You would think being king of the Underworld would be a job full of nothing but perks—as the title would imply—but there are downsides.
The biggest one right now is having to put up with this asshole. Maddox, the demigod, was sent to Vyronas by the god of Life—and death—Zora, to collect me to answer for my crimes.
It’s not that I mind facing the consequences. I knew they would be steep when I made the decision to intervene in a battle that I’d specifically been told to avoid.
But… fuck it.
I’d do it all over again.
Maddox and I pass through the veil that separates Vyronas from the First Dimension of Earth, emerging onto a path carved along the Jungfrau. It overlooks the vibrant green valley of Lauterbrunnen, the craggy, snow-covered peaks of the Bernese Alps in the distance.
Zora chose to settle here when she journeyed from a mortal life to death and from death to the god of Life. Her powers are infinite, and she could live anywhere she wanted, including in mystical realms that can’t be accessed by anyone but the gods.
Instead, she chose a modest Swiss chalet with a killer view and her two Bernese Mountain Dogs, Urosin and Mattia. Zora chose a life of solitude, which isn’t surprising. She spent the first twenty-eight years as a mortal trapped in the Underworld, isolated from family and love, made to endure painful magical infusions to store energy until such time it could be funneled into Kymaris, the then ruling queen of the Underworld. An overly long and involved story that eventually led to Kymaris’s death and my ascension to the throne, but suffice it to say Zora’s an introvert by circumstance and inadvertent design, and thus chooses to live in far-off places.
Maddox moves to the front door and it grates, the familiarity with which he walks right on in without knocking. He’s known her barely a year, whereas I’m all she’s ever known. It’s true I’d be welcome here anytime I wanted to visit, but I don’t.
My time with Zora ended the minute her sister Finley rescued her from the Underworld and she no longer needed me for protection.
Or maybe it never truly started, seeing as how I was one of the Dark Fae tasked with holding her prisoner. I was also responsible for forcing her to submit to the brutal infusions of magic by the Light Fae prince, Pyke. It was my duty to Kymaris that had me hurting the frail human I’d come to love and desire. A pathetic excuse, really. Zora never could’ve loved a monster like me, but my blackened heart beat for her.
That was then, though.
This is now.
Tucking my black wings in tight, I bend slightly to get them under the human-size entryway, closing the door behind me. Urosin’s and Mattia’s booming barks echo through the chalet due to the open layout, high ceilings, and distinct lack of furniture. They run straight for Maddox, not to rip out his throat as an intruder but to bound joyfully around him, vying for his attention and scratches. My teeth grit as he bends over to rub them, twisting his head to shoot me a shit-eating grin.
A crisp breeze that smells of mountain snow washes over me, and I turn to see Zora walking in from the deck that overlooks the valley. As a god, she can look and dress any way she likes, but she’s wearing jeans, knee-high boots with shearling trim, and a fuzzy-looking sweater in a deep, hunter green. Her snow-white hair is piled on top of her head in a messy bun, and her blue-green-gold eyes look upon me with displeasure.
Maddox calls the dogs to his heel and walks out the front door with them. He doesn’t do it out of consideration for me, but rather out of deference to Zora. A god meting out punishment isn’t a public affair, and Zora would never stand for someone to watch.
“You knew better,” she chides as she crosses the polished wood floors. “You were forbidden to interfere in the battle of Vyronas, and you’ve managed to really piss Circe off.”
Circe is the god of Fate and can be prickly. But I can’t help but point out, “She might manipulate the fates, but I also know she embraces free will.”
Zora glares at me. “Onyx wants your head on a platter.”
The god of War. She’s not prickly, but downright ruthless. She’s the one I really need to worry about offending because supernatural beings like demigods and the king of the Underworld are not allowed to help sway the tide of mortal battles, unless Onyx wants it done.
“She’s my daughter, Zora,” I say, clasping my hands in front of me. “There was no way I was going to leave Thalia’s life up to the fates, and I didn’t do much other than destroy a few demons to give the mortals a fighting chance.”
It’s been a weird few weeks. My daughter, Thalia, who I had never met, was battling an evil sorceress in her dimension of Vyronas. I watched from afar, but when she called out to me for help, there was never a choice to ignore it.
“You disobeyed your gods,” she says, and while her voice never rises in volume, the floor shakes with her power.
Most immortals would quake because Zora could kill with the snap of her fingers. But I’ve been in existence for millennia, and I don’t scare that easily.
“What is to be my punishment?” I ask, needing for her to get on with it. I don’t require the lecture I’m sure she’s itching to give.
It’s not that she’s truly mad at me, but more concerned. If I had disobeyed only Zora, I’d likely get a slap on the wrist. But I thumbed my nose at her brethren gods, and they’re probably calling for my death.
Zora sighs and shakes her head. “I’ve managed to get The Council to agree on banishment to the Underworld. You cannot pass through the veil anymore.”
