Far beneath the Earth’s surface she lay entombed. Below rotting corpses and stifled mantles were miles of compacted mountains leading down to the darkest reaches. Beyond deep layers of fire and lava lay the remnants of the Kingdom of the Dead. Four rivers flowed at its dark center: Phlegethon, the River of Fire, marked the extreme limits forming the barrier of her confinement; the Acheron’s calm waters of rebirth dissected the Underworld and provided passage from one end to the other. Those drinking from the waters of the Cocytus ended their sorrowful wailing, as the dark waters stole their voices and provided a comforting numbness. At the farthest edge, closest to the upper realms, the Great River Styx swiftly flowed, carrying away the damned and forsaken and forming a natural boundary between the living and the dead.
Echidna’s eyes snapped open, no longer detecting the difference between sight and the surrounding darkness. The hollow eyes were sunk deeply in their sockets, and the leathery skin hung gauntly to her skull. Her amber pupils were vertical and shifted with precision to scan for movement in the eternal dark; she had learned to rely more on instinct than sight during her vast imprisonment. The forked tongue flickered, tracing her cracked, gristly lips, trying to detect something other than the cold staleness around her or the subtle breathing of the Earth.
Echidna stretched her arms with a heavy yawn. Her human torso was naked, but she had become accustomed to the prison’s chill long ago. Leaning forward, she slithered from her nest, constructed of found debris, excrement, and the discarded flesh and bones of creatures that somehow came her way. Her movements were slow due to the subterranean temperatures. Since the prison’s cavern door was sealed with powerful magic, the temperature never changed. A collar weighed heavily around her neck, causing calluses and chafing the skin. A chain forged by the Smith God himself connected the collar to a deeply embedded hook anchored to the wall. Her futile screams had ceased centuries ago, as only a mocking silence answered, and she had not bothered with using her voice because of it. She was left here, imprisoned and forgotten.
She pulled the plastered strings of knotted hair from her face. Her tongue flickered out to sense any water droplets trickling down the cavern sides. She detected something else in the darkness, and her body went still. The leather tongue waved slowly, searching for the slightest motion. The Mother of Monsters was immortal, but food was strength, and every morsel helped.
The slightest movement again registered. Some worm inched through a crack on the wall. Her eyes narrowed in the dark. Her dragon’s body recoiled and the serpent tail vibrated, readying to strike, her human arms subtly reaching outward. The forked tongue nodded, using heightened precision to detect the maggot’s wriggling. Her tail snapped, pounding on the wall and causing the larva to fall into her waiting clawed hand.
The worm twisted between her coarse fingertips. It was not much, but it was fresh, alive, and that’s where the power lay. It was more than the residual nourishment left to her. She threw the larva into her mouth, feeling it turn on her tongue before swallowing it whole. Her mind tormented her with fading memories, back to a time when she feasted on blood…human blood.
Long before the Olympians ruled, Echidna and her brother-mate Typhaeon held immense power. They were the first children of Mother Gaia and ruled all of Heaven, Earth, and beyond. When the more godlike Titans were born, Echidna and Typhaeon divided the Universe among them, and inadvertently created Chaos.
Olive and pomegranate trees once veiled the entrance to Echidna’s island lair. Fresh water cascading from the hilltops easily seduced passing ships, luring them into the inlet’s calm waters. Mighty vessels would anchor in her domain, not aware of the jagged angled rocks hidden below the water’s deceptive surface. Neither ship nor human ever left her island after their arrival.
Echidna birthed a litter of monsters in her paradise. One by one she ripped them from her body; hydra, sphinx, python, and the others she proudly bred. Her firm breasts were plump and full of powerful venom, and her offspring suckled it from her. One by one she sent them off into the world. One by one they were hunted until only the three-headed puppy, Cerberus, remained.
Through deceit and trickery Chaos secretly allowed the Usurper to be born. He was hidden until an army was raised, and once summoned, they rose in revolt. Battles lit the skies, shaking the very core of the Earth. On the verge of destruction, the great mother Gaia succumbed and yielded by betraying the Titans’ stronghold. The new Olympians hurled their predecessors from their thrones, punishing the Titans with great cruelty.
Typhaeon was imprisoned in a cave, his tantrums shaking the mountains above him. Over time his rage faded and lapsed, and eventually he succumbed to a perpetual dormancy. The Usurper hurled thunder at the Earth, causing it to crack open. He took Echidna by the tail and cast her downward into Tartarus, the prison of the gods, from which there was no escape, and she fell deep into the bowels of the Earth until even Time held no meaning. She landed, broken, where waiting wraiths quickly collared and chained her to the prison wall. Her tomb was sealed, and she was left to rot for eternity.
Echidna stopped and sniffed the air. It was oppressive, cold and still. She sensed something rumbling from far away. It was approaching fast, shaking the walls and causing the cave to become unstable. Stalactite rocks were shaken loose, releasing a hailstorm of stone. The earth rolled beneath her body, throwing her to the ground. She curled into a ball, covering her head with her arms. Rocks rained down, burying her where she fell.
After a long time the rumbling slowed and dulled until it gave way to silence. Dust and debris floated in the air, making the darkness thicker and heavier than before. She pushed the stones off until the pile started to tumble away. Pain rippled through her body with each movement. Her hands clawed their way out and she pulled herself free from the cairn of stones.
It was in the dark stillness that Echidna noticed a subtle difference in the air. A new smell emerged among the floating dust and debris. It was a crisp chill from the outside world, and she inhaled it deeply, feeling it scratching the inside of her nostrils. She greedily took another breath.
