Hades holds my hand gently but firmly as he carries me with him into the Underworld, as smoothly as stepping through a door. His route is direct, the privilege of being the King.
Go to Hell. Go directly to Hell. Do not pay coin. Do not cross over the water.
We step out in the gardens surrounding the palace. Through the trees, I can just see the glint of the Mnemosyne, shining silver in the sun. My kingdom, Propylaia, lies on the far shore of the river, its banks still shrouded in lavender mist. Had I brought myself below, I would have emerged before my own palace, surrounded by gardens as wild as Hades’ gardens are tame.
I was not always able to come and go here as I pleased. For a long time, Thanatos had to bring me on the nights we would meet up with Dinlas and Hypnos. Those were the days before Hades tasked me to guard his southern borders. Before Propylaia was mine, before Hades entrusted the land before the Gates to my rule, keeping me close to his queen. Before Hades placed that pretty leash around my neck called a crown. An unnecessary leash, for by that time, duty had already brought me to heel.
I never minded Than sweeping me up and carrying me off here. There was something wonderful about waiting for him on the balcony and feeling him wrap himself around me. Then the world would shift, Than would unfurl his wings, and I would step out into the tangled forests of Propylaia.
The Pack always met on the river’s edge, west of the ferry point. There, in a small cove hidden from sight by the steep shoreline, we would plot our mischief for the evening. If mischief presented itself, we would laze by the fire, warming our insides with liquor Dinlas pilfered from Hades’ private stash.
I remember the night Than taught me how to cross the veil on my own.
Dinlas had made off with three bottles of pomegranate spiced wine. It was my favorite, and I think he knew it based on how he smiled at the delight on my face. I flopped down beside him, watching as the firelight made the wine glow like liquid garnets, waiting impatiently for him to open the bottle. The minute I heard it unseal, I made a grab for it. He quickly moved it off to the side, his long arms putting it well out of my reach.
“Not even going to say please, Princess? I do believe we’re starting to rub off on you,” Dinlas teased.
I made another grab and almost ended up in his lap, making him laugh. I settled back down next to him, arms crossed as he took a long drink, eyes on me, making me wait. And wait. And wait. Having got the rise out of me he wanted, he finally relented and handed the bottle over.
“You’re an ass,” I mumbled. He grinned like it was a compliment.
The bottle was still warm from his lips as I drank, determined to keep pace with him, just for spite. His eyebrows shot up, eyes dark with amusement, as I lowered the bottle to check the level, then drank again to make sure I’d outdone him. The alcohol hit my system like a velvet hammer, sending an instant flood of heat through me.
Spiced wine, dark cherries…I wondered what Dinlas would think if he knew the reason I loved this wine was that it brought Hades to my tongue. I passed the bottle off to Hypnos while I could still blame the flush in my cheeks on drinking too fast.
Hypnos crawled my body again with his eyes as he took the bottle from me and passed it to Thanatos. Thanatos looked at it like a snake and shook his head. Hypnos shoved it at him and said, “Come on, Thanner, you gonna let a slip of a goddess drink you under the table? For fuck’s sake!”
Than bobbled the bottle thrust into his hands and gave me an uneasy look before taking a respectable drink. The wine did nice things for his lips, I thought. Than handed the empty bottle back to Hypnos.
“Open another, Din. Hekate’s going to finish the next one, aren’t you? Show my pathetic brother how it’s done!”
Dinlas opened the next bottle and passed it to Hypnos, who took a long swig, smacking his lips before handing it to me. He waited until I had a good grip on the bottle before yanking it back in his direction, hauling me along with it. As I fell against him, his arm went around me, tucking me into his side as he laughed.
“Look, Thanner, I do believe she’s falling for me. Might have to rethink what I said about keeping her.” Hypnos gave Than a needling look, then smiled down at me, slipping his hand around the back of my neck. “All kinds of places for princesses to disappear down here. I wouldn’t even have to tie you up since you can’t go back and forth without Thanner.”
“Knock it off, Hyp,” Din’s voice held the sharp edge of a challenge.
Hyp’s dark eyes were like oil slicks. They made me want a bath. His threat sent a spike of adrenaline through my system, burning through the effects of the wine. Hypnos released his grip, and I shoved myself away from him, edging back toward Dinlas. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Thanatos stumble to his feet. I don’t know if it was the wine in his system or something else, but he looked…well, as close to angry as I’d ever seen him.
“I can teach you, Kate!” Than’s words came out in a rush, almost desperate.
“Teach me what?” I asked, keeping Hypnos in my sights. I was trying to play it cool, but Hyp’s words had me unnerved. I could hear it in my voice.
