My breathing comes in short gasps, and I can sense my cheeks, red and flushed, glowing hotly. With my rhythmical movement, perspiration and panting, an outside observer might think my time in the Underworld an exciting one.
I grit my teeth, and continue climbing the endless stairs.
Far below, the halls of what I like to call the “Soul Office” is alive with hundreds of workers, all of them preparing for next week’s celebrations. Among them, my no-longer-lost brother, Nathaniel, is a newly accepted soul. Insisting on staying by my side in the Underworld rather than pass through the waters of death, Nate has taken residence helping collect and guide the souls of the dead.
I’m not entirely sure how he goes about that, but it’s what he tells me they do.
It’s a better job than mine. I grit my teeth harder, turning my face into a scowl.
As I reach the last few steps, I let out a sigh of relief. My heart is hammering inside my chest, and my ragged puffing might have scared me— if I hadn’t already died by jumping off a cliff on my wedding day three weeks earlier.
The door that I need to get through isn’t locked. I’m a little disappointed; I hadn’t been able to showcase my lock-picking skills again. Instead, the handle turns easily as I try to stifle my huffing with the creaking of the door.
As I’d checked prior to my stealth entry, the office is empty. Even still, I let out a sigh of relief mixed with exhaustion. Sneaking up a hefty flight of stairs isn’t easy, especially when dead, and especially when you have to climb out of a window to escape your husband’s watchful glare.
I suppress a smile.
He would probably be realising about now that I’d gone.
Serves him right, I insist, flopping into the comfy leather armchair by the cooling embers of a fireplace. Now, just to find out how to get to that handy portal.
Startled, I leap from the chair. In the doorway, and wearing an expression of utmost innocence, is my twin brother, Nate.
I can’t help but smile. I’d thought Nate lost to me forever; he’d been murdered at thirteen, and I’d vowed vengeance. Young and naïve, my revenge hadn’t been quite as I’d imagined; our mother had murdered Nate, but on another’s orders. Her own twin babies had been swapped at birth, and we’d been put in their place. If she wanted to see her own children, she had to follow the orders of the Spring Court, a faction of gods and goddesses fighting for power in a world of politics.
My own involvement in Spring’s plan was extensive. I’d found Nate’s body after his murder, and I’d witnessed his soul being taken by Death, although I hadn’t known precisely who he was back then. They had planned that— and they planned that my next move would be to meet the King of the Underworld himself.
At the thought of Hadrian, the smile playing around my lips returns, threatening to crack into a grin.
I’d met Hadrian pretending to be a ”bounty hunter“— a job title that required a bit more scepticism than I gave it. Newly dead and trying to find my way to the King’s palace, meeting that beautiful and challenging man was the least of my problems.
Now, he’s one of my biggest.
Because, to me, falling in love with anybody is a problem. Falling in love with a God of the Underworld, in the middle of a feud between other powerful gods, is far more complicated than the inexplicable giddiness he makes me feel.
And giddiness doesn’t solve problems.
I force my scowl to return, and face my brother. ‘What? You’re supposed to be downstairs.’
Nate raises his eyebrows and folds his arms. In a loose black shirt and three quarter trousers, he looks every bit the apprentice of Death. His rounded, happy face and puppy pleading eyes, however, break the mould. He’s difficult to be afraid of; he naturally has the appearance of an angel— one that neatly combs his hair, as brown as mine, into a side parting.
‘You’re supposed to be helping make preparations,’ Nate fires back, trying to look stern.
‘I am helping,’ I lie, hopping to my feet. Waving an arm towards the desk, I flap to find an excuse. ‘I’m looking for Clae’s information...’
On what? I think.
‘On what?’ Nate asks, knowing my lies too well. ‘You’re sneaking off again!’
’At least admit it to me,′ my twin plays the wounded one, giving me a coy look. ‘I’m your brother...or have those years broken our bond?’
Damn him, I think, my gaze moving to glare at the ceiling. He knows how best to make me feel guilty.
But I, too, know how to play to my audience.
‘Are you not worried?’ I murmur, returning to look at him. ’About Hecate, and about Spring...how can we just prepare to celebrate?′
Nate steps forward, placing a reassuring hand on my arm. ‘If we don’t celebrate, then they win. If we live in fear and anxiety, they win.’
’But if we don’t strike before they can...′ I growl, but pause as Nate squeezes my hand.
‘Strike? Ness, Hecate has no army,’ Nate says gently.
’She has Mercer! We can’t just leave him!′
‘Mercer might be the perfect person to leave with her,’ my brother replies, looking thoughtful. ‘He knew her from before, and he loved her then.’
I want to scream at his peaceful notions. If Hecate hurts Mercer, and I didn’t even try to help him...
Soundlessly, I shake my head. There’s a fire in the pit of my stomach, a fire that’s angry at the world for not being easier to make decisions. I just know I have to do something other than stand around and plan for Hadrian’s birthday celebrations.
It had all started after we’d gotten back from Minoa, the island where I’d lived. Instead of allowing me to fight— and most probably, die— against Hecate, Hadrian had forcibly brought me back down here. And the irony is, for all my necromancy and earthy powers, I’m stuck. I don’t know how to leave save for the portal that the soul collectors, like Nate, use to get to the above.
That portal is closely guarded.
I’ve even looked in the library for an alternate exit, and considered jumping back down the waterfall. Visiting Chronus, Hadrian’s elder brother and King of the many Afterlives, is perhaps the only alternative I’ve disregarded.
Somehow, seeing Chronus might make me even more irritated.
‘Ness,’ Nate says in warning, and I notice the tell-tale tremor in the floor— a sure sign I’m about to explode with fury.
Just another side effect of being a daughter of Spring and part of an ancient curse over Hadrian. In the past week, he’s started to teach me necromancy, but he knows nothing of controlling the earth...something I apparently know nothing of, either.