“For how long?” I inquire. The freedom to come and go between realms is a luxury, but I can do without for a while.
“For eternity.” Zora lifts her chin, her expression hard and unyielding.
“Eternity?” I exclaim in horror. “But Thalia… I want to visit her. She’ll have children one day.” I try to rein in my temper, but it’s not working. “I’ll have grandchildren one day. You can’t keep me from them.”
“I can keep you in the Underworld,” she retorts hotly, lightning crackling within the depths of her eyes and her hands curling into fists. I brace for her to strike, but instead she takes in a calming breath and lets it out. “Amell… Onyx wanted your powers stripped and you tossed from your throne. This was a good compromise.”
“Take my powers,” I growl, throwing my arms wide. “Take your fucking throne. Do not keep me from my child.”
Zora’s expression softens, and she reaches out to touch my chest. There was a brief time when we were lovers, and her mere touch could get me to grant her almost any wish. Now, I only feel a frustrated kinship for all we shared.
“I’m truly sorry, Amell. The decision is made.”
It’s no balm, her apology. Gods apologize for nothing, yet I hear the regret in her tone.
It means shit to me right now as my temper flares. I step away from her and pivot on my foot, leaving her presence without a by your leave. If she wants to strike me down for my insolence, so be it.
I stride out of her house, deciding to walk down the mountain before creating a door through the veil to go back to the Underworld. Once I step through, I’ll be stuck there, so I’m going to take time to enjoy the beauty of Switzerland.
A low whistle sounds, and I turn to see Maddox, casually leaning against a tree. The dogs are off in the distance, running down a grassy hill. “Boy… that’s harsh.”
Of course, the asshole eavesdropped.
I ignore him and head along the path, but he falls into step beside me. “I need you to do something.”
The request is so shocking, I stop and glare at him. Maddox takes two more steps before realizing he left me behind and turns back. “A favor,” he clarifies.
“Why would I ever grant you a favor?” I ask. We’ve hated each other from the moment Zora became a possession both of us coveted.
He shrugs. “Never hurts to ask.”
I just stare at him, waiting to hear what he thinks I might be able to do for him.
“I want you to reincarnate Lucien,” he says.
His demigod brother.
I laugh, shaking my head. “I’ll pass.”
Pushing around him on the trail, I walk again. He blurs, whizzing past and stopping before me. “Why not?”
“Because you’re a prick.”
Maddox cocks an eyebrow. “You don’t have the power to do it,” he surmises, but he can’t hide the hope in his eyes.
“If you possess such power, then use it. It won’t cost you anything.”
“Again, that’s a hard pass.”
I start walking again, but his next words freeze me in place. “You’re jealous,” he drawls, and I glance back at him. “You can’t stand the fact I’m the one in Zora’s bed now.”
I’d given up the dream of being with Zora a long time ago, but I’m not going to waste this opportunity to needle the demigod. “Maybe you’re the one who’s jealous,” I lob at him. “Because I had her first. I took her virginity, you know. And she begged me to do it.”
All true. Not a lie within that taunt, and it strikes its mark true and bold. Maddox snarls and flies at me. I brace, locking my arms around him, and we tumble down the mountain path. We roll and bounce, throwing punches along the way.
I’m able to bound up from the ground when I reach a plateau a few seconds before him and aim a well-placed kick under his jaw. Maddox’s head snaps back, but it doesn’t stop him from charging like a bull. Lowering his shoulder, he catches me just below the ribs and drives me into a tree which is pulverized by our velocity.
I push him off, wings flaring, and launch myself at him. He meets me with full force, and the impact of our bodies colliding makes the mountain shudder.
“Enough,” Zora bellows, using tendrils of lightning from her hands to wrap around our bodies and fling us apart.
Maddox slams into a large boulder from which chunks of rock explode, and I turn another tree into toothpicks. While he capitulates by holding his hands up in surrender, I lunge forward only to have Zora’s lightning lasso throw me back on my ass.
“I said enough,” she growls.
But it’s not sufficient to dissuade me. I’m poised to attack as soon as she lets me out of these magical shackles.
Instead, she says, “Be gone, Amell.”
Before I can protest, I’m back in the Underworld, still sitting on my ass at the base of my throne on the Bridge of Judgment, the Crimson River churning two hundred feet below.
“Your Highness.” Calix rushes over, reaching a hand out to help me up.
I swat it away in irritation as I jump to my feet. Calix backs up and bends in a low bow, bobbing repetitively until I acknowledge him.
“Stop doing that,” I growl.
“Of course, Your Elaborate Marvelousness.” Calix straightens and looks at me with hopeful eyes. He’s a short man, no more than five four with curly blond hair, a broad nose, and thin lips.
He’s a weasel of an assistant, inherited from the former queen and mine to use as long as I want to keep him around. He was a weasel of a man back in the First Dimension, a minor lackey under a corrupt Roman senator in the year 748 BCE. While the senator he worked for received a one-way ticket to the Crimson River upon his death, Calix was kept by Queen Kymaris to serve her needs.
