June’s disappearance would have made more sense if her apartment had become a crime scene, with smashed furniture and yellow tape, definitive marks that something had happened. Instead, Cressida had to make do with one email, and as she stood in her aunt’s tidy living room, she read it again on her phone, dissecting it, looking for anything that might make a woman disappear as handily as a magician’s trick.
“Found something wonderful,” it read. “Maybe impossible but still wonderful. See you soon. Love, Aunt June.”
Wonderful could mean anything, but to June, who signed her emails like letters, it had to mean a relic of a bygone age. Impossible meant something that other experts had dismissed as myth, but if anyone could find the impossible, it was June, the woman who’d taught Cressida that studying classical literature had more to it than dusty old books.
But June’s apartment wasn’t Greece, Turkey, or Libya, all places June had once taken Cressida, wanting her to stumble on the secrets and tales just waiting to be discovered. And this wasn’t a story told around a flickering campfire like those that had guaranteed Cressida would follow somewhat in her aunt’s footsteps and seek out a doctorate in classical literature, so close to her aunt’s doctorates in archaeology and classical studies. Cressida’s parents had warned her that June would get her into trouble, that June’s study bordered on belief, but this wasn’t trouble. This was just…gone.
Four days and no news, unheard of for a woman who loved to share her discoveries and stayed in touch almost daily while she was jaunting. Cressida had tried June’s contacts in Greece and various universities, but no one had a clue. Her apartment sat as if waiting for her. With all her bills set on auto-pay, it would wait until the money ran out.
With the email reciting itself in June’s high-pitched, excitable voice, Cressida searched. She felt like a snoop, but if she went missing, she hoped someone would do the same to find her. The bedroom was tidy, the clothing utilitarian with only a few empty hangers and clear spaces in drawers. Her backpack was gone, no surprise when jaunting after the impossible. The police wouldn’t open an investigation because she’d clearly left on her own.
June’s study looked like Archaeological Digest with its framed photos of dig sites and artifacts fighting for space with artists’ renderings of every goddess imaginable. Snaps of every relic June had ever authenticated were packed into thick scrapbooks.
Her laptop sat on the desk in between mountains of paper. Strange, she usually traveled with it, and Cressida wondered if its presence was a clue in itself. She flipped it open and turned it on as she had before, hoping that it would miraculously bypass the password screen this time. She’d already asked her parents for ideas, and they’d gone through every myth they knew.
Cressida rested her chin on one fist and wished she’d watched more crime shows or that she knew someone who hacked computers, but TV hackers usually only hacked the computers of the dead. Cressida shuddered and pushed that thought far away. A dead June was impossible; it would be like killing a tornado.
She turned to the stacks of paper, looking at those on top. Most were copies from university reference texts. Most were in Greek, and from what Cressida could make out, most were about the Underworld. June had highlighted a few lines about Hercules visiting the Underworld. She had the entire tale of Orpheus’s attempt to rescue his wife, and she’d underlined passages in The Odyssey. She had articles on the gods and monsters who were said to dwell in the Underworld and the Titans who were imprisoned there. She must have been hard at work on her next article, but what could she discover about myths of the Underworld that hadn’t already been written? On top of one paper June had written, “Eleusinian Mysteries,” and underlined it three times.
Cressida frowned. The Mysteries were the secret rites of an ancient cult that worshiped Demeter, goddess of the harvest, and her daughter Persephone, queen of the Underworld. But the Eleusinian Mysteries had died out long ago, as extinct as the worship of the ancient gods. As secret rites, all that was left of them was rumor. Maybe June had found some new insight.
But if she had, she hadn’t written it down anywhere for Cressida to find. She pulled June’s email up on her phone again. “Love, June,” it read, and June didn’t even write “love” when she emailed her sister. Cressida had been included on some of the emails between her mother and her aunt; they’d been signed, “Best, June,” or “Have a good one, June.” They loved each other, but they weren’t so close that they just up and said it.
Cressida looked to the password field on the laptop again. “Oh, Aunt June, tell me you didn’t.” Cressida typed her own name into the password field, and when the start screen loaded, she felt both elated and ashamed. It wasn’t as bad as “1234,” but it still made her cringe.
When she opened June’s email and saw the flight confirmation, she punched the air. It was for London, not Greece like she’d thought. But before she could call June’s friends in the UK, she noticed the flight was going the wrong way. London to Austin, a recent ticket for someone called Nero Georgiou.
Who named their child Nero? It was dated one day before June had sent her email to Cressida. She kept scrolling and found a reservation for the Doubletree near the university. Cressida picked back through June’s papers until she found a sticky note with the words, “Nero 319,” a clue that had meant nothing before.
“Got ya!” She pushed back in the chair, but whom had she gotten? A lover? Possibly. June found lovers at every port, of every sex, but she hadn’t yet flown any to her. Maybe Nero was just that good in bed.
With forward momentum pushing her along, Cressida grabbed her purse, locked up, and nearly ran to her car. As quickly as the lights would let her go, she sped toward the university district and parked at the Doubletree. She passed through the lobby and strode toward the elevators as if she had a right to be there. June had always told her that the right look went a long way; a confident gait had gotten her into many exhibitions she hadn’t been invited to.
Outside of 319, Cressida hesitated. What if June was in there, and the two of them had been lost in a haze of drunken sex? No, she still would have found time to call. And the sex couldn’t be good enough to be called wonderful and impossible.
And if June was in there hacked to bloody pieces? Cressida’s hand fell again. She looked down the hall, measuring the distance to the elevator and stairs. She looped her purse around her fist and hoped it would make a good enough weapon. She owed it to June to see this through. She hoped Nero was some visiting professor, maybe an expert on the Underworld, and that he’d have a simple explanation for June’s disappearance all ready.
She knocked and lifted her purse, ready to wail on whoever answered the door in case the explanation was murderously complicated.
“Who is it?” Not June’s voice, a man’s, a bleary one by the sound of it.
Before she could answer, the door opened, and a young man in a half-tied robe blinked at her. She hesitated, purse still lifted. He pushed black hair out of his eyes, looked her over from head to toe, and smiled. “This must be my lucky day.”
She gave him the same once-over. Skinny, very young, definitely not June’s taste. “I wouldn’t count on it.”
He stood wide, gesturing for her to come in. “Did one of my friends get me a present for being such a good boy?” His accent pegged him as British with a hint of something else, possibly Greek. In his sty of a room, sheets were strewn everywhere, clothes on top of them. Room service trays perched on various surfaces. If the maids had been in since he’d taken up residence, they’d probably died of fright, and he’d stuffed them under the bed.
“You a dancer, sweetheart?” he asked.
Cressida strode past him, confident she could break him in half if necessary. “I’m looking for my aunt June.”
“Never heard of her.” But he turned away as he said it. He looked about nineteen. Not a visiting professor then, unless he was a genius.
“Are you Nero?”
“The one and only.”
“Then I’m betting you know the woman who flew you over here.”
He blinked at her hazily, and she noted the liquor bottles scattered here and there. A bra hung from one of the light sconces. Bright turquoise, it didn’t look like June’s style.
“I know lots of women, sweetheart. They come, they go.”
Cressida took a menacing step toward him. “Tell me where my aunt is, or I’m calling the cops. You were the last one to see her. I’m sure they’d be interested in that.”
“Cressida. One more sweetheart, and we find out just how good of a weapon this is.” She lifted the purse.
His eyes widened, then he smiled again. “If you think I’m dangerous, why did you come alone?”
She snorted. She was taller than him by several inches, and though she’d never been in a fight, she thought he’d be a good first experience. She had rage in her corner, too, shouting at her to grab his skinny ass and dangle him out the window. “Are we calling the cops or what?”
He barked a laugh. “Better call them now if you want them in an hour. Traffic here is a bit—” He wandered close to the window, and his smile slipped. “Did you tell someone you were coming here?”
Thinking he really meant to try something, she readied the purse again. “Why?”
“You were followed. I told her to watch for that, and she should have told you the same.” He began to hurry around the room, gathering his things. “She said you were smart,” he mumbled. “In college and everything.”
“A grad student, actually.” She looked out the window and saw a man standing near the bushes, looking up at the hotel, at her, but he shouldn’t have been able to see her through the window in daylight. He wore a turtleneck too warm for spring and was as bald as a cue. Another man joined him, twin in looks and dress, and when Cressida glanced toward the sidewalk, she saw another striding to join them. Incredibly creepy triplets? She would have hoped their parents taught them to dress differently, but maybe they liked freaking people out.
“Do they have something to do with June?” she asked.
He’d pulled on jeans and a black tee while her back was turned. “I can’t believe you didn’t check to see if anyone followed you!” He threw more things into two bags: clothes, empty liquor bottles, half full ones, it didn’t seem to matter.
“What the hell is going on?” She grabbed for him, but he twisted away.
“Just help me get out of here, and I’ll tell you.” He opened the chest of drawers and removed a carved wooden box from the lowest one, handling it with delicate reverence, nestling it into his clothes before zippering the bag closed.
“Tell me now! Do they know what happened to June?” She pointed toward the window.
“Yes, but they won’t tell you. If they catch me, they’ll kill me, and then you’ll never know.” He grinned, the little weasel. “So you better make sure I stay in one piece, College.”
“So, let’s stay here and call the police!”
“Hmm, better not. My things aren’t exactly legal in the pharmacological department.”
She pressed a hand to her pounding temples. “You’re a drug dealer?”