There was something else. A whispering sound slushed through her prison. It was the unmistakable fatal gasp and hiss of expiration. Mother Gaia, the last of the great gods and her infinite jailor, exhaled her last breath with a low death rattle, and was no more.
With a newfound boldness, Echidna reached up and took firm hold of the collar at her neck. She summoned her strength and pulled at the metal. The resistance ripped at her skin until she felt the collar’s lock give way. She doubled her efforts, feeling the collar break apart in her hands, falling from her shoulders.
Echidna let the idea wash over her; she was free for the first time in over three thousand years. The thought made her cracked lips spread over jagged teeth into something resembling a smile. Gaia, the Mother of the Gods, was dead! And she—Echidna, Mother of all Monsters—was alive, and free to seek revenge.
Adrian felt himself being lifted higher into the sky. Neither the wind burning against his face nor the eagle’s talons tightly gripping his outstretched arms bothered him. The loincloth offered little protection from the elements. His body felt only a gentle breeze and the rays of the sun warming his skin. Looking downward, he saw clouds passing like discarded strips of gauze, and a hazy view of the blue sky beneath. The snowy caps of mountains pierced the clouds. Adrian could not remember ever feeling more alive.
There had been no surprise when he spotted the great eagle circling above him. He felt no fear as the winged creature swooped down and took him from the field. Adrian had spread his arms, and the bird took hold. He felt safe in the bird’s clutches. The back of his hand stroked the eagle’s strong leg, feeling leathery skin giving way to tufts of feathers.
An electric charge burnt beneath his skin. It flowed from the bird’s legs down into his arms and chest, causing his heartbeat to race with exhilaration. The bolt moved lower into his groin. Adrian’s flaccid penis crept into motion, growing and pressing against the flimsy cloth around his waist. The material loosened until the wind tore it from his hips and it floated away. The air caressing his chest caused his nipples to become erect.
The underside of the great bird rustled with each beating of the powerful wings. Orange talons wrapped around each of Adrian’s biceps, holding tight without ripping the tender flesh. Brown breast feathers gave way to a black neck with a pure white hood. Adrian could see the sharp curve of the creature’s beak. He felt no fear, knowing the majestic eagle wouldn’t hurt him, and relaxed within its hold. The eagle lowered its head to stare into his eyes.
A screech sounded through the air. The eagle lifted its head into the wind and opened its mouth to let out another majestic cry. Instead, the sounds of string instruments cut through the air along with a roll of drums. The eagle opened its mouth again and the familiar musical refrain sounded a second time. The rushing winds went silent and the racing of string instruments filled the air. Adrian listened…
The first thing Adrian noticed when his eyes fluttered open was the hardness of his erection. The second thing he noticed was his phone ringing. He took a deep breath, debating which required his attention more urgently. The phone prevailed.
“You have the absolute worst timing in the world,” Adrian grumbled upon answering.
“I usually do.”
“I’m going to have to assign you a ringtone. And learn to ignore it,” Adrian mumbled. His erection was already dissipating.
Talking to your sister would do that.
“It wouldn’t help,” Annelise said. “We’ll always know it’s the other one no matter what ringtone. The joys of being twins.”
It was true. More often than not, each knew when it was the other calling…or sometimes when the other was feeling an extreme emotion such as pain or happiness. If it was above average on the emotional scale, the other twin would feel it. There were times Adrian resented his sister’s multiorgasmic capabilities. He swung his legs off the bed.
“Did you have a reason for waking me?”
“Yeah,” Annelise answered. “I need your truck to clear out my showcase for the next exhibit.”
“That’s not a good enough reason for waking me.”
Adrian braced the phone between his right ear and shoulder. He pulled a pair of black gym shorts over his muscular legs and stood to lift them to his waist. He padded his way out to the kitchen.
“I’m sorry,” Annelise purred. Her voice was laced with saccharine. “I meant to say, ‘Can you help me move a few things from my showroom? There’s dinner in it for you.’ Is that better?”
“Much better.” Adrian tapped his fingers on the counter waiting for the coffee to brew. “And for dinner, something other than seafood.”
“Done. What time can you be here?”
Adrian looked for the digital clock tucked in the counter’s corner. It blinked 10:27 a.m. He’d slept later than expected.
“Let me hit the shower, and I’ll head out. You’re lucky I don’t have any work at either of the apartments today. I want to be home early to work on a new project, but I will take you up on dinner.”
“A new piece?” Her tone was surprised and skeptical. “What kind of new work?”
“Some sketching I’m doing.” Adrian winced at the lie, hoping she didn’t pick up on it.
“It’s going well, is it?” Her sarcasm was evident. “What’s it about?”
Adrian thought about the easel and blank canvas in the other room. “I’d rather not discuss it until it’s a little more on its way. Superstitious and all.”
“Superstitious,” Annelise repeated. “That must be it.”
“Do you want my truck or not?”
“Definitely.” She backpedaled. “Sorry.”
“What exactly am I getting myself into here?” Adrian asked.
“I need you to help return a few delicate pieces to the artist. Don’t worry, he lives on the peninsula, and it won’t take too long.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be the butch one?”
“I’m lipstick only, dear brother. I defy stereotypes.”
“Can’t you call a handyman for this?” Adrian mumbled.
“Funny thing, I thought I did,” she bantered. “Look, the gallery’s truck is in the shop, and I need to make room for a new exhibit. Besides, it’s an excuse to see you. It has been a while.”
