I stirred from my slumber the moment the first body floated toward me.
Cocking my head, I stared at the face, lined and weathered by years spent under the sun. The woman was slight, appearing almost childlike with her small, slender legs and arms. Silvery hair undulated like a forest of sea kelp behind her.
Even in death she wore a serene smile, the look of a soul who’d lived life well and on her own terms.
I trailed a finger along the cold flesh of her face, her coloration nothing more than shades of pearlescent blue and white. I knew immediately what she was.
The spirit of the dead.
A life thread cut short by the weighted shears of the three Fates.
What I didn’t know was why she was here. No sooner had I thought it than another body appeared, and another, and another, each carried on a current, looking like a macabre trail as far as my eye could see.
The blue shades were a blight on the golden waters of my home.
My hippocampus, Linx, lifted her head, whinnying at me softly, immediately sensing my discord.
The creature and I had been born together under the same blood-red moon eons ago, she with the head of a horse and the body of a sea dragon and I bearing the image of a woman but both of us born of the same father.
“Linx.” I held out my hand to her. “I don’t like this.”
Unfurling herself like a large polar cat, she stood twice as tall as me. Her coat was a magnificent mother of pearl, while her tail gleamed turquoise with threads of gold bisecting each scale.
Her teeth were large, capable of tearing a man in half, and her eyes glowed a deep bloody red. She was fury and wonder, and I adored her.
Tossing her head, she caused the waters around us to swirl and thrash angrily.
“I’m not angry, my love. Calm yourself.”
I set a hand to her velvety nose. She took several deep breaths, instantly quieting herself and the waves.
Closing my eyes, I “felt,” becoming once more who I really was: the very beating, living essence of liquid life. Water was in everything. There was no place in all the stars closed off to me. I existed in all things, and all things existed in me.
I smiled as above me, otters played, sighed as lovers sank into my cool depths, loving one another for the first time, heart quickening as my children grew and learned and lived.
But as I stretched my senses, I felt the disturbance reach farther than the Under, farther even than the hallowed black depths of the deepest below, all the way to the Underworld itself.
Opening my eyes, I turned to Linx. I could still sense her discord. Her nostrils flared rapidly as she sniffed the fresh, clean scent of salt and sea flowers now mingled with a slight trace of sweet almond odor, a smell typically associated with the freshly dead.
The Gates are sealed.
Linx’s thoughts swirled through my head.
“You know this?”
Where I could feel any disturbance, Linx was more attuned to scent. She could form an image from smell alone just like a predatory fish could, only more keenly and sharply than any other creature in creation.
The scent of golden dew is absent.
I frowned. “Are you sure?”
“Golden dew” was how Linx referred to Persephone, Goddess of the Spring, and Hades’...something.
The tales were never quite clear on those two.
“Zeus,” I muttered. The absolute last place in hell I wanted to be was literally in Hell. The day I was born, I quit the pantheon.
I hated the pettiness of the gods and goddesses, the muckraking, and the constant schemes for power. It was why I’d parked my big, fat, watery ass in Kingdom and stayed put.
Pinching my brows, I shook my head. “Well, I’m not going back there. Hades can just handle this himself.”
Linx frowned, which was actually a grotesque movement of upper and lower lips pulling back to expose the shearing strength of blunt, wide teeth. I lifted a brow.
“You don’t scare me, horse face.”
Anybody else, and Linx probably would have eaten them for such an insult.
The bodies will only continue to circle our waters.
Which wouldn’t normally be a problem; the sharks could handle a few hundred thousand bodies in a day with a little gentle persuasion and some blood in the water. But already I could feel my snaggle-toothed babies going crazy with fury. The bodies felt and smelled very real, but they were little more than ghosts in the water.
There was only one being in all creation that could clean this mess up before it got further out of hand.
“Why has that damn Persephone not opened the bloody gates already!” I stomped my foot, causing the tectonic plates beneath to shift and grumble furiously.
This time, Linx was the one lifting a shaggy brow at me.
You’ve spent far too much time with your son’s mate. You’re beginning to sound like her.
Linx was of course referring to the highly entertaining Nimue. I merely shrugged a shoulder.
“She does not know it is really me. Our anonymity is quite safe, I can assure you, sister.” I smiled sweetly.
You’re stalling, woman. You know we must go to him. Now...
Linx turned, offering me her back. It was sweet of her to offer. But I knew how much she dreaded leaving these waters. Hippocampus were creatures of habit, almost to an extreme degree. They very rarely went farther than a twenty-mile radius in any one direction for the entirety of their lives—which in her case, was eternal.
She was my best and truest friend. I hated to leave her, but...
“I’ll go alone.”
I tried not to sound as grumpy as I felt, but I failed spectacularly.
Linx thinned her lips.
“I’m fine, really. But if I don’t come back in three days, Hades did it, and you should drown him.”
Snuffling softly, Linx floated gently back to the ground, curled her tail tight around herself, nodded, and promptly fell back to sleep.
In seconds, the water churned with the bubbles of her snoring.