He laughed. “If I was, I’d have better security than a student.” He put on a bright smile. “A beautiful student, but still.” She lifted the purse again, and he hurried on. “Call someone if you want. I’ll be long gone, and you’ll have no June, and until the police get here, you might be at the tender mercy of that thug.”
Cressida looked out the window again. “Thugs.”
“Right. So, you coming?”
She let her own evil smile show through. “Maybe you tell me where June is, or I’ll go tell them where you are.”
Nero froze before his lips curved into his own evil grin. “You’re not cruel, College. I can tell. Besides—”
“Yeah, I get it. If I want to know, etc.”
She lifted one of his bags, wondering what she was doing helping this asshole who might have landed her aunt in the hospital or worse. But June didn’t trust just anyone. She wasn’t a fool. And Nero didn’t seem like a clever con man, just a stubborn kid. Of course, Cressida had never met a true con man. She bet a good one would know how to fit in. He wouldn’t be any good if people could spot him from the get-go.
The elevator dinged as they went into the hall. Nero switched direction seamlessly, heading for the stairs.
“Just how many times have you had to sneak out of hotels?” Cressida asked.
“Do you have a car?”
“Good. We can go to your place.”
She almost said that there was no way she was taking a nutjob to her apartment, but at least he’d be in unfamiliar territory there. And her neighbors would hear it if she called for help. She thought of calling some of her fellow grad students, but there weren’t many she was close to, none she’d really call friends.
I should have gotten out more.
Ugh, that was something her mom would have said. Besides, she didn’t need friends watching her back when she had a baseball bat under the bed.
“This way.” She led him down to the street and hurried outside. He looked over his shoulder the whole time, and she started to feel as nervous as him. When she took a peek across the parking lot, she caught sight of the turtleneck triplets hustling toward them.
Nero dove into her car when she unlocked it, his nerves feeding her own. “Go, go, go,” he whispered.
“Shut up!” She missed the ignition and wondered if this was how people in a horror movie would feel if they could hear the audience screaming at them to start the damn car. The triplets were running, and she had to stop and watch them. Their footsteps fell in perfect sync, and she’d never seen anyone so fast. It was almost hypnotizing but calming enough that the key slipped into the ignition without fuss.
Nero leaned into her vision. “What is wrong with you, College? Go!”
Spell broken, she pulled out of the lot and sped away, nearly hitting three other cars and wondering idly if the turtleneck gang would catch up to her once she was stuck in traffic, but as she took a corner, she lost them from her rearview.
When they reached her building, Nero stayed on her toes, nodding to the day guard minding the desk. Cressida stopped, though, speaking loudly. “My guest will only be staying a few hours.”
The day guard nodded slowly as if she was the crazy one, but now someone knew Nero was with her. On her floor, she stopped to say hello to a neighbor, and Nero laughed, waiting until they were alone in her apartment to say, “Making sure enough people see my face? What do you think I’m going to do, College?”
She waited as he dumped his stuff on the rug. “Talk.”
He walked around her living room, looking out the window, fingers passing over the shelves stuffed with books, the television sitting on another pile of books that served as a low table. Piles of notebooks and paperbacks dotted the room like snowdrifts, fiction and nonfiction mingling wantonly, as June would have said. She’d always been tidier.
But she hadn’t always been careful, especially when she was on the chase for a new relic or a fresh take on a myth. Cressida ducked into her bedroom, got the bat, and stepped back out. “I said, talk.”
Nero put his hands up. “Whoa. What do you plan to do with that?”
“Beat the truth out of you if I have to.”
Hands still up, he sat on the sofa and shifted a pile of books out of the way. “I inducted your aunt into the, and she went to the Underworld.”
Cressida waited for him to get serious, but he didn’t smile, didn’t try to play cute. “What?”
“I’m the last hierophant.”
She blinked at him, trying to conjure up images of hierophants: priests of ancient mystery cults, secret sects that worshiped the Greek gods inside their own religions. Hierophant identities had been carefully guarded secrets, but they’d died out with all the rest of it. “There hasn’t been a hierophant for the in a very long time.”
“They were getting too well known, so we went underground, so to speak. Now there’s only two of us at a time, the hierophant and an apprentice, just like the Sith.”
“Great. Good to know you see yourself as having something in common with Star Wars. Confirms you’re a nut.” When he only stared, she sighed. “And you’re the apprentice?”
He shrugged and stared at the carpet with a sad smile. “Not anymore. My predecessor died not long ago, and I have yet to choose an apprentice of my own. That’s why…” He stared at her. “Look, I’m really sorry. I didn’t know what it would mean, all right? I didn’t know what I was doing. I couldn’t believe I’d found someone who wasn’t in the scene who still believed in the Mysteries, so when June told me what she wanted, I had to find out if I could do it.”
“Had to find out if you could send someone to the Underworld?” And she hoped her skeptical tone said it all.
“Besides me, you need a gate,” he said, “and you have to sneak in. You have to be familiar with the Mysteries first and go through the tale of Persephone and Demeter. You have to know their pain before you can even see the gate. You do recall the story of how Hercules traveled to the Underworld?”
Cressida waved at him to stop. In the myth, Hercules had been forced to perform the Eleusinian Mysteries. Connecting with Demeter and her struggle to find Persephone supposedly made a person able to see the gate to the Underworld, but that was just a story. The Mysteries had been real, but they were gone. It was all gone.
Cressida sat down on the opposite chair and wondered just how crazy he was, how crazy June would have to have been to listen to him. God, she must have been in some kind of crisis, or this guy would never have been able to convince her he could do what he claimed.
Or maybe he really believed it, and he killed June and thought of her as being in the Underworld instead of just dead. Cressida clutched the bat tighter.
He watched her hands as if he knew what she was thinking. “She’s not dead.”
“And you expect me to believe all this?”
He lifted his hands and dropped them. Then he snapped his fingers. “When she underwent the Mysteries, she communed with a sacred object. Some of her essence should still be on it.” He dug in his bag and came up with the carved box again. With careful, practiced slowness, as if it might bite him, he opened the lid and brought forth a stalk of wheat.
Cressida breathed again. Sacred objects sometimes included a phallus, and she’d imagined Nero holding an enormous dildo. She definitely would have hit him in the head and thrown him out of her house then. But wheat was sacred to Demeter, definitely part of the, and he wasn’t holding it with gloves or anything, so it was probably safe.
He held it out. “Here.”
“What am I supposed to do with that?”
“Just touch it.”
And now, no matter what her rational mind said, she did not want to “just touch it.”
“Because it’s got some of your aunt’s essence.”
“And I’m supposed to be able to sense that?”
He rolled his eyes. “No, I drugged this bit of wheat with something so potent, you’re going to fall unconscious even though I seem to be holding it with no difficulty.”
Well, now that he said it… Still, she reached out hesitantly, but he didn’t jerk it back or throw it at her. And it was just a stalk of wheat; she could see that plain as day. With one last aggravated sigh, she grabbed it.
The world fell away. Lights bloomed behind her eyes, and she saw flashes, heard voices, so many voices surrounding her; smells and sights flashed before her eyes, the faces of people, of creatures she’d never dreamed of, all babbling and screeching, and oh God, was that one flying?
It was over in a flash, and she nearly fell forward, gasping. She steadied herself, staring at Nero with her mouth open. “What the hell?” A nimbus of light floated behind him like a halo. The wheat had fallen to the floor.
“A glimpse of what your aunt is seeing now,” he said. “Well, things she’s seen.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” she said, still blinking away after images. His halo faded. “That isn’t… You can’t…” She took a deep breath. “The Eleusinian Mysteries? Where people reenact the kidnapping of Persephone and try to cheer up Demeter?”
He blinked at her. “I know what they are. I’m the—”
She threw her arms in the air. “You can’t be a hierophant. There are no more hierophants. They died out with the Eleusinian Mysteries!”
“Or,” he said, lifting a finger, “they went underground where they were always supposed to be because they were a secret that was getting way too public. You shouldn’t even know about the Persephone-Demeter thing.”
“Everyone knows about Persephone and Demeter! Hades kidnapped Persephone. Demeter was really sad about it. That’s why we have winter!” Now she was shouting, but she didn’t know how to stop. “No one worships them anymore!”
He gave her a scathing look. “No one you know, maybe.”
He waved. “Christianity. Judaism. Islam. Hinduism.”
“Those are different!”
“Buddhism. Wiccans. Taoism.”
That one made her trip. “I thought Taoism was more of a philosophy.”
“They’ve all got their different philosophies, and as many of them would tell you, it’s about faith.”
She stood up and had to sit down again. She needed water. The kitchen was only a few feet away, but it was still too far. She slid down to sit on the carpet, keeping her hand away from the wheat, but flashes were still playing behind her eyes. She’d visited different churches with friends when she’d been little, but she’d never felt anything like…
Had it even been real? Couldn’t have been. Couldn’t. “Can I do it again?”
His eyebrow quirked. “Ready to believe, are we?”
“No, that’s why I want to do it again. You know, scientific experimentation?”
He frowned. “I don’t know if science would agree with you, but all right.” He gestured to the wheat.
She grabbed hold. There, dress and costumes she recognized from pots and statuary and oh so many myths, stories that had been studied and rewritten and redone, powers that couldn’t exist, legends that couldn’t be true, and there was that flying thing again! She groped forward until she caught Nero’s wrist and let the wheat fall to the floor.
“Gods, Mount Olympus? It can’t be true. Is it the only real religion? Did people discover the true realm of the unknown, the only real gods, and then abandon them?”