“Okay then,” Annelise conceded. “Do I have your help or do I have to rent a truck?”
“Thanks. I owe you one.”
“You owe me a lot more than that.” He hung up the phone.
Adrian poured himself a cup of coffee and sat on the couch in the center room of his home. The place was spacious—considering the Capitol Hill location, adjacent to downtown Seattle. He’d bought the place when rates were low and the economy lower, and with his handyman talents, spent the next year reconstructing the lower half of the house and converting it into two separate one-bedroom apartments. Adrian continued the renovations until he had a comfortable, independent second-story two-bedroom home. A back stairwell provided a private entrance.
Adrian tossed his phone onto the table. He leaned back into the sofa cushions and finished his coffee. Closing his eyes, he tried to conjure the dream from his memory. A smile crawled across his lips. His free hand crept across his leg so that his fingertips could slide up his inner thigh and into the leg opening of his shorts. He took a deep breath as his hand squeezed his hard-on. He went into the bathroom and started the shower.
When he finished drying off, Adrian stood in front of the full-length mirror hanging behind the bedroom door. He pulled on square-cut black underwear and a pair of jeans torn at the knee, and slipped a russet-colored T-shirt over his head. He pushed a hand through the drying waves of his black hair, then ran it over the olive skin of his face, debating shaving. He could go a week without touching a razor and only the hints of dark stubble in random patches would appear. Adrian Petrakis felt good as he grabbed his keys from the table.
He opened the hall closet and reached for his worn leather jacket. His eyes fell on an old cloth messenger bag tucked into the corner. He smiled, reaching for the bag. Inside were an 11x14 sketchpad and an assortment of drawing pencils, sharpeners, and pens.
“What the hell,” he muttered, throwing the bag’s strap across his shoulder. “Maybe it’ll actually inspire me.”
The Bainbridge Island ferry was far from crowded on a Tuesday in early April. The boat was barely half full of cars. Adrian went up to the sundeck as soon as the sailing signal sounded. It was warm for Seattle. Only a few passengers got out of their cars, most preferring to doze for the short thirty-five-minute crossing. Adrian found a seat at the stern to enjoy the view of the Olympic mountain range.
A loudspeaker’s tinny voice sounded. “A small pod of whales has surfaced along the port side of the ferry.”
The few passengers on the deck lined up against the railing. The mammals resurfaced, blowing water from their spouts. Adrian watched the two whales swimming not far from the boat. The sleek polished color of their arched backs glistened, and they smacked the water with their great tails before submerging.
Adrian sat gazing out over the water. The sun felt good. The ferry engine’s steady humming lulled thoughts away until his mind was blank. He removed the messenger bag from across his shoulders, took out his pad, and started to draw.
The ferry motor’s vibrations faded away until it was just white noise. His hand flitted across the paper, drawing of its own accord. He smeared lines and shapes, smudging edges and allowing shadow to create the illusion of depth.
The shrill alarm signaling the boat’s approach to dock made Adrian jump. He looked at the sketching pad in his lap. He had drawn his dream. A majestic eagle flew through the air holding on to a handsome young man. The outstretched wings spread across the page. Sharp talons held on to the man’s rib cage. The figure was naked except for a simple cloth.
The man’s face was blissful. The dark curls of hair cascaded around a classically handsome face. The figure’s left hand reached upward, lovingly curling around the eagle’s neck. The right hand hung at his waist, holding a single lightning bolt.
Adrian smiled, contented. He threw his tools back into the messenger bag and ran for the stairwell. He managed to return to his truck just before the cars in front began to drive off the boat.
When Adrian arrived, he parked his red Nissan pickup in the reserved space by the loading platform behind the gallery. The truck’s tarp was rolled up and a blanket lined the open bed. Giving the horn a double honk from habit, Adrian got out and went around to the gallery’s entrance. He paused with a smile to read Petrakis Gallery across the thick-glassed window set in the heavy oaken frame. The gallery’s hours were printed below in smaller print.
The front door opened to a small foyer with a large desk. On either side of the desk an entrance led into to the next room. An attractive Asian woman dressed in a light blue blouse and a gray jacket matching her skirt sat behind the desk. She looked around the large computer screen and greeted him with a smile.
“Hi, Adrian,” she said casually. “Annelise is expecting you.”
“Thanks, Lily. Are those new glasses?”
“Yes.” She perked. “Do you like them?”
“They add a softness to your face,” Adrian said, “with your hair pulled back in a ponytail like that. Very attractive.”
“Why can’t straight men be like you?” Lily sighed.
Adrian entered the main gallery. The large space was empty except for five crates. An open folding ladder leaned against the far wall next to a dolly cart. Four pedestals were lined up along several dividing partitions. A few panels in the ceilings were shifted out of place to allow track lighting to be dismantled and moved. At the far end, another open door led out to the loading zone.
“There you are,” Annelise said. She was holding a closed ledger book and a business-sized envelope. “I was beginning to wonder if you were still coming.”
“I texted when I got onto the ferry,” Adrian said. “Not my fault you don’t check your phone.”
Annelise Petrakis was the same height as her brother, if she wasn’t wearing heels. Her legs were shapely. Her black skirt ended just above the knee and was cinched at the waist. She wore a white blouse open at the collar with a smart, short black jacket. Her hair was pulled back from her face in a ponytail. The high cheekbones and olive-toned skin set off her brown eyes.
“You’ll have to excuse me if I’ve been busy,” she replied, giving her brother a hug and an affectionate peck on the cheek.
