“What’s so funny?” Zale asked grumpily.
“You. This. All of this. Especially the you being the god of the dead part. And, and you need me to do what exactly?” Joseph shook his head. “You said I have to find your body to bring back spring or something? I don’t understand what’s going on!”
Zale sighed. “I promise that I will explain everything. Come here and sit with me. This is much easier if you cooperate.”
“I don’t want to sit down! I want answers now!” Joseph snapped, crossing his arms and moving away from the door. He couldn’t stand to see those spirits any longer, and he was grateful when Zale shut it.
Yes, it was weird that Zale shut the door without touching it, but at least Joseph didn’t have to hear the undead wailing now.
“Ask away.” Zale snorted briskly.
“Okay, bringing back spring, all that.” Joseph took a deep breath. “I help you and then I can go home? No more crazy Underworld full of dead people?”
“Why bother with the date?” Joseph frowned. “Why do all of this romantic crap, huh? Why… why make me think that you liked me?” He buried the sting in his heart and cruelly snarked, “As I recall, Persephone is kinda the jealous type.”
“Ah, you don’t understand.” Zale smirked. “For the next six months, you are my Persephone.”
“This task can only be fulfilled by my bride.”
“I’m very pretty, but I think I’m more of a groom.”
“Bride or groom, it matters not. You accepted a gift from me, an engagement gift, and then we shared a meal and a bed together. According to the old ways, we are now wed. Until spring arrives, you’re prince-consort of the Underworld, Joseph Abrams.”
“Oh…” Joseph gulped. “Isn’t that… neat.”
“You will want for nothing,” Zale went on with a flourish of his hand. “You will be given luxuries appropriate to your new station and treasures beyond your wildest dreams. Think of it as compensation for the time you will be spending here with me. As long as you are able to successfully reconstruct my vessel and allow me to summon spring, I will grant you a divorce and you’ll leave here a rich man. Do you understand?”
“Yes?” Joseph blushed. “And my other, eh, husbandly duties?”
“I will not touch you again,” Zale assured him. “Even if I wanted to, my physical form has been lost and you need not worry about me taking you to bed again.”
“Ha! As if I’d let you!” Joseph sneered. “You tricked me! You did all of this and just, just… You used me!”
“For what it’s worth, I apologize for the inconvenience this is causing,” Zale said smoothly.
“Screw your apology!” Joseph barked, his burst of anger taking him by surprise but refusing to let it fade out. “You could have just told me the truth instead of lying to me!”
“Right.” Zale scoffed. “Tell you that I’m the god of the dead and I need you to find the broken pieces of my corpse to resurrect myself and ensure the changing of the seasons?”
“Well…” Joseph paused. “You still shouldn’t have lied to me! I really thought, you know, that you might have…” He dared to meet Zale’s eyes. “Was any of this real?”
“No,” Zale said softly. “I’m sorry, but the deception was necessary to bring you here. I’m sure you’ll find your compensation more than enough. The others all did.”
“You do this every year?” Joseph realized out loud.
“Yes,” Zale replied, a strange sadness softening his cold expression. “I have to find a new bride every fall. No one ever stays.”
“Hard to believe with that charming personality of yours.” Joseph snorted. “You’re such a catch.”
Zale actually cracked a small smile. “You would think I’d be impossible to resist.”
“Right?” Joseph laughed, catching Zale’s eyes, which were twinkling with a playful mischief. He could feel that familiar surge of chemistry bubbling between them, but it was over all too quickly.
Zale was walking away and leaving Joseph alone.
Zale paused to bow, saying, “We start tomorrow.” When he opened the door, it was a normal hallway once more. “Sleep now. I’ll come to you at breakfast.”
“Yup.” Joseph scowled. “Can’t wait to learn all about tracking down body parts. Should be super fun.”
Zale rolled his eyes. “Good night, Joseph.”
“Good night,” Joseph replied, sighing wistfully as the door shut. He flopped back on the bed and scrubbed his hands over his face.
He wished he had never bothered with internet dating.
Being harassed by creeps and perverts was bad enough, but he couldn’t have ever imagined getting himself married to an ancient god being a potential risk. Really should have canceled the damn subscription when he had the chance.
But being prince-consort of the underworld for the next six months…
Could be worse, right?