Hypnos slowly turned his head and stared at his younger brother, pinning him down like a moth to a drying board. Than refused to look at his brother, keeping his eyes on me. Everything about him seemed to shake, from his voice to the tips of his wings.
“I-I can t-teach you to go back and forth. Y-you have m-magic, so I know you c-can do it. S-So you aren’t trapped.”
I flicked a glance at Dinlas to discover he seemed as shocked as I was. Than was…standing up for me? Against his brother? Hypnos sat calm and still, watching Thanatos with cold, flat eyes. That made me more nervous than Than’s sudden display of courage. I got to my feet, uneasy at the energy in the air, the threat hanging there like a storm waiting to blow.
“Come on, Thanner. Let’s see you do it. Teach the little witchling how to slice the Between.” Hypnos stood up and stepped close, glowering down at me. His smile was sharp, cutting. “I bet she’s a good student, aren’t you, Princess?”
Moving away from Hypnos, I backed into Dinlas. I wasn’t even aware he’d stood up. I felt his hands close on my shoulders and move me away from him, pushing me around the fire towards Than.
“Show her, Than. And when you’re done, I have a few things I’ll show her, too.” Dinlas said, eyes flashing. He stared Hypnos down, a wolfish smile on his face. “A little fight to go with that flight.”
Hypnos laughed and flopped back down, reaching for the bottle of wine he’d set aside. He took another long pull and wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve. “Flight… Fight…” His eyes roamed my body as he said, “Left the best F-word for me.”
I think if Hypnos had still been on his feet, Dinlas would have decked him. Hypnos huffed at Dinlas standing sentry over him and dove back into the unfinished bottle of wine.
I focused on Thanatos. “So, you can really teach me to do this? So I can come here whenever I want?”
Than nodded, then seemed to remember something and added hastily, “B-but I can still come get you. I like…that.”
I watched Thanatos’ face flush. The color in his cheeks deepened as Hypnos started laughing. “He just likes having you all pressed up against him inside those wings of his, don’t you, Thanner?”
If looks could kill, Hypnos would have been begging me to stop. I looked back to Than. “Ignore him. He’s just jealous that I like you better.”
“Y-you do?” Than’s eyes widened like it was some shock of news, or maybe stunned that I’d actually said it aloud.
“Mm-hmm. Probably why I fling myself in your arms night after night and say, Take me away!” I gave Than a coy smile which made him blush again, but in a good way. Dinlas winked at me. Anything I could do to get Than focused on me and not Hypnos was good right now.
Than glanced over his shoulder at his brother. That was short-lived, I thought as I reached up and gently turned his face back to mine. “Does Hypnos have anything to do with what you’re about to teach me?”
Than shook his head, swallowing hard.
“Then, he doesn’t exist until I get this right. I’m counting on you to make sure I don’t get stuck in the Between. Show me, Than. What do I have to do?”
In later years, I would always think back to this moment as the first time I glimpsed the Thanatos I know now. I don’t know if it was what I said or how I said it, but Than straightened his shoulders and stared down at me with a resolve that reminded me…well, more of Dinlas than anything else. Even his voice steadied as he explained.
“There’s actually very little holding the Above separate from Below,” he said, reaching for my hand. His thumb rubbed a circle on my palm. “As thick as a layer of skin. It just seems…more. Because it’s two whole worlds, not just the inside and outside of a person.”
I nodded to show him I understood, and he paused for a moment, searching for how to explain it. I got the feeling maybe he hasn’t had to explain it to someone else before. It made me smile.
“Just like a dagger can cut through skin, you can learn to cut through from one side to the other. You just have to remember to stitch it back up. Always stitch it back up.” He gave me an uneasy look that told me there’s a story there I’m going to have to dig for later.
“Can only gods do it?” I asked.
“No, mortals can, too. When they’re being born, when they’re dying. They can pass through because they aren’t weighed down by their flesh. Every single soul up there is carrying around a corpse. It gets in the way.”
“But, then, how do some of them end up down here still, you know, alive?” I asked, intrigued. There had been a couple of nights when we had stumbled across some wayward mortals in the woods, so I knew it was possible.
Than scratched the back of his neck, searching for words again. “Think of it like a hole for a toggle or a brooch. Sometimes the worlds lineup in certain places, a door here and a door there, and mortals can just fall through. Not that Mr. Hades likes that. He really doesn’t like that at all.”
Dinlas’ lips twitched along with mine. I said, “I can imagine. So, you can teach me how to cut through. Is that it?”
“That would be the easiest way, I think. You aren’t like me, so…”
He hummed for a moment, thinking to himself, then his eyes lit up with an idea. Thanatos circled around behind me and turned me to face the river, black in the moonlight…or whatever passed for moonlight in the Underworld. He stood close behind me, just off to my right side.
