Kat cleared her throat. Loudly. "Sorry for the interruption, but before clothing starts to fly or disintegrate, I wanted to remind you two that you’re not alone."
Persephone blushed at the same time Hades growled at them. He took a step toward Kat, but his wife stopped him. "She’s right, Hades. We have to be quick before my mother finds me gone and thinks that you’ve kidnapped me again. The last thing we need is for her to call out my father."
Hades cursed under his breath. "Like I fear that bastard."
"Hades," Persephone chided.
He relented, but by his face Geary could tell he did so reluctantly. "So why are they here?"
"They come seeking a soul."
He scowled at his wife. "Whose?"
"Arikos," Kat said.
Hades looked even more confounded. "The Skotos?"
"He’s not here."
"What?" Geary asked in disbelief, her heart sinking.
"Arikos hasn’t made his way here," Hades repeated. "If he had, I would know it. I have a bone to pick with that bastard, too."
Kat ignored Hades’ heated tone. "We were told he’s on the other side of the river Styx and isn’t able to cross. M’Adoc killed him and didn’t bury him. Arik has no money to pay Charon for the crossing."
"Why would M’Adoc do that?" But before they could answer, Hades shook his head. "That little bugger.
Trying to pull one on me. He doesn’t want me to know Arikos is here. Bloody, freaking bastard. And you." He looked at Megeara. "You’re the human Arikos bartered for. You’re supposed to be here in his stead. So have you come to exchange places with him?"
Geary couldn’t speak as fear took root in her.
But before she could think of something to say, Persephone slapped Hades on the arm. "Don’t you even start that."
Rubbing the spot she’d hit, he scowled at her. "Start what? Arikos and I had a bargain."
"So what?" Persephone asked in an irritated tone. "Do you mean to tell me that you are going to stand there and make her die to save him? How could you?"
"It was a bargain," he said defensively.
"Yes, and my parents made a bargain, too, and look how that’s turned out. I can’t believe you would do this to someone else. I thought you were different."
His features turned placating. "Baby, I am."
"No, you’re not. You’re just like them . You intend to break up two lovers and for what? A stupid, meaningless bargain. You who know how much it hurts to be away from the one you love, and yet you would do something so cold and mean. Oh, that’s it. I’m going home to my mother’s and I’m not coming back."
His dark eyes snapped fire. "You have to come back. You have no choice."
She narrowed her gaze on him. "You’re right. I have no choice about coming here, but I have a choice about where I sleep once I’m home."
His face went pale as he realized he was on losing ground. "You wouldn’t dare."
Persephone put her hands on her h*ps as she stared down the man who was practically twice her size. It would have been comical if Geary’s future with Arik didn’t hinge on the outcome. "You break these two up and it’ll be a cold day in Hephaestus’s forge before you enter my bedroom. In fact, I’ll get Eros to make you impotent. Yeah. Forever. That’ll teach you."
His face completely ashen, Hades looked at Geary. "Take him. Get his ass out of here and don’t look back."
"Are you serious?"
Persephone winked at Geary before she pulled her husband into a tight hug. "Now was that so hard?"
He answered her question with one of his own. "How long until your mother returns?"
Persephone turned to them. "You two better hurry along and claim him. Arik will be a Shade until you return to the sunlight in the human realm. Kat, you know the way. Once he’s back in the world, he’ll be human and flesh. But remember, Megeara, that you have to lead him out of here yourself, and you can’t look back. If you do, you’ll lose him forever."
Before Geary could even say "thank you," the two of them vanished.
Kat turned toward her with a laugh. "Fun, huh?"
"Yeah," Geary said lightly. "I think I’m a bit shell-shocked. I can’t believe we have no test or anything to fulfill."
"We don’t have him out of here yet. Remember, when they say don’t look back, don’t."
Geary nodded as she remembered that from her studies. They weren’t out of the woods yet. And if they didn’t find him soon, it would be too late.
ARIK WATCHED AS CHARON PASSED BY HIM ON THE RIVER. The old man was a sulking bearded figure, dressed in dark brown. His pitiless gaze scanned those who were gathered on the banks of the river. Charon would only take those who had an obulos , a Greek coin, or a Persian danace to pay
the ferryman’s fee. Only those with the coin could go to the other side, where they were divided up-those who’d done good deeds in their lives were taken to the Elysian Fields for a divine rest, and those who’d committed evil deeds were destined for Tartarus to be tortured.
But only a fool would give Charon the coin before he delivered them to the opposite bank. It was custom to show the coin to Charon, then wait and hand it over once the journey was complete.
If you couldn’t show him the coin, then you were doomed to wait on the bank for a hundred years before you could cross. And if you paid Charon before he delivered you to your destination, he’d dump your soul in the river, where you’d suffer in eternal misery.
Personally, Arik knew where he was headed once he crossed the river and he could easily wait a hundred years before his torture began. Then again, he didn’t have to. He was already aching from the loss of Megeara.
He felt her absence with every part of him. The despair weighed like a stack of anvils on his soul. All he wanted was to see her face one last time. To touch her cheek or to feel her hair on his flesh. Those memories seared him as he prayed for her safety.
"I hate that miserable old bastard."
Arik looked to his left as the Shade of a middle-aged man joined him.
The man was glaring at Charon, who no longer paid them any heed as he cut his way through the black water. "I wish that boat would turn over and drown him in the river Acheron. Would serve him right if it did."
Perhaps. Acheron was the river of woe and it was here that all the troubles of the world were gathered.
It was said that if any part of your body were to touch it, those woes would seep into you and tear your body and soul asunder with grief.
All the dead must cross it to reach their final destination. It was supposed to be a symbolic journey where the dead left such concerns behind.