“All this needs to be moved?” Adrian asked.
“No,” Annelise replied. She gestured to the first few crates. “These five are from the artist that didn’t sell. He’ll be coming to pick those up later. There are two crates in the back for Zack. We sold four pieces of Zack’s work. He’s very good.”
“Zack,” Adrian muttered to himself. “And why can’t Zack pick up his own leftovers?”
“Because I thought I’d have the truck today,” Annelise answered, too quickly. “And I told him I’d do it. I don’t go back on my word, do you?”
“Fine.” He said with a sigh. “You win.”
Annelise handed him an envelope with an address.
Eagle’s Nest Farm
5871 Kingston Way
“Don’t lose that. It’s his check,” she said. “Stop with that look; the crates aren’t heavy.”
“What are they?” Adrian asked, putting the envelope into his back pocket.
He gave the first crate a gentle push.
“The packaging is probably heavier than the actual statue,” Annelise answered. “Zack’s a carpenter turned wood-carver. People love his work. These were only a few samples to fill in the exhibit. He said he had several more pieces. I’m hoping to build an entire exhibit around his work.”
“More tree-stump troll carvings for the tourists, I assume,” Adrian said.
“Yeah,” Annelise teased. “There aren’t enough places selling those horrible statues around the peninsula.”
Adrian smiled and walked out the back door. He took a deep breath, leaning on the dolly. “Don’t suppose you’re going to give me a hand loading these up?”
“I’m front of the house,” Annelise purred. “You’re the help.”
“Thanks, you butch thing!”
“Lipstick only,” she sang over her shoulder. She paused at the doorway with a light smile. “You’re bitter because I have a life.”
Adrian snapped, “I have a life.”
“Really.” She raised her eyebrow. “When was the last time you had a boyfriend or even got laid? Hmm, that’s what I thought.”
“You don’t know me.”
Annelise smiled. “I’m comfortable being alone, but at least I socialize. There’s got to be half a dozen apps for you to meet available guys. Do you have any of them downloaded? You’re the only single gay man I know that doesn’t.”
“And what’s the app on your phone called?”
“Lickety Split,” Annelise immediately answered. “It’s an app for lesbians who want to meet in real time.”
Adrian incredulously stared at her for a silent minute. “You’re kidding, right?”
Annelise burst out laughing.
“Anyway,” she continued, “Zack lives by Jefferson Point. Swing by my place after and I’ll cook dinner. You can catch a later ferry back to Seattle.”
Adrian shook his head and slid the dolly’s lip under the first crate. He easily moved the crate down the ramp to the lowered tailgate of his truck. Carefully, he secured it in the truck’s bed and went back for the second one.
Adrian took his seat behind the driver’s wheel and honked twice to let Annelise know he was leaving. He programmed the envelope’s address into his phone’s GPS, plugged the phone into the charger, and turned on the engine.
“Zack Wilson.” Adrian read the name off the envelope and put it into his bag on the passenger’s seat. “Why do I get the feeling you are some five-toothed yokel wood-carver with only seven fingers left?”
He lowered the front windows. The crisp air circulated through the truck’s cab. He clicked on the local NPR station to find himself midway through Bizet’s Carmen. Smiling, he reached over and opened the armrest compartment, taking out a metallic cylinder roughly the size of a tire gauge.
Adrian clicked the vaporizer switch, waiting for it to warm up. After a moment he put the plastic mouthpiece to his lips, inhaling the marijuana mist into his lungs.
“In one-quarter mile turn left onto unpaved road,” the GPS said. “Then destination in three-quarter miles.”
Adrian came to a long curve and slowed down, looking for the turnoff. He saw the sign declaring Eagle’s Nest Farm and made the turn. The dirt road was rough and Adrian slowed. The single lane curled through a forest to a beautiful home. The path became part of a crescent driveway. Adrian parked at its crest.
The house was built on a ten-foot-high platform to allow parking and a workspace underneath. A set of stairs led up from either side. The underside was divided into three parts, lit with fluorescent bulbs. A large black truck occupied the first spot, while the middle section was clear except for a grill and a table. The far side was a workshop with another table and a large tree stump in the process of being shaved and sanded. Three ceiling-to-floor pillars separated each space, and a wall of hanging tools stretched across the back.
Adrian walked past the first two stalls. The tree stump was about a yard high and two feet across. Sawdust and shavings blanketed the area at its base. The sides were sanded smooth. The top was being broken up by chisel cuts.
An electric handsaw lay next to the table. Nine carving chisels, sorted by size, were displayed across the tabletop.
“Careful,” a voice warned casually from behind him. “They’re sharp.”
Long before the Titans existed, the Veiled Lady Hecate appeared in the Underworld. No one remembered when she first emerged from the shadowy lands, where she previously came from, or when she claimed the Land of the Dead as her kingdom. It was always so, and therefore never challenged. The Night Pack, a den of large hounds constantly at her side, ensured her rule of the Underworld. Hecate kept her face hidden by several veils, and she came to be worshipped as a revealer of secret portals and doorways.
Hecate built the Black Palace among the numerous lakes of the Underworld. The walls were constructed of solid onyx. The grand palatial doors were forged from iron and always kept open without fear.
The Night Pack was set to digging a moat to divide the Lands of the Living from the Kingdom of the Dead. The Veiled Lady straddled the empty riverbed and cut her inner wrist. Her blood spilled into the trench, slowly filling the moat. The great River Styx created an impenetrable boundary for Hecate’s kingdom.
