Hades and Persephone Ch. 11bysushi_taco©
The chariot swayed gently in the air, then shook violently once the wheels touched the ground. Aidoneus wrapped an arm around Persephone, his right hand jerking back on the reins to bring them to a stop not far from the pomegranate grove.
She lifted her helm off her head and stepped onto the cool gravel, never more thankful to be back in their gardens. Cerberus bayed from the shores of Acheron, doubtless chasing down a wandering shade. Asphodel rustled in the fields beyond the gate as their subjects peacefully wandered through the ghostly stalks. The air felt crisp and clean against Persephone's cheeks. Inhaling deeply, she relaxed, glad to be home and safe.
She brushed her hands through the leaves of a pomegranate tree, then across the warm underside of a maturing fruit hanging heavy on its bough. The past month had seen them grow day-by-day, far faster than anything like them in the world above. The trees were now filled with the red globes, each one the size of her fist. She twisted a fruit this way and that, looking at its rough surface. Inside, the white sheaths were probably bursting with dark red arils. But it wasn't ripe, yet.
Behind her, Aidoneus whispered something in the lead horse's ear. Persephone startled and almost stumbled over a root as the horses and chariot broke apart into black grains of sand and fell through the gravel and bedrock, returning to their home. A last whinny echoed from the ether and broke the silence. She walked to her husband's side. "How did you do that?"
He smiled dryly at her. "I'll show you some day." Aidon took off the heavy golden helm and shook out his hair, smoothing it back. His face was cold, devoid of emotion. She wrinkled her brow at him and he gave her a brief, forced smile. "The first thing Hecate taught me was to move objects through the ether to hide them or keep them safe. Like this."
Aidon held the Helm of Darkness in one hand and passed it to the other, but instead of landing squarely in his other hand, it vanished, leaving behind a trail of black smoke. The corner of her mouth twisted up. "Is it hard to do?"
"You tell me," he said. "You have far more control over the ether than I."
Persephone winced, recalling everything they had been told in Tartarus and the first time she had taken them to this grove. She closed her eyes and put her helm in one hand, then thought about sending it through the paths between worlds. She lightly pitched the helm from one hand to the other, and heard it clang loudly on the ground. Her eyes opened and she looked down, frustrated and embarrassed, the helm's black plume sprawled out on the gravel.
"Here, let me show you," Aidon said gently. He pick up her helm and placed it back in her left hand, standing behind her. "Keep your eyes open. Try to envision your other hand existing in the ether itself, as though you are between worlds."
She followed his direction, then pushed the silver helm into her other hand, watching fire bloom around it for a moment before it disappeared. She let out a pleased sigh.
"You're a fast learner," he said quietly. She looked up at him, trying to find a smile to return. His face was still solemn; distant. Aidon grimaced and walked away into the pomegranate grove. As he went, his armor shifted back to his more familiar garb, the cloak draping back into a himation over his left shoulder. Over the past month, the grove had grown thick with grasses and lichens, moss, patches of fertile topsoil, life springing up everywhere that the red petals had fallen to the ground. Here, more than anywhere else in Chthonia, she was at home. Except for her inability to control how these plants grew, Persephone could have mistaken their lush pomegranate grove for the world above.
"Aidon?" She followed after him, brushing aside low hanging leaves and branches until she saw him. Perhaps he did blame her for being condemned to rule here.
Her mind flashed a searing vision of sitting beside him on her throne, crowned with gold. She shook it from her head. It was falsehood. An illusion. Her armor changed at her will, replaced with a slate blue peplos that matched her eyes. It was covered in his blood just as her armor had been. Glancing at her breast and shoulder, she quickly shifted her peplos to black to hide the stains on her clothes. It did nothing for the stains on her skin. Tinges of ichor clung to her, everywhere. Now that they were back in the light, she could see that her skin was stained where she'd touched him and her fingernails were rimmed with it. Her husband paced furiously, and she tried to keep up with him.
"Aidon, won't you— wait..." she said. It was as if he didn't hear her, and she grew frustrated. "Hades, please!"
