I arrived in a cloud of smoke, but not the kind from campfires or incinerating buildings, rather the fragrant vapors of dried sage and incense. I waved my hand to clear the air, focusing on the young woman sitting cross-legged before me. Her altar boasted the number thirteen with three silver keys scattered around it, adorned with obsidian and ruby stones. I smiled at her attention to detail, even though I was in the middle of painting my toenails and a bit annoyed to have been interrupted. “Hello, daughter,” I greeted her, doing my best regal goddess voice, the one I used with young mortals. “And why have you summoned me on this night?”
I could never guess what they wanted. Witchcraft had become more commonplace than ever before, and I was summoned for everything from a wayward lover to a straight up assault. Those were my favorite to exact vengeance upon. I had friends in all the right places to ensure the guilty party would experience painful suffering before spending an eternity in Tartarus. I had it down to a science, rarely having to get my hands dirty.
However, this girl was different, despair hanging around her heavier than her shroud of flavored smoke. She was painfully young, but her eyes betrayed a life of trials, shadows exaggerating the angles of her face. Her voice shook as she spoke, “Goddess Hekate, forgive me for summoning you to my humble altar. It is my brother…I don’t think anyone else can save him.”
I was moved by her emotion, but hesitant. “Most summon me to punish men, not heal them. There are many others you can call upon for such matters—”
The girl rose to her feet in one fluid sweep, desperation replacing her sorrow. “Please,” she begged. “He…he can’t stop…” I was struck by a succession of visions radiating from her, flashes of blood drops on bathroom tile, of hospital whites, psych wards, tears streaming down her face as she looked through unbreakable glass.
“I’m not good with…emotions,” I tried to tell her, immediately wanting to flee.
“Please,” she begged.
I sighed, crossing my arms, knowing I’d regret what I was about to say. “Fine. Picture him clear in your mind, and I’ll see what I can do.”
I closed my eyes, and when I opened them a second time, I was in a cave, a dying fire sputtering at its core. I saw a crumpled figure nearby, his head buried in his hands. I realized we were by an ocean, crashing waves echoing around us as the wind tossed the meager flames, drawing shadows across the wall. His sadness was thick and heavy, overwhelming the space and making it difficult to breathe.
He looked up to reveal dark, bloodshot eyes that studied me listlessly. He didn’t demand, simply asked, “Who are you?”
“I was walking along the beach, and I saw the light,” I lied. “I thought someone needed help.” I hesitantly approached and was startled to discover that beyond his deeply tragic eyes, his face was quite beautiful, like a star that had burnt out and tumbled from the skies. Messy brown hair swept across his forehead, unkempt over hazel eyes that seemed to brighten as I grew closer.
“Forgive me, I thought I was alone,” he said softly.
I hoped the dim light would keep me from looking anything other than a curious young woman that had been walking along the beach. Most mortals bought the act, but a few saw the goddess in my eyes. I had a strange feeling like he was one of the few that would. “Are you planning to kill yourself, then?”
He looked startled before he glanced down at the fresh razor blade sitting neatly on a nearby stone. “I’ve been staring at it for an hour now,” he told me. “My sister would never forgive me. But I’ve yearned for death for a very long time. Just never very successful.”
“May I sit?” I asked him, gesturing to another stone across from him.
I lowered myself delicately on the rock, finding myself close enough now to see the youth in his face, bearing the dewy skin all mortals seemed to have. “But you’re so handsome and so young,” I blurted out. “You have a lot of life yet to live.”
He laughed, surprised by my candor.
Dammit, this was exactly why I was terrible for this sort of thing. These situations needed someone who could speak delicately, could be tactful. Why didn’t I just tell his sister no?
“I hate to break it to you,” he said, “but you don’t look much older than I do.”
“I get Botox.” I sniffed.
He chuckled again. I could feel the mood around us lifting. “Listen, it doesn’t make sense to anyone normal,” he began. I found myself enjoying the way his lips slid over his teeth as he spoke. “It’s just how I am—I’m broken. I can come up with a bunch of reasons why, but you’ll argue them all, and then I’ll have to pretend like I think you’re right, like you’re convincing me. In reality, there is no reason why I want to die. There is just no reason why not.”
I blinked. “The Underworld is not the happiest of places. I wouldn’t exactly be in a rush to get there.”
He snorted. “I don’t believe in religion.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “Well, regardless of your erroneous views of the afterlife, I’m now invested in your well-being. I can’t exactly leave you here to kill yourself and go about my merry way.”
“Yeah,” he sighed, glancing at the blade. “Maybe another day. I’m sure my sister will thank you.” He rolled his sleeves down over long forearms, riddled with various scars. “Would you like to walk on the shore with me?”
I blinked again as he stood, frozen for a moment before I hopped to my feet. I noticed he was a bit taller than I was comfortable with. I hated when men looked down at me, but it was so rare, I’d forgotten. Not with him, though. The way he looked down at me was not so bad at all.
Dammit, Hekate, don’t do this.
“I’m Nikolas,” he offered.
“Kate,” I lied.
“Well, Kate, you either have really good or really awful timing. In any case, I’m glad to meet you. Shall we?” He motioned towards the mouth of the cave.
I turned and led the way out, not realizing at the time that that simple walk on the beach with a broken man would have led me on a journey beyond what I could have ever imagined.
The memory drifted away like beach sand, replaced by the chilling, dismal realm of the Underworld. Nikolas looked at me with the same sweet but mournful eyes he had the day I found him, the same smile dancing on his lips.
Angry tears hovered in my own eyes, the kind that had both sadness and fury. I could only whisper, lest they’d spill out. I hated showing emotion and avoided it at all costs. “Why? Why didn’t you just pay Charon?”
“You know why,” he said softly as he took a step forward.
I took one back, continuing to oscillate between fury and sorrow. “I told you that you needed to pay him. I warned you.”
“I don’t believe in religion,” he shrugged.
“Bullshit!” I cried. “You fell in love with a damn goddess!” The skies cracked out a bolt of lightning, causing my hounds to howl, a reminder that I was Propalyia’s queen and the realm bent to my will.
He gave me a sad smile. “I was going to do it eventually, love.”
“It’s miserable here,” I gestured all around me, pointing to the black hills and skeletal animals that scuttled around the dead forest. To the graveyard that housed the restless souls, each one serving as a portal to their own resting place. To the fence where they gathered to moan, begging to be let out to join their loved ones. As much as I tried to make their lives comfortable, they were trapped here, the rules of the Underworld. How could he choose this over peaceful rest? After all he’d been through?
He grabbed my face, forcing me to look into his eyes. I hated how I melted between their soft caress, how warm his hands were even in death. “The restless souls hang onto the walls, begging to be let out to see the ones they love. I would have been on the other side, begging to be let in here. How could I have chosen anything else?”
“You are a fool,” I told him.
“Yes, I am. And I don’t care.”
I slipped from his grasp, my face burning. “You have a place here like everyone else; it’s created once you enter. You can’t expect to just come into my home after how things were left.”
“I know.” He nodded. “I expected as much.”
I marched up to my castle, wanting very badly to flee the entire realm. I thought of Persephone and how angry both Hades and Demeter would be if I abandoned my post. I spun back around, trying not to be disarmed by his endearing expression, by the love in his eyes. “I need time.”
“I know. I’ll be here.”
I didn’t respond. I couldn’t respond. The hounds picked up their mournful chorus as I turned on my heel, marching up the stairs and into my Underworld home.