When Joseph woke up, there was a brief moment where he thought everything had been a terrible and weird dream. He would be able to go home, cancel that stupid dating website subscription, and his life was going to go back to normal. Finding himself in Zale’s bed was a stark reminder that last night had been exceptionally real.
And full of wailing corpses and caves and…
Joseph rolled over and saw the watch Zale had given him resting on the bedside table. Immediately, his stomach twisted. He threw it as hard as he could and then scowled when it made a less than satisfying tink against the wall.
If he had a hammer, he would have smashed it into pieces.
There was a tray of food at the foot of the bed he hadn’t seen before, having appeared as if by magic. It was pancakes with strawberry syrup and whipped cream, his favorite. He couldn’t recall if he had told Zale that or not, but it didn’t matter.
He wasn’t hungry.
Joseph got out of bed to find the bathroom, but he stopped when he spotted a set of clothes hanging up by the desk. It was a pair of dark jeans and a red dress shirt. He didn’t see his own clothes anywhere, and he sighed, taking the new clothes with him to a door that he hoped was the bathroom and not another cave full of dead people.
It was a bathroom, thankfully, and he shut the door behind him to use the toilet and get changed. He was half tempted to refuse the gift and walk around naked out of spite, but he didn’t want to give Zale any ideas.
“Better not,” Joseph mumbled to himself as he left the bathroom. “He’d probably like it… Jerk.”
“Probably like what?” Zale’s voice purred out of nowhere, startling Joseph.
“Jesus!” Joseph clutched his chest and glared at Zale furiously.
The handsome god of the dead was wearing a trim black suit that he had no right to look so gorgeous in. It was painful how attractive he was and the agony was compounded by how much Joseph wanted to hate him and couldn’t quite bring himself to.
“Don’t you knock?” Joseph raged on, trying to hide his gawking and ignore his conflicted feelings.
“You didn’t eat your breakfast.” Zale frowned.
“Wow. Those are some amazing powers of observation.” Joseph pretended to gasp. “You must be a god!”
“Does it not please you?”
“No!” Joseph reached out to jab Zale in the chest. His finger passed right through him as before, and he groaned. “No! None of this is pleasing!”
“I’m sorry. The sooner we begin, the better,” Zale said curtly.
“Okay.” Joseph crossed his arms over his chest. “How do we start?”
“I follow your lead into the realms of the Underworld,” Zale explained. “The pieces of my vessel are always scattered there. I’ll show you around and you will seek them out.”
“How long is this gonna take?”
“That’s up to you,” Zale said simply. “You’re the only one who can find them.”
“And how am I doing that again?”
Zale motioned towards the door, magically opening it up and revealing a dark staircase. “You’ll know.”
“Right.” Joseph grunted, hesitantly following him down the steps. “So, is this Hell?”
“Yes, but it’s also Heaven and everything in between. Souls are energy and this is where they gather when they pass on.”
“They’re gathered for judgment?”
“Not exactly,” Zale said with a small tilt of his head. “We judge, but not to reward or punish, not quite in the way that you’re thinking.”
“Well? What is it then?”
“I’ll show you.”
The stairs varied between raw rock and polished marble, as if the architecture couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. They led down to a big gate and through that into a large chamber, miserably cold and grim. Opposite the gates was a tall mirror mounted on the wall, the massive frame extending from the floor to the ceiling. The shining glass reflected the room and Joseph, but not Zale. The image of the incorporeal god next to him being absent made Joseph shiver.
From the stone walls around them, thick elaborate pillars were peeking out and there was an ornate altar rising up from the floor. There was a faint outline of a human figure on top, and rotten offerings of fruit and flowers were strewn around the base.
Zale raised his hand, and all the mess magically cleared away. He gestured toward the altar, saying, “This is where you’ll bring the pieces of my vessel as you gather them.”
“Very cheerful,” Joseph said sarcastically. “Maybe you could add some cobwebs and a skeleton to really set the mood?”
Zale snorted, and the ends of his mouth twitched in a small smile. “I’ll talk to my decorator, see what he can do.”
“Yeah, get right on that. Tell him to pick out some new curtains too.” Joseph laughed, hating how easy it was to find their playful banter again. He found himself smiling awkwardly, clearing his throat as he asked, “Right, so, what now?”
