“Never seen it—the movie.”
“What? That’s sad. We’ll have to fix that.”
I rolled over. The smile Aiden wore now reached his eyes, turning them a soft heather gray. “I have no desire to watch a James Bond movie.”
His eyes narrowed. “What?”
“Nope. Those movies sound boring to me. So do Clint Eastwood movies. Yawn.”
“I don’t think we can be friends any longer.”
I laughed and his smile spread. Those dimples appeared, and oh man, it’d been so long since I’d seen them. It felt like forever. “You don’t smile enough.”
Aiden arched a brow. “You don’t laugh enough.”
There hadn’t been much to laugh about recently, but I didn’t want to focus on that stuff. Aiden would leave soon and all of this was like a fantasy. One I wasn’t ready to let go of just yet. We stayed like that for a little while, talking and holding hands. When the time did come to face reality, Aiden climbed out of the bed and went into the bathroom. I lay there with a goofy grin on my face.
This morning had been full of opposites: sadness and happiness, desperation and hope. All of those varying emotions should’ve left me exhausted, but I felt ready to go… running or something.
And I never felt ready to go running.
A knock at the door drew me from my thoughts.
“That’s probably Leon,” Aiden said from behind the bathroom door. The rest of what he said was drowned out by a rush of water in the sink.
Groaning, I got out of bed and pulled my sweater around me. The clock in the living room said it was only thirty minutes past seven. I rolled my eyes. Second day of winter break and I was out of bed before eight in the morning. There was something cosmically wrong with that.
“Coming!” I yelled when he knocked again. I opened the door. “Good morning, sunshine.”
It was Linard who stood in the hall, his hands clasped behind his back. His eyes drifted over my head, scanning the room. “Where’s Aiden?”
“In the bathroom.” I stepped aside, letting him in. “Did Telly leave?”
“Yes. He left just at dawn.” Linard turned to me, smiling. “He waited, like he offered, but you did not come.”
“I bet he was pissed.”
“No. I think he was more… disappointed than anything.”
“Too bad. So sad.” I hoped Aiden hurried up, because I really needed to brush my teeth.
“Yes,” Linard said. “It is too bad. Things could’ve ended easily.”
“Yeah…” I frowned. “Wait. Wh—”
Linard moved fast, like all Guards were trained to. There was a brief second when I recognized that I’d been in this position before, except that time there’d been adrenaline pumping through my veins. Then red-hot pain exploded just below my ribs, near the power rune, and all thought fled. It was the kind of pain that was sharp and sudden, stealing your last breath before you even realized you’d taken it.
Stumbling backward, I looked down as I tried to pull air into my lungs and make sense of the nerve-racking pain firing through my body. A black dagger was slammed all the way to the hilt, imbedded deep within my body. In a far corner of my mind, I knew that this blade wasn’t an ordinary dagger. It was dipped in something—most likely Titan blood.
I wanted to ask why, but when my mouth opened, blood bubbled and trickled out.
“Sorry.” Linard yanked the blade free. I slumped over, unable to make a sound. “He gave you a chance to live, at least,” he whispered.
“Hey, I was expecting Leon—” Aiden came to a halt just a few feet from us, and then he slammed into Linard. An inhuman, animalistic sound tore from Aiden as he wrapped an arm around Linard’s throat.
My back hit the wall beside the counter and my legs gave out on me. I slid down as I clutched at my stomach, trying to staunch the flow. Warm, sticky blood gushed between my fingers. There was a yelp and then a sickening crunch that signaled the end of Linard.
Aiden screamed for help as he dropped beside me, knocking my trembling hands out of the way and pressing his own down on the wound. Aiden’s stricken face loomed over mine, his eyes wide with horror. “Alex! Alex, talk to me. Talk to me, dammit!”
I blinked and his face formed again, but it was fuzzy. I tried to say his name, but a hoarse, wet cough racked my body.
“No! No. No.” He looked over his shoulder at the door. Guards had gathered, drawn by the commotion. “Get help! Now! Go!”
My hands spasmed at my sides and then a numbness settled deep in my bones. Nothing hurt really, except my chest, but it ached for a different reason. The way he looked when he turned back to me and his eyes darted to my stomach. He pushed down harder. His gaze was frantic, shocked, and terrified.
I wanted to tell him that I still loved him—that I always had—and I wanted to tell him to make sure Seth didn’t lose it. My mouth moved, but no words came out.
“It’s okay. Everything is going to be okay.” Aiden forced a smile, eyes glistening. Was he crying? Aiden never cried. “Just hold on. We’re getting help. Just hold on for me. Please, agapi mou. Hold on for me. I promise—”
There was a popping sound, followed by a flash of light, brilliant and blinding. And then there was nothing but darkness and I was falling, spinning, and it was all over.