“One thing at a time.”
She squinted. “Maybe you’re some kind of hypnotist.”
“I’m pretty sure a person can’t be hypnotized unless they want to be.”
And she didn’t want to be, but June would have leapt at the chance to believe in gods and goddesses and myths. “What happened to her?”
“She dug through tales and rumors, all around the world, until she found me. It took years, but she found the line of hierophants, one replacing another, the better to keep ourselves secret. No one is worthy of the Mysteries unless they can seek us out. We emailed back and forth for a long time, spoke a few times, and then she had me brought over so she could speak to me face-to-face.”
“And the bald triplets?”
He bit his lip. “Would you believe me if I said that was Cerberus in his Earthly disguise?”
She shot to her feet, shaking. “No, no, no. Bull. It has to be.”
“He guards the gates to the Underworld. He doesn’t like that I sent someone there. It’s a good sign, really. It means June got past him.”
“Why?” Cressida said at last, and she felt the tears threatening. She pressed on her eyes to get them to stop. “Why would June want to go to the Underworld?”
He shook his head. “You should know as well as I do. I mean, we can’t have had as many conversations as you must have had. She was looking for what she’s always been looking for.”
This time, she couldn’t hold in a little sob. “I’m real.”
“Hey.” He seemed uncomfortable but didn’t try to touch her. “She spoke about you all the time, College. Couldn’t stop talking about you some days, when we video chatted. She didn’t intend to stay in the Underworld. It was supposed to be a quick trip. She planned to have this conversation with you when she got back. She wanted to introduce us. Hell, I’ve never sent anyone to the Underworld. I wasn’t even sure it would work.” He shuffled his feet. “I…was just about to call you, actually, let you know something was up.”
She thought of the liquor bottles and room service trays. “Oh really?”
“Yeah, sure.” He smiled and looked guilty as if realizing they both knew that was a lie. “Don’t panic. We’re linked, she and I, since I helped her get there, and I would have felt it if she’d…died. I’m pretty sure.”
She searched his face for a lie, but she hadn’t known him that long, and someone who hid special Underworld powers from the rest of the world had to have a good poker face at least some of the time. “And you think I can contact her where you can’t?”
“Contact. Sure. You can find her in person.”
“You want me to go to the Underworld?”
“Dead simple. We go to this cave I found that has the right spiritual resonance, the same place she went, and then I’ll perform the Mysteries.” He wiped his lips. “I have to warn you. Your aunt found a way to sneak past Cerberus because he wasn’t looking for anyone, but now he’s on high alert. If he finds you, he finds me.”
“If June found a way…”
“I think she had help. I sensed a presence.”
“What kind of presence?” And why was it making her blood run cold? She told herself she still didn’t really believe any of this was happening, but she’d had the visions, and it wasn’t like any drug she’d ever heard of. And now they were talking about the dangers of Cerberus and an unknown presence.
“Well, based on what I’ve learned, living people are a hot commodity in the Underworld. If she’s smart, she made some kind of deal to get her back where she belongs.” He sighed and paced, rubbing his hands over his head. “To tell you the truth, College, I have huge doubts about helping you. I liked June. I don’t want to think I sent her to something bad, and now I’m sending her niece to the same fate. It’s why I didn’t want to tell you in the first place.”
“Fuck that!” Cressida said. “If she’s in trouble, I want to help her.”
He laughed. “If Cerberus is here on Earth when I part the veil between worlds, you should be able to slip past, but we need to do this before he catches up to us.”
“But you’ll be left here with him.”
His head hung a moment. “Let me worry about that.” He rubbed his hands together. “First, you need to pack. You can’t eat anything in the Underworld, so you’ll need your own supplies.”
She paused on her way to the kitchen. “Did June have enough food for four days?”
He shrugged. “Her life force is still going strong. I don’t think it would be doing that if she was now a permanent resident. Maybe time or hunger works differently there?” Another shrug. “The stories vary.”
As she gathered some things, still not believing what she was getting herself into, he went over what he did know, telling her that people in the Underworld could do anything living people could do: eat, drink, talk, have sex. She paused at that one, giving him a look.
He shrugged. “They can’t have children. That’s about it.”
“And what happens if they die in the Underworld?”
He shook his head. “All I know is the stories. But since you’re still alive, College, if you die there, you’re stuck. I don’t know if you’ll have to feed your blood to the shades in order to speak to them like in The Odyssey. Reports are…mixed where the Underworld is concerned. That eating or drinking thing is a definite, though. Eat any Underworld food, and you’ll also get stuck.”
“I got it. And the sex?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Are you planning on it?”
She thought to blurt out no, but if she was going to take this seriously, well, myth was full of lovely ladies. She shook the thought away. “No, I mean, this is a serious—”
He put a hand up. “Look, the simple question is, do we need to get some condoms or what?”
She glared at him. “For any fellow lesbians I happen to find?”
“So, latex gloves? Dental dams?”
She’d hoped to embarrass him, but now felt her own cheeks burning. “Shut up.”
“Don’t blame me if you come back with undead VD. I’m trying to keep things classy.”
“How will I find my way back once I have June?”
“Well, I can give you the same thing I gave her.” He took a vial of oil out of his bag. “This’ll let me know you’re still alive, and in theory, you should be able to follow it back.” He dabbed a bit on his finger. “I need to touch your chest, over your heart; your forehead; and uh, over your womb.” It was her turn to raise an eyebrow. He rolled his eyes. “So I can sense your lifeline, College.”
He touched her forehead, and she pulled her shirt down enough for him to dab over her heart and pulled her pants low enough that he could touch over her uterus.
He looked up. “Now, it’s just your labia, and we’re done.” When she leapt away, he laughed. She gave him a black look, and he shook his head. “Kidding.”
“Would you shut up and finish this already?”
“All done on my end.”
She scratched idly at the oil as she gathered some last minute things, stuffing them into an oversized backpack June had given her. “That stuff itches.”
“It’s not the oil; it’s your lifeline.” He put a finger up and plucked at the air as if playing an invisible guitar.
Cressida shuddered as the feeling shivered down her spine. “Stop that!”
“That, College, will help me know where you are.”
“Okay, but you can’t play me like a harp.”
“Yes, I can. Hierophant privileges.” He ignored her look and bustled around the room.
“If this will help me get back, why didn’t it help June?”
“I don’t know! All of this is theory. Do you want to go or not?”
“I don’t have a choice.” She cinched her pack and laid it on the ground. “Now what? We find your underground gate?”
His laughing look gave way to a more serious one. “Yep, and there we will perform the Mysteries.”
Cressida took a deep breath. Despite what she’d felt from the wheat, and the way Nero could touch her lifeline, she still doubted what he said. Once they started the Mysteries, she knew everything would become clearer, that if she watched him, she might spot a rational explanation for everything that was happening.
At the moment, it was the best she could hope for, apart from finding June in whatever cave Nero had left her in. “Let’s do it.”
Cressida had been expecting one of the many tourist attracting caves in the Austin Hill Country, but Nero led her to an innocuous divot in the bottom of a hill that could only be called a cave if she squinted. They’d had to park on the side of the road and ease under a barbed wire fence, and the entire time Cressida had been looking for evidence of June—a dropped tissue, a booted footprint—but in between the gravel and the scrubby plants and cacti, she saw nothing.
Standing in the unimpressive cave, Cressida’s confidence plummeted. What the hell was she doing here? Had she just driven herself to her own murder scene, just like June? Any minute now Nero would tell her that in order to complete the ritual, she’d have to dig a grave-like hole.
He set his bag down and rubbed his hands together. “You might want to take your backpack off. You’re going to be a little stumbly.”
And it would save him the trouble of wrestling it off her corpse. She dropped it to the ground and watched him so closely it made him chuckle.
“If you want to back out,” he said, “now’s the time.”
June hadn’t backed out. Wouldn’t. And there didn’t seem to be any sign of recent graves. “Where do we start?”
He opened the box and showed her a bottle of greenish brown sludge. “Here.”
“Kykeon, the stuff that gets you high, yeah. Barley and pennyroyal mostly.”
“Is that really necessary?”
“You want to get into the Underworld? No one goes sober.”
And that was it. Nero was going to feed her sludge, rob her, and sell her to the creepy sweater triplets, just like he’d probably sold her aunt. But why bother with something so elaborate? To claim he didn’t force her to do anything? And though June always wanted to buy into the myths, she wasn’t stupid, far from it. She would have done her research on Nero before flying him over.
“Just get set up, and let me wrap my head around this,” she said.
He shrugged and set to work assembling a makeshift altar. Cressida peeked into his bag. There were more to the Mysteries than drugs. Ancient Greeks reenacted the kidnapping of Persephone, the agony of Demeter at losing her daughter. They told dirty jokes to make Demeter smile; they worshiped sacred objects. Nero wouldn’t have bothered to bring anything else if he was just going to drug her and kill her.
The box that held the sacred wheat was in there, as well as a basket and what looked like ceremonial robes. Nero donned them quickly, enough green fabric to nearly swallow him, as well as a heavy gold necklace and a crown. She couldn’t hold in a laugh.
He gave her a dirty look. “Sacred ceremony, yeah?”
“Sorry.” But she could barely hold it in.
“Want to start with the ritual cleansing?” He held up a bottle of water.
She eyed it and then him, hoping her expression conveyed that if he dumped that over her head, she would punch him.
He sighed. “She didn’t want you to see the video, but I see you’re not going to move forward without it.”
