Chapter 1: Icarus
His father told him: “Do not fly too high, because the sun will melt your wings, and you will fall. Do not fly too low because the salt water will soften the wax, and you will fall.”
He didn’t listen, because he never listened. He didn’t listen.
If he had - he would have realized. No matter what, he falls.
Apollo was very pretty. He kissed Icarus’s skin and called him a darling boy, and soon every time sunlight hit his skin it felt like a lover’s touch. He said come to me, come to me, and I will worship you, my days are full and busy and I will not have much time for you - but my nights are yours.
Who could refuse a god? Who could have god offer to worship them when they are nothing more than an aging inventor’s child, and say no?
If he’d listened to his father, he would have known - the sun never truly sets, there is no night, only places where the sun is absent.
Maybe if he’d listened to his father he could have refused Apollo, could have told the golden god of sunlight that he was happy where he was.
(He wasn’t, but if Apollo was going to lie to him it only seemed fair that Icarus did it in return.)
But he never listens.
So Icarus flies too high, leaving his father behind. He thinks if he can fly high enough fast enough then Apollo will be able to catch him, pluck him from the struggles of this mortal world.
But Apollo doesn’t come for him, and his wings melt. He goes crashing into the sea, and he doesn’t even have the time to tell his father he’s sorry.
He would have told his father that he was sorry.
He doesn’t die.
Poseidon is powerful and curious and considers Icarus to be a beautiful, curious thing.
Icarus did not know he was beautiful. Poseidon runs powerful hands over his hips, and Icarus doesn’t think Poseidon and Apollo know the same definition of beauty that he does.
When he thinks of beauty he thinks of his father’s machines, of stone walls that have been smoothed down so perfectly that they almost shine silver, of shadows dancing elegantly from a fire’s grasp.
He doesn’t think he’s any of these things. He doesn’t know what they mean when they call him beautiful, but he doesn’t think he likes it.
He is tired. Poseidon is very demanding, and every time the god comes to his bed Icarus feels likes he’s dying. It would be easier if Poseidon were a worse man, but he’s kind and thorough and Icarus always ends up having been satisfied but never really feeling satisfied.
He expects Poseidon’s wife to be angry with him, to hate him. He bumps into Amphitrite in the hall once. He bows low at the waist immediately, “I’m deeply sorry, my lady.” He wonders if she’ll kill him. He wonders if he’ll care.
She laughs, and it sounds like calm waves lapping at a shore. She presses two fingers underneath his chin and forces him to rise, then gently tilts his head to the side so she can see the trail of bite marks her husband has left down his neck. “Better you than me, my dear.” She pats his cheek twice and walks away.
What does that mean?
He doesn’t know how long he’s been here. Not more than a decade, he thinks, though he hasn’t aged.
Nothing ever changes. The bite marks never truly fade before Poseidon adds more.
Icarus waits for Poseidon to be slumbering beside him one night before wrapping the sheet around his hips and tip toeing out of the room. He doesn’t hesitate before stepping outside of the palace walls, and instantly he’s drowning. He’s so deep in the sea that it’s a toss up about what kills him first, the pressure on his tender organs or the lack of air in his lungs.
Not that it truly matters. No matter what, Icarus dies.
He wakes up. Again.
“My lady,” he greets, bowing before a goddess with skin the color of potting soil and hair the richest red, like rubies, or - “Pomegranates,” he finishes, and Persephone, queen of the underworld, smiles.
She says, “I’ve had my eye on you.”
She says, “Amphitrite speaks well of you.”
She says, “I am gone six months out the year. My husband gets lonely.”
He’s dead. There’s nowhere else for him to go.
“Okay,” he says.
The snow begins to melt. Persephone leaves, and the underworld itself seems to mourn her absence. He waits tense in his room that first night, but no one comes.
Nor the second night.
Nor the third.
He can think of nothing more unpleasant than Persephone’s wrath, so on the fourth night he goes to Hades’s room. When the god answers he bows low and says, “Your wife the Lady Persephone sent me.”
Icarus doesn’t dare look up when Hades says, “My brother is quite cross with me. He came demanding you back. I was willing to hand you over, but my wife said she had use of you.”