“Stop calling me those stupid names.”
Calix bobs his head. “Of course, Your—”
I hold up a hand to stop him.
Old habits die hard. Kymaris loved the lavish praise and idiotic names he bestowed upon her, but getting him to just call me Amell has been trying my patience.
“I’ve got a job for you.” I ponder exactly how I want to do this. “I’ll need to take your body for a bit.”
I touch Calix on the wrist and his body disappears.
He’s not gone, though.
His soul remains, a writhing ball of blackened smoke tendrils hovering before me.
Calix can hear me, but without the mechanics of a voice box that comes with a body, he can’t speak. I kind of like him this way.
“I want you to find the demigod Maddox.” The smoke rolls over on itself, expands and pulses. I take it to be excitement to serve. “Make his life hell for a few days.”
The smoke contracts, coalescing and darkening.
“Do poltergeist shit,” I mutter with a wave of my hand. “Knock stuff over, turn his lights on and off, whatever.”
While Calix doesn’t have a physical body, he is a ball of supernatural energy, an unencumbered soul with free rein to cause havoc if I so grant it.
I instruct Calix where to go. Maddox is living in Southern California near his other demigod brother, Carrick, and his wife Finley.
Who happens to be Zora’s twin, but a redhead.
It’s a tangled web.
Ripping a hole in the veil with nothing more than a magical thought—such are the powers Zora bestowed when she sat me on the throne—I usher Calix through. I’ll snatch him back after a few days of driving Maddox crazy, thus ensuring me the last, if not pettiest, laugh.
I don’t dare step through the hole back into the First Dimension. Zora’s sentence is absolute, and I have no intention of disobeying it. While I know Zora would protect me as best she could, I don’t trust Circe or Onyx not to come after me.
I don’t trust them not to go after Thalia, either.
So I’ll stay put.
“Nyssa… I need two vodka tonics,” Maria yells across the bar to me. Someone has the jukebox cranked.
I nod at her, commit the request to memory, and continue building the two drink orders put in prior to hers.
The Crazy 8’s is hopping tonight, and I don’t mind the bustle. It means better tips, especially since I pour my drinks strong.
“Do you need a break?”
Glancing over my shoulder, I find Sam looking at me with worry. He’s a sweet man—the owner of this bar—but I don’t like anyone trying to take care of me. I have a distinct aversion to it, actually.
“I’m good.” My tone is curt, and I’m not even sorry. It’s best to keep him at arm’s length, even though I can tell he’s the type of good-hearted guy who routinely takes in strays. I don’t want him getting attached to me in any way, because I won’t stay here long. It’s impossible for me to settle down.
This is my eighth night in a row I’ve worked, and in those eight days, I’ve picked up partial day shifts too. I’ve been here two weeks, and the small apartment Sam rented me above the bar suits my needs. I figure I’ll stick around a few months before moving on.
Not to find greener pastures, because those don’t exist.
Really, I’m just trying to outrun my demons. About the time I start feeling secure, it’ll seem like the walls are closing in, and I’ll jet.
I mix drink after drink, pull pints, and force myself to act interested in those sitting at the bar hitting on me. I’ve become good at pretending, and my tip jar is filled with green—mostly fives and tens—which is pretty good for a dive bar like this.
A man takes the bar stool right in front of where I’m pulling cold bottled beer out of the cooler.
“Be right with you,” I say without glancing up. I efficiently twist off the caps, tossing them to the floor where they’ll be swept up later tonight, and hand the bottles off to a couple a few seats down. I mark it on their tab and turn to the new customer. “What can I get you?”
When my eyes make contact with the man, my entire body locks in recognition. Same dirty-blond hair, except it’s thinning on top, and watery blue eyes that make him look perpetually sad. It’s been nine years. He’s gained a little weight but is otherwise utterly recognizable.
“I’ll take a screwdriver,” he says before his gaze moves from me to check out the other patrons in the bar.
I’m stunned into inaction. While I would know Vince Matheson anywhere, he doesn’t recognize me at all, and I don’t know whether I should be offended.
Granted… I’ve changed a lot in nine years. My dark brown hair has been bleached platinum and cut short in shaggy layers. It’s an awful hairdo, and I did it myself with a cheap drugstore kit and a straight razor. I’ve lost weight since he last saw me, and while it’s noticeable in my body, my face has thinned out the most.
No, I shouldn’t be offended he doesn’t recognize me. Not sure anyone would from nine years ago.
His gaze comes back to me, and I manage to offer up a polite smile before turning to mix his cocktail. With my back to him, I feel his eyes on me, and I verify it with a quick glance in the mirror behind the bar. I’m wearing a mashup of clothes I got from Goodwill—a denim skirt cut super short and frayed, a tank top that’s tight and a little too small for my breasts, and a mesh overlay shirt that really doesn’t conceal the fact I’m not wearing a bra.