“I filmed her induction. Quite hard to do while performing it, you know, but it was my first time and everything…” He sighed. “She didn’t want you to see it. She knew she’d act a fool during the ceremony, but everyone does. Your aunt, though—”
“This whole time you had a video that would back you up, and you didn’t say anything?”
“I promised that I wouldn’t, that I’d only use it as a reference for myself, but I thought you were starting to believe me.”
She held up a hand. “Just show me. I promise I won’t mention it to my aunt.”
He took out his phone. “I wanted to study it. See where I could improve my technique. First, swear a vow of secrecy.”
She nodded. “I swear.”
When June came to life on his phone screen, Cressida’s heart thudded, and she felt a few wayward tears gather. She watched June and Nero enter the cave, watched the robes come out. June drank the kykeon and babbled about how myth was so unjust to women, about all the wrongs that should be righted, all the tales that should be rewritten.
For the most part, Cressida agreed, but they were just stories, reflective of the time they were written in, but June didn’t seem to see them that way. She acted as if there was something she could do about it. “The least I can do,” she slurred, “is hear the truth from their own lips.”
At one point, she tried to cut herself, and Nero had wrestled a knife away from her as Cressida watched, wincing. Another time she tried to take her clothes off, but Nero had stopped her with, “That’s enough of that, sweetheart. We don’t want to greet Hades in our underpants, do we?”
When the Mysteries had concluded, June nearly passed out, but Nero helped her put on a backpack that was the twin of Cressida’s then led her toward the back of the cave. The video did this shuddery shimmer, and she was gone.
There were ways to alter video. Everyone knew that, but Cressida didn’t have the time or the means to look for them. She didn’t even know where she’d start with such a thing.
Now she was just wasting time. If what she’d seen so far didn’t prove that June had really taken a trip to the Underworld, nothing would. A true skeptic never stopped looking for the zipper, but June was a believer, so to find her, Cressida knew she was going to have to act like a believer, too.
And if nothing happened, well, then she’d know, and then Nero would regret ever being born.
“How do I find her?” Cressida asked.
He had the decency to look apologetic as he shrugged. “Ask around.”
“Fantastic. Can’t wait.”
He lifted the water bottle high and whispered something before he dumped it over her head.
She resisted the urge to glare, and when he handed her the kykeon, she took a big drink. Her logical mind screamed at her, but the part of her that had listened wide-eyed to her aunt’s stories around a campfire sent a silent prayer that she would see her aunt soon.
For a moment, she felt nothing, and she was about to ask when it would kick in, but Nero leaned far to the side, farther than anyone had a right to lean before he oozed slowly up the wall.
“Stop that,” she tried to say, but her tongue wouldn’t obey her.
“Right, now we re-create the kidnapping of Persephone,” he said. “I’ll play Demeter, and you’re Persephone, so make sure you cry a lot because you’ve been kidnapped by Hades, and being separated from your mother and the other gods is severely bumming you out.”
She wanted to say she felt a little silly, that she might need more prompting, but what came out was, “Okey dokey.” She fell to her knees and lamented her fate while he cried for her, but to her surprise, Nero wasn’t himself anymore but the goddess of the harvest and the land, wailing because she missed her daughter, and Cressida felt Persephone’s anguish, Demeter’s pain.
Someone was playing a drum? Nero shoved the wheat into her hands. She tottered along beside him slurring, “Fuck, yeah! Demeter is the shit, doing all the growing things and all the crops and stuff, and did Hades think of any of that? Noooo. He was just thinking with his dick! And he could have said, ‘Hey, Persephone, you wanna go out sometime?’ But he probably knew she would be all like, ‘No, you’re a fucking cockbag,’ and that’s why he kidnapped her! And now her mother is so sad because they were so close. Hey, that’s my arm, give it back!”
Nero led her arm toward the engraved box, and it towed her along. Cressida laid the wheat down so Demeter would know that Cressida was on her side, that Cressida wept for her because her daughter was missing like June was missing.
Cressida threw herself down before the makeshift altar and wept, thinking on June and Persephone and how they’d both been carried off, but Persephone got to come back sometimes. June might never get to. “I’ll rescue you!” she said, and she didn’t know whether she was talking to Persephone or June.
Nero whispered in her ear in Greek.
“Speak up,” she tried to say, but all that came out was a whistle. Then she realized the whistling inside her was actually around her, and goddamn she was powerful; she could make a whole cave whistle! Something tugged on her back. Nero had helped her put on her backpack, but it hovered a few feet overhead.
The air felt swirly, as if she was falling. “This is it!” she cried. There actually was an entrance to the Underworld in a shitty little non-cave in Austin, and the thought made her laugh and laugh until the swirly air seemed to focus on one point, and she was stumbling toward it and falling again.
Someone pulled her lifeline taut, and she gasped, her limbs flying out like a marionette’s. She turned to yell at Nero, but her feet crunched into something.
The cave had gone dark as pitch except for a faint light coming from far away, down a tunnel that hadn’t been there before. When had it gotten dark? Her head was clearing, the drug fading like water sliding off her skin. She fumbled for her flashlight, but when she flicked it on, she had to stifle a yelp. Mounds of skeletons lay strewn across a huge cavern, piles of yellow-white bone heaped like macabre dunes.
The entrance to the Underworld, the spot where Cerberus waited to strip the flesh from any mortal trying to sneak into the land of the dead.
Medusa slipped deeper into the mud bath and tried to remember what it was like to get drunk. The alcohol of the dead relied too heavily on the taster, powered by memory and imagination. Labels instructed those who imbibed to recall spending an evening with friends and family or to summon the memory of relaxing moments in groves and meadows, as if everyone had spent their lives in a beer commercial.
But it was hard to remember a blackout drunk. That was part of the charm. Memory and inhibition pissed away in dribs and drabs until a person couldn’t remember where her feet were and then couldn’t recall what they were for, either. Medusa hadn’t been a heavy drinker in life, but she still wanted the option from time to time.
After more than three millennia had passed in the mortal realm, a living person had visited the Underworld. It was an impossible amount of time to think about, let alone live, but time worked differently for the dead. Days were hard to separate—and weeks, months, years—but Medusa recognized that it had been a long time, too long.
New spirits trickled down occasionally, those who worshipped the old gods, but they were fewer and fewer, and a living person? Virtually forgotten. She’d felt the ripple in the air when the living woman had shown up; all those with more awareness had felt it, too, and she knew everyone would be scrambling to put long dormant plans into motion. A living person was too great an opportunity to ignore.
Medusa sank into the soothing mud until it covered her chin. She shifted, letting scales cover her body, her wings stretching to either side, and her hair lifting and transforming into writhing snakes before she settled into her human form again, letting her human hair drift on the mud’s surface. She’d seen the living mortal. Her face was etched upon Medusa’s memory as she stared at the Underworld in wide-eyed wonder, but Medusa hadn’t been fast enough. Someone had swooped in and gathered her up first, and Medusa hadn’t even seen who it was.
Her body tightened, fists clenching until she forced herself to relax again, to let the mud do its work. She had to think of a plan, a way to find the mortal before it was too late, and Perseus was reincarnated again.
A jolt like lightning passed through her, and for a second, she thought it was anger at the man who’d killed her and her sisters, but this was the same feeling that had made her hesitate before. Another living person had entered the Underworld.
“So soon?” she asked. But it didn’t matter if it was a new one or if the other had left and now returned. She leapt from the tub and wrapped a robe around her muddy body. She dashed into the living room of her high-rise apartment and looked out over the jumble of the city, trying to see past the mishmash of concrete and glass buildings, some temples and traditional houses stuck amidst the press by diehards who refused to move with the times. Over it all hung the thick shade fog and the crisscrossing elevator cables that let the denizens move from one place to another.
They glided into the room, almost specters now, nearly the same as the floating shades that made up the fog, all the people no longer remembered by anyone walking the Earth.
“Sister?” they asked, talking on top of one another, their closeness the only thing keeping them in form. Too many people had forgotten them, but it seemed some still remembered the old myths. Medusa often thanked the gods for liberal arts programs.
“Another mortal has come. Find her.” Medusa dashed away, grabbing some jeans from the floor and pulling them on, mud and all. Her sisters crowded around the window, tapping into the fog of floating shades, searching, listening.
Medusa turned, looking for a shirt, but there wasn’t one handy. She cinched the robe tighter and ran out of the apartment, sprinting toward her building’s elevator. There wasn’t time for anything else. Everyone would know, everyone who was remembered by someone who still lived would realize there was a mortal in their midst, and they’d be after him or her like a shot.
She hit the ground floor and ran into the street. She reached up, grabbed one of the floating shades, and tugged it along with her, using it as a conduit to speak with her sisters, their voices vibrating through the spiritual fog.
They guided her through the streets, past the myriad elevators that traversed the city, traveling up or down or sideways, leading her toward Cerberus’s tunnel.
Cressida froze, waiting for the hot breath of Cerberus to wash over her back right before a set of huge jaws clamped over her head, shutting off air and light forever.
“Oh God,” she groaned, then clapped a hand over her mouth. Her bladder shrank, and she clamped her knees together to keep from giving in to the sudden urge to wet her pants.
Nero’s words swam into focus in her head. Cerberus was in the real world, looking for Nero, looking for her, but if he sensed that she’d crossed over, he’d be on his way quick. She ran for the light, skittering over skeletons and crunching bones under her sneakers. She wobbled, the sharp ends of femurs sticking into her legs but not penetrating her jeans. She tried to run in bounding hops until she tripped, and the sounds of clattering, skittering bones echoed off the walls.