He turned abruptly on her and she almost crashed into his chest. His forehead was creased with anxiety. "I should have never exposed you to him. I should have said 'no' to at least that and held firm..."
"I needed to speak to him, Aidoneus. It was your burden alone for so many—"
"What manner of husband am I that I would allow him to—"
"It was all lies! Cronus was trying to get me to sway you any way he knew how so we would turn him loose." She looked up at him expectantly. Those were his very words, after all. He scowled and turned away from her, pacing the grove once more. Persephone followed him closely. "Aidon!" She could feel him burning, her words of comfort lost in his anger. "You said so yourself! He would say anything to be freed."
"I stood by as he threatened to rape my wife!" he snarled. "I'll melt the chains into his teeth so he can never speak again! I'll—"
Persephone stopped him in his tracks with a kiss. There was nothing Aidoneus could have done to stop the vision. They both knew it, and her lips against his said as much when she realized words would not suffice. His rage melted and he leaned forward, exhausted. They knelt down, holding each other, settling into the soft grasses. She pulled at his shoulders until his head lay in her lap. It was only a few hours ago that he was being torn to pieces by the Keres, surrounding himself with the damned, witnessing the violation of his wife at the hands of the Enemy. Persephone stroked his forehead. "Husband... You know he can't get free. What he said wasn't true."
"I know. It's only... All this drew the contrast between us ever more sharply. And it makes everything so clear..."
"What do you mean?"
"That you are able to handle his threats, and I couldn't even..." he stopped and looked away.
"Only my greatest failing as a ruler here."
"You couldn't help the visions he showed us."
He shut his lids and leaned his head into the comforting brush of her fingers across his brow. "No, that's not it. Though I can't help feeling that I failed you today."
"You didn't fail me." She twined a lock of his hair around a finger, and cringed when it left a smear of blood on her hand. She swallowed, thinking about the Keres. I failed you, husband. I let this happen.
"It happened a long time ago. I shouldn't trouble you with it..."
"Please trust me, Aidon. Talk to me. Please."
He opened his eyes and stared into hers. "What I'm about to tell you, I've told no one else; not even Hecate."
Aidoneus paused until she nodded and acknowledged the weight of his trust in her, then took a deep breath.
"I've mentioned before how I was... loathe... to accept this lot. My anger boiled fiercely my first decade or so here. Through the Key, I would hear the voices of everyone in this kingdom night and day, destroying my peace of mind. Especially the voices from Tartarus. Even if I removed the rings— which I did with the hope that I could finally sleep— it never returned. The loudest of those voices was my father's. Every moment I spent dreaming was filled with wild delusions, nightmares planted there by him, luring me to the Pit. I stopped sleeping for weeks at a time. I wanted nothing to do with him. Fates; after the war, I never wanted to see him again. But I started venturing into Tartarus, entranced by what he had shown me, even knowing that everything he said was a lie. That he would tell me anything.
"His every conversation with me was bent on convincing me to make war on the Olympians— to claim what was rightfully mine. Cronus told me that he would aid me, and it wasn't long before I believed him. He heaped bitter scorn on their governance. I saw what the world above was becoming in their capable hands— rape, murder, disparity and hubris, endless wars, burning cities and homesteads— every calamity a new arrow in his quiver to use against me. I knew they would all come to me. Everything dies. Ananke, the will of the Fates, determined that I was to host the decent souls in Asphodel until they returned to the living world, but that I would eternally rule over the damned who would never leave. Their numbers would only increase, and their voices would only grow louder. When the first murderer finally died and came before me, I decided to take him to Tartarus myself. I was intent on breaking the chains and freeing Cronus, if for no other reason than to silence my doubt of the Fates and bury the jealousy of Zeus that was consuming me like a cancer."
"What stopped you?"
"The man's story. This was long ago, when the mortals were few, and I judged every soul myself. He was the eldest of two brothers and felt that his patron god had dealt him a bad lot. He had tended vast tracts of failing crops while his young brother had inherited their father's livestock and grown rich from it. He slew his brother, ran off from his family in disgrace, and wandered between towns. After hearing him, I was filled with shame. How like that wicked man I was: resentful and consumed. If my envy made me set my father free to destroy the world once again, how was I any better than that murderer?
