Awakened by Linsey Hall

1

Seraphia

When one walks into hell, it’s important to be prepared.

Too bad I could hardly stand.

“How are you doing?” Mac, one of my closest friends, asked from my side. She supported me around the waist, and it was her lean strength I had to thank for getting me this far.

“Fine. Doing great.” My insides felt like they’d been put through a blender.

“You look great,” Mac said. “The deathly pallor and hollow eyes really suit you.”

I huffed a weak laugh and stared at the door of the Guild City library, fear yawning wide inside me. It created a chasm as deep and dark as Hades’ heart.

It was time to go back to hell.

“You’re sure about this?” Mac asked.

I looked at her, grateful for the faint rain on my face. It was a dreary day in Guild City, but the cool rain was soothing against the heat that flickered through me from the pomegranate potion.

Curse, more like.

“Do I look like I have any other options?” I asked.

“No.” Anger twisted her pretty features. “I just hate this for you. It’s all my fault.”

“Shut up, or I swear to God, I’ll kick you in the tits.”

She huffed a laugh. “You couldn’t manage that on your best day.”

She wasn’t wrong. I was far too short, and she was far too quick and tough. Being a librarian gave me a certain set of skills, but definitely not tit-kicking.

I turned back to the library door, staring at the dark wood and tiny panes of glass.

This is it.

I was walking back into the underworld, compelled by Hades himself. It’d been two weeks since I’d escaped, and the pomegranate potion he’d given me was forcing me to return. It was about to kill me, which was the only thing worse than seeing Hades again.

Lie.

Part of me wanted to see him. But I shoved that part back, bound it with duct tape, and shoved it in a closet. A bit serial-killery of me, but effective.

I drew in a deep breath and stared at the door of the library. It was the portal to hell, which I definitely hadn’t known when I’d taken the job. But I’d be going back prepared this time.

Last time, I’d been hampered by my need to find Mac a cure for another of Hades’ curses. This time, it was just me, trying to find a way to break the pomegranate curse. I’d tried everything I could here on earth, searching high and low. My potion master friend Eve had done everything she could as well, but without the pomegranate that had cursed me, her hands had been tied.

“I’m here!” A voice sounded from down the street, and I turned to look.

As if she’d heard me thinking about her, Eve raced toward me down the uneven, cobblestone street. Her purple hair streamed in the wind, and she raised two big leather bags, a smile stretched across her pretty Fae face. She skidded to a stop in front of me. “Got all kinds of potions for you here. Hades won’t know what hit him.”

“Thank you.” I smiled gratefully but didn’t bother to take the bags. No way I could lift something so heavy in my state. “I can never pay you back for this. Your help will save me.”

“Psh, don’t worry about that.” She frowned at me, looking me up and down. “You’re going back not a moment too soon.”

“Don’t I know it.” At the words, pain stabbed my insides. I gasped and doubled over, clutching my belly. It felt like my organs were trying to leap out of my body and run right back to hell.

“Let’s go,” Mac said. “With any luck, you’ll feel better once you’re there.”

“Except for the fact that I’ll be stuck in hell.”

Mac nodded. “Except for that.”

“Onward.” I straightened my shoulders, reminding myself that I was going armed. Come hell or high water, I’d make Hades regret dosing me with the pomegranate potion.

Mac pushed open the old wooden door and stepped forward. I resisted briefly, turning to look at Guild City. I would be coming back. I wouldn’t settle for any less.

But all the same, I wanted one last peek at my home.

The quiet streets of Guild City looked like something right out of Shakespeare. It was pure Tudor, the dark timber buildings coated in white plaster. Hundreds of mullioned windows watched me like silent eyes.

The people who filled the streets were modern, and several drove motorbikes down the narrow lanes. The wares in the shop windows were a combination of magical and mundane. Each display danced colorfully behind the glass, magic making the objects move in order to entice customers. I drew in a deep breath and turned back to the library.

Mac and Eve helped me through the door, each supporting me with a shoulder under my arm. Every step was agony as we entered the hallowed halls of my gorgeous library. The gleaming tile floors echoed underfoot, and the domed ceiling soared overhead. Magical candles flared to life, illuminating the tall wooden shelves and millions of leather-bound volumes.

I breathed deeply of the paper and oak–scented air, letting it fill my lungs with the scent of home. I’d hardly spent any time here since my escape from Hades. No one else had been allowed in, either, just in case he planned to grab someone as leverage.

Now, I was headed right for his portal.

Right for him.

“Nearly there,” Mac said.

I nodded weakly, forcing one aching foot in front of the other. I’d never been in such pain in all my life, and I had Hades to thank for it. I’d resisted returning for as long as I could, but at this point, I’d honestly rather be dead. Slowly, we crossed the floor underneath the great dome, heading deeper into the stacks.

“I'm going to stash these bags in the ether,” Eve said. “The spell is connected to you, so you’ll be able to retrieve them anywhere.”

