head rest on the wet stone. I glanced up at Hekate and said, “Don’t you dare risk yourself. If it goes bad, jerk me out of there, and you exit the cage.” I then closed my eyes and waited to feel her pull me free of my body.
I heard her crouch down and felt her lay her hand on my chest. It had been thousands of years since we last did this. I had forgotten how it felt until her magic slid between my spirit and body. She was a chisel slipping into a crevice, prying my essence away from the rest of me. Pain isn’t the right word for the sensation. It was more like being peeled apart. I felt her hand leave my chest and sat up. Well, part of me sat up. My body continued to lay there on the cold stone, lifeless as a corpse.
Hekate, in her flesh, stood up and waited for my spirit to do the same. She gave me a look, making sure I was okay. I nodded once. Smiling, she closed her eyes and laid a hand on her chest, over her heart, and I heard her say something. Her voice echoed in the ether between us, distant and hollow like she was worlds away from where I was standing.
I watched the outline of her hand begin to glow with golden light. Slowly, she hooked her first two fingers inward, drawing up a thread of her essence, unravelling it from the weave within. With a quick motion, she pulled the thread free and touched it to the space where my heart should have been, connecting us.
She took a deep breath, feeling the anchor take hold. “There. That should do it,” she said. Her voice echoed inside me through the spiritual tether.
I nodded. Here, in this alternate plane, I looked the same as I always did, but everything around me appeared hazy and ghostly. Hekate looked like an apparition, as she had told me in the past I did to her. I looked down and saw the outline of my body lying on the floor of the passage. The wolves were guarding my physical form, but watching my spirit. On the other side of the iron bars, I could see the fleeting movements of the Minotaur pacing and staring at me. Not my body on the floor, but me, my essence standing before him. Clearly, it could sense me. I looked at Hekate and nodded to her that I was ready for her to open the iron gate.
“Follow close behind me,” Hekate said, slipping the key into the lock. “I don’t want this thing slipping past me.”
She reached into her pocket again for the medallion and drew it out, holding it before her like a holy symbol as she pulled the gate open. It took a tug, then it shrieked on its hinges as it swung open. The Minotaur backed away, toward the corner, away from us. I followed Hekate through the portal, feeling the burning touch of the iron around me as I passed through it, and into the cage. Next to me, Hekate locked the gate shut, eyes never leaving the Minotaur.
“Alright. I’m going to use part of my energy to keep it still.” As she spoke, I felt a thrum of power ripple through the cage. The Minotaur seemed to freeze in place, range of motion limited by whatever Hekate was doing. “All you have to do is touch the mask, Dinlas. The enchantment on it will do the rest.”
I stepped forward and peered into the eyes of the Minotaur for a moment. I could see inside. Lights flickered, and shadows danced in its pupils. I checked my tether once more, glancing back over my shoulder at Hekate.
“Go safely and quickly, Dinlas,” she said, her attention bent on the Minotaur. Then, she gave me a crooked smile. “And don’t fuck up.”
I took a deep breath and touched the mask. Immediately I felt myself sucked into the mind of Eleni, the mind of the monster.