My breath caught in my throat as the canoe headed to the dark swirling portal in the middle of the river. I knew it was supposed to take us to the Underworld, that my hellhounds wouldn’t put me in danger, but it was hard to believe that when it looked as if I were about to tip into oblivion. When the bow of the little boat vanished in front of me, I had to grip Hunter’s hand to stop the scream from escaping my throat.
His auburn head leaned toward mine as he whispered calming words to me. While I wasn’t sure exactly what he was saying, it was at least helping me stay somewhat calm. The portal stretched up out of the water and devoured our two canoes. Darkness descended, and I felt myself slip into the space between realms, a space I had been to more than I had ever intended. Just as quickly, I was wrenched out of the space, and I heard the boat splash as it connected with water once more.
I hadn’t even realized that I had closed my eyes until I had to open them to see what had happened. In the entire time since the hellhounds had come into my life, I couldn’t remember ever being pressed so closely against Hunter. At some point, I had moved from holding his hand to gripping his whole arm and pressing my whole body against his side while I tucked my head against his shoulder. Not very badass of someone who was supposed to be the future queen of the Underworld and might have to fight a goddess to claim her throne.
The light had changed as I looked around, and I found myself, along with everyone else in my little group, floating on a strange river that glowed in a way I had only ever seen in bioluminescent water. It looked as if we were floating on a sea of stars. The sky, if it was sky, was dark with no moon in sight, making the water seem even brighter. I couldn’t make out the shore on either side, as there was some kind of fog covering the water in the distance.
No one in the boat spoke as we moved along at a decent pace. When another boat floated up next to ours, I almost lost my cool, what little of it I had remaining. The thick planks of wood looked ancient, and the curve of the boat’s structure didn’t make it look any younger, either.
I didn’t expect the tall, muscular man who stood in the center. A cream cloth covered his body in a way that made him look like a Greek god. I mentally laughed at myself as I thought the expression. It was a weird thing to think since I knew the gods were real beings now.
“Charon, good to see you,” Hunter said next to me, the formality of his voice making me wonder exactly where the ferryman sat in the hierarchy.
“You as well, hound. Is this the new queen?” Charon asked as he used the pole to support his bodyweight, leaning on it as he bent down to look at me.
I refused to flinch away, allowing him to stare, to take me in as I did the same to him. His skin was pale with almost a gray tinge to it, while his face was gaunt, showing off high cheekbones, a long nose, and deep-set eyes that shone like silver. They reminded me of the agents of Hel, and I had to work to keep eye contact with him and not grab the oars from whoever was holding them and row us away.
“She will fail.” His words fell from his mouth like a proclamation made of lead. I felt each of my guys tense next to me as his words sank in. Even my judges seemed offended that he would doubt me.
“No, she won’t,” Knox growled behind me.
“She will. Hel is already here. This mostly human girl will not be able to defeat the Norse goddess of Helheim,” Charon said, waving his hand at me as though to dismiss any talents I had.
“We are all here. For the first time in centuries, there will be a new ruler of the Underworld. Hel can try to take it from Poppy, but she won’t succeed, especially not if we all support our new queen,” Hunter said. His voice was low and quiet but had just as big an impact as Knox’s growl.
“How did Hel get in?” Emmett asked.
“Her dead helped her. She is in the palace now, trying to figure out how to claim the throne without the all-important blood of a descendant.” Charon’s tone made me think that he not only wasn’t impressed with me, but also that he thought the whole descendant of Persephone and Hades thing was overrated.
“And you did nothing?” Cassian demanded.
“I am the eternal ferryman. What goes on beyond the shore does not concern me. The only reason I came over was to advise you that your rooms appear to be safe, from what I’ve seen, but that the palace is not.” Charon’s dark orbs burned in the light as he directed his stare at Cass before cutting over to Knox, Emmett, and then Hunter.
The original three simply nodded at him in what I assumed was thanks, or maybe a show of respect, or a combo. It didn’t really matter. All I knew was that Charon rubbed me the wrong way.
“Doesn’t mean you should just let someone destroy your home,” Shadow’s voice sounded behind me.
I turned in my seat, feeling a little more confident now that we had stopped moving, and looked with my guys. Hunter’s warmth at my back made me feel secure and protected even as I looked at the other six men who would lay down their lives for me, and wasn’t that a scary thought? Ever since I had found Shadow, the last judge, I felt as if I had found my home, as cheesy as that was.