It’s a provocative outfit, designed to up my tips. Vince’s eyes drop to my ass, and it does surprise me just a little. The way I look now wouldn’t have appealed to him back then, but maybe he’s changed.
Turning, I set the drink on a napkin, and he slides a credit card toward me. “Open a tab, if you don’t mind.”
His voice is what I remember. Timid, butterfly soft.
“Got it.” I put his credit card in a leather jacket awaiting his final tally and move down the bar to handle some refills. When I glance back at him from time to time, he’s not watching me anymore. He focuses on his drink and his smartphone, closed off and not inviting conversation.
After about ten minutes, I can’t help myself, and I move back to him. His drink is only about half empty, but still I ask, “You want another?”
His head lifts and he blinks at me in surprise. “Um… yeah. Why not?”
I mix his second drink even stronger than the first and set it down before him. “Thanks,” he says.
“My pleasure.” I lean on the bar, folding my arms, and I know it plumps my breasts. His eyes can’t help but flick there. “You from around here?”
He shakes his head, hand curling around the first screwdriver. “Traveling through. Looked like a nice bar to have a few drinks.”
I flash him a flirty smile. “This place is a dump, but I make excellent cocktails.”
Vince smiles back, taking the bait. “Too bad you’re working or I’d buy you one. Of course, it probably wouldn’t be as good as yours.”
“Too bad indeed,” I purr, reaching out to stroke a fingertip down the back of his hand.
Vince flushes as I draw away. I shoot him a wink and turn toward the rear bar, noticing now that his attention is fully on my ass where I want it to stay.
I’ve got him hooked.
It doesn’t take long… a few hours and four screwdrivers with double shots of vodka, and Vince is drunk.
I’ve managed to flirt with him for the last hour and a half, lacing dirty talk and innuendo within our conversation and ensuring that his butt would stay glued to the bar stool.
He practically drools as he watches me.
I smile as I walk by, approaching Sam down at the other end of the bar. I tap him on the shoulder. “Do you mind if I take a fifteen-minute break?”
“Of course not,” Sam exclaims, sounding relieved I’ve asked for a bit of time from behind the bar. I know he doesn’t want to lose one of the best bartenders he’s had in a while.
He’s a sweet man, and I wish I could care more about him, but I don’t.
“Thanks.” I head back down the bar toward Vince. He smiles as I get nearer, but I can see he has to squint a little to stop the blurred, drunken vision. I don’t waste any time. Leaning over the bar toward him, I say, “I’ve got fifteen minutes and an apartment upstairs. Care to join me?”
Apparently, Vince isn’t that drunk because he asks, “Is it going to cost me anything?”
I wag a finger playfully. “I’m not that kind of woman,” I tease, although I used to be. On occasion, I’ve had to spread my legs for money, but now I make it slinging drinks. “Only going to cost you a little bit of time.”
“Then let’s go,” he says, lurching up off the stool.
I meet him at the end of the bar and take his hand. Winding my way through the crowd, we head to the back hallway, past the restrooms to a staircase that leads up.
The boards groan under our weight as we ascend and leave the loud music and chatter of people behind.
At my apartment, I let go of Vince’s hand to pull out my key. He steps into my backside, his hands going to my waist. His breath is hot on my neck as he slurs, “You going to be a good girl for Daddy.”
I push the door open and step through, turning to face him as he stumbles in. My hand goes between his legs, and I find him soft.
“I don’t know.” I work at his belt, giving him a playful look, and I lick my lower lip to hold his attention. “Have you been a good daddy?”
“The best,” he assures me.
“You going to let me tie you up and have my way with you?”
“Oh God,” he mutters with a groan. “Please say that’s not a joke.”
“It’s not.” I grab his hand and lead him to my small bedroom that contains nothing but a rickety iron bed and one night table. All my possessions hang in the closet or are still secure in my suitcase. “Get naked.”
While Vince stumbles around shedding his clothes, I pull out some fishnet stockings I sometimes wear with short skirts.
When I turn back to face Vince, I find him standing there naked, swaying. His dick is still limp, which is fine by me.
“Get on the bed, Daddy.”
He complies, a lecherous grin on his face. When he’s on his back and in the center, I crawl over him in a straddle, my skirt rising indecently. Vince’s hands come to my hips to try to push it up more, but I knock them away.
“No, no, no,” I chide. “Wrists together and above your head.”
“Whatever you say, darlin’.”
I work efficiently, wrapping the fishnets above his wrists and tying them to the iron bars. The bed is so old and wobbly, he could probably wrench one of the bars loose if he tried, but that’s not going to be an issue.
Settling down on his soft stomach, I press my hands to his chest and dig my fingernails in just a touch. He moans from the bite of pain.
“You don’t recognize me, do you?” I ask, even though I know the answer. There’s no way he’d ever let me tie him up if he did.
He squints at me, the alcohol muddying his brain. “I know you?”
I can barely get the words out. “7493 Melody Lane.”