He can’t return to Poseidon. It’s cold and dark and makes him feel worthless. Even if Hades is a harsh lover, he’s better than his brother. “She wishes me to provide you company. She says you get lonely.”
“Does she,” Hades drawls, and Icarus cringes. “Boy, look at me when I’m speaking to you.”
So Icarus does. Hades has nothing to the perfect symmetrical beauty of Apollo, nor the wild strength and power of Poseidon. Hades has skin like bleached wood and hair the color of machine oil, with dark, expressive eyes and a nose a little too strong for his face.
He looks like a person. Like Icarus’s father might have looked as a younger man. Like Icarus might have looked if he was allowed to grow old. He looks beautiful.
“Come with me,” he sighs, “if my wife wants you to keep me company, then you shall.”
He follows Hades around everyday. As he maintains the circles of the underworld, the lost souls, attends to the gods and other non-dead things that make their home in his domain.
Icarus starts helping. Hades is without his queen, and what he would normally do with her he now does alone. So Icarus looks over the passenger logs for ferry over the River Styx, addresses the complaints that are grave enough to filter their way through the palace, and when Hades looks particularly tense and lost Icarus brings him pomegranates.
Hades still doesn’t sleep with him.
Icarus doesn’t know if he’s disappointed by that or not, but he thinks he’s happy here.
“You know,” Hades says one day while they’re looking over reports, “they call you Thanatos.”
Death god. “Why?” he demands. He’s not afraid of Hades anymore. When Hades is upset he screams and yells, then he goes and sits in the garden Persephone made for him. He doesn’t lash out to hurt.
Hades smiles and doesn’t answer.
Icarus is there to help Persephone off of the ferry. “He’s missed you,” he says, holding out his arm for her to use as balance while she steps out of the boat.
She raises an eyebrow, “You know, they used to call me Kore.” She stands on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek, “Thank you, Thanatos.”
Two hundred years later, in the midst of summer, Icarus gathers his courage and kisses Hades while both their hands are stained with ink and another war has made the lower levels of the underworld smell like corpse rot.
Hades kisses him back.
In two months, Persephone will kiss him for the first time as he helps her out of the ferry. Sometimes when things get stressful or Hades is upset, Icarus will climb into his lap and kiss him slowly.
They never sleep together.
Icarus is happy here.
“Your tapestries are so fine,” the merchant says in wonder, “that you must be blessed by the goddess Athena.”
Arachne tosses her head, braided hair falling over her shoulder like an obsidian waterfall, “What’s Athena got to do with it? My hands wove these, not hers.”
The merchant blanches and looks to the sky, as if expecting Zeus himself to smite them for blasphemy. Personally, she thinks the king of the gods has better thing to do with his time. “Ah,” he says weakly, “I suppose.”
He pays her for her wares and she leaves, almost immediately bumping into a hunched old woman with grey eyes. “Do you not owe Athena thanks for your talent?” she croaks, gnarled hands curled over a cane.
Arachne is not stupid, but she is foolish. They will tell tales of it. She looks into those grey eyes and declares, “Athena should thank me, since my talents earn her so much praise.”
She pushes past her and keeps walking, ignoring the goddess in humans skin as she disappears into the crowd.
They will tell tales of her hubris. They will all be true.
The next day she bumps into the same old woman at the market. Everything goes downhill from there.
“Know your place, mortal,” Athena says, grey eyes narrowed. There is a crowd around them, and Arachne could save herself, could walk away unscathed, and all she has to do is say her weaving is inferior to that of a goddess.
She will not lie.
“I do,” she says coolly, “and in this matter, it is above you.”
She is not honest as a virtue, but as a vice.
Athena challengers her to a weaving contest. She accepts.
Gods are not so hard to find, if you know where to look.
“It’s a volcano,” the baker repeats, looking down at her coins, as if he feels guilty for taking money from someone who’s clearly not all there.
She grabs her bag of sweet breads and adds it to her pack before swinging it over her shoulders, “Yes, I know. Half a day’s walk, you said?”
“A volcano,” he insists, as if she did not hear him perfectly well the first dozen times.