A deep growl sounded far off behind her, as if the cave was warning her to be quiet, but her imagination supplied her with the three-headed dog she couldn’t see. Cressida tried to swear through clenched teeth and fumbled her way forward, finally breaking into a clearing where she ran for all she was worth, her backpack pounding up and down, and her heart hammering in her chest. The growling had reached the bones, and huge feet knocked them aside like kindling.
An opening loomed ahead; bluish light poured out of a hole too small for Cerberus in his three-headed dog form, or at least she hoped so. She ran faster but heard him gaining, his paws rasping against stone, and she pictured all three jaws opening wide, slick with drool, red tongues lolling.
She didn’t even see the drop. Suddenly weightless, she spun her arms, legs still running but with nothing to catch on. She struck a slope on her heel and skidded, fighting to keep her balance, knowing she was going to fall and unable to stop it. Bits of skin sloughed from her palms as she fell forward and lost the fight with momentum. She rolled for a few stomach wrenching turns before finally sliding to a halt.
Cressida put her arms over her head and breathed, wanting to be as small as possible when she was eaten. Maybe if he didn’t chew, she could claw her way out from the inside.
Nope, that was too much. She uncurled enough to vomit, and it wasn’t until she dry heaved over and over that she realized Cerberus hadn’t caught her.
The hole above her was packed with three snouts jockeying for position as they sniffed and snarled. He couldn’t fit. She barked a laugh, and the noses stopped as if listening. Cressida tried to keep another laugh in, but it wouldn’t be silenced, and soon it had friends, more and more until she was laughing hysterically, and the snouts began barking, one after another poking out the hole in impotent fury.
Cressida pushed to her feet, her elatedness at remaining uneaten making her call, “Good boy!” The wall of a cavern shuddered as if Cerberus banged against it, and Cressida turned away, starting to run, but she staggered to a stop.
She’d expected rivers, caverns, maybe the odd lake of lava, but an alley stretched in front of her, slick dark bricks covered in graffiti that glowed in a meager streetlight. Maybe the Mysteries had gone wrong and instead of sending her to the Underworld, Nero had transported her to the magical land of Cleveland.
Cerberus guards Cleveland? It was enough to prompt another sputtering laugh, but she clamped down on it quickly. June was depending on her. This was no time to go insane. After a final look at Cerberus’s snouts, she walked from the alley onto a street only wide enough for foot traffic. Neon signs flickered off glass paned buildings, and towering skyscrapers glowed like some kind of undersea creatures. There were billboards of moving lights, and long, snaking cables that crossed and crisscrossed the buildings, all of it covered in dingy fog that made it impossible to see whether this place had a sky or the roof of a cavern.
People hustled to and fro, going into and out of doors, gathering on platforms stuck to the sides of buildings as if waiting for a train, but an enormous elevator came down from one of the cables, and a bunch of people hurried in while others hustled out.
“Manticore,” someone beside her said.
She turned slowly, as if any sudden movements would shake her from this dream, and when she saw what had spoken, her mouth stayed open. The creature stood as high as her shoulder, and her brain went on autopilot to confirm that it was indeed a manticore. It had the lion body, the human face, a twitching serpent for a tail, and this version had the wings of a bat that some legends included, and some did not.
“Yes?” she tried.
“Manticore.” It shuffled closer, eyeing her up and down.
“Um, good?” This couldn’t be real. She was hallucinating in a cave while some young twerp riffled her pockets.
The creature growled deep in its throat, and she stepped back. A small hand rested against the manticore’s flank, and a short man stepped up beside it.
Satyr, Cressida’s mind supplied: a man with a goat’s lower body, furry chest, and ram’s horns among his curly hair. “Pan?” she said.
He brayed a laugh. “Don’t I wish! But thanks for the compliment!” He leered and then cleared his throat and put on a more businesslike expression, as if she only got a small taste of flirting for every compliment she paid. “Do you want to rent a manticore?”
“Rent?” She looked at it again, and it was still staring. “He’s renting himself?”
“She, darling, and manticores don’t rent themselves. All they really do is say, ‘manticore’ and then do the job assigned to them, mostly guarding valuables. So, what do you say?” He slapped the monster on the flank.
“Manticore,” it said again.
She was about to say no thanks, but now that her brain was engaged, it was hard to turn off. “Why does it only say manticore?”
“What else would it say?”
“Well, if it guards things, why wouldn’t it say, ‘go away,’ or ‘be gone,’ or ‘get the hell out of here before I eat you’? What good does it do saying your own name like a Pokémon?”
He shook his head, and she found it curious that his first words weren’t wondering about what a Pokémon was. “Well, so the person trying to sneak through your house or whatnot knows there’s a manticore there. If he said get out, he could be anything!”
Her survival instincts tried to tell her to walk away, but the stubborn, logical part of her brain put them in a headlock. “But anyone could stand in a dark room and say manticore, and then they wouldn’t have to pay you.”
His mouth worked for a few moments, and he glanced around. “Look, are you trying to make trouble?”
“If you’re not looking for a manticore, why don’t you get the hell out of here?”
And what was she doing standing around arguing with a satyr about manticores when she was in the freaking Underworld? Her stubborn brain finally shut up. “Um, right. Sorry to bother you.”
He gave her another look up and down. “There’s something strange about you.”
“Right. I’m the strange one.” She shifted away, remembering what Nero had told her about living people being a hot commodity.
The satyr moved closer, staring harder, and she hurried into a crowd, but the more she banged into people, the more weird looks she got, as if everyone was cluing in to some subtle hint that she missed. At last, she ended up in an alley, breathing hard, trying to shrink into the darkness to avoid anyone seeing her. Maybe she should have hired a manticore just to keep the curious at bay, but she had no idea what anyone here used as currency.
Here. The Underworld. It was almost enough to make her try throwing up again. She sneaked another peek into the street. Some feeling was rising in her, fighting past the shock and uncertainty. Glee fought past disbelief and even pushed anger aside. It was the Underworld. The freaking Underworld!
And she wouldn’t find June if she was busy gawking. She straightened her backpack and glanced around, looking for someone who seemed trustworthy. Most people had their chins tucked in as they walked, not looking at anyone, just like in large cities around the world. She wondered if there was somewhere she could get a map.
She glanced over her shoulder, and a man walking behind her smiled. His brown hair was artfully tousled, his skin deeply tanned, making the white of his cable-knit sweater gleam. He looked like something out of a catalogue with his perfectly balanced, impossibly handsome face, especially when he winked with bright, turquoise eyes.
When he swaggered closer, she dropped back a bit, just to find out what a dead catalogue model might have to say. He laughed, sporting a smug look, but he couldn’t know that she wasn’t the least bit interested in his body, just curious enough to talk to someone who wasn’t a monster salesman.
He slipped an arm around her shoulders as if that was his right. “Come along, darling.”
She ducked out from under him. “Why should I?”
His face fell, his look so mystified that she laughed. “I don’t understand,” he said.
“That’s my line. Just who do you think you are?”
He blinked. “Adonis.”
She thought he might be joking but then remembered where she was. “No shit, really?”
His smile came back in all its confident glory. “Of course. Now…” He made as if to grab hold of her again, but she shook her head.
“Keep your hands to yourself.”
Again, that look of utter confusion, as if wondering how she could be resisting him. “But…I’m…”
“What do you want? Let’s start there.”
“I want you to come with me.”
“In order to…”
“To help me.” He spoke so slowly, she wondered if he was trying to figure it out as well.
“If you need help, there are better ways to start than, ‘Come on, darling.’”
He stopped cold and pulled back, his frown suspicious now. “What magic do you have?”
She had to laugh. “Whoever sent you should have done a little more research.” She started walking again. There had to be someone else who could help her.
“Look, are you going to come with me or not?”
“You’re just like your aunt.”
Cold fingers played up and down Cressida’s spine, but she kept any emotion off her face, wanting to know what he knew. “My aunt gave you a hard time?”
“She’s made certain things very difficult.”
“And that’s why she’s now…”
“In the—” He eyed her and smiled. “Nice, but beautiful doesn’t always mean stupid.”
“Where is she?”
He pursed perfect lips. “What if I told you that you’d find her if you came with me?”
“What could I do for you that June couldn’t?”
He eyed her up and down but with a calculating look. She thought he might turn on the smarm again, so she picked up the pace.
“We do need your help,” he said.
“Who is we?”
“Narcissus and myself.”
“Holy shit, Narcissus, too?” The man who’d gotten killed because he couldn’t help flirting with himself and the man who had two goddesses fighting over him because he was so pretty? Their house had to have a lot of mirrors. She wondered how long it took either of them to get ready.
“Like you needed June’s help?” she asked.
He walked in front of her, going backward. “Help us, and we’ll help you get her back.”
So they either had her and someone else had taken her, or they knew who’d had her from the beginning. At least her odds for being alive looked better and better, though the time it would take to find her seemed like a long road ahead. “From where?”
“Hecate’s palace. You’ll never get her on your own.”
Cressida’s heart sank. Hecate, goddess of magic, patroness of witches. Nero had never said there’d be actual deities in the Underworld. But June was the best at what she did. It was only fitting she’d find the most trouble. “Start at the beginning.”