The jolt of shock that courses through his body is palpable, and his vision clears. Lifting his head off the pillow, he peers at me hard, trying to see through the platinum hair and hollowed-out face.
Vince is still not quite able to make the connection, because I’m not the only girl who lived at that address, so I supply my name for him. “Nyssa.”
It takes a moment for him to search his memory, but then his eyes widen when he matches the name with my new face. I can read every emotion flickering across his face.
He opens his mouth, to say what, I have no clue. He snaps it closed just as quick when I pull the switchblade out of my back pocket.
Pressing the tiny silver button, the blade ejects with a soft snick, and Vince’s eyes bug out of his head. “Nyssa… what the hell?”
I put the knife tip to his pudgy throat and glare at him. “What the hell? That’s all you have to say to me?”
“What should I say?” he retorts and tries to buck me off. It causes the blade to nick him, and I grin as a rivulet of blood runs down his pale skin. “I’d be careful, Vince. Wouldn’t want me to slip now, would you?”
He eyes me warily, body going still. I consider my options carefully. Never in a million years did I think our paths would cross again. Lifting the blade from his neck, I hold it up before me and run my finger along the edge. It slices my skin, attesting to its sharpness.
“What do you want from me?” Vince rasps.
My eyes travel slowly from the blade to his face, and I open up to let my emotions swell. I’ve been holding them back all night, and rage and fury now sweep through me. It burns like acid.
“I want you to die, Vince,” I say quietly.
He opens his mouth in protest, but his words are cut off as I lash out with the blade. It slices through his skin as if it were as frail as cotton candy, and I only know I hit the carotid by the spray of blood that hits me in the face.
I gasp and sputter as I spit it out of my mouth. I can feel it dripping down my forehead and cheeks as I watch Vince’s eyes bulge from their sockets. He gurgles and then chokes on his blood and I watch, transfixed, for what seems like hours.
It’s such a good show, I don’t want it to end.
When the light goes out of his eyes and his head lolls, I release a long sigh of relief. I roll off his body and stagger into the small bathroom. My reflection is hideous, my face covered in blood and my platinum hair stained pink. I smile and find even my teeth are covered with it. Makes sense since I had my mouth open when I made my strike.
I’m a monster, and I start to laugh.
Dropping the knife in the sink, I walk out of the bathroom. Well, walk isn’t quite the right word. I shuffle as if drunk or high, and maybe I am.
Euphoria coursing through me, I lurch out of my apartment and practically fall down the stairs. I push through the crowded bar, and a few people scream when they see me.
One man reaches out a tentative hand. “Are you okay?”
“Do I look okay?” I ask, then peals of laughter start again. The man jerks his hand back.
I push people out of my way as I head for the front door. When I reach it, Sam’s there, staring at me in horror. “Oh my god, Nyssa. What happened? Do you need an ambulance?”
I find that funny too. “No, Sam. Thank you. An ambulance is definitely not needed.”
Pushing through the door into Toledo’s summer heat, I’m vaguely aware of Sam and a few patrons following me out. I have no clue where I’m going, but I look left, then right. The streets are crowded with bar hoppers, people making wide arcs to clear a path as they take in my appearance. Across the street sits a waiting cab, and I’ve got some cash in my pocket.
A hand touches my arm, and I turn to see Sam. “Let me help you,” he says kindly.
I laugh again, then make myself stop to give him some respect. “No one can help me, Sam. I’m beyond help.”
“You’re not,” he insists.
I pull my arm free and start backing toward the curb. I keep my eyes pinned on Sam, trying to accept the sympathy in his gaze.
It bounces right off me.
“Fuck this,” I snarl, finally realizing I’m in deep shit. I just murdered a man. Spinning, I make to dart across the street for the cab. I need to put distance between me and the dead body upstairs. I ease off the curb and take no more than two steps before a horn draws my attention.
Twisting my head left, I gape at the city bus bearing down on me. I hear the shriek of brakes, people scream from the sidewalk, and then the bus slams into me. For the briefest of moments, I feel pain in every molecule of my body, and then it all goes black.
Unbearable heat is the first thing I register as consciousness returns. I open my eyes, clearly remembering the bus hitting me. I brace for what I know will be excruciating pain, but all I feel is stifling heat making my skin prickle.
Blinking several times, I start to panic because I can’t see, but then realize I’m in a very darkened room.
I sit up, pressing a hand down for leverage, and I’m stunned to not feel a mattress but a dirt floor. “What the fuck?”
Rolling to my knees, I push up to my feet. I have no pain whatsoever, but I’m not relieved. I’m distinctly anxious.
As my eyes adjust, I focus on my accommodations. The thick metal bars dredge up the panic welling inside me.
A jail cell?
I move to the bars, wrap my fingers around them, and peer out of my mini prison.
“Jesus Christ,” I mutter as I take it all in.