Necromancy. Hadrian’s methods of teaching are slow, involving me reading lengthy chapters and regurgitating to him what I’d learned. He says necromancy is a gift only given to some because of its power and danger, but that means in a week I’ve regressed from feeling enthusiastic to mildly exasperated.
Hadrian consults the Book of Necromancy on a regular basis, to the point where I’m almost certain he consults it to find out how to deal with me whenever I do something against his judgement. Chapter One— the entirety of which I’d read within the hour but had been “reviewing” for the whole week— tells me that I’d gained my power by defying the laws of death; namely, being able to return from the afterlife.
I knew that anyway, and hadn’t needed to read it for confirmation. When I’d told Hadrian, he’d snapped that I had gotten lucky.
I’d show him who was lucky.
The floor begins to tremble again, and I desperately push the anger away.
Nate gives me a galling, knowing look. ‘You can’t do everything alone.’
‘It’s worked so far.’ My scathing remark hits where Nate hates most: the five years he’s missed.
Getting nowhere, Nate tries a different tactic.
‘What are you really doing up here?’
Damn it, I think. I can’t have Nate following me. He’ll never allow me to leave.
Nate wants me to stay here, marry Hadrian, and have his babies.
Nate adores Hadrian. He thinks he’s the first person I’ve ever fallen madly in love with— and, what’s worse, Nate’s convinced he feels the same way.
Instead of fretting over the war I’ve kicked off, Nate wants a real wedding.
‘I’m planning a romantic tryst!’ I shout. It’s the kind of thing he’d love.
I’m half joking, half trying to come up with an excuse— when, to my incredulity, it works.
Nate brightens. ’For Hadrian? For his birthday?′
I hate the way my brother says “birthday”: like the gift I’m giving Hadrian isn’t something to be repeated.
But if he’s actually believing it...
I furrow my brow, genuinely thinking. ‘I noticed when I was last up here that there was a lot of traditional records. I thought I could find something of Minoa...’
Minoa isn’t romantic, it’s a cesspit!
I try not to smirk.
But Nate’s loving the idea. ‘You mean, like a present? Oh, yes! That would be excellent. Or you could make him something. That would be adorable.’
I could make him handcuffs this time, so that he can’t follow me. He appears to be able to break out of magic vines.
If I mention the word “handcuffs”, though, Nate will probably pee himself.
Thankfully, my brother has taken to sifting through records about Minoa; he crosses the room, and kneels before a drawer labelled “L– P”. Pulling it open, he scans through until he finds a dusty binder labelled Minoa.
Nate heaves the heavy file across the room, and lays it gently on the desk beside me. I haven’t the heart to tell him I have no interest in its contents; I stay whilst he starts to flick through.
‘I haven’t read this file,’ he admits, glancing over the first few pages. ‘So I don’t know if there’s anything in here that will be helpful...’
He becomes engrossed in each page; the geography of the small island, surrounded by the sea and its people becoming sea farers. The religion; believing in reigning Courts of Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and the famous Court of the Underworld, where a sacrifice is given every ten years as a bride for the King.
Then, a small biography of the royal families of Minoa, and how the rule was governed half by the Minoan King and the Priestess of the Temple. Both lived in palaces; one of worship and one of grandeur, and both situated at opposite ends of the island, opposing one another.
The Priestess: Hecate.
I can’t believe it.
Hecate has been playing the role of High Priestess for hundreds of years. As a Goddess of three faces, she used one as her identity to govern the Temple of Minoa, and another to select particularly weak male sacrifices by seducing them (and, the last of these, Mercer). The third, of course, was her normal bitch— goddess— face.
Nate appears to be thinking something similar. A line between his eyebrows forms, but he turns the page— onto a montage of the current Minoan King.
The artist’s impression of King Knossus is a slim, serious man with a frown so deep his eyebrows merge into one single unibrow. Despite the stress, he wears royalty well; his slender physique and young age make him look like a young general. His hair is a light brown, and he has a fully groomed moustache. Glinting on his head is a golden band, and he wears a sash of medals and badges of honour that he probably didn’t earn. The background of the picture shows the family coat of arms; a double axe and a snake.
If Knossus knows about Hecate’s deception, I’d be worried. He looks like the kind of man that plots destruction.
After the King, it’s the festival days, religious observances...anything but romance. I don’t know whether to be grateful that I won’t have to endure Nate’s galling teasing or annoyed that we have no reason to stay.
‘This isn’t helping,’ Nate says, frustrated, flipping onto a page entitled: Myths of Minoa. ‘If I wanted a guide...’
He shakes his head. ‘I think we’ll have to look in the palace library,’ Nate suggests, ‘Rather than disturbing this old lot, there’s bound to be more romantic books there.’
I blink at him. Yes, it’s a wonderful idea— if I really wanted to impress my husband with sweet nothings.
I’m more of a sour gal, and sweet really isn’t my thing.
But before I can correct Nate, there’s a commotion in the building below; a fanfare of sorts— slamming doors, a howling from a dog that sounds as though it has three heads, and the sounds of footsteps coming slowly towards us.
At least now I wouldn’t have to pretend to be sweet.
‘What’s going on?’ Nate murmurs, stepping to open the main door.
I leap for the desk, rattling open the drawers until I find the iron cast key of the steps that lead higher again; high enough to take me to a portal back home.
‘My husband appears to have found me,’ I say lazily, quickly checking the key fits the lock. At the noise, Nate finally turns and sees me stealing away, and makes a strangled noise.
‘Ness!’ he hisses. ’What are you doing?′
I grin at him, casting him a wink.
‘Playing hide and seek, dearest brother,’ I say, ‘Don’t tell him where I’ve gone, okay?’
And I slam the door shut behind me.