Standing on the banks, the Dark Goddess removed one of her veils and set it afloat in the water. The translucent material shimmered, solidified, and expanded, becoming a crescent-shaped boat. Benches lined the deck for thirty passengers. Hecate removed another veil and threw it into the air. It caught hold on the boat and transformed into a black sail, embroidered with a silver weeping willow.
Hecate reached between her thighs and opened herself to the darkness. She allowed Chaos inside her and became pregnant. When the time came, she ripped the shadowy child from her womb and watched as it grew to a towering height, taking the form of an ogre.
Kharian stood ominously silent. Dark fires burned within deeply set eyes, and a thick braid of coal black hair hung down his back. The squared head sat on a thick neck and a set of broad shoulders. Powerful arms hung at his side, and a leather harness divided the muscled pectorals. A kilt made of leather straps hung around his waist, over thick thighs.
Hecate reached her hands up to write the secret of life on Kharian’s forehead. She caressed his face and gave him his charge.
“Only those with the obols may be ferried from those shores to my kingdom. I bless you with indifference to all else.”
Kharian bowed silently to his mother. She kissed his brow. He strode past her to take his place at the rear of the boat. He wrapped his fingers around the tiller and waited.
Hecate picked up a small handful of black stones from the beach and threw them into the river. As they sank beneath the surface, they changed shape, becoming massive creatures swimming in the waters.
“Leviathan. Kraken,” the goddess called. “I give you the names of fear to patrol the waters of the world.”
The Veiled Lady walked the plank and gracefully climbed into the body of the ship. She called two of the Night Pack to her side; the rest remained waiting on the shore. She gently took each of the dog’s heads in her hands.
“I call you Orthos, the Vigilant.”
Hecate nudged the two dogs closer together until they meshed, becoming one animal with two heads. She lifted the dog into the air, transforming the living creature into the mast’s figurehead. A red lantern hung tightly clenched in each set of snarling teeth.
Kharian pushed the vessel from the dock, steering from the rear with a pole. The barge sped forward, disappearing into a mist hanging in the air. At the river’s center, the ferryman brought the vessel to a stop.
Hecate stood at the bow and removed another veil. She let it loose, and it was quickly swallowed by the mist. The air shimmered before them, coming alive with sparkling lights. A set of gates formed, stretching across the vast river. Each gate only opened one way. A gentle rain fell over the gate entering the kingdom.
“I name you Lethe,” the goddess proclaimed. “All those passing through shall forget the previous lives they’ve known.”
Hecate moved to the side of the barge, looking at the waters in each direction. She threw another stone, letting it skim across the Styx. A new spout of water erupted. With a deep exhale of breath, Hecate changed the stream and forced its flow away from the River Styx. She saw the new river flowing to the edge of her kingdom, until it bubbled up into a huge lake. Across the lake, a path could be seen leading into a thick void.
The rest was beyond her domain and of little interest to her.
“I name you Acheron,” the goddess stated to the river. “Your water shall divide my kingdom.”
The goddess returned to the bow and signaled for the return to her shores. The Night Pack took their place at her side when she docked. A pathway spread before her, leading from Kharian’s boat to the Dark Palace. Hecate stopped halfway, removing another veil from her face.
“Go with peace,” Hecate commanded. She raised her arm, pointing between the castle and the ferry dock. A new path paved its way into the distance. “I name you Elysium, and you shall be known as Paradise.”
Once her boundaries were established, the Veiled Lady reached into the rich ground and withdrew titanium. She created a magnificent throne and placed it in the main hall of the palace. Next, she created a crown, embedding it with jewels and powerful magic. Hecate placed the crown on her head and retired to her castle to rule. She was content, knowing that all livings things would eventually come to her.
Hecate watched the courtship between earth Gaia and Uranus, the Sky Lord. She saw the birth of their children and had no interest when the Titan Cronus overthrew his father Uranus, taking control of the heavens and earth. She watched with apathy when the cycle repeated, with Zeus rebelling against his father Cronus.
Hades, the Brooding One, entered her kingdom with humility and charm, bringing an offering for its sovereign, with a deceivingly handsome face masking his chicanery. The eldest brother of the new Sky Lord, Hades, knelt before the Dark Queen, presenting her with his offering, a pitch-black puppy. The tiny creature sat in his large palm, barely strong enough to lift its three heads. Only one set of eyes had opened and quickly found Hecate. The creature squeaked out its bark, setting off the other two heads, much to the Veiled Lady’s delight. She named the dog Cerberus and accepted both god and beast into her home.
Hades was clever and seduced the Dark Queen. He used the darker spells of Love to cast a haze over the Veiled Lady’s eyes, and she became lost in his charisma. He kenneled the Night Pack and prepared a banquet. He toasted his queen with poisoned wine, and after Hecate drank, she fell into an enchanted sleep.
When the Veiled Lady awoke, she found herself magically bound and her kingdom raped. Her crown was lost. The Night Pack was slain and condemned to roam as soulless wraiths, and Hades declared himself Lord of the Dead.
The overthrown queen was brought to the docks. It was then that Hecate saw how her borders were breached. The Olympian, Poseidon, was sitting in a saddle on the back of the Kraken. In his hand he tightly held a powerful weapon.
The ferry arrived and Hecate was placed aboard, the ghostly Night Pack at her side. Kharian did not protest, being bound by her own spells to ferry her across. The boat cast off and Poseidon rode the Kraken under the water. Once at the Shores of the Living, the Veiled Lady was put on land and left to wander with the soulless wraiths and the poor souls unfortunate enough not to be buried with the ferryman’s payment. With the last of her magic, Hecate carved out a secret temple deep within the rocks and resigned herself to oblivion.