A midnight sky with low-hanging stars, a hill made of shiny black rock sprouting from the ground and pushing higher still, and an obsidian castle with turrets and spires rising so tall, I can barely see the tips. A red river of thick lava flows between my cell and the castle, the source of the heat I feel.
My head twists and I take in other cells carved into the side of a mountain. Thick grates covering black holes and from within those spaces, I hear screaming and howling laced with deep misery, regret, and terror.
I’m not in a hospital.
I’m fairly confident I’m in Hell.
I’m dead—flattened by a bus—and I was sent straight to Satan’s dominion.
I can’t help it. I start laughing again, releasing a mirth that comes from deep within my belly. I laugh so long and hard, tears leak from my eyes, but I can’t stop it.
Dropping to my knees, I roll onto my side and hold my stomach, now aching from the hilarity.
It’s more than just laughter, though.
It’s pure joy.
Because no matter that I’m here in Hell, Vince Matheson is still dead, and that makes it a very good day.
The amber liquor slides down my throat and burns nicely. It hits my belly with the same warming effect, and I lift my wings to settle back into my chair with a fatigued sigh.
This job is fucking exhausting. I didn’t get this gig because I wanted it—I got it because I was apparently the most qualified. Having served as Kymaris’s second-in-command from the very beginning, I had the respect—and fear—of the Dark Fae nobles, gentry, and lower caste.
I didn’t want it. After everything I’d been through with Kymaris, and then Zora, and then a potential apocalypse I wanted no part of was averted (thanks to Zora), I just wanted to live my life in peace.
But our newly minted god of Life asked it of me, and there’s not much I can deny Zora after all the pain I’ve caused her.
“Relax,” Sorcha purrs. Her claws spring forth from the end of her fingers and graze along my thighs, the leather preventing her from scoring my skin. She’s kneeling before me with promise in her silver eyes.
“Trying,” I mutter, taking another large gulp of the Kentucky bourbon brought to me from the First Dimension by one of my Dark Fae brethren who travels there often.
Sorcha is a beautiful Dark Fae of noble blood and sister to my closest friend, Truett. She shares the same blond hair and bluish tint to her skin that defines their familial line. We pleasure each other whenever we feel like it, but there are no bonds or commitments. That’s not the way of our race. The only reason she’s here and not someone else is because she was convenient.
But today… she’s not doing it for me. I’m still pissed that Zora’s imprisoned me here, which isn’t the true punishment. That would be the fact I can’t visit Thalia. And Zora knew that would hurt worse than anything.
I’m also annoyed because if punishment is supposed to be a deterrent to future actions, she’s misjudged me. Supposing I get out of this prison at some point, Zora’s sentence won’t prevent me from protecting my daughter if she falls into trouble again.
“I know exactly what you need.” Sorcha reaches to the laces of my pants—claws safely retracted—but a loud knocking on my door has me pushing her hands away.
“Enter,” I command as I rise. Sorcha rolls to her hip and lounges against my chair, arm resting on the cushion. She’s completely naked and doesn’t care who sees her.
Neither do I, for that matter.
Calix comes in with his hands folded before him. He returned yesterday after spending a week torturing Maddox with poltergeist fun. I took great joy in his recounting of how particularly annoyed Maddox was when his lights would come on in the middle of the night or when the ice maker on his fridge spontaneously spewed cubes all over the kitchen.
But I needed Calix here more than I needed him back in the First Dimension plaguing Maddox, so I recalled him.
As if his eyes were magnetized, they land right on Sorcha. She leers at him, biting into her lip with a sharp fang that draws blood, and he immediately averts his gaze.
“What do you need?” I ask him, actually grateful for the interruption. I wasn’t feeling it tonight with the blue beauty lounging naked on my bedroom floor.
His head whips my way. “They await you on the Bridge of Judgment, Your Most Muscled Eminence.”
I look past the ridiculous name as I’d forgotten all about my judgment duties, but it’s my excuse to take my leave of Sorcha. She’d told me to relax, but I don’t have the ability. I’m too wound up over my imprisonment, so the thought of tossing souls into the Crimson River is more to my liking than sex. Perhaps by causing others suffering, mine won’t seem as bad.
Glancing back at Sorcha, I say, “Go home to Calashte. I won’t be back anytime soon.”
She pouts as she rises, nabbing the nearly translucent dress she arrived in. “I think I’ll go visit Jago instead.”
If she thought her statement would make me jealous, she’s misjudged me for thousands of years. “Give Jago my regards.”
Sorcha glares, and without putting her dress on, blinks out of sight. I imagine she’s appearing before Jago right now, and given her nakedness and beauty, she’ll get what she wants.
I motion with my hand, and Calix precedes me out the door. I follow him through the castle.
My abode is neither humble nor cozy. Created from black obsidian, crystals, and glass, it’s so one-dimensional that I sometimes get disoriented walking the halls. Kymaris did like to make a statement with her inherent wickedness, and black is the in color for all villains.
