I really disliked cement. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I hated it, but my feelings came close. Cement was a relatively new invention. At least, it was to me. When I used to come to Earth, it was always to enjoy the natural gardens of the wilds or see how my flowers and plants were thriving that year. Cities were not my thing.
Another car horn honked at me as I darted across the crosswalk. Bare feet sizzling, head spinning, and limbs shaking, I stumbled to find shelter on the other side of the walkway under a potted tree.
I thought the red lights on the sidewalks were for the cars to stop! Don’t vehicles always make way for pedestrians? This is so stupid. I’m in over my head. How am I going to find the children’s mother in all this commotion? I can’t even think straight, much less see past all this smog.
I attempted to steady my nerves by taking a deep breath into my lungs. Instead, my chest filled with smoke, and I proceeded to cough my brains out. My recovery took me a good minute, but finally, I wiped my watering eyes and looked down the sidewalk to my right. A greasy gentleman in a black leather jacket and fedora was leaning on the wall of a pawn shop just beside me. He chewed on a cigar, tilting it this way and that between his lips. He caught my eye, a sly grin inching onto his face as he winked at me. I abruptly looked away, feeling violated, then marched past. But his preying aura crept into my empathic field, bogging me down. I wanted nothing more than to escape his presence. Escape this place. There were people everywhere, and emotions clouded the air as thick as the smog. I snapped my empathic shields into place, blocking out the chaotic static around me. I thanked Zeus for these shields. It had taken me years, but I’d finally mastered the art of blocking others from drawing on my emotions.
Focus, Kore. You’re here for a reason. Don’t let the riff-raff distract you. This is for Luke and Lila.
“You’re lookin’ a little lost, sweety,” said a voice behind me. I didn’t turn around. I knew it was the cigar man. Don’t talk to him. Don’t talk to him. I quickened my pace.
“Hey, what’s wrong? You in trouble or somethin’?” the man asked. I heard his fast footsteps trailing behind me.
“I’m fine, thanks,” I replied curtly.
“You sure don’t look fine. Where’re your shoes? And why’s your dress all torn?”
“I fell off my horse,” I mumbled, “but I’m fine.” Only after I spoke did I realize I sounded crazy.
“Your horse, huh?” The man chuckled. “The only thing I’d expect you to be ridin’ in that dress was—”
“Listen,” I whirled around to face him with my fists clenched, “I don’t need your help, so leave me alone.” The man held his hands up in surrender and backed a few steps away with that same sleazy grin on his face.
“Alright, sorry, ma’am. Jus’ tryin’ a help a damsel in distress.”
“I’m no damsel, and I’m not in distress,” I hissed. Then I turned and stormed off.
I’m the Queen of the Underworld.
After that, the man quit following me to my great relief, but the strange looks I got from the rest of the public were far from over. Especially because of my bare feet. I came to stand in a crowd of people at a street corner, curling my toes to ensure they didn’t get accidentally stepped on. One degenerate wolf-whistled at me as I passed him by, but I paid him no heed. I was looking for any sign that would guide me to Luke and Lila’s mother. My powers did not usually lead me astray. And if they did, it was always my fault. I could misread the markers, though that was a rare occurrence. Still, I hoped I would not be so unpracticed as to mess up now. These children depended on me.
Since my portal had opened up in the middle of a street, I assumed, with a heavy heart, that the children had died due to some kind of car accident. But what of their mother? I wandered around for a few more minutes before I found a newspaper kiosk. I hoped the local paper would help me and examined the most recent headlines.
The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, and the Daily Herald all jumped out at me in bold-faced letters, but none of the titles mentioned any car accidents or recent deaths. I frowned and crossed my arms, glancing around me. Everyone was going about their business, hustling to and fro in their ultimate march toward the Underworld.
I was beginning to lose faith in myself. If there had been any lead to the children’s mother, surely I would have seen it by now.
I could ask for help. I have friends that would probably—no. No. I pinched the bridge of my nose and hung my head. Most of my friends don’t even know I’m back yet. And I’d have a lot of explaining to do. It’s better if I handle this alone for now. But what if I can’t figure this out?
The delicious smell wafting from a nearby taco truck beckoned to my tastebuds. I glanced over to the line of people waiting for their tacos and sighed. I would have liked to buy something, but unfortunately, I had no mortal money on me. As usual, I’d come into this situation rather unprepared.
Why am I so impulsive? Why do I never care to plan things out? I shook my head. Enough negative self-talk. If I can’t find any trail to the mother now, maybe whatever traces there were have already been erased? Either way, I can try again once I’m better prepared. I’ll go back to the children, tell them I’m still searching, and then try again tomorrow.
Resolved, I turned to search out a private place to portal back to the Underworld without attracting too much attention. That was when I saw the cigar man standing leisurely at the crosswalk across the road, watching me from under the brim of his hat. A prick of fear coursed through me, causing chills to skitter up and down my spine.
No. I will not be threatened by a mere mortal, I thought angrily. I lifted my chin, making it clear I was staring right back at him. The crosswalk light lit up, and the Cigar Man crossed to me. The devilish smirk never left his lips, even as he removed his cigar to speak.
“Decided you’ll talk to me now, hmm?” he said.
“Why are you following me?” I demanded. He took another drag from his cigar then lifted his chin, his eyes sparkling.
“I know you’re lookin’ for someone,” he said.
“And?” I asked.
“She’s not here,” the man said. I frowned, suspicions fully aroused.
“Who’s not here?”
Cigar Man cocked his head, and a golden tooth flashed from the far left corner of his mouth. “The mother.”
“You know her?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“What sort of manner?” I said, folding my arms. I was losing patience.
“We’re rather new acquaintances,” he replied.
“Where is she?” I exclaimed.
“You just missed her, I’m afraid,” he shrugged. “Maybe when you try again tomorrow.”
I stiffened and looked around. “Why should I come back tomorrow? Does she come here often?”
Cigar Man nodded and smiled. “She does.”
I pursed my lips. Something still didn’t add up.
“Why are you helping me?” I asked.
“Call it a favor.” He flicked down his finished cigar and stamped it with his shoe. Then he lifted his eyes slowly, raking over every inch of me from my feet to my head until we locked eyes. I waited for something. He winked. Then he turned and wandered off into the crowd.
Who in the world was that? I fumed. Of course, I was curious but not curious enough to follow him or ask any further questions. Part of me wanted nothing more to do with him. The other part wanted to know just how he knew who I was looking for and how he’d known I would be coming back tomorrow. Fear trickled down my spine, and I shuddered.
I have to get out of here.
I scuttled away with a group of laughing pedestrians and found a small park. Thankfully, it was sparsely populated, and I found a cherry blossom tree to settle by. I touched its bark and focussed on Arion.
Take me to Arion. I willed the portal to open, and the bark began to peel away, revealing a small, glowing gateway. Taking one last hasty glance around me to make sure I wasn’t being watched, I stepped through. I re-entered the Grieving Gardens. Only now, they were deathly quiet. The children were gone. A soft nicker interrupted the stillness, and I turned to see Arion approach me. He set his muzzle against my hand, and I was glad for the kind greeting.
“It’s nice to see you again, too,” I said. I found a stirrup and bounced up into the saddle, taking hold of the reins. Arion turned his nose immediately back to the palace, and I let him burst into a gallop. As we tore across the field, I could not help but wonder what I had gotten myself into…
Who were those children? Who is their mother? And why am I the one caught in the middle of this?