“Well, you wanted to know what happens to souls when they pass on.” Zale nodded toward the mirror. The surface of the glass rippled like water, resonating with Zale’s voice as he said, “Step through.”
“And where does this go?”
“Where you want to go.”
“Home?” Joseph asked wistfully.
“No,” Zale replied flatly. “Trust me, step through the mirror.”
“Trust you?” Joseph scowled. “Trust you and just waltz through the weird, jiggly mirror? Ha! Maybe you’ve already forgotten how you lied to me? Remember all the lying? And how you used me? For all of this crazy crap? And you… you…”
You said it wasn’t real.
“Trust that I mean you no harm,” Zale soothed. “I want my body back and the seasons to change, all right? And you want to go home. Neither of our goals can be accomplished without a little faith.”
“Fine.” Joseph growled, his heart aching as he stalked towards the mirror. He wished there had been some part of Zale that really cared, but maybe it would be easier this way. He willed away the urge to cry and focused on getting this over with.
Which meant having to go through the weird, jiggly mirror.
Touching the mirror reminded him of cold silly putty, slick and wet and slimy, but his hand could pass right through as if it were made of air. He stepped forward, finding himself in—surprise—another cave.
But this one was different.
It was warm and lit with glowing torches, their amber light filling every crevice. It felt inviting and almost cozy. The atmosphere was completely different from the other part of the underground kingdom Joseph had seen so far.
There were thousands of spheres of light floating through the air, pink and orange and yellow, begging to be touched. Joseph couldn’t explain why he wanted to reach out to them, and he tried to keep his hands down by his sides.
Zale materialized beside him, urging softly, “Go on. It’s all right.”
“What are they?” Joseph asked.
“A little piece of Heaven,” Zale said with a tender smile, reaching over as if to guide Joseph’s hand. He couldn’t make physical contact, but Joseph felt the warmth of his skin nonetheless and followed his lead.
The moment Joseph’s fingers made contact with the sphere, he and Zale were taken from the cave into a giant field of flowers. There was a large pink castle in front of them with stuffed unicorn guards peeking down at them from the towers above.
A little girl was running out from the castle gates, waving excitedly as she shouted, “Hey, Mr. Pluto!”
“Hi, Sally.” Zale dropped to a knee to intercept her as she tackled him with a giant hug.
“This is… Oh!” Joseph grimaced, not sure how to react when he realized Zale was able to touch her.
“Sally, this is Joseph,” Zale said, giving her a small pat. “Joseph, meet Sally.”
“Uh, hi,” Joseph greeted. “I really like your castle!”
“Thanks!” Sally beamed with pride. “Mr. Pluto made it for me. It was my design, of course.”
“Of course,” Zale echoed with a little wink.
“You made all of this for her?” Joseph found himself smiling. “Her very own little Heaven?”
“I make them for every soul that passes through my kingdom,” Zale replied. “An afterlife suited to their needs, their desires, all according to the nature of the person they were while they were alive. I make sure these places are here waiting for them. Although not all are as pleasant as this one.”
Joseph understood what he meant immediately.
“Is he new here?” Sally asked in a loud whisper.
“He’s my groom for the season,” Zale said. “I’m showing him around.”
“Okay!” Sally studied Joseph carefully and then whispered again, “Maybe try to keep this one. He’s really cute!”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Zale chuckled while Joseph blushed.
“Well, I’m gonna go make cookies for my unicorns,” Sally announced, waving as she headed back into her castle. “Bye, Mr. Pluto! Bye, Joseph!”
“Bye, Sally!” Joseph waved back, and then he looked to Zale with a curious smirk. “Mr. Pluto, huh?”
“I’m different things to different people,” Zale said with a shrug. “An angel for some, a demon for others.”
“Did you…” Joseph narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “Did you just paraphrase Hellraiser?”
“Guilty.” Zale grinned. He waved his hand and transported them back into the warm cave. “Good source of inspiration for creating Hells, you know. Pretty much anything Clive Barker did, really.”
“I can imagine.” Joseph laughed nervously, his mind reeling with the horrific possibilities. He got lost in Zale’s smile before he remembered how mad he was at him. He cleared his throat as he asked hastily, “So, is my Heaven ready? Like, how far in advance do you make them?”