Medusa slid to a stop as Adonis took the mortal woman under his arm. “Oh, for fuck’s sake!” She clutched her muddy robe, tempted to go scaly in front of everyone. Bad enough that someone else had gotten to the mortal first, but fucking Adonis? Now the mortal would swoon and fall into his arms, and Medusa’s chance for revenge would be gone faster than a bottle of moisturizer in Adonis and Narcissus’s house.
It was a pity, too. She was quite pretty, young, with intelligent blue eyes and a mass of red curls. She was clearly prepared for a lengthy stay, if the enormous backpack was any indication. And she sparkled with life, a little shimmer that extended just past her enticing curves. When she ducked out of Adonis’s embrace, Medusa choked on her own laugh and picked up speed to try to hear what they were saying.
He tried to charm her, and she thwarted him. Medusa wanted to whoop for joy, wanted to slide right between them and introduce herself, but Adonis mentioned the other mortal and how these two were connected. The young woman tried to play it cool, but Medusa could read the lines in her stiff neck, the slight tremble in her voice. She was worried for the other mortal, her aunt June.
Adonis played on that, claiming he could bring them together again, and she seemed as if she might believe him, but what choice did she have, alone as she was? People on the street were beginning to notice her, no doubt seeing that telltale shimmer. A harpy in a trench coat moved out from under the awning of an Ethiopian restaurant and followed them.
Medusa sped up until she was at the harpy’s side, the harpy’s long claws clacking on the pavement. The harpy glanced down with a woman’s face and then did a double take, staring at Medusa’s muddy robe, her bare feet.
“Hunting mortals, are we?” Medusa asked.
The harpy grinned with sharp teeth. “Yes! Long has it been since I’ve tasted real human flesh.” Her voice screeched like discordant violin strings, and she smelled like the floor of a butcher shop.
Medusa winced and tried to cover it with what she hoped was a convincing smile. “I was just saying the other day that being dead wouldn’t be so bad if we could eat one another.”
“Yes, yes!” The harpy bobbed her head on its skinny neck, her lank hair barely moving. “Now is my chance, yes.” She glared. “I saw her first.”
“Absolutely! But you’ll need some help with him, surely.” She nodded toward Adonis. “A powerful spirit, fully aware. And the woman is a grown mortal. Big enough for two?”
The harpy tilted her head back and forth. “Yes, big enough. I see it. If you help with the man, yes.”
“Perfect.” Adonis and the woman had slowed. Medusa pulled on the harpy’s arm. “Just duck in here a moment, dear, and I’ll tell you my plan.”
Power roiled through her as they stepped into an alley, and the harpy didn’t have time to blink before its flesh shuddered and hardened, petrifying into stone. Medusa’s power might not have been as strong as it was when she was alive, but it was enough to work on some no-name harpy. As she stepped back out, she told herself it was the harpy’s own fault. She should have found out just whom she was talking to.
Hecate’s palace had a metal fence around it like the one surrounding the White House. Cressida curled her hands around the bars and stared across a lush green lawn spotted with purple and yellow flowers. In the distance, the palace rose like Zeus’s temple, gleaming white amidst the flashing lights of surrounding skyscrapers. It lived up to some of what Cressida had been expecting of the Underworld in general. Huge columns held up a high, peaked roof, and statuary dotted the yard. Braziers glittered around a large reflecting pool, and hints of gold shone from inside the palace’s huge open doorway. Cressida squinted, but the fence was set too far away for her to really tell what lay inside. No one moved in or out, and she stood on tiptoe, trying to see past the shadows. It wasn’t like looking at a relic or museum replica. The feel of it hummed in the air, as if it proclaimed itself a sacred place. Even without any people, the palace seemed vibrant and, for lack of a better term, alive.
“If we stay long enough, it will shift into something else,” Adonis said.
She blinked away visions of the palace’s interior, the wonders it would hold. “What?”
“Well, sometimes it becomes a high-rise or a medieval castle or a big pile of cotton candy or whatever she wants it to be. She is the goddess of magic, after all. The whole thing is nebulous.”
Cressida’s imagination popped like a soap bubble, and she let her hands fall to her sides. “That’s a little disappointing.”
He put on an exaggerated pout. “Aw, the goddess will be so sad to hear that.”
She gave him a dark look. “What is with the Underworld anyway? Where are the theaters? The agoras? The tombs and stadiums? This is all just so…” She gestured at the modern architecture warring with the ancient and sometimes coming up somewhere in between, most with a decided lack of columns. “Anachronistic.”
He snorted. “Well, excuse us for not being Greece-land. We keep abreast of culture. It filters down to us. We may be dead, but we’re not blind, deaf, and dumb.” He thought for a moment. “Well, except for the blind, deaf, and dumb.”
“Then you should know we don’t say dumb anymore.”
He barked a laugh. “Sometimes, things change so fast up there we can’t keep up.”
“Fast,” she said, thinking on the millennia that separated them. “Right.”
“How else do you think we’re communicating? We hear all the languages. Well, those of us who are aware hear them. If the shades know what’s going on, they’re not telling anyone.”
He gestured upward at the fog.
She glanced that way but saw nothing. “What?”
He sighed, jumped, and snagged a piece of fog. She took a step back. No one could grab fog, or maybe that was his undead superpower. She flicked through the myths she knew but couldn’t find anything similar. When he brought the fog close to her face, she leaned in, watching the swirling shapes until she noticed they were staring back at her.
She jumped away. “It has a face!”
Adonis laughed so hard, he leaned forward on his knees. “Of course it does. It’s a ghost, a shade.”
“But you’re all ghosts!”
He put his hands on his hips, and the shade wriggled in his grasp. “Excuse me? I’m a sentient dead person.”
“Right. Sorry, don’t know all the terms yet.”
He shrugged. “You’ll learn.”
“So?” She gestured at the shade, still a little queasy at seeing it wiggle.
He let it go, and it drifted up to rejoin the rest. “Not everyone who died is able to live like those of us who are aware. Most of them just drift around. It’s belief from people in the mortal world that sustains us. The more people who remember our names, the more substantial we are, though how often you mortals get things wrong is astounding.”
“You were mortal, too, pal, or you wouldn’t be dead.”
“You know what I mean.” He sighed. “I guess one day mortals won’t remember any of us, and then we’ll all become shades.”
“Poor things.” It was a bummer, and she wondered if the same fate awaited everyone who died, no matter where they wound up, if every person who’d ever lived but wasn’t remembered was floating around in their own afterlife. It gave her a sinking feeling, as if the world was sliding out from under her feet, and she tried to banish the thought.
“It’s weird,” Adonis said. “Sometimes, one of the shades will come popping into awareness as his or her life is discovered by some scholar who’ll publish a paper on the Internet and boom, instant sentience.”
“Are they aware of anything?”
“They have a kind of joined consciousness. The rest of us use them to communicate with one another.”
She stared, horrified, but he shrugged again. “This whole place is shaped by the collective consciousness of the people who live here, but we can’t do everything we dream about. We’re not telepathic. We have to use the tools we’re given.”
She stared at the modern town, the flashing lights. “So right now you’re all stuck on ultra-modern?”
“I like it. We went through a French Revolution thing once. That was terrifying.”
She nodded but ducked a little to stay out of a patch of billowing shade fog. “So, do you know Hecate?”
“Not personally. Narcissus and I know almost everyone else worth knowing here. We can’t cross over to the Elysian Fields—none of us can—and I suppose I could visit those writhing around in Tartarus, but who would want to?”
Cressida pictured both the Elysian Fields, rumored home to the heroes of Greek myth, and the fabled Tartarus, where Zeus cast those who’d committed heinous crimes against the gods. She wondered if either would look as she’d imagined them, if the Fields were green meadows or if Tartarus was a craggy, violent land covered in punishments. She went through the layers of the Underworld in her head. “So that just leaves the Fields of Punishment and the Meadows of Asphodel. Where are they?”
“You’re standing in them. Well, the Fields of Punishment aren’t really a thing, not anymore. All the really bad people and creatures are locked in Tartarus, and no one really remembers the people who were stuck in the Fields of Punishment anymore, so they just sort of merged into Asphodel.”
She had so many questions, but she tried to shake them away, to keep her mind on the task at hand. “How do I get into Hecate’s palace?”
“With lots of help.” He gave her a dazzling smile. “The kind that only we can provide.”
“And what do you want in return?”
“A very simple task. As a mortal, you can pass through the layers of the Underworld with ease. We need you to go to the Elysian Fields, snag some ambrosia, and bring it back. Nothing too hard.”
“Simple, easy peasy, darling.”
“It’s Cressida, thank you so much for asking. What do you need ambrosia for?”
He blinked and seemed a little appalled. She bet he prided himself on being suave, and forgetting to ask a lady’s name was anything but. Maybe all the other women he hung around responded to darling, and it had never been an issue before. He recovered quickly and put his oily expression back on. “It’s a delicacy, one we can’t get here unless someone on the Elysian side brings over a batch, but lately, the charity has dried up.”
“Wait a second, why aren’t you in the Elysian Fields? What are you doing out here with the regular spirits in the Meadows of Asphodel? I thought that was reserved for people who didn’t do anything with their lives.”
“The words are, ‘didn’t live up to their full potential,’ and what do you know about it?”
It seemed a sore spot, and she knew she shouldn’t pry, but she couldn’t help herself. When would she ever get this opportunity again? “I mean, you weren’t a normal man.”
“You weren’t exactly a hero.”
“Well,” she said quickly, “not the sword and sandals type, but you were beloved by the gods.”
“Especially the goddesses.”
“The gods, too. Bisexuality isn’t something to be ashamed of.”
