I yawned, grabbing my favorite coffee mug out of the cabinet, the scalding coffee I poured into it creating a plume of steam above the words, Resting Witch Face. My eyes struggled to fully open, but as I glanced out the window to admire the freshly coppering leaves, I noticed the hemlock concoction I kept on the windowsill was low. I sighed, then took a slow sip of my pumpkin spiced elixir, making a mental note to harvest the last baneful plants from my garden before Demeter descended into her autumnal depression.
Cursing, I nearly tripped over the four black hounds sprawled out around my feet as I fumbled for my phone. Sure enough, I’d missed exactly thirteen texts from the Harvest Goddess’s illustrious daughter, the last one in all caps.
Persephone: WHERE ARE YOU?
I flew up the stairs to my bedroom to throw on clothes—a black sweater, black jeans, boots. I raced back downstairs, grabbed my now cold coffee, and flew out the door to my car. How could I forget the most important part of the year? I thought as I jammed the key into the ignition. I’d accompanied Persephone to the Underworld for millennia. Of all the times to forget, why today, why now? And of course, it’s on the day my earthly powers are the weakest, and I’m forced to travel the old-fashioned way. My phone lit up again from the passenger seat, bright and angry. “I’m coming. I’m coming,” I muttered, hitting the gas.
No sooner had I pulled the car out of the garage did I hit the brakes, fumbling out of the driver’s seat and back through my door. My hounds stared at me, unamused. “I know, sorry!” I said as I gave each one of them a hug and a scratch around the ears. “You guys know the drill. I’ll be back soon.” I opened the fridge so they could help themselves to breakfast. They were self-sufficient when I was away, but I’d filled it with fresh cuts to alleviate my mom guilt.
The full moon brightened as I finally left my house, situated as far on the edge of the God Complex as possible. I dipped beneath the trees and traveled deeper into the Olympian National Park to the Crossroads. I’d designed the shortcut to the Underworld long before our second coming, as a safe way for me to travel with Persephone as she made her annual descent. We could technically access it easier through the Gods Complex HQ, but I loathed the city, and no matter what she told everyone, I knew Persephone hated it, too. The problem was, the Crossroads needed me to stand in between them at exactly midnight on Halloween in order for them to work, and I was dangerously close to missing that window.
I glanced at my phone, ignoring the onslaught of frantic text messages. The clock let me know I had only minutes to spare. I finally saw the circle of torches burning brightly. As I got closer, I could already feel Persephone’s trepidation. No matter how many times we’d done the six-month switch, it was never easy leaving her mother, no matter how much she loved Hades. For me to be late on the most emotional day of the year for her was a perfectly awful thing to do.
Biting my lip against the guilt, I hurtled the car down the familiar dirt path, realizing with a groan that I’d forgotten to pack. Living between two worlds was never easy, and I frequently forget what belongings I had in what realm. Though I could still be summoned to Earth during my sabbatical, both Hades and Persephone preferred I stay in Propalyia as much as possible, and I did loathe having to run back to my above ground house. I was thoroughly convinced that my hounds enjoyed their little six-month vacation without their overprotective mother looming over them, making them take baths, and hang out with her. After several years of back and forth, it was the consensus that I should remain planted.
Luckily, one of the perks of owning my own sliver of the Underworld was that I could easily manifest a toothbrush if need be. I just hoped the clothes I left down there still fit. I hadn’t eaten right since…well, since everything that happened with him.
I reached my destination, and wrenched open the car door, jogging down to the circle as the echoing howls of distant hounds announced my arrival. I almost tripped over my unlaced boots as I approached the figure standing calmly in the pre-autumn wind. Persephone looked relieved to see me, the firelight throwing amber shades into her light eyes.
I took a deep breath, trying to look casual as I ran my fingers through my wild black waves. When was the last time I showered? I wondered. “Hey, Kore.”
The Goddess of Spring had that eternal youthfulness about her that would never fade, with sandy waves that spilled down the front of her pale pink dress. She had packed a small Bohemian style bag and had it slung over her shoulder. I knew it was filled with new sundresses and dried flowers. Hades bought her anything she could ever want, but she loved to bring along things that reminded her of spring. I was her opposite, standing there in yesterday’s black eyeliner and ripped black jeans, a perfect contrast to her pastels. I longed for the Underworld, to be back amongst the dead.
“I’m really sorry I’m late,” I offered.
She gave me a sweet smile. “I know you haven’t been yourself lately. After what happened.”
And there it was, precisely what I did not want to think about, the lingering black cloud that had descended over me and refused to leave, growing heavier as the leaves bronzed and a chill crept into the air, a reminder of the one waiting for me in the Underworld.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I muttered, stepping forward.
Persephone, thankfully, did not push.
Fortunately, the two natural paths that formed a cross in the forest were already pulling us, the energy palpable, pushing my heartbeat into my throat. I loved Earth, but there was something about the icy grip of the Underworld that called to me, serenading me with its cacophony of wailing souls and the promise of quiet corridors I could get lost in. I’d been reluctant to take the job at first because who wants to play chaperone six months a year? But over time, I’d learned to love my job as Queen of the Restless Dead.
I felt Persephones’s hand slip into mine. It was comforting; I was not one for connecting with others, but Persephone and I had formed a sisterhood overtime that had yet to be severed.
“You ready, Hekate?” she asked.
A horrific vision slipped past my mind, Nikolas lying dead on the bathroom floor, his beautiful lean body sprawled across pools of crimson, like a broken doll. The last words he’d ever spoken to me echoed in my mind. There is no point in me living without you.
I shoved it away. “I’m ready,” I told her firmly
The energy pooled around us and pulled with invisible strings until the sounds of the locusts and wind were replaced with the howling dead. I held onto Persephone tightly, knowing she hated this part the most, her eyes squeezing shut as her gold hair whipped around her. I kept mine open, watching the Earth crumble around me as we fell, until we landed in a mire of swirling shades and frigid air, jagged black rock all around us.
“We’re here,” I told her gently. I guided her along to the Elysian Fields, her island while Hades was away.
She pulled me into a hug, and I tried not to stiffen. “Thank you, Hekate. I know you need time to adjust to being back. Coffee later?”
“Sure thing,” I murmured, letting her slip inside the vine-heavy gates to the sparkling rivers that would carry her to her warm and pleasant realm.
I turned away, back into the ominous darkness, my pace steady but languid until I could see my palace looming in the distance. Dread nestled into my stomach, even with the welcoming howls of my Underworld hounds keeping time with the cries of the dead. Would I see him as soon as I arrived?
I reached my own gates and opened the foreboding black iron with a flick of my wrists, briefly reminded how much I loved my Underworld powers. I used potions, tinctures, and spells on Earth, but down here, I had free reign. I sealed them behind me, the sounds of the shades trapped at the bottom of the hill, reaching a deafening peak. I waved my hand to hush them, and as I turned back towards my palace, I saw him waiting patiently at my front door.
Nikolas, the mortal I had fallen in love with but convinced both of us it would never work, only to discover later that he’d ended his own life and chose not to cross the River Styx to a place of rest. That he’d chosen to remain forever in torment with me.
He looked just as I remembered him in life, intimidatingly tall but gentle, hesitant, with kind hazel eyes gazing adoringly from behind a fringe of brown hair. His lips turned into a sheepish smile as soon as he saw me. “Welcome home, love.”