“Thank you for your help,” she says. He’s shaking his head at her, but she knows what she’s doing.
She walks. She grows hungry, but does not touch the bread she paid for, and walks some more. The sun’s begun to set by the time she makes it to the base of the volcano. It’s tall, impossibly large, and for a moment the promise of defeat threatens to overwhelm her.
But Arachne does not believe in defeat, in loss. They will tell tales of her hubris. Those tales will be true.
She ties a scarf around her braids then hikes her skirt up and ties the material so it falls only to her thighs. She fits work roughened hands into the divots of cooled magma and begins her slow ascent.
The muscles in her legs and arms shake, and her hunger pains are almost as distracting. Her once white dress is dirt smeared and torn and sweat makes her itch as it covers her body and drips down her back.
“What are you doing?”
Arachne turns her head and bites back a scream, looking into one giant eye. The cyclops holds easily to the volcano’s edges, even though her hands are torn and bleeding. She swallows and says, “I heard you like honeyed bread. Is it true?”
The creature tilts his head to the side, baring his long fanged teeth at her. She thinks he might be smiling. “You’ve been climbing for hours. What do you want?”
“Is it true?” she repeats, refusing to flinch.
“Yes,” he says, looking at her the same way the baker had, “it’s true.”
“There’s some sweet bread in my pack, baked this morning,” she says, “it should still be soft.”
His hands are big enough and strong enough that it could probably squeeze her head like a grape. Instead he gently undoes her pack and reaches inside. The honey buns look comically small in his large hands, and he swallows half of them in one bite. He licks his fingers clean when he’s done, and his smile is just as terrifying the second time around. “I am Brontes. Why are you climbing my master’s volcano?”
“I’m the weaver Arachne,” she takes a deep breath, “I need your master’s help.”
They tell tales of Hephaestus’s ugliness.
They are not true.
He’s got a broad, angular face and short brown hair. His eyes are like amber set into his face, and his arms are huge, and he’s rippling muscle from the waist up. He has legs only to his knees. From there down his legs are bronze gears and golden wire, replacements for the legs destroyed when Hera threw him from Mount Olympus.
“Had your look, girl?” he asks, voice rough like he’s always a moment away from breaking into a coughing fit.
“Yes,” she says, and doesn’t turn away, keeps looking.
His lips quirk up at the corners, so it was the right move. The heat is even more oppressive inside the volcano, and all around him cyclopses work, forging oddly shaped metal that she can’t hope to understand. “You’ve gone to an awful lot of trouble to find me, girl. What do you want?”
She slides her pack off her shoulders and holds it out to the god, “I have a gift for your wife. I have woven her a cloak.”
He raises an eyebrow and doesn’t reach for the bag, “You believe something made with mortal hands could be worthy of the goddess of beauty?”
They will tell tales of her hubris.
They will all be true.
With a gust of wind the oppressive heat of the volcano is swept away, leaving her chilled. In its place stands a woman – more than a woman. Aphrodite has skin like the copper of her husband’s machines and hair dark and thick and long. Her eyes are deepest, richest brown, piercing in their intelligence. People don’t tell tales of Aphrodite’s cleverness. That is because people are stupid.
“Let’s see it then,” she says, reaching inside the pack and pulling the cloak from its depths.
It unrolls beautifully. It’s made from the finest silks, and it shimmers in the light from the forges. The hem of the cloak is sea foam, speaking of Aphrodite’s beginning, and up along the cloak is intricate patterns it tells of her life, of her marriage and her worshippers and escapades, all with the detail of the most experienced artist and the reverence of her most devoted followers.
Her lips part in surprise and she slides it on, twirling like a child. “Gorgeous,” Hephaestus says, though Arachne knows he does not speak of the cloak. She doesn’t take offense.
The goddess smiles and Arachne’s heart pounds in her chest. She does her best to ignore it – Aphrodite is the goddess of love, after all. It is only expected. “Very well,” the goddess says, “you have my attention.”
Arachne swallows. Aphrodite’s attention is a heavy thing. “I have offended Athena,” she says, “She has challenged me to a weaving contest.”