She sputtered. “I know! So, why are you here?”
His head turned slightly to the side, mouth twisted downward. Maybe she wasn’t supposed to ask. Maybe one’s status in the Underworld was a touchy subject. When he didn’t answer, she said, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
He shrugged but didn’t offer anything more.
“The people in the Elysian Fields won’t try to stop me from taking ambrosia?”
“Why should they?” But he turned his head again as if trying to keep from saying something or looking her in the eye, and she knew nothing was going to be as simple as he thought.
And she didn’t trust him, but what choice did she have except to listen. She didn’t see a gate in the fence, didn’t know how to get inside. She had to start trusting someone, even as she kept a close eye on him.
Medusa stayed well back as Adonis and the mortal paused near Hecate’s palace. Hecate chose to live near the middle of the Meadows of Asphodel, a point of pride for those who couldn’t leave. Some said the goddess wanted to live among them because they were more down-to-earth than heroes prancing around talking about themselves all day. Hecate was rumored to think that the Elysian Fields were mostly full of Zeus’s children and therefore insufferable by nature and always going on about their father.
When Adonis and the mortal lingered, Medusa wondered if he was taking her on a sightseeing tour of the Underworld. Medusa had expected him to lead the mortal straight to Narcissus, but by the set of her shoulders, she wasn’t going to be led quietly. They were bargaining, and the only question was, for what?
The mortal spoke her name at last, Cressida, and Medusa sighed. It was a lovely name for a lovely girl, and Medusa wondered again if she should leap between them and try to hustle Cressida away, but Adonis was too aware to fall easily to her power, unlike the common harpy, and he and Narcissus had a whole gang. They might even have someone watching them at that moment, or watching Medusa watch them. She cursed the fact that she didn’t have cronies of her own, but any she managed to collect always ended up pissing her off. None of them could help Stheno and Euryale anyway, so what was the point? Besides, there were rumors that Persephone still did favors for Adonis from time to time, seeing as how she was one of the reasons he died, and all the cronies in the world couldn’t help fight the queen of the Underworld.
The way they were staring at Hecate’s palace seemed to indicate they were going to pull another goddess into whatever scheme they were cooking up. Medusa curled her hand into a fist. That was just her luck. If Adonis was on some errand for Hecate, and Medusa interfered, she could quickly find herself floating with the shades. Cressida leaned into the fence, eager, it seemed, to get closer to Hecate’s palace. Perhaps that was why she or the other mortal had come to the Underworld in the first place.
Rats. Once she went in there, she’d be out of reach. Medusa tied her robe even tighter, ready to sprint and grab Cressida, haul her off somewhere and explain later, but she and Adonis turned away from the palace, and Medusa’s heart went back to a normal tempo. She followed them, trying to hear, but they chatted so softly, Cressida casting longing looks at the palace as they walked.
Interesting. If Cressida was a worshiper of Hecate, rumored as a source of feminine power, she might be more willing to help Medusa than she would Adonis, especially after Medusa pleaded for her help. Well, pleaded and lied. Medusa only needed her to commit one little murder, but she knew that people could be touchy about that sort of thing.
A plan was beginning to take shape in her mind. She reached out for a thread of shade fog and pulled it to her. “Stheno, Euryale, make contact with Medea. Time to put some events in motion.”
Adonis led Cressida to one of the giant elevators, a behemoth that looked as if it could carry freight for the world’s largest IKEA. Buttons ran like barnacles down its insides, across the walls and ceiling, numbers and letters and symbols more batshit than anything made by Willy Wonka. As they waited on a platform, she noticed that the elevators that crisscrossed the city went aboveground and below, moving in every direction.
After they boarded, Adonis blocked her in the corner and stood in front of her, shielding her from view. The deeper they got into crowds, the more odd looks she got, including some covetous glances she could have done without. The car zigged and zagged and shook, stopping over and over to let people in and out until Adonis finally moved out of the way, and Cressida saw the car was empty.
“What happened to everyone?”
“They weren’t going where we are.”
He gave her another of those winks that probably would have melted the heart of anyone who was into him, but after she rolled her eyes again, he shrugged.
“Habit,” he said.
“I get it.”
When the doors opened, the landscape looked like the set of an apocalypse movie. The streets were abandoned except for a few suspicious piles of clothing that might have protested upon prodding. The buildings were devoid of neon or any signage. Most had boarded up windows, and weeds grew in patches through the sidewalk.
“If this place is designed by the minds of those who live there, how does it go to shit like this?” she asked.
“This is what the residents think it should look like close to the border. Hopeless for those without hope. Stay close.”
It looked like a desperate place, so Cressida supposed she shouldn’t have been surprised to see a line of people stretched across a chain link fence, staring into a bright white light. They shuffled and moaned like zombies, sometimes banging on the fence, sometimes hanging from it and crying out.
“What are they?” Cressida asked.
“The desperate. Sometimes it’s just the shades who collect here. Other times it’s the relatives or lovers of those who live in the Fields. Maybe some of them think they should be in there. Some are just drawn to the light, and their very desire gives them a bit of form.”
As they drew closer, she watched one shade drift out of the sky, gaining a faint solidity even as the fence turned him back. He clung on, his form a hazy blob without a face, only a flesh-colored smear with darker holes where his mouth and eyes should have been.
“Poor things.” It made her want to tear up, but she told herself to stop being so soppy. “I guess there’s nothing to be done for them.”
“No.” He looked up and down the fence. “Though you will have to get past them.”
She eyed the hungry ghosts again, the zombies, the more solid ones rattling the fence. “They’ll try to stop me?”
He mumbled something, and she realized he had no idea. Either it had been too long since a living person had attempted this, or no one ever had. “You do have a plan, yes?”
He led her close to a boarded up warehouse, and they kept to the side as they crept toward the fence. If she squinted, the fence blinked in and out of focus as if washed out by the light coming from the other side, though the zombies couldn’t move through it.
“Is there a similar line of people on the other side?” Cressida asked.
“Begging to be let in here? You must be joking. Anyone in the Fields can come over anytime they like, though they rarely do.”
“But what if their family is here? Their friends?”
His mouth set in a firm line. “They probably forget. Wouldn’t be paradise if they were forever mooning over those they’d lost, would it?”
She frowned hard and was about to argue, but he rested a hand on her back.
“Get ready to run,” he said.
“What are you going to do?”
“They’re attracted to the blood of those more aware than they are. Wait until they’re looking at me, then run past. The fence won’t stop you.”
“Wait! What do I do when I get over there?” She whispered it as loudly as she dared, but he was already running for the middle of the street. He slipped a knife from his belt and slashed his arm. Blood welled around the cut, and he dangled his fingers over the street, letting the blood drip down.
The pack gathered around the fence turned as one and shuffled toward him. Cressida looked from Adonis to the fence. He locked eyes with her and mouthed, “Go,” but what were the zombies going to do to him? Wouldn’t he need her help fighting them off?
If he was going to fight. He backed away from their shuddering advance, and she realized he couldn’t run unless she did. With one final look, she sprinted for the fence, ready to jump and climb it.
Several of the zombies looked her way, a few taking steps toward her, their smears of eyes widening as if sensing she was alive. Maybe she was as alluring as Adonis’s blood, maybe even more so, if the way they picked up their feet was any indication. She twisted away from their grasping hands and kept running. She sprang for the fence, bracing for the impact and telling herself she had to grab on and climb even if pain rattled through her.
She soared straight through the fence, breaking it apart into twinkling bits of light. With a yelp, she put her hands up to cover her face as green grass rushed toward her.
The air oomphed from her lungs as she landed, and shockwaves traveled up her arms. Her backpack smacked against her, something metal in it digging into her ribs. She eased up, favoring her arms but remembering the zombie hoard that was probably coming for her now that she’d destroyed the fence.
She glanced over her shoulder. The fence was gone, but so was the horde, the streets. A canyon wall rose up behind her, a clear stream flowing in front of it. A bridge of ivory spanned the stream and led to a gate in the wall, one that sparkled like gold. Birds chirped from nearby trees, and the bright green grass had a silky feel, like the finest golf course. She pushed up, wondered what the hell she was supposed to do now, and wandered toward the trees.
At the fence to the Elysian Fields, Medusa guessed what Adonis was up to. He wanted ambrosia, and with a mortal on his side, he’d found a way to go around the regular channels, undercut the gangs in the Fields, maybe even corner the market depending on how much Cressida could bring back.
It was a good plan if dealing in ambrosia didn’t turn her stomach. She raced to catch up, but she’d had to take another elevator, Stheno and Euryale leading her as they watched through the shade network. And they weren’t the only ones watching, Medusa was certain.
Her conversation with Medea had been short, Medea cackling with glee as Medusa outlined her plan. She was always a good one for a cackle, no matter the circumstances. She was one of the greatest villains in Greek myth, after all, though the murder of her children had been a trick she’d played on her cheating husband. A sorceress could make someone see whatever she wanted him to see, including the bloodless bodies of his offspring. And he’d suffered for the rest of his days while she’d run away with their sons.
Even now, long after she’d died, Medea enjoyed the odd trick of making someone see what she wanted them to see. She’d get a nice illusion ready, and all Medusa had to do was lead Cressida into the middle of it.
But when Adonis cut himself in front of the pack of hungry dead, and Cressida leapt into the Elysian Fields, Medusa almost cried out. She’d meant to act before Cressida had a chance to enter the Fields, but as usual, she was a step behind. Now, what if Cressida got herself into more trouble than she could handle? Medusa couldn’t rescue her. No one could. Maybe they’d get lucky, and she’d find some unassuming hero who would help her if she got into a jam.