The Black Palace loomed in front of Echidna at last.
The quake’s rumblings had shifted the earth so much it changed the course of the River Phlegethon. The lava rose slowly, fallen boulders causing the flow to splinter off in various minor tributaries.
Echidna picked her way across the lava flow by climbing from one dislodged rock to another. With great patience Echidna crossed over the river of fire. She could see the paved road in the near distance, and her strength renewed. The various lakes lining the way had become brackish and silted and were now festering marshes. The closer she got to the palace, the stronger the foul smells grew.
Echidna stopped as she approached the center of a crossroad. The Dark Palace towered in the distance to her right. The gate had been left open. She took a step forward and stopped by instinct. Her body coiled onto itself and she brought her human arm to her mouth. She opened her jaw and bit into her wrist. Her fanged incisors tore the loose skin until beads of her black blood appeared.
“Blood returned for blood stolen,” she whispered. “Veiled Lady of the Crossroad, I honor you.”
Echidna held her wrist over the pavement. Her tongue flickered as she squeezed three drops from her veins. She continued across the intersection until she found herself standing on the edge of the dock. The waters slapped against the six posts. The river held power, and Echidna listened to its chatter: I am all that is. I am all that was. I am all that will ever be.
She slithered to the dock’s edge, standing under the burning torch on the last post. Below the sconce, a thick cord trailed out of the bottom of a box. Echidna pulled the cord, feeling it resist at first. Her amber eyes scanned the horizon.
From the thick mist, a dark cloud appeared in the distance. It grew thicker and took the form of a ship. It rapidly approached and silently docked in front of her. A ramp plank was extended from the ship’s side as the sails snapped in the windless breeze.
Kharian stepped down onto the loading platform. Neither surprise nor recognition registered in his burning eyes. He stepped aside, letting Echidna pass and board the vessel. He returned to his position in the stern and cast off without a word.
The shore disappeared. The Gates of Lethe appeared from the mist and Echidna marveled at their magic. The boat carefully turned, avoiding the raining-down Shower of Forgetting. Echidna looked away, holding on to her bitter memories.
The shoreline appeared from the darkness. Echidna noticed shadows flooding onto the planks’ edge. The shadows became throngs of individual specters, wraiths of lost souls crowding forward, desperate for passage.
The boat moored at the dock. Kharian lowered the platform and waited for Echidna to disembark. At first sight of the Mother of Monsters, the wraiths pushed forward, drawn to her life force. But as she took her first steps onto the dock, the throngs parted and backed away from her with fear.
Echidna watched Kharian. He was already choosing his passengers, collecting coins and jewels for payment. She turned away and slithered from the dock. She crossed the black sand and found the broken path leading up the rocky cliffs. This was the path that led to the World of the Living, and she instinctively knew it was not the way she needed to follow. Echidna reached into her memory for the ancient spells she would need and spoke aloud the spells of revealing.
A green flame appeared before her. It hovered in the air before moving along the path until it came to the side of the mountain. The glowing light disappeared into the rock, leaving an outlined door behind.
Taking a deep breath, Echidna began her long journey up from the Underworld to find the last Temple of Hecate.
Adrian spun around. The man was older, dressed in a worn, faded pair of overalls covering a rust and gray plaid flannel shirt. His arms were folded across his broad chest and his sleeves were rolled up. His gray hair was brushed roughly up and away from his handsome face.
“Sorry,” Adrian said. He stuck out his hand. “I’m Adrian Petrakis, Annelise’s brother. She sent me to bring your work back.”
“Oh yeah,” the man said. The smile flickered wider. “I see the resemblance now. Zack Wilson.”
The man stepped forward. Adrian reached out to shake hands and noticed the details of a tattoo disappearing under the sleeve. It looked like a bushy treetop with gold branches rooting through the crown. When their hands touched, tiny pinpoints of light flashed around Zack’s head. Adrian was surprised by how strong the grip was and the short bursts of electricity that pulsed up his arm.
He smiled and looked away.
“You all right?” Zack asked.
“Yeah,” Adrian said. “Your statues are back here. Tell me where you want ’em. Give me a hand, and it should only take a few minutes.”
Adrian lowered the tailgate. Zack leapt up onto the bed.
“I’ll push these two to the front,” Zack said. “We can get them to the ground and then move them to the workshop.”
“Try not to scratch the bed, please.”
“Don’t worry, pretty boy. I won’t.” Zack squatted down and pulled the crate from the back. He winked at Adrian.
“So, Annelise runs an art gallery. What do you do?”
“I manage two apartment buildings,” Adrian reluctantly answered. “And I do some drawing and painting.”
“Really? What kind of drawing?”
“People or inanimate objects?”
“Whatever I feel like doing,” Adrian answered.
“Okay.” Zack patted the side of the crate. “I’ll need a hand getting them back to the storeroom. You ready?” He squatted down to take hold of the bottom end. “I take it you’re more of a city mouse to your sister being a country one?”
“You could say that,” Adrian said. He took hold of the crate’s bottom.
“Why do you prefer the urban opposed to the rural?”
They lifted the box and moved it off the truck and into the middle workspace.
“I like the convenience, I guess,” Adrian answered. “I could live out here like her, but I’d miss the conveniences of going out and doing stuff.”
“Are you a party boy? One of the circuit crowd?”