Their faces somber. Hephaestus rubs the edge of a sleeve between his fingers and says, “Athena will lose such a contest, if judged fairly. She does not take loss well.”
“I know,” she says, “you are friendly with Hades, are you not?”
There are no tales of their friendship. But she’s staking her life on its existence, because why wouldn’t it exist – both of them even tempered, both shunned by Olympus, both happily married.
Gods hate being made to feel lesser. It is why they say Persephone was kidnapped, why they say Aphrodite cheats with Ares. It is why Athena will crush her when Arachne wins the weaving contest.
“Clever girl,” Hephaestus says, smiling.
Aphrodite stares at her reflection in a convenient piece of polished silver. Arachne assumes Hephaestus left if lying there for that express purpose. “Very well!” the goddess says, not looking at her, “when Athena sends you to the underworld, we will entrench upon our uncle for your release.” She turns on her heel and points a finger at her. Arachne blushes for no reason she can think of. “In return, you will weave me a gown, one equal to my own beauty.”
A gown as exquisite as the goddess of beauty. An impossible task.
They will tell tales of her hubris.
They will all be true.
The contest goes as expected. Athena’s tapestry is lovely, but Arachne’s is lovelier.
The goddess’s face goes red in rage, and her grey eyes narrow. Arachne stands tall, ready to accept the death blow coming for her.
The blow comes.
Death does not.
She is an insect. Even if she can make it back to Hephaestus’s volcano, even if they can help her, they will not know it is her. She has no hope left, no course of action, she should just give up. But –
She doesn’t believe in defeat, in loss.
It was a terribly long journey on foot, that first time. It is even longer this time, although now she has eight legs instead of two. She makes it to the volcano, and creeps in between crevices, until she finds out a hollowed room, one with a sliver of sunlight and plenty of bugs to keep her fed.
Athena’s cruel joke of allowing her to weave will be her downfall. Her silk comes out a golden yellow color – it will look exquisite against Aphrodite’s copper skin.
It takes seven years for her to complete it. She hasn’t left this room in the volcano in all that time, and as soon as it’s done she scurries out back toward the village. She’s a large insect, but not that large.
She arrives just as the sun begins to rise, and leaves before the first rays have even touched the earth, her prize tied to her back with her own silk.
Arachne doesn’t return to her room. Instead she goes to the more popular parts of the volcano, hurries and runs around terrifying stomping feet until she finds who she’s looking for and scurries up his leg and onto his shoulder.
“Huh,” Brontes looks onto his shoulder and blinks. “What on earth are you?”
She cautiously skitters down his arm, waiting. He bends closer and lightly touches her back. “Is – is that a piece of a honey bun?”
She looks up at him, waiting. It’s her only chance, if he doesn’t remember, if he doesn’t understand –
His face slowly fills with a cautious kind of wonder. “Arachne?” She jumps in place, being unable to nod, and Brontes cautiously cradles her in his massive hands, “We must find the Master immediately!”
She jumps down, landing in front of him and running forward. “Wait!” he calls, and she makes sure he’s running after her before skittering back to her corner of the cave. It’s almost too small for him to enter but he squeezes inside and breathes, “Oh.” He stares for several moments, and Arachne climbs her web and waits. Brontes shakes himself out of his reverie and uses his powerful wings to bellow, “MISTRESS APHRODITE!”
There’s that same breeze and she’s in the crevice with them, “What was so important, Brontes, that you had to yell?”
Arachne sees the exact moment that the goddess sees the gown, golden yellow and glimmering, made entirely of spider silk. “Beautiful,” she says, reaching out a hand to brush down the bodice. Her head then snaps up, “Brontes, where’s Arachne?”
She warms at that, that Aphrodite knew it was her weaving even though she hasn’t been seen in seven years.
They’ve told tales of her hubris.
They are all true.
Brontes points at the web, and Aphrodite steps over and holds out her hands. Arachne crawls onto the goddess’s palms. “Athena is more powerful than I am, I cannot undo her work,” she says, “but I know someone who can.”
Then they are in front of a river. A handsome young man stands there waiting with a boat. “Goddess Aphrodite,” he says, “we weren’t expecting you.”