The man looked up at Arik. "You didn’t have a coin, either, huh?"
He spat on the ground by Arik’s feet. "That’s for both our families then. Leaving us stranded like this. A pox to them. May they all fall into the river Acheron and drown in their stinking misery."
Arik lifted a brow at the man’s rancor. He sounded like he’d been bathing in the river Styx, where hatred flowed freely.
The man eyed him carefully. "So what brought you here?"
Arik answered without thought. "Love."
"Killed yourself, did you?"
"No. I traded my life to keep the one I love safe."
The man was aghast. "Why would you do something so stupid?"
"It’s not stupid."
"Sure it is. Do you think she’d have done the same for you?"
Again, Arik answered without reservation. "Yes."
"You’re a complete jackass if you think that." He made a rude noise before he wandered off.
"He’s right, you know."
Arik froze as he heard the last voice he expected to hear. It was Wink, no doubt come to gloat. "What are you doing here?"
Wink shrugged. "I hang with the dead sometimes. They can be extremely entertaining, especially the whiny ones." He paused and smelled the air around Arik. Wink’s actions reminded him of a hound on the scent of a skunk. Finally Wink pulled back and gave Arik a gimlet stare. "Where are your powers?"
"Don’t worry about it." Arik tried to move away, but Wink followed him down the bank of the river even while he was weaving between other Shades.
"What gives, Arikos?"
Arik had no idea why he didn’t rat out the others and tell Wink that all of them were regaining their emotions. He should. It was what they all deserved, but some misplaced sense of loyalty kept him from it. Wink would run with whatever Arik told him straight to Zeus and start trouble.
Arik had too much humanity in him now to do such a thing, and in the back of his mind he knew that Megeara would be disappointed in him.
Even though she hated him, Arik didn’t want to disappoint her.
And still the god trailed after him. "Arikos?"
"Go away, Wink," he snapped. "I’m dead and I just want to be left alone."
Wink took Arik’s arm, then hissed and recoiled. "You and your human?" he said, his tone accusing. No doubt that one touch had told the god everything about how Arik had ended up here-everything that had to do with Megeara anyway. "Have you lost your mind? Why would you give up your immortality for her?"
Arik couldn’t explain it. It was stupid and he knew it. But it still seemed right. His life for her happiness.
It strangely worked for him even though it shouldn’t.
He was definitely a mental case.
Still Wink wouldn’t relent and leave him in peace.
"You gave up immortality for her," Wink repeated. "Haven’t you learned yet that humans aren’t worth it?
She was one of millions who are out there."
"No, Wink, you’re wrong. She’s one in a million. She’s unique."
He snorted in response. "So unique that she let you die for her? Believe me, there are millions of women who are that selfish."
"Yeah, but there’s only one willing to walk through hell to get him back."
Arik came instantly to a stop as he saw Kat in the darkness. But that wasn’t what stunned him most. It was the sight of Megeara moving to stand by her side.
He wanted to run to Megeara and scoop her up in his arms, but he couldn’t. For one thing, he was no longer corporeal. For another, he wasn’t sure she’d let him.
But she was here…
Geary covered her mouth with her hand to stifle her cry as she saw what was left of Arik. His translucent skin was ashen gray. His eyes were no longer blue but rather dark and sunken. And he bore a hole in his middle that looked like someone had stabbed him.
"Arik?" she asked hesitantly.
He appeared to be speaking, but she couldn’t hear him. Terrified, she looked at Kat.
"He’s a Shade now, Geary. Only the gods can hear him."
"What’s he saying?"
"He wants you to leave before it’s too late for you."
That succeeded in making her tears flow down her cheeks. "Can he hear me?"
She turned to him. "I’m here to get you, Arik. I won’t leave unless you’re with me."
The disbelief on his face tore through her. Even so, he held a hand out toward her. She tried to take it, but her hand went straight through his.
The Oneroi beside him snarled at her. "You don’t belong here, human. Leave."
Kat stepped between her and the man who looked as if he wanted to kill her. "Leave her alone, Wink."
He turned his hostile glare to Arik. "Don’t be stupid, Arikos. She won’t be able to take you out of here.
No human has ever been able to resist Hades’ test. And he’ll make you pay double for trying to leave."
Arik hesitated. Wink was right. Until Kat and Megeara had notified him, Hades hadn’t even known he was here. Now the god did. If Megeara didn’t safely lead him out of here, Hades would take pleasure in torturing him forever.
No, he was already damned and tortured here without her. There was nothing Hades could do to him that was worse than the thought of her with someone else.
Arik needed her more than he needed anything else. He had no choice, but to follow her.
I love you, Megeara.
Geary sobbed as she read his lips. "I love you, too, Arik, and I’m taking you out of here. I promise."
He gave her a wan smile before he nodded.
Wink curled his lip at them. "It’s not that easy, little human. Just-"
Kat cut his words off by clenching his throat in her fist. "Lay off, Wink. We’re not in the mood."
"You can’t help her," he choked out from his constricted windpipe. "She’s going to die, too."
"Then you should be happy. Now go your own way or the world will be in need of a new Sandman."
She let go of him so quickly that he stumbled through Arik.
"I’m going. But I plan on enjoying the sight of your failure."
Kat reached for Wink again, but before she could grab him again he dissolved.
Geary wiped her tears away. "What was he going on about, Kat?"
She let out a deep breath before she responded. "Getting here was easy. Getting out won’t be. You know the old Eagles song ‘Hotel California’?"
"Yeah. That’s our situation. And once we start out of here, if you look back or try to help Arik in any way he’s a goner and, since you’re not born of a god’s blood, so are you."