“Hardly.” Adrian chuckled. “I’m more of a recluse. I want to feel like I can go out if the mood hits. Out here, it would be a lot easier to talk myself out of going anywhere before I even got ready to go.”
“If it’s not worth the effort”—they put the first crate down, and Zack stood back up with a grin—“then it should no longer be an issue.”
“Annelise likes it out here,” Adrian said. They headed back for the second crate. “When our parents died, she jumped at the chance of opening a gallery out here. I bought a house and converted the bottom half into two one-bedroom apartments. It pays my bills, and I can still live in the city. Both have their pros and cons, I guess. I think we appreciate the other’s lifestyle while preferring our own.”
“Do you hand-pick the tenants?” Zack asked.
“Hardly. It’s not always a good thing to rent an apartment to a friend,” Adrian said. “My tenants are nice enough, but I wouldn’t call them friends. We don’t hang out much.”
“Wouldn’t you like living out here?” Zack spread his arms outward with a smile. “All this fresh air and quiet?”
“No offense, but honestly, all this quiet would drive me batshit cray-cray. And I know Annelise feels the same way about city noise.”
Zack laughed. “No doubt. Your sister is definitely a country girl.”
“How well do you know her?” Adrian wondered if Zack knew his sister was a lesbian.
Adrian felt Zack take him by the shoulders and spin him around as if he were a rag doll. He lost his breath when both of Zack’s strong arms wrapped around his lower back. Firm hands slid down over the jeans, feeling the curve of Adrian’s ass. Zack’s hands began kneading the rounded muscles.
“You’re tight,” Zack whispered.
Adrian felt the strong hands pulling him close. He could feel Zack’s breath against his neck. Their breathing became one, coming heavier and faster. Zack leaned in and Adrian closed his eyes as their lips were about to touch.
“Your sister?” Zack asked once again.
Adrian blinked, realizing he’d slipped into fantasy. He looked down where Zack was squatting next to the crate, waiting for his help. His blue eyes climbed up Adrian’s body.
“I’ve known your sister for about a year,” Zack continued “Maybe two. We met through mutual friends, you know how island life is, and they told her about my artwork. Ready on three?”
Zack nudged the crate between them. Together they lifted the box.
“You all right?” Zack asked.
“Yeah,” Adrian answered. He quickly reached down, readjusting the bulge in his pants.
They put the crate down a few feet from the first. Zack stood up.
“You sure you’re okay?” He reached out for Adrian’s shoulder.
“Yeah,” Adrian said. He stepped out of reach. “Just an odd dream I had this morning.”
“What was it about?”
“Nothing,” Adrian said. He began walking back to the truck. “Never mind.”
“Oh.” The knowing acknowledgment. “One of those dreams. It’s cool. I get ya.”
“Get your mind out of the gutter. It would take too long to explain, that’s all.”
“No problem,” Zack said. “Any desire to see what you’ve been haulin’ across the island?”
Zack popped off the top of the first crate. He reached inside and lifted out a statue, placing it gently on the ground. The statue was stained a dark color and carved from a single piece of wood. A horse, galloping hard against the wind. The animal’s tail whipped out behind muscled flanks. The animal’s neck extended, the windblown mane trailing.
As Adrian studied the details of the animal’s face, he noticed the human figure curled along the neck. The tiny human legs were wrapped in front of the animal’s chest. The figure leaned in so that his pixielike head peered out from the tangled mane. One hand held firmly on to the horse’s neck. Grasped tightly in the rider’s other hand was a clutch of lightning bolts.
“I call it The Centaur,” Zack said.
“That’s really cool,” Adrian replied. “Much better than the troll-stumps I thought I’d be seeing.”
Zack laughed, clapping Adrian on the shoulder.
Adrian’s body tensed. The electric pulses started racing through his body again.
“Can I use your bathroom?” he managed to squeak out.
“Sure,” Zack answered, still laughing. “Inside the front door to the left, and two doors down. Easy to find.”
“Thanks,” Adrian said. He started up toward the house.
“Did Annelise happen to give you an envelope for me?”
“Yeah,” Adrian said. He looked over the stairs’ railing. Zack was standing next to his truck, his hands on his hips. “It should be right inside my bag. Passenger seat, the door’s open.”
The house’s front door opened to a large room with a glass sliding door on the opposite wall. A cloth couch faced the extended outside deck. There was a kitchen to the left, and to the right was an open door leading into the master bedroom. A hallway on the left led down to the guest bathroom and bedroom.
Adrian started down the hallway, looking at the framed photos decorating the wall. Some were scenic from locations around the world, while others had people posing in front of famous sites.
“I guess he only knows pretty people.”
Adrian flipped on the bathroom light. Above the switch was a framed black-and-white photo taken on a beach verandah with the ocean behind. Two men sat at a table in the picture’s center. They were both slim-built, bare chested, well tanned. Their palms were locked, arm wrestling. The man on the left was mostly smooth-chested, only a central darker patch of chest hair. The man on the right had tight curls of dark hair rolling down his chest. Both men were grinning directly at the camera.
Adrian noticed the tattoo on the right man’s inner arm. It was a younger version of Zack. His hair was dark and curly, a bushy mustache covering his lip. Adrian’s eyes studied the tattoo closer. It wasn’t a tree, but a storm cloud with lightning rippling through it.
“Handsome man.” Adrian smiled, closing the bathroom door. “For a seventies Castro clone.”
Adrian started down the outside wooden stairs and stopped halfway down. “What are you doing?” he yelled over the railing.