“Yours isn’t ready yet. And generally speaking, there’s always a place waiting for a soul. I just have to add a few special touches to make it theirs.”
“And you do this for everyone? That’s gotta be, like, thousands of souls every day!”
“Good thing I’m a god. I’m a pretty talented multitasker.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Joseph snorted. “Rub it in for us puny mortals who can’t even walk and chew gum. How do you even know who gets what? You said you don’t judge them.”
“It’s not as black and white as you might think.” Zale paused. “Evil and good comes in many different shades and the afterlife that’s awarded to someone reflects that. It may not be all fire and brimstone, but perhaps an eternity trapped behind a computer in a tiny cubicle.”
“Yeah, see, that definitely sounds like Hell to me.”
“But it could be Heaven for someone else,” Zale pointed out. “I do my best to tailor every afterlife to what a person deserves. Or, in some cases, what a person thinks they deserve.”
“Still seems like you’re judging them.” Joseph shook his head, suddenly feeling an odd pull.
And there, wait, he could hear a bell.
Joseph turned toward the sound.
“Joseph?” Zale sounded concerned.
“Something weird… I just…” Joseph frowned as the sound got louder, and he followed it.
Zale didn’t move, standing back and allowing Joseph to wander away.
Joseph couldn’t explain the sound, but it reminded him of a wind chime being teased by a light breeze. In between the tinkling notes, he tried to stay focused on the pulling sensation he felt in his gut. Maybe this was what Zale had been talking about, how he would know where to find the pieces.
Unless he’d lied about that too.
Joseph couldn’t help how bitter his thoughts turned, but the sting of Zale’s betrayal was much too fresh. He didn’t care that he was going to leave this place a rich man. He would have much rather been able to keep the sweet man whose bed he had shared.
His feet brought him to a stop, and his hands unconsciously rose into the air. The chiming was louder, almost shrill, and the tips of his fingers brushed over something warm and wet. He grabbed on to it and then pulled the object close to his chest with a gasp.
It appeared in his palms in a blink—a vibrant red human heart. It was glowing, warm and alive, the flesh seeming to shimmer all over as it pulsed.
Joseph promptly shrieked and dropped it on the floor.
“Hey!” Zale protested.
“Sorry! Sorry, sorry!” Joseph cried, kneeling to pick it up. “My bad.”
“You just dropped my heart on the floor! My ancient, timeless, immortal heart—”
“Okay, I said I was sorry.” Joseph hissed. “It’s fucking slimy! Come on. Give me a break.”
Zale rolled his eyes, waving his hand and taking them back into the cave with the altar. “In the thousands of years that I’ve been performing this sacred ritual, no one has ever dropped my organs—”
“How many more times do I have to apologize?” Joseph growled, setting the heart down in a huff on the stone altar. “I didn’t think it was actually going to be, you know, an actual heart!”
“What did you think it would be? A cartoon drawn on a piece of paper?”
“Would be a lot less fucking gross.”
Zale curled his lip up, sighing in frustration. “The first task is done, but there are still more ahead.”
“Are there going to be more literal nasty body parts?” Joseph grumbled as he wiped his hands off on his jeans.
“Didn’t think my parts were nasty last night,” Zale quickly reminded him with a smug smile.
“That’s before I knew they were all attached to the world’s biggest asshole,” Joseph shot back, his cheeks heating up.
Zale flicked his hand at the altar, and the heart suddenly dissolved away into the stone. “Mm. You’re still angry with me.”
“Yes! I’m still angry.” Joseph struggled to keep from shouting. “I thought I’d met the perfect guy and nope, you turned out to be a prick of godly proportions!”
“Prick of godly proportions,” a male voice said with a giggle. “That’s a new one.”
Joseph looked all around to find the owner of the new voice, groaning, “Ugh, now what?”
A beautiful young man with long blond hair appeared in front of him, wearing a crop-top blouse and high-waisted jeans. His makeup was glittering, his hair flawlessly curled, and he was just as stunning as Zale, though he looked much younger. He wiggled his fingers at Joseph, greeting, “Hi there, sweetie. I’m your new brother-in-law!”
“Another god?” Joseph asked weakly, backing away a few steps. He was never going to get used to all of this magical weirdness.