"Tisiphone took him instead. I visited the deepest levels of Tartarus only a handful of times thereafter, when absolutely necessary, and occupied myself with what I did have instead of dwelling on what I thought I'd lost. As atonement for what I'd nearly done, I ate the asphodel roots in the fields to eternally bind myself here and took the name Chthonios. I started marking the time from my last temptation. I had Nyx teach me how to better control the Key, and how to separate my thoughts from the voices of the Pit. To mark each century that went by, I would build a new room for the palace— I looked forward to making each one. I started to make the Underworld my home. I began to appreciate this place. There were the colorful stories brought to me by the shades in all their different tongues. I grew to deeply value the serenity of the Underworld, and the separation from the petty behavior of the Olympians. And I had the promise of one day having you."
"It was just after the war." She ran her hand over his forehead once again. "Hadn't you only been free— hadn't you only truly lived for ten short years when you first got here?"
"Then why are you so hard on yourself, Aidoneus?"
"Because allowing him to exploit my weaknesses nearly destroyed the world."
She paused for a moment, contemplating his words. "Am I a weakness for you? Is that why he thought that I could convince you to free him?"
"No, sweet one," he said. "Quite the opposite. You have no idea how much peace you've brought me in the short time you've been here. After aeons of witnessing the caprices of the others, I thought that my taciturn nature was a strength. I was wrong; I had no idea how easily that could have been twisted... exploited. I was cold and my thoughts unknown, even to me. Even the promise of warmth..." He tensed his forehead. "Zeus had no idea what he was doing when he allowed me to be shot with that arrow. He didn't know my thoughts; what I might have done, what other... ambitions could have been awakened."
She traced her fingers down his bearded jaw line to his neck, her hand finally resting on the center of his chest. He shut his eyes, willing away the burning fields of Thessaly from the vision.
"For them the war ended forty thousand years ago. They have forgotten. They forgot that I hold the Key to the destruction of everything they know. Their children never knew what horrors we saw. They have no idea what they could have done," he said, a single tear trailing into his temple, lost in his hair. "But with you... with you, through you, I know myself. I am a better man because of you, sweet one."
She pulled away from him when he said the words Cronus had used against her, her heart dropping into her stomach as it had in Tartarus. "Why did he know to call me that? How did he..."
"Even chained, Cronus is... He was king for aeons longer than any of us have ruled. Or lived. There is a good reason why he came to be such, and there is a reason why I am restless— why it's difficult for me to sleep through the night, even now. The voices of Tartarus I can ignore with concentration. But other than removing the rings, I've found no way to stop myself from listening to his voice. And sometimes," he said, opening his eyes to her once more, "he listens back."
* * *
Hecate sat against her favorite column in the throne room, her eyes closed. Her tranquil contemplation was disturbed only by the buzzing suggestion that perhaps she should come back later.
They were on the path toward her— they had emerged from the Pit over an hour ago. She could feel their movements, and their return had created gentle, soothing ripples in the too-still pond that was Chthonia. She knew they were in their pomegranate grove: it intensified their unity, and she focused on the balance they had brought into each other's lives, delighting in how they had intertwined with one another like the branches of the trees their union had brought into being. Hecate remembered how distraught she was a month ago when they were in tumult, distant, deeply afraid of one another.
Now their happiness blossomed. Hecate only hoped that it could continue, that the visions assailing her night and day would not come to pass. Ensuring that they did not was what brought her to this room to speak with them as soon as they returned. Her singular, meditative focus on Aidoneus and Persephone also quelled her annoyance with the other occupant of the great chamber.
Thanatos wandered blithely about, humming to himself. He paused to wipe his finger over the black marble base of a column, rubbing the small bit of dust between two digits before he slowly moved to the next and did the same. He strolled past Hecate, and looked out to the terrace and the masses of the newly deceased on the other side of the Styx. In all the ages Death had existed, he couldn't remember a busier time than the past month. He tapped his heel against the floor. He should be celebrating right now; and since all the wine and kykeon in the world above was either drunk away, frozen solid or in the hands of that Eleusinian sow, he needed to find something warm and giving. The corner of his mouth ticked up just thinking about her.