“Thanatos,” she returns, “I need to see Persephone.”
The man’s face stays cool, and for a moment Arachne fears they will be refused and she will be stuck in this form forever. Then he smiles and says, “My lady is of course available for her favored niece.” He holds out a hand to help her onto the boat, “Please come with me.”
Arachne weaves a dress for Hades’s wife as a thank you, and returns to her volcano.
“I can take you somewhere else,” Aphrodite says, “you don’t have to hide here.”
Arachne pauses at her loom. She has lived in this volcano for seven years. It’s her home. “Would you like me to leave?” she asks instead.
Aphrodite scoffs, “Of course not! How could I dress myself without you here?” She’s wearing the spider silk dress Arachne spun for her, and she’s working on another for the goddess now. Aphrodite runs a gentle finger down Arachne’s cheek and for a moment she forgets to breathe. “You are the finest weaver to ever exist.”
She looks up at the goddess, “Then as the god of crafts and goddess of beautiful things, where else would I belong besides with you and Hephaestus?”
To declare your company equal to that of gods is the height of arrogance and blasphemy.
They tell tales of her hubris.
“An excellent point,” Aphrodite murmurs, and tucks a stray braid behind Arachne’s ear.
They are all true.
i hope you liked it!
feel free to bother / harass me at: shanastoryteller.tumblr.com, where these stories always end up first.
Pandora is made from earth, shaped by the hands of Hephaestus and made in the image of his beloved wife. Aphrodite gifts her with grace and charisma. Athena teaches her to weave and bestows cleverness upon her.
She stands in front of Hermes, and the god frowns and touches her with a single fingertip on her chin, moving her head one way than the other. “They’ll eat you alive,” he says, and she doesn’t understand.
She tilts her head to the side and smiles a vacant smile. All of the cleverness in the world will do her no good without any context. “We are the same,” she says, pressing a hand to Hermes’s chest. She is made from earth and has the skin to mach. He is a celestial god, and his skin is the same rich shade of brown.
He did not ask to be born any more than his mother asked to bare him. His creation, just like hers, is at the whims of Zeus. All for some little lost fire, all because Prometheus wanted his people to be warm, and, well, he is the god of the thieves after all –
So he gifts her with deceit, with selfishness, with cunning. Her smile leaves her face all at once as she’s filled with self-awareness. “He’ll be angry with you,” she says, “I am not what you were supposed to make.”
“Gods have short memories,” he says, and doesn’t bother to hide the contempt in his voice. “Do not worry about me, gifted child. You have larger problems than my fate.”
He has turned her from something pure into – something more like him. Her face darkens even further as her perfectly crafted mind slots all the pieces together, and he can’t help but find her lovely. It’s how she was made, after all. “I can’t stop it, can I? Whatever they’re planning for me to do?”
“No,” Hermes says, “but now you might be able to survive it.”
“Will I want to?” she asks, and he doesn’t answer. She doesn’t expect him too.
She hides from everyone, lives in a cave at the edge of the city. The gods had called her the first woman, but that’s not true, she can see.
There are women. They smile and laugh have work roughened hands. She aches to join them, but she has the beauty of a goddess. They will know. If she joins them, they will know she is not of them, and it will set into motion whatever trap Zeus has planned.
She is not human, not in the same way, molded from clay by a god’s hands. But she is of humans, and not eager to bestow upon them the harm she’s destined to bring them. She bathes in streams where only nymphs reside, steals into the city in the cloak of night and pilfers from the baker’s trash.
“When they said they sent my brother a wife,” a low, amused voice says too close behind her one night, “I had not expected a begger.”
She whirls around, hard bread clenched tight in front of her, an incredibly inefficient shield. Her breath catches in her throat when she sees him, dark and tall and eyes like the night sky. He looks like Hermes. Like her. “Who are you?” she demands. They’re in an alley corner, and of her gifts flight is not among them. She’ll have to fight him to get away.
She’s not afraid of him. Maybe another mortal would be, cornered in the middle of the night by a man she doesn’t know. But she’s no normal mortal woman, and besides – he has something comforting about him, like the hearthfire attended by Hestia. Something warm.
“I am Prometheus,” says the