I looked at her, gratitude welling within me. She was the premier potion maker in Guild City, and she’d kitted me out with thousands of pounds’ worth of potions. Mac had contributed weapons, and my friend Carrow’s familiar—a raccoon named Cordelia—had found me the best snacks in Carrow’s cupboard. I could probably eat of the underworld now that I’d taken the pomegranate potion, but I couldn’t be too careful.

“I just wish you’d let me go with you,” Mac said.

“Hell, no. Not until I know it’s safe.” I shook my head hard, nearly going blind as pain exploded behind my eyes. “Bollocks, that hurts.”

Mac tightened her arm around my waist to keep me up. “You’ll feel right as rain in no time.”

“And ready to murder Hades,” I muttered, rage warming me from within. I was going to kill that bastard for doing this to me. Whatever semi-soft feelings I’d developed for him were long gone after what I’d been through.

We reached the stacks at the back of the library. A dark mist began to rise up from the ground, smelling of firelight and ash.

Hades.

“He knows we’re here.” I pulled away from my friends, nearly going to my knees. “You need to go.”

“Take this.” Eve thrust a tiny vial at me, then retreated from the mist. “Invisibility potion. It won’t last long, but it will give you time to get your bearings before he sees you.”

“Thank you.” Invisibility potions were exceedingly rare. I gulped it down, feeling the chill of the magic as it raced over my skin. Mac and Eve blinked at me, their gazes suddenly searching.

“It worked,” Eve said.

All around, the mist began to rise higher. Eve and Mac watched it warily, stepping backward as it curled toward them. Breathing too much of it would land them in a hell of a lot of trouble, as Mac had learned three weeks ago.

“Get out of here,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”

“Wish I’d hugged you,” Mac said.

“Same.”

She smiled.

“I’ll hug you when I get back,” I said. “Now go!”

The mist had reached my knees and continued to crawl toward them.

“Be safe,” Eve said.

“Of course.”

Mac and Eve gave me—or rather, the place where they’d last seen me—one last look, then turned and fled. I sucked in a deep breath and spun back to the mist. It rose quickly, prickling against my limbs. It should have felt horrible.

Instead, it felt like a caress.

I drew in a shuddery breath, hating what it could make me feel.

“I’m coming for you, you bastard.” I set my jaw and staggered farther into the mist. I only made it a few feet before going to my knees, the pain too much to bear. Rage flared in my chest.

He’d done this to me.

Hand over hand, I crawled toward the deepest part of the mist, a jet-black pool that must be the origin. The portal. He’d be here at any moment, and I didn’t want him setting foot in my precious library.

Tears of frustration and pain stung my eyes as my arms gave out. Every limb felt like it was being eaten by acid from the inside, and it seemed as if I were breathing through water.

I’m dying.

There was no question—I’d waited until the very last moment to return to Hades, and this was the result.

Bastard.

I pushed myself farther, army crawling across the cold tile floor, my vision nearly gone from weakness.

Finally, I reached the black pool. I could hear the sound of his magic—waves crashing against a cliff wall—and taste it on my tongue—dark, bitter chocolate. I dragged myself into the deepest, darkest part of his magic, feeling it all around me, suffocating. It grabbed hold of me, dragging me through the ether and spinning me through space.

For one blissful, exhilarating second, I felt nothing, just the wild spin of the ether as it took me to hell.

Then I collapsed on the cold ground of another library.

Panting, I lay on the stone floor, staring up at the ceiling that soared overhead. In a split second, I took it all in. Ah, yes. I was back in the library that Halloween forgot.

The stone rafters had been carved from an ebony rock. Narrow and arching, they looked like bones blackened by fire. On either side of me, oak bookshelves soared tall, filled to the brim with tomes bound in dark leather. Spiderwebs stretched in front of the volumes, glittering like string threaded with diamonds. Emerald and amethyst spiders skittered across the webs, beautiful yet terrifying.

And yet, every bone wasn’t aching. My muscles didn’t feel like shredded meat. Even my lungs worked properly.

I’m better.

The physical effects of the potion had worn off. Relief surged through me, and a massive grin spread across my face.

Oh, thank fates.

Only seconds had passed since I’d arrived, but Hades….

Was he here?

I sat up, keeping my movements and my breathing silent. With any luck, my invisibility potion should be holding strong.

The door to the library burst open, slamming against the wall. Hades strode in, power incarnate, lethal and terrifyingly beautiful—that is, if beautiful commanded an army of the dead and personally tortured the shit out of the fallen souls in his realm.

His ocean-dark gaze searched the library for any sight of me, his strong jaw set with determination. The sight of him standing in the door, dark cape flowing back from his broad shoulders and his body cast in shadow, sent me back to the moment I’d escaped this place.

I’d nearly made it to the portal when he’d blasted through the door, shirtless and glorious, with his golden wings flared wide and his body corded with muscles hewn in war. Rage had vibrated from every atom of him, his fallen angel’s face terrible in his anger and grief.

His beauty made me hate him all the more.

“Seraphia.” His voice rumbled like thunder, deep and low, flowing inside me like smoke and filling me up with a prickling tension. “I know you’re here.”