“Yes!” the god said, planting his hands on his hips. “You can call me Jayden! It’s so lovely to meet you! So, you’re the lucky one my brother managed to catch, huh?”
“What are you the god of? Awkward comments?”
“No, silly!” Jayden laughed. “Love, beauty, fertility, and unfortunate accidents.”
“What? Love, like Aphrodite?”
“And Eros, Cliodhna, Frigg, Ishtar, and so on,” Jayden said, flipping his long hair. “With a small splash of poor ol’ Hyacinth because oops, crap happens.”
“Huh?” Joseph really wished he had read more.
“Stick with Aphrodite and add the irony of being hit by a car after surviving open heart surgery,” Zale drawled.
Jayden approached the altar, running his long nails along the edge. He seemed to be able to sense something, gasping and whirling around to face his brother as he demanded, “He found your heart? Already?”
“Yes,” Zale replied calmly, his expression blank.
“Do you have any idea how amazing that is?” Jayden now asked Joseph. “Only one other person has ever found his heart first, and she—”
“Doesn’t matter,” Zale cut in quickly.
“We have to celebrate!”
“No, we don’t,” Zale retorted.
“We can have the party in your depressing little club!” Jayden went on, ignoring his brother’s refusal. “With some actual living people and not all those creepy damned souls—”
“Wait, those people were dead people?” Joseph cut in.
“Yes! He hasn’t finished showing you around yet?” Jayden rolled his eyes. “Slacker.”
“Today is only the first day,” Zale growled, clearly frustrated with his brother, but Jayden showed no signs of stopping.
“I’ll invite the whole family!” Jayden exclaimed. “This is going to be incredible!” He playfully swatted Joseph’s arm, laughing. “And you have no idea what you’ve even done, huh?”
“I have the feeling that you’re about to tell me.”
“The only other person to find Zale’s heart first was his very first bride,” Jayden said with a wink. “Persephone herself.”
Joseph had no idea what to make of that, but he could tell that Zale was extremely uncomfortable.
“Maybe there’s hope for you yet,” Jayden declared, although it wasn’t clear if he was referring to Joseph or Zale. “I’ll handle the party, you two just have to remember to show up. Say, eight o’clock?”
“No,” was Zale’s flat response.
“I think it sounds fantastic,” Joseph said, pleased that his enthusiasm made Zale’s eye twitch. “Hanging out with a bunch of gods and goddesses and dead people? Count me in. It’ll be great.”
“Wonderful!” Jayden cheered. “I have a board meeting this afternoon, but after that I’m free.”
“A god has a board meeting?” Joseph asked curiously.
“When the god is the CEO of a very popular boutique cosmetics company, yes, he does.”
“Wait, you’re Jayden Glamore!” Joseph suddenly put it all together, staring at him in awe. “You’re the CEO of Glamore Bath and Beauty, right? I love your cucumber melon body lotion. I swear, it’s life changing for sensitive skin.”
“Thank you.” Jayden beamed. “Always nice to meet a fan.”
“I’m literally the god of the dead, responsible for all living souls and the changing of the seasons, and you’re impressed by some lotion?” Zale actually looked offended.
“It’s really good lotion,” Joseph protested.
“I’ll have a special little gift basket delivered for you,” Jayden said. “Think of it as a late wedding present.”
“Wow!” Joseph gushed. “Thank you.”
“Aw, it’s nothing.” Jayden batted his eyes. “Now, I have to run, but you boys have fun with your little scavenger hunt and I’ll see you tonight.”
“No,” Zale said stiffly, still clearly not pleased.
“Oh, shush.” Jayden blew kisses as he faded away. “Tonight. Eight o’clock.”
Joseph waved farewell, smirking at Zale’s sour face. “What’s wrong? Sounds like it’ll be a lot of fun.”
“Your participation isn’t necessary,” Zale said with a little sneer. “My brother gets carried away.”
“Does he do this with all your brides and grooms?”
Zale tilted his head, seeming to think over his response before finally sighing. “No, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“It’s just a party,” Joseph said. “What’s the big deal?”
“Do you know what happens when you get immortals together and get them drunk?”
Zale gave another fiercely dramatic eye roll. “Well, you’re going to find out tonight.”