Zach looked up from the passenger seat of the truck and waved. His legs sprawled over the seat as he went over the drawings in the sketchpad held in his lap.
“These are pretty good,” Zack called back cheerfully. “Are they yours?”
“Hey! I said you could get your check, not go through my stuff.” Adrian stomped down the remaining stairs. “Do you mind?”
Zack continued flipping through the pages. “Some of these early ones are okay at best, but not bad. You can see definite progress with the latter ones. This one here.” He stopped. “The details on the eagle feathers are incredible for a pencil drawing. Not to mention the guy. I like your homage to the Renaissance Braghettone by painting a loincloth over the crotch. Leaves a little something to the imagination, that’s hot.”
Zack looked up into Adrian’s face. “Oh my God! It’s you, isn’t it?”
“I said they were personal!” Adrian snatched the pad from Zack’s hands, the top page ripping off the first metal ring. “I don’t like people seeing my work until I’m ready to show them.”
“I’m saying they’re really good. You don’t have to get all pissy, pretty boy.”
“Would you mind getting the hell out of my truck?” Adrian stepped aside.
“All right.” Zack chuckled awkwardly. “Learn to take a compliment.”
Adrian slammed the passenger car door. “Oh, fuck you!”
He stomped around the truck and got into the driver’s seat. He tossed the pad onto the bag lying on the seat.
“Did you get your check?”
“Good. It was nice meeting you,” Adrian started the engine. “Buh-bye.”
The truck sped off, kicking up a cloud of dust as it drove away. Adrian looked into the rearview to see Zack still standing in the driveway.
The truck pulled out onto the two-lane road, and Adrian reached behind to open the truck’s sliding rear window. With the Eagle’s Nest Farm growing distant behind him, Adrian released a heavy sigh and reached into the armrest to withdraw his vaporizer. He clicked the button, inhaling deeply and feeling the THC-laced mist in his lungs.
“Arrogant bastard.” Adrian huffed aloud, blowing out the smoke. “Some fucking nerve going through my shit without asking.”
He reached out and turned on the CD player. He turned the music up, taking another toke off the vaporizer. By the time he drove into Annelise’s driveway, he’d banished Zack Wilson from his thoughts and was already in a much calmer state of mind. He parked behind Annelise’s metallic blue Subaru Crosstrek.
“I’m in the kitchen,” Annelise called out, hearing the front door open.
Annelise was at the counter chopping red and green peppers. She had changed from her work clothes to a pair of gray sweatpants and a casual T-shirt advertising the Seattle Art Museum.
“What’s wrong with you?” Annelise asked.
“Nothing. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Get the statues delivered?” she asked after a long moment’s silence.
“Yes,” Adrian snapped.
“Give Zack his check?”
“Of course I did. What a son of a bitch!”
“Really?” Annelise asked. “He’s always nice to me.”
“He’s nice to you because you make him money!”
“That’s because he’s talented,” Annelise said calmly. “Did you see any of his work? You have to admit, it is original and well done.”
“Yeah.” Adrian shrugged. “He showed me his Centaur.”
“That sounds naughty.”
Adrian corrected her. “I don’t go for old men. How old is he anyway?”
Annelise pushed the peppers from her cutting board into a small bowl and moved on to the chicken breast.
“I think he said he turned sixty a few months ago,” Annelise answered. “He’s only twelve years older than us. That’s not that old.”
“Old enough,” Adrian muttered. He popped a piece of cut pepper into his mouth.
“The Centaur is a great piece,” Annelise gushed. “I had two offers for that one, but Zack didn’t want to sell it. It’s beautiful and a little homoerotic. Didn’t you think so?”
“Yeah. Maybe a little.” Adrian paused. “You know I hate it when you do that.”
“Do what?” She checked the temperature of the wok’s oil.
“Disarm me when I’m pissed off,” Adrian said.
Annelise put the chicken pieces into the oil and began to stir. “So what did Zack do that pissed you off?”
“He,” Adrian paused for a breath, “he went into my bag without asking.”
“That doesn’t sound like him at all,” Annelise said. “He’s usually very respectful of boundaries.”
“When I went to the bathroom I told him he could get his check from my bag,” Adrian said. “I didn’t say he could browse through my sketchpad.”
“Not to change subjects or anything,” Annelise said. “But when did you start carrying a sketchpad with you?”
“Not the point,” he protested. “I told you I was working on a project.”
Annelise snorted. “So you got all pissy because he went into your bag, after giving your permission.”
“To get the check, not to go through my drawings.”
“He showed you his,” Annelise teased. “Isn’t that how these boy things work?”
“You’re really not funny, you know.”
“And you’re being childish,” she snapped back. “He saw a couple of drawings, waaaaah.”
“He actually said he liked them.”
“Now there’s a reason to get pissed off.”
“Actually,” Adrian said, “he said I should show them to you.”
“Then maybe you should.”
“They’re nothing special.” Adrian shook his head. “Except for the one I did today. It’s really good.”
“Today?” Annelise said with a cocked eyebrow. “Then what are you working on back at home?”
Adrian grinned sheepishly.
“That’s what I thought,” she concluded. “So if your easel is still buried in your hoarding room, what made you decide to start drawing today?”
“Don’t know,” Adrian admitted with a shrug. “I woke up from a dream this morning. It’s been haunting me all day. Maybe that’s what did it.”
“Really?” Annelise added the food to the brown rice already on each plate. “That’s funny. I had a really interesting dream last night, too.”
She offered one of the plates to her brother.
“And it was hot.”