Silently, I rose. I stood only fifty feet from him, right in plain sight. Thank fates for Eve’s potion, which was definitely working.

Silently, I stepped to the side, creeping toward a bookshelf. He just needed to get farther into the library and leave the door open. Then, I could sneak around him and get the hell out of here. With any luck, I might be able to find the cure for the pomegranate potion without ever speaking to him at all. Then I could escape forever and never see him again.

It’d take all the luck in the world for my plan to work out that way, and I was ridiculously short on the stuff.

Still, I’d try

He strode deeper into the library. There was no sunlight in this miserable place, but he stepped into a pool of light cast by the chandelier above. The sight of him nearly made me gasp.

He looked like hell.

His cheekbones were even sharper, his ocean eyes shadowed like the grave. Once again, he was dressed entirely in black leather armor, down to his gloves. His shoulders were just as broad, but I had a feeling I’d find the muscles cut even more fiercely. Hewn like iron. There was something raw about him, as if he’d been pared down to his basest parts.

Is this what my absence had done to him?

I swallowed hard, having no idea what to make of it.

Get it together, ninny.

I crept toward the door, determined to ignore the tortured twist of his lips as he looked around the library, clearly searching for me. Silently, I slipped by him, holding my breath so that I made no sound at all. Fortunately, my trainers were silent on the tile floor, my jeans and loose jumper easy to move in.

A second later, I slipped out the door and into the underworld. From where I stood at the top of the library steps, it sprawled out in front of me. It was midday here, the sky a murky gray. The sun never shone. I still didn’t know if there even was a sun.

Once again, I was struck by how his home was a dark shadow of my own. Like Guild City, a massive wall surrounded the town, but this city was built on top of a mountain. On the other side of the circular wall, the world fell away, becoming flat plains, forests, oceans, and lakes.

Yet all of it was so dark. So devoid of life.

It didn’t stop it from being incredible.

From here, it felt like I stood on top of the world. The library was higher than everything else in the city except the castle at the other end of the avenue that cut through the town.

The buildings were ornate structures of black stone and glass. The stone itself was carved in swoops and swirls, while the glass gleamed like water. If I could lose myself amongst those buildings, it would buy me even more time.

I couldn’t help but peek back over my shoulder, spotting Hades still standing in the middle of the library.

He was perfectly still, head bowed, dark hair flowing longer than it had been last time. His broad shoulders curved inward slightly, and his hands clenched at his sides.

Did he think it was a false alarm?

Was it disappointment I saw on him?

No way. And even if it was, it wasn't like he was disappointed not to see me. Whatever we’d shared had been about him trying to use me for his own purposes, not because he cared about me.

I turned and ran, sprinting silently down the stairs toward the main street. Thank fates Eve had stashed the bags in the ether. I’d never be this quick or quiet if I had to carry them myself.

As I ran, I couldn’t help but delight in the strength of my body, my swiftness. I’d never considered myself exceptionally quick or strong, but after the pomegranate curse, it felt amazing.

Fortunately, the night wolves were nowhere to be seen. The Children of Cerberus would definitely be able to smell me, and I didn’t need their attention, even though I was fairly certain they wouldn’t hurt me.

A few moments later, I reached the street and darted toward the back alleys. I’d never been anywhere but the main avenue that stretched between the library and his fortress, but I didn’t want to be out in the open when the potion wore off.

The alley was dark and narrow, but thankfully, empty. I hurried deeper into the city, finding a quiet little alcove to hide in. I pressed myself into it and leaned against the wall, panting.

I’d been planning this for days, but my mind had been so fogged by pain that it had been hard to come up with a concrete scheme. I had no idea how to get a cure, but maybe the apothecary would know. Not only did she have the skills, but she was my only ally in this whole place.

If I could just get to her cottage behind the castle, I’d have a chance.

I slipped away from the alcove and made my way through the city. As I cut through the narrow streets and alleys, I didn’t see anyone. It was difficult to determine the correct direction, but occasionally, I glimpsed the castle towers above the roof lines of the houses.

I’d only gone a short way when a tiny black bat swooped down in front of me.

“Echo!” I whispered, delighted.

The tiny bat had become my friend last time I’d been here. Maybe even my familiar. He’d certainly been a huge help.

From up ahead, he spun around and fluttered back toward me, his tiny face as cute as a mouse’s. He landed on my shoulder for the briefest second, and it felt like a hug. Warmth flared through me.

“Can you lead me to the castle?” I whispered. “The quickest way.”

Echo launched himself off my shoulder and fluttered down the street. I ran to catch up, trying to keep my breathing quiet as it grew ragged.

The little bat swooped around turns and flew low to the ground. Soon, we’d reached the fortress. I pressed myself against a building wall and looked up at the enormous structure. It was a terrifying, hulking thing, yet strangely beautiful.

Just like Hades.

And I was here to face him.

I stepped forward, grateful that I still seemed to be invisible. There were a few people out and about, but they paid me no heed. As I stepped toward the castle, I felt something strange. Like magic in the air.

My magic.

And it was coming from the back of the castle.

What the hell?