“You can make shadows with your magic, or at least control them, right?” Than had a far-off look in his eyes, obviously remembering the first day he brought me below, and how I cloaked myself to run Dinlas’ gauntlet. When I nodded, he said, “That’s what I need you to do. I need you to use that same energy, call to the shadows, make a blade out of them.”
I frowned at him. “Do what?”
“It’s no different from making a cloak, Kate,” he said, “and you can do that just fine.”
“There is a difference. Pulling shadows around me is just…covering my body. Not making something solid.” I kicked at the shoreline, toeing the sand. That’s it!
I picked up a handful of black sand, the kind that edged the banks of the river here, and concentrated, pulling energy from the earth beneath my bare feet, from the fire behind me. The sand glowed, melting and shaping itself as I chanted. Slowly, the blade began to take shape. The curve of the hilt fit itself to my hand as I elongated the dark glass into a wicked point.
Vessel shaped, I used the spell I’d spoken the night I’d nicked the ruby from the mine, calling the shadows to me. There were plenty here, eager to respond, even more than when I was Above. I extended my hand as they slithered up my body and down my arm. The shadows flowed into the knife, anchoring in the glass. The blade took on a swirling sheen, then a keen edge. Light from the fire slid over the dagger, through it. I held it up to the flames, admiring its semi-translucent form.
“Damn,” Dinlas said, eyeing it, or me, or me and it. Probably the knife, given the look in his eyes. I turned to Than, smiling, giddy with what I’d been able to do. The look on his face was pride and…something else I later realized was much more.
“Will this work?” I asked him.
“It should. Shadows aren’t bound by anything. They can go anywhere there is light,” he said, turning me back around toward the river. I felt his hand beneath my elbow as he lifted my arm, straightening it to lie on top of his. He aimed the dark blade in my hand at the river. “There’s a certain…feel to it when you reach through that layer. I’m used to it, but you aren’t, so I’m going to help you.”
I took a deep breath and nodded, trusting him.
“Let your eyes unfocus. Think of the world beyond this one, the one you want to see, to go to.”
I stared out over the river and suddenly understood why he faced me that way. The water moving in the night already seemed to blur, wiping away traces of its passage. I wondered if this was how Than learned, guided by the river.
“Keep drifting, Kate,” he said. His voice was warm, more hypnotic than Hyp’s ever was. I don’t think I ever told him that. “You’ll see it, feel it. Just a slight tug, like someone pulling a sheet off a bed.”
I jumped as the air in front of me shifted. The sight of the river in front of me now laid over top of the image of the lower gardens in Olympus, the two pictures sliding against each other, unable to come into focus.
“Good, Kate,” Than said, pleased with me. “That was easy. You’re a natural. Now, all you have to do is make a cut and step through.”
I raised my hand, laying the sharp edge of my dagger against the tenuous barrier my eyes could now see. With a deep breath, I drew my arm downward, bending to follow it to the ground. The blurred illusion parted like flesh for a sword. I straightened, grinning and staring at the darkened hedges of the gardens on the mount.
“I did it.”
Elated, I spun around fast, intending to hug Than and not let go. Dinlas called out a warning to Than just in time for him to thrust his body backward, away from the blade in my oblivious hand. Hypnos fell over on the ground, laughing so hard he couldn’t speak.
Dinlas skirted the edge of the fire and took me by the wrist, prying the blade gently from my hand and reversing it, point facing inward along my inner arm. He scolded me in a tone that was part teasing, part deadly serious. “And you were doing so well, Princess. Guess I know what I’ll be teaching you. For our safety, as much as yours.”
I blushed, knowing he was right. I had almost skewered Than as a thank you. I tucked the blade behind my back and winced up at Than. “Sorry.”
Than ran a hand back through his perpetually mussed hair. The shyness was back. To tell the truth, I’d missed it. “It’s…it’s fine. You d-did good. T-told you, you’d learn fast.”
I look over my shoulder at the doorway, still holding. “It’s getting late. I should go. Want to go back with me, Than? Show me how to seal it up on the other side?”
Than nodded and smiled, stepping to the gate and motioning me for me to go first. “Yeah, that part’s easy. Don’t n-need a blade for that.”
I turned to go, and stopped, looking down at the shadow dagger for a moment before walking back to Dinlas. “Hold out your hand.”
Dinlas arched a brow, suspicious, but did it anyway. I pressed the hilt of the dagger into his open palm and spoke a word of shaping. As his fingers closed around it, the shadowed glass softened, molding itself to its new owner before solidifying again. He stared down in wonder, eyes moving from the dagger, to me, back to the dagger, unsure what to say.
I backed away with a smile, and stepped across the threshold of the Between, into Olympus.
“Wolves need teeth,” I called back to him. “Besides, I can make another.”