Medusa snarled and hoped Cressida wouldn’t run into him, not yet. It was vital that he have no idea who Cressida was; when Medusa was ready to spring the trap, she needed him completely off guard.
Though she’d never been to paradise, she knew the rules. Everyone who dwelled in the Fields was given the choice to be resurrected twice, keeping in mind only vague understandings of the lives they’d lived before. And if they accomplished enough heroic deeds in all three lives that the gods judged them worthy of the Fields, they would move on to the Isles of the Blessed, as close to godhood as they could come, and unreachable by anyone in the Underworld or the mortal world. Perseus would live on for eternity, untouchable and shrouded in the most exquisite bliss while Medusa’s sisters faded into shades, with her one day to follow.
She gritted her teeth, and her power washed over her. One of the shuffling dead met her gaze and hardened into stone.
Adonis was still leading the dead on a chase, but if he saw this statue, he’d know she’d come. She crept from her hiding place, wrapped her arms around the statue, and pulled. It lurched forward with a horrid grinding sound. “Shh,” she whispered, looking to Adonis again, but he didn’t seem to notice. He’d never been one for realizing what was going on around him. She tugged harder, grunting with the effort and trying to tell herself she was strong enough, willing herself to believe it so it might have the possibility of being true.
The statue wobbled, toppling, and she leapt out of the way, grunting as she hit the pavement. Several pieces broke off as the statue fell, and after she tugged the hem of her robe loose from one of its elbows, she scattered a bit of refuse over it, making it into just one more broken bit of landscape.
In the grassy meadow, the breeze smelled like fresh laundry with a hint of cookies.
“This is more like it,” Cressida said.
Gentle laughter and the strains of music came from a group of trees nearby. She looked around for ambrosia the plant, but somehow, she didn’t think Adonis had been talking about ragweed. She took a few steps toward the voices. Where better to find ambrosia than at a picnic of divine people hanging out in the afterlife?
She crept forward, alert for any threat that might leap at her from the woods, but she didn’t see anything, didn’t even know if she could sense anything. She was tempted to stroll, to whistle a happy tune, and knew it was because of the air around her, the scenery itself like a heaping helping of mood enhancers. She had to fight to keep on high alert, leaving her half on the edge of caution and half in bliss. It felt like an itch between her shoulder blades that wouldn’t be alleviated by any twitching or scratching or squirming under the backpack.
A group of people lounged in a clearing ahead, dappled in sparkling sunlight and dressed in the draped dresses and chitons she’d been expecting from the first time she’d set foot in the Underworld. If these people could control their culture as the others could, they were ignoring any new fashion in favor of their past.
And everyone was spectacular looking, unearthly beautiful; it was hard not to stare at the women, even those that weren’t completely human. Several ladies sported feathers or scales, and she tried not to dwell on who they might be; she didn’t want to gawk. She focused on the cups they passed back and forth, those filled with golden, glowing liquid. That was either nectar or ambrosia, depending on what ancient text you consulted. She didn’t see any food, just ewers full of the glowing stuff that never seemed to run out, passed back and forth as the drinkers laughed and spoke. She heard their words as if through a film, as if it was translated just as it got to her ears. Someone was telling a tale of an old battle, and while the others laughed, the occasional eye roll said most of them would rather be listening to anything else, but hey, at least there was ambrosia.
Cressida walked ahead slowly, wondering how close she could get before they noticed, but sure they would notice. A few glanced at her but didn’t seem to sense anything strange. As Cressida joined the circle, a young woman with flowers strewn through her hair moved aside, making room.
Cressida sat and tried not to stare at anyone, though she guessed the flower woman and quite a few of the others were nymphs. Someone passed her a cup, and the closest nymph filled it with glowing liquid from one of the long-necked ewers. She smiled but didn’t drink, knowing that would trap her here, though what a place to be trapped!
She mimed taking a drink and tried to put on a smile.
“And where do you come from?” the nymph asked. The flowers didn’t seem woven through her hair but were part of it, green strands among the gold. She leaned forward invitingly.
Cressida blushed and told her eyes to stay on the nymph’s face and away from the impressive décolletage now pointing her way. “Um. Nowhere special.”
The nymph laughed and licked her full lips. “Have you come to play?”
And boy, that sounded like a fine idea. Cressida watched the nymph’s tongue cross her lips a second time and turned away from temptation. She didn’t know how strict the food and drink rules were. If the nymph had just drank ambrosia, and then they happened to kiss…
She told herself to shut up. “It sounded like a fun party, so I wandered over.”
The ewer came back around; Cressida snagged it and filled the nymph’s cup. The nymph laughed but took a long drink and let herself be drawn into conversation with the person on her other side.
Cressida held on to the ewer and scooted back a bit. When another ewer came around, she snagged it, too, all she could hope to carry. Adonis hadn’t told her how much she needed. Bastard hadn’t told her anything! Ambrosia had to be worth a lot; he wouldn’t go through all this trouble just for a good drink, right? Of course, she’d met people who’d flown hundreds of miles for the same thing in the living world.
She scooted farther back. Around the circle, a few people began to frown, no doubt catching on to the fact that the ambrosia had disappeared. Before the frowns could deepen, winged creatures zipped through the trees bearing more ewers, and a hurrah went up from the company.
Well, all she had to do now was walk away. The nymph turned her way, and when their eyes met again, the nymph’s head tilted. “There’s something different about you.”
“Nope, not me.” Cressida stood, trying for nonchalant, but when the nymph squinted at her, she ran, heading for the border. Someone called out, but she didn’t stop to answer. She headed straight for the stream and gate, wondering if it would fade away like the fence had or if she’d need to open it. No matter what, she’d have to keep moving when she reached the other side, or the zombies would be on her.
When she got to the stream, the trees beside it reached for her with their branches. She tripped to a halt. “What the shit?”
Something tugged on her shoulder, and she wrenched away, trying to keep the trees and whatever had grabbed her in sight.
The nymph’s impossibly green eyes opened wide. “You’re alive!”
Cressida gulped in a few deep breaths. “I have to go.”
The nymph eyed the ewers. “You’re alive, and you’re an ambrosia runner?”
“Please, someone over there has my aunt, and if I give him this…” What? He would help her out of the kindness of his heart? She knew then that she should hold on to the ewers, maybe stash them somewhere until she saw June again.
The nymph’s eyes narrowed. “Which gang do you work for? The next shipment’s not due until next week.” When Cressida shook her head, the nymph stalked forward, her perfect features settling into a disconcerting frown. “Someone thinks he can undercut us, does he? Kick us out of our own business?”
“Gang? What? I…thought people in the Elysian Fields didn’t want to think of the people over…there.”
“That’s just for silly humans telling their silly stories.” She reached out, and Cressida backed away. When the tree grabbed for her, Cressida ducked under its branches and ran. She hugged the ewers close, but the liquid didn’t slosh out. Maybe in the Elysian Fields, no one ever spilled a drop. She pounded across the ivory bridge and ran full tilt for the gate, hoping she wasn’t going to bounce off of it.
“We’ll find your contact,” the nymph called. “Tell them that no one crosses the Flowers and lives!”
The gate gave way as the fence had, and Cressida’s foot came down on hard pavement. The moans of the zombies echoed around her, but she held the ewers close and put her head down, plowing ahead. She shouldered someone over and kept running. Someone else seemed to pass through her, and she shuddered, but she could only think to run as the city came into sharper focus with its boarded up warehouses and slick streets.
“Cressida!” Adonis waved. He’d lost his pack of zombies, and she streaked for him like a bullet, wondering if the nymph was just a step behind.
The zombies clawed at her, some of them dissolving like smoke into the shades they’d been. They pawed for the ewers, but she kept running, and Adonis waved her on, though he hadn’t dived in to help. He even started running just as she got to him, gesturing for her to keep pace.
“Keep going,” he said. “They’ll weaken the farther we get from the barrier.”
He reached for the ewers, but she snarled at him. When they ran up the block and around a corner, he finally slowed.
“I’ll hold on to these until we get my aunt back,” she said.
He put his hands on his hips. “And I’ll refuse to help until I get my ambrosia.”
She glared. “A nymph from the Flowers wanted me to tell you that they’ll find you, that no one crosses them and lives.”
He took a step back, just as she hoped. “You met one of the Flowers? What the hell were you thinking?”
“Well,” she said after a deep breath. “They had a sign that said, ‘Come meet us, and you can have a free slice of cake,’ and I thought why not? Free cake.”
He stared at her, and she felt like kicking him.
“They found me!” she said. “After your oh-so careful instructions and all the information you gave me about who to talk to and what to do, I had to improvise. I found some people. I grabbed this. I tried to sneak away, but a nymph caught me. All right?”
“Do they know who sent you?”
She shrugged, holding that information in reserve.
He ran a hand down his face, lingering at his mouth.
“Are you and Narcissus in a gang?” she asked. “And you all deal in this stuff?” She nodded at the ewers. “I’m guessing it’s not just a cool and refreshing beverage?” When he didn’t answer, she sighed. “How about I give you one and hold on to the other until I have my aunt back?” But she didn’t hand either of them over, not yet, not until he agreed.
He rolled his eyes. “You’ll never be able to hold it on your own.”
“Why, is it going to grow legs?”
“No,” a new voice said from the closest alley. “The denizens of the Underworld will tear it from your grasp.”