THE GROUND UNDER MY CHEEK WAS DAMP AND COLD—a musky, wet scent filled the air, one that reminded me of being deep inside a mossy cavern. Come to think of it, shouldn’t I feel cold? This place was dark and dank, the only light being provided by tall torches thrusting out of the ground, but I felt okay. Sitting up, I brushed the hair out of my face as I stood on shaky legs.
“Oh… oh, hell to the no…”
I was on a riverbank, and across from me were hundreds, if not thousands, of people—naked people—shivering as they huddled together. The onyx-colored river separating us rippled and the mass of people surged forward, reaching out and howling.
I shuddered, wanting to cover my ears.
People on my side of the bank milled about, some dressed in Sentinel garb and others in casual clothing. Their conditions varied. The ones waiting by the edge of the river seemed the happiest. Others looked confused, faces pale and their clothing splattered with blood and gore.
Men dressed in leather tunics rode black horses, herding the most unfortunate-looking into groups. I figured they were guards of some sort, and by the way a few of them were watching me, I had the distinct impression that I wasn’t supposed to be here—wherever here was.
Wait. I turned back to the river, trying to ignore the poor… souls… on the other—oh, gods dammit. This was the River Styx, where Charon ferried souls to the Underworld.
I was dead.
No. No. No. I couldn’t be dead. I hadn’t even brushed my teeth, for crying out loud. There was no way. And if I were dead, what would Seth do? He was going to go crazy when he found out—if he hadn’t already figured it out. Our bond diminished with distance, but could he have felt my loss? Maybe I wasn’t dead.
Pulling open my sweater, I looked down and cussed.
The entire front of my tank top was drenched in blood—my blood. Then I remembered everything: the night before and this morning with Aiden that’d seemed so perfect. Aiden—oh gods—he’d begged me to hold on and I’d left.
Anger rushed through me. “I can’t be dead.”
A soft, feminine laugh came from behind me. “Honey, if you’re here, you’re dead. Like the rest of us.”
I turned around, ready to clock someone in the face.
A girl I’d never seen before squealed loudly. “I knew it! You’re dead.”
I refused to believe I was dead. This had to be a bizarre, pain-induced nightmare. And seriously, why was the chick so happy that I was dead? “I’m not dead.”
The girl was probably in her twenties, wearing a pair of expensive-looking jeans and strappy sandals. She clutched something in her hand. I pegged her for a pure-blood, but the open and sympathetic look in her gaze told me I had to be wrong. “How’d you die?” she asked.
I hugged my sweater around me. “I didn’t die.”
Her smile didn’t waver. “I was shopping with my Guards at night. Like these shoes?” She stuck out her foot, angling it so I got a good view of them. “Aren’t they divine?”
“Uh, yeah. The shoes are great.”
She sighed. “I know. I died for them. Literally. See, I decided I wanted to wear them out, even though it was getting late and my Guards were getting nervous. But seriously, why would there be a bunch of daimons on Melrose Avenue?” She rolled her eyes. “They drained me dry and here I am, waiting for Paradise. Anyway, you look a little confused.”
“I’m fine,” I whispered, looking around. This couldn’t be real. I couldn’t be stuck in the Underworld with Buffy. “How come you don’t look like them?”
She followed my gaze and winced. “They haven’t been given this yet.” A shiny gold coin lay in her open palm. “They can’t cross over until they have passage. Once it’s placed on their body, they’ll look all kinds of fresh and new. And they’ll be able to catch the next ride.”
“And what if they don’t get a coin?”
“They wait until they do.”
She meant the souls on the other side of the river. Shuddering, I turned my back to them and realized that I… I didn’t have a coin. “What happens if you don’t have a coin?”
“It’s okay. And some of them just got here.” She placed an arm around my shoulders. “It takes a couple of days in most cases. People like to hold funerals and stuff, which totally sucks for us because we have to wait here for what feels like eternity.” She paused and laughed. “I didn’t even tell you my name. I’m Kari.”
I rolled my eyes. Even dead people needed an explanation. “It’s short for Alexandria.”
“No. I know your name.” Before I could question how she knew my name, Kari steered me away from a group of angry-looking Guards who were examining my ruined clothing. “It does get kind of boring down here.”
“Why are you being so nice to me? You’re a pure-blood.”
Kari laughed. “We’re all equal down here, honey.”
My mom had said that once. Funny. She had been right. Gods, I didn’t want to believe it.
“And besides, when I was alive… I wasn’t a hater,” she went on, smiling softly. “Maybe it was because I was an oracle.”
Shock forced my mouth to gape. “Wait—you’re the oracle?”
“It runs in my family.”
I leaned closer, inspecting the deep hue of her skin and those dark eyes that suddenly looked way too familiar. “You’re not related to Grandma Piperi, are you?”
Kari laughed throatily. “Piperi is my last name.”
“Yeah, weird, right?” She shrugged, dropping her arm. “I had the huge purpose in life, but my love for shoes kind of ended it all. Takes the term ‘killer shoes’ to a whole new level, right?”