“Don’t test me, child, or you will end up in my river.”
“Charon, they don’t mean any disrespect. They simply are new to our world,” Hunter said behind me.
When I looked over at Shadow, he was having a staring contest with my redhead. I sighed and shook my head before I gathered all the regal bearing I had, pulled myself up straight, and said, “It was lovely to meet you, Charon, but I would really like to be on solid ground soon.”
He simply nodded and pushed his boat away using the long pole he had been leaning on. The boat seemed to distort in my sight, being long and short at the same time, the old gray wooden planks becoming shiny and new. Even the dull metal circles that ran along the side gleamed in the light for a moment.
“Well, that was interesting,” a voice muttered so quietly behind me that I couldn’t tell who it was.
“Charon is an ancient being. Don’t take his threats lightly. This water is deadly to any living being, and yet he survives being splashed with it on a daily basis,” Hunter said.
“So he just threatened Shadow’s life?” I asked, anger rolling through me as I turned to Hunter.
He just nodded.
“Let’s get to the shore before I do something I regret,” I ground out.
I heard the paddles lift behind me, gently splashing the water as we began moving forward. The water rippled as we cut through it, except now instead of being enchanted by its beauty, all I saw was something harmful to the people I cared about. I knew logically the water wasn’t out to do harm, but until we were all on dry land, I wasn’t about to let my guard down.
The glowing lights that I had first thought were stars no longer held the same fascination, and as I looked at them more objectively, I could see that they floated in pairs. The more I looked, the more I saw, and the more I wished I could unsee. They weren’t lights and it wasn’t bioluminescent. The river was full of spirits or souls—I didn’t know what the correct terminology was yet, but I knew dead people when I saw them, and right now, they were all around me.
“Why are they in there?” I asked Hunter quietly.
“For some reason, they couldn’t cross on Charon’s ferry, so they can either haunt the shores of Styx for all eternity or they can go into the water.” His face was drawn as he answered my question in the same subdued tone that I had asked it in.
I kept waiting for their unfocused eyes to look over at me, or ones that were closed to blink open, as if we were in a classic horror movie scene and the screech of the violins would play soon. It never came, though. All I noticed was the shadow that slowly began covering the water. When I looked up, all I could see was the fog fading and a giant wall rising out of the water. It stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions and become one with the darkness somewhere above us.
The closer we got, the larger I realized the wall was. It wasn’t big; it was immense. My brain couldn’t fathom the distance that it covered, or the height, but the closer we came to the structure, the further back I had to lean to even see it, to the point that I almost relaxed and let my head fall onto Derek’s knees behind me.
Hunter nudged me, and when I looked at him, he nodded in front of us. I sat back up and saw a small black hole in the wall that seemed to be growing by the second. It was an archway with two small windows on each side. As we passed underneath the archway, I felt as small as an ant. The ceiling was so far above us that I’d have wagered it was as tall as the Sears Tower, while the walls felt too far away for me to really call it a tunnel. The light, what little there had been, had completely disappeared. Even the water was dark for a moment.
It was almost uncomfortable and reminded me a little of a sensory deprivation tank I had tried once with my best friend, Rox, except I wasn’t floating in ten inches of super-saturated salt water. The silence was almost as deafening, though. All I could hear was the rhythmic splash of the paddles and my own heartbeat.
The light returned, as did the souls in the water, after we cleared the wall. The small tributary that had branched off Styx wound its way around trees and hills, all of which looked shrouded in the darkness of the night. As the river serpentined, a structure became visible, with two giant forms on each side and a dark door-shaped area between them.
A large doorway was ahead of us at the end of the waterway, and next to it stood a giant statue of Cerberus on one side, and the lesser known two-headed brother of Cerberus, Orthrus, on the other. All five heads were terrifying. They were snarling and looked so lifelike that I expected drool to drip from their open mouths. Their pointed ears and giant paws with claws that looked as if they were scraping the ground underneath them made me do a double-take so I could reassure myself that they were just statues.
The closer we got to the door, the more I realized that a red glow emanated from between the two doors, which had been left slightly ajar, so I could see the red light streaming forth and anything that passed between the two heavy pieces of wood. Hunter was instantly on alert, his whole body tensing next to me as though he were preparing for an attack. When I saw a flash of pale skin between the open doors, I knew his instincts were right. We were under attack.