Well, not all villains. While I like black, I like other colors too. Maybe I need to make some changes to this dark monstrosity the way I have with the makeup of the Underworld itself. When Zora bestowed the weight of king upon me, she gave me incredible power to wield in my rule. With that power, I changed the very landscape of the Underworld to make it more visually palatable. There are thousands of Dark Fae, daemons, and even some humans who live in this underbelly dimension, and there’s no reason it can’t be a bit more comfortable.
When we were cast from Heaven eons ago, it was meant to serve as a punishment. But we’ve done our penance.
As we walk toward the bridge, Calix says, “Skicru is here to see you.”
I blink in surprise. She’s one of the heads of the five noble lines in the Underworld. “Did she say what she needed?”
“Only that it was private and would not take much of your time.”
I nod but don’t respond. Skicru will have to wait until after I render my judgments. It’s an event that calls out the inhabitants of Otaxis, the capital of the Underworld.
The Bridge of Judgment is a massive obsidian walkway that connects the castle to the city. It crosses the Crimson River that flows two hundred feet below, constantly churning and bubbling with the violent souls of the condemned.
Halfway across the bridge, a slab of flat rock juts out. Upon it sits the throne made of ebony crystal from which Kymaris used to rule. I had it relocated from the castle out here to the bridge for a few reasons. Mostly, I hate sitting in it, and since I conduct most of my business inside the castle’s throne room, I wanted it to be more comfortable for myself.
Out here, I don’t use it often, but it is rather imposing. As I decide the fate of those who come before me, I don’t ever want them feeling safe. They’re in Hell for a reason, and I want their fear maximized.
On the far side of the bridge, two Dark Fae wait with a long line of recently departed humans here to be judged. Those fae are part of what would be considered a royal guard. They wear the same clothing Kymaris had put them in—pure black from head to toe, including helmets with face shields. Tall, brawny, and intimidating, these fae ensure the humans remain cowed and don’t cause trouble.
As I walk to the throne, I take in the landscape of Otaxis and beyond. I’ve changed it a great deal. Before, it resembled a dark cavern with a craggy ceiling so high up and dark, it was hard to see. The buildings were all made of brown mud, stone, and wood. The only light came from the glowing red river and by torches throughout the city. Dull and depressing, and I still feel tremendous guilt that this was all Zora ever knew for twenty-eight years of her life.
The changes I’ve made are quite beautiful. I first used my powers to clean up the city. Buildings are now pristine whitewashed stone, veins of magical light run down the center of all streets providing a warm glow, and streetlamps abound with the same soft light.
On the outskirts of Otaxis, I birthed night-blooming trees and carved a crystal-clear river, cool and refreshing, through the rocky hills. It is the antithesis of the Crimson River.
Overhead, I wove a magical spell to create a velvety, night sky to hide the ugliness of the cavernous world and lit it with a billion low-hanging stars. On the horizon, I faded the sky from blues to purples to pinks and finally a yellow incandescence that simulates a rising sun just on the edge of tomorrow. The Underworld is vast, so no matter how far you travel, you will always have the black velvet sky melting into a sunrise on the horizon like a never-ending painting.
Yes, I gave the Underworld a makeover. A world I’d have wished for Zora to see when she lived here, knowing it was too late but still providing me with satisfaction because I made this place mine. If and when Thalia or my future grandchildren visit, it will be a place they enjoy coming to.
All that aside, this is still Hell, and no matter the beauty I’ve chosen for it—for myself and the Dark Fae who live here—it’s a place where nightmares are formed for some.
I move to the throne and settle into it, tucking in my massive black wings as the back of the throne is too high to settle them over. On the other side of the river, with Otaxis looming behind them, many residents have come out to watch the festivities. There’s an almost carnival-like atmosphere as the tossing of souls into the Crimson River is genuinely considered a good time.
We’re Dark Fae.
This is high entertainment for us.
With a flick of my wrist, Calix strides down the bridge toward the line of humans, stopping about twenty feet away.
Clasping his hands behind his back, he lifts his chin and calls out so the people across the river can hear as his voice echoes off the stone caves where the dead humans are kept. “Listen, one and all, it is Judgment Day. Sitting before you is his magnificence, King Amell, anointed by Zora, the god of Death. I am his steward, Calix, and I shall reap you individually for the king’s consideration.”
Zora’s really the god of Life, but I don’t correct him. He thinks it sounds more ominous, and so do I. I also don’t insist he shorten his little speech. It makes him feel important.
His voice is imperious. “The recently departed will step forward, one by one, and receive the grace or vengeance of our esteemed ruler. Prepare thyselves.”
My eyes drift to the line of humans. Their bodies aren’t real, facades of what they looked like in their prior life the moment before they died, including an illusion of the very clothes they were wearing at their time of death. The only thing that’s real are their blackened souls within.
Today’s crowd to be judged is quite small. Maybe only a hundred. It varies, depending on who gets sent to me and how long I go between judgments. Usually when the prison cells are full, then I have to reap.