“So heartwarming to know how well I am loved,” I muttered sarcastically beneath my breath.
Then, slipping once more back into the form most comfortable to me, I drifted through the currents as swiftly as thought.
My waterways moved like a giant network of roads, with my domicile in Kingdom being its central hub. In mere seconds, I’d slipped out of the waters of Seren and into the River Styx.
The disparity in landscapes between the two couldn’t have been more shocking. Where Kingdom was full of light and sunshine, the waters sparkled like cut crystal, and sea life abounded, in Styx there was nothing but the acrid stench of sulfur, rocks that glistened with molten veins of lava, and chimney stacks that belched black, noxious funnels of water.
Even the skies above were dark and foreboding; the only light came from pits of literal flame interspersed at odd intervals throughout the otherwise dead and barren land of the Underworld.
I curled my nose, wanting nothing more than to turn around and go back home.
“Who disturbs my waters?” a deep and scratchy voice that sounded like dead leaves dancing upon asphalt boomed.
Taking a form that I could speak in, I rose from the river as little more than a pillar of shimmering water and smirked at Charon. The Riverman, as I liked to call him (because calling him a walking skeleton with holes for eyes and bones for hands wasn’t the most polite thing in the world to do), dipped his head swiftly.
“Calypso,” the angry burr he’d had just moments ago vanished beneath shock.
So okay, maybe I’d become a bit of a recluse lately. Like, say, the past eternity or so.
“What are you doing here?” he asked quickly as he sank his paddle back into the waters, slowly ferrying the dead from the land of the living to the land of...well, the dead, of course.
I pursed my lip. “Char, baby, I can call you Char, right?”
I waved a hand, shushing him instantly. “I’m here to see Hades. He does still live here, right?”
The water frothed beneath my feet.
If it was possible for a skeleton to gulp, I was pretty sure he’d just done it.
“Of...of course, goddess.”
Giving him a tight smile, I swished at my imaginary skirts and sauntered by, head held high.
“Moron,” I grumped when he was safely out of hearing distance.
Not that I didn’t like Skeletor, but...okay, I didn’t like Skeletor. I didn’t like being here. I didn’t like these kind of dead, the ones that just floated by and didn’t blink, didn’t twitch, didn’t even say boo. It made me twitchy and grumpy.
So sue me.
I wanted desperately to sink back into the water, but it was teeming with ghost zombies, piles and piles of them. So I had to make do with stepping from one to the next, all the while pretending in my head I was walking on a swinging bridge and not cold, squishy chest parts.
I’d been practicing the past few years, perfecting what it meant to be “human”: how to laugh properly, act properly.
For too long I’d been nothing but the unseen presence of the deep, a heartbeat without form.
Thanks to Sircco’s crazy but wonderful bride, I’d learned the language of the people, and prided myself now on being able to interact well with others. Like, for instance, I had learned that when someone stole from me, the answer wasn’t always to drown them.
Maybe sometimes they were just hungry and needed food desperately. In those cases, a pardon was in order. Of course, with the threat of cutting off one’s balls should they ever try it again.
Or one time, I’d even managed to restrain my violent temper when a pack of bawdy sailors had kidnapped one of my sea maidens, attempting to rape her. Instead of following my first inclination of sinking their ship, opening up a fissure in the earth so that lava spewed up from its guts and boiled them alive, I instead chopped off their balls, boiled them in onion water, and fed them to Bruce, my pet great white.
I was rather proud of myself for that level of restraint. They may no longer be able to sire bastards, but at least they were alive. Win-win-win, so far as I was concerned.
Yes, I was much better at handling my anger now.
Which was why I was going to march in there, tell Hades to open the damn gates (nicely, of course), and then get back home ASAP (another fun little word I’d learned from Nim).
I was just about within spitting distance of the Bony Gates—a very large and menacing gate built of nothing but knuckles and long bones that gleamed a creamy white color—when something caused me to pause.
The Underworld was divided into two regions. On the left was Tartarus: black, leeched of any color save for the red glow of flame, where the screams of the damned were an eternal and lonely wail. And to the right were the Elysian Fields, which were as lovely as the name sounded.
I wasn’t much into land, but if I had to be stuck in any one place for long, I’d choose here. It was a land teeming with wildflowers, with breezes that smelled of every conceivable scent of rose imaginable, where no one aged, because no matter how old you were when you died, you returned to this place hale and whole and more beautiful than you’d been even in life.
Just a sip of the water running through this place could sustain you for a thousand years.
Even now two lovers were cavorting nearby.
My heart raced as a beautiful man with a sharply square jaw and shaggy dark hair lifted a hand toward a woman’s hair that seemed spun from the sun itself. They were both nude and gazing at one another with such fierce longing that it brought heat to my cheeks.
I nibbled on my bottom lip, telling myself I should look away and give them some semblance of privacy.
“Oh, hell,” I mumbled, not like they’d care anyway.
My eyes widened when he dropped to his knees. There was no wooing, no sweet words whispered; he took her in his mouth.
Not that I was shy or anything. I mean, I’d had a gaggle of children. I understood the mechanics of sex. I saw the animals doing it all the time.