He glanced at Hecate, her eyes closed, meditating on Fates knows what. He leaned against the other side of her column, then whistled the same tune loudly, his sandals scraping the floor. The white witch shifted and glared at him, her concentration broken. He resumed his slow walk and looked back at her with a wink, stretching his wings.
She wondered briefly what Thanatos was so pleased about. His failure to capture the Ephyrean had reached even her ears. Hecate knew Sisyphus would be caught eventually— a prize buck could only frolic so long while the hunters ranged. The sorcerer king's end in Tartarus was fixed by fate, and every day Thanatos was away from the Underworld was another day he wasn't distracting the nymphs of the Underworld. Still— and she suspected it was on purpose— he stoked her curiosity with every pass. Almost unconsciously, Hecate slipped into his thoughts. Her delving unearthed only a single name. Merope.
Thanatos stopped in his tracks. He folded his wings back and spun to face her, his eyes slitted, his mouth twisted into a leer. "I thought you and I had an agreement."
"Your thoughts are normally as subtle as a hungry goat," she said softly, "and I made no such vow."
"We made no direct promise, you and I, because you said my mind was... aberrant? Degenerate, if I recall your words? Refresh my memory."
"If my imagined words are lost in the brambles of your memory, Thanatos, you may search among the thorns yourself. And why so merry? Did you defy the Fates and do something right?"
"Well, my dear little witch, if you must know," he said, reclining on the last step of the dais, his black wings spread out behind him. "We have Sisyphus. No thanks to you, of course."
"You never asked."
"You speak as if you would have actually helped me." Thanatos glared at Hecate. It was her turn now. He saw the white witch flinch as he deftly repaid her trespass into his thoughts, scooping out the first bit of information he could find before she closed herself off to him. He cocked his head and ran his tongue along an incisor. "As for your grand schemes, I hope that sow of an earth goddess listens to you. She's making my job harder every day."
When he tried to dive in again for specifics, Hecate practically shoved him out of her mind. She took a calm breath and plaited her fingers in her lap. "So, Thanatos, why do your thoughts swirl around Merope?"
"None of your business. This time at least."
"I doubt the Iron Queen would be delighted by the thought of her handmaiden and friend in Death's bed."
"By all means, Hecate, give me an alternative. One of yours, perhaps? I seem to be running out of Lampades nymphs to fuck." He smiled as she clenched her jaw.
"Intriguing that her name shines above all others like a star in the heavens! How rare and impressive that you can pluck that from among your self-indulgent conquests."
"We always want what we cannot have," he said, shifting on his elbows. "Is that not so?"
"Ah, cannot? So Aidoneus has named a forbidden fruit in your favorite orchard..."
"That's between him and me," Thanatos said. "And I think it burns you that it isn't any of your concern this time."
"This realm is entirely my garden to tend."
"No more so than it is mine," he said, slinking over to her. Hecate darted her eyes to either side, letting her guard down for an instant that he was only too glad to seize. "Oh, come now, Hecate. We've been feuding since before the war, you and I. How many more millennia are we going to continue this? We have precious few left..."
She glared up at him as he drew closer. "You would ask the hound to make peace with a wildcat?"
"Think of it more as... a requiting." Thanatos sighed pleasurably and licked his lips. His wings spreading wider with each step he took to close the distance between them. "All this tension between us... and you with no way to release it."
Hecate lifted her chin. "I am not drunk on the desires that besot you, Thanatos. Nor will I ever be."
"Mmm. Like blazing Tartarus you aren't," he rasped. "What a waste of talent! You've spent your life concerning yourself with the... channeling... of those desires even as you stand aloof from them. A master who cannot demonstrate for the apprentice— who ever heard of such a thing? And yet, you still have not taught the Rite to the one student who could truly affect anything in this godsforsaken cosmos."
"Their time is not yet come, and my ways are no concern of yours."
"They are entirely my concern, young one, and became even more so when those trees sprouted up in Chthonia, growing in the very arrangement that the Protogenoi have always held sacred. My mother entrusts her wisdom to you and you squander it."