Thankfully, I don’t have to judge every human death. In its simplest form, the ones who led good lives go somewhere other than here. I don’t know where that is, but I’m guessing up to my former boss, the supreme deity who rules the heavens and cast his traitorous angels down into the Underworld.
The souls that are inherently evil without any chance of redemption go straight to the Crimson River. Zora’s far-reaching power lets her judge the nearly one hundred and eighty thousand deaths in the world each day. It’s instantaneous and spot on, and she keeps the river churning.
Those who might be questionable are sent to me. It’s what some call purgatory, but those souls don’t linger here long. They’re brought before me and one of two things happens:
I either judge them unworthy and into the river they go where they will suffer unending torture and suffering.
Or, I give them a second chance to make things right. A reincarnation into a harder life than what they had before. An opportunity for them to do penance and save their soul. I hand those out rarely because frankly, I don’t give much of a fuck if people get second chances.
Calix motions to the fae guards, and they drag a man forward kicking and screaming. He’s maybe in his fifties, wearing a track suit with pizza sauce on the front, and has the disconnected look of someone with no conscience. Doesn’t mean he’s not emotional as tears stream down his face. He looks intermittently over the side of the flat bridge as his socked feet slide across the slick obsidian. The guards shove the man ahead until he’s standing before Calix and then return to their post.
Under Kymaris’s rule, Calix had been granted nominal powers to help make his servitude easier on her, not him. One such power is the magic of conjuring, and with a flourish, he twists his wrist, and an ancient-looking scroll appears in his hand.
It’s over-the-top embellishment, but Calix likes his flair. He pulls it open and clears his throat. “Jordan Baxter. You appear before King Amell to be judged on the crime of murder where you knowingly and without conscience put a pillow over your mother’s face and smothered her until she was dead. You did this for the inheritance money. How do you explain your actions?”
The man clasps his hands and falls to his knees, tear-filled eyes pleading with Calix. “That’s not true. I didn’t do it. She died of natural causes, and her life insurance was only ten thousand dollars. I would never do such a thing. I loved my mother.”
Calix angles his body and points to me. “It’s not me but King Amell you should beg to.”
The man opens his mouth, but I make a shooing motion with my hand, my magic slinging him off the bridge. He hurtles over the side, screaming all the way down until he hits the river.
The lava flow incinerates the soul with a wild shriek of approval and a spray of sparks. The Underworld rumbles slightly as it receives the sacrifice.
The Dark Fae across the river cheer in approval, and the humans at the end of the bridge start screaming and begging for mercy.
Just another day in Hell.
Judgment Day moves quickly as I don’t need to hear pleas and excuses. Whatever charges Calix reads off are the absolute truth. No mistakes are made. You either belong in Hell or you don’t. The only reason we even bother with this is because once in a blue moon, extenuating circumstances pop up that might please the gods to award the accused another try at life. Zora is the one who gets credit for such generosity.
After tossing a good thirty people over the edge, the guards drag forward a young woman. She’s incredibly beautiful, and based on the way she’s dressed, I’m guessing incredibly wealthy. She died in designer clothes, dripping with expensive jewelry. I can tell she once held power and sway over many people because of her looks and money, but now, she’s just a terrified woman on the verge of pissing her fancy lingerie.
Calix reads out her charges, which include over two decades of gluttony, narcissism, bullying, taking advantage of weaker beings, cheating, and drug use. It was an overdose that caused her death. Ordinarily, a bad personality wouldn’t end you in Hell, but her repeated unsavory behavior, along with the knowledge that she enjoyed hurting others, has her standing before me.
“How do you answer these crimes?” Calix asks.
The woman’s pained stare comes to me. “Please… Your Highness.” Tears slip from her big blue eyes. “I may have led a selfish life, but I haven’t murdered anyone. I haven’t raped anyone. Eternal damnation is too strong a penalty.”
“You never helped anyone either,” Calix points out, scanning his scroll.
“That’s not true,” she insists. “I donated to many charities.”
“Only for the tax break.” Her jaw drops that he knows all her dirty little secrets. “You were mean, self-centered, and vindictive your entire life. You not only took advantage of people, but you enjoyed causing their suffering.”
She changes tack and surprises me by admitting it all. She purges her sins. “Yes, you’re right. I was an awful person. I was raised by awful parents and surrounded myself with horrible friends. I didn’t have any good role models. But if you give me another chance, I swear I’ll do good. I’ll be everything I wasn’t in my life.”
It’s a pretty speech, but I don’t hear any truth in her vows. She’s desperate and thinks she can manipulate me like she has others. Besides, she blames others for making her the way she is, and I can’t suffer people who don’t take responsibility for their crimes.
I give her my verdict with a subtle hand motion, and she goes hurtling over the edge with a high-pitched scream of terror. The river hisses its pleasure, the ground shakes, and the fae cheer.
I motion for the next person to be brought forward.