And felt the waves rock when my son and his bride “cavorted.”
I felt the life of that act move through my bones like ambrosia, and I couldn’t help but lean forward on my toes a little when she gasped, clutching the Bony Gates with white-knuckled fingers.
The body I stood on dipped beneath me as I shifted again.
“Oh, Zeus.” I clutched at my chest, imagining it was that lovely man’s fingers on my naked body, caressing me, fondling me...touching me down there, with his tongue.
As many children as I’d had, I’d never actually lain with a man. Not once.
Odd thing was, once upon a time, I didn’t used to care about that. Even prided myself on that fact. Like Artemis and Athena, I’d found men lacking.
But now I couldn’t help but wonder whether there was something to this “sexing” thing.
I wet my lips when the woman finally flung her head back and screamed with such rapture that the buds at her feet bloomed brightly.
The man came up for a kiss, and in less than no time, they were off and scampering away like two currently satisfied but still horny bunnies.
As I blinked back to reality, it took me a minute to realize the body I stood on was starting to drift away from where I wished to go.
Glancing around quickly just to make sure no one caught me gawking like a horny bunny myself, I shook off the strange feelings and hopscotched my way across the bodies until finally my feet touched land.
Clearing my throat, I glanced down at myself. Normally I walked with a watery form, but for some reason, today I was feeling “funky.”
I frowned, not quite sure I was using the right word here, but no matter. Squaring my shoulders, I tweaked my form just slightly, making myself more fleshy, less watery.
But then I felt rather dull, so I added just a touch of mother of pearl to my skin so that as I walked, there was a sheen. I saw Nimue do it once. She’d found some sort of lotion and had whispered in my ear that when she’d applied it the night before, Sircco had nearly lost his mind with need.
Not that anyone around here would appreciate my efforts.
In short order, I’d turned my sea-kelp hair into actual maiden hair that ended at my ass. It was now a stunning shade of soft sea-foam green and curled attractively around nubile breasts.
Nimue said men preferred their women nude.
“When in Roman,” I whispered, not really quite sure what exactly that meant, but Nimue said it all the time. Especially when she was trying out new things.
Or maybe she said something else? I couldn’t quite recall.
“Bloody hell,” I mumbled, more nervous than I had a right to be. Gripping my stomach, I studied the gates. Why was Cerberus not around?
The mangy, three-headed demon dog was always guarding the gates. Not only was Persephone missing, now too was the fleabag.
Pursing my lips, both annoyed and irritated, I figured there was nothing to do other than to push the massive gates open myself.
They opened with nary a squeak.
Immediately the backlog of bodies began to push through, being carted off to their proper places of eternal rest.
Huffing, I followed the Elysian trail toward Hades’ home.
A gentle breeze perfumed my bare flesh. The sky was blue. White birds dipped and dived through the air. Bees buzzed. It was all very nauseatingly perfect.
For a God of Death he sure is annoyingly cheerful, I thought.
And where was that damn god, anyway? Why was I seeing no servants rush up to meet me? Hades had always struck me as the pompous sort, theatrical in all he did.
I mean, one look around this ridiculous place—
“Oh, crab apples!” I gasped with delight, veering off the trail to pluck up a juicy red apple in the shape of a crab off a tree. They were my absolute favorites and quite difficult to obtain twenty leagues under the sea.
Taking an enormous bite, I groaned at the salty sweetness of crab-scented apple flesh.
In moments, I spied the grand mansion of the Under Lord himself. The stones that’d built it were as black and foreboding as his very soul. The architecture was Gothic, with massive gargoyles perched on top, claws flared wide as though ready to eviscerate you.
I smiled, quite liking the look of it already.
But still, there were no souls about.
Not even the dead ones. Elysia was devoid of all human life at the moment.
I’d be offended, but then I saw a strip of vivid red splashed along the dirt. When I noticed that, I immediately noticed a rather large strip of grass and dirt blackened by soot and still smoldering as though from a recently banked flame.
Tossing the apple core to the ground, I sniffed the air, scenting a peculiar odor. Tangy. Sweet. And dangerously venomous. Seren cone snail.
I frowned. Seren cone snails were bloodthirsty, devilish little creatures. Known for their paralyzing toxins, they could floor a sea maiden with one prick of their harpoons, knocking her out for days, sometimes even weeks, depending on the dosage administered.
They were also deep-sea-dwelling creatures and should definitely not have been here.
Lightning flashed, and the heavens suddenly quaked.
Glancing to the sky, I shook my head and groaned.
“You deny that you killed her!” Zeus’s voice was like thunder, rocking through the grounds.
More curious now than ever, I shook off my fleshy form like a dog shaking rain from its coat and called to the water in the sky, hiding within a droplet of it, seeking out quickly why the king of gods had deigned to show his face in Hell.
What I spied was more than I’d expected. Not only was Zeus here, but there was a crowd of gods. A pantheon of them, in fact. And at the very center was a giant of a man shackled in iron and yet holding his head high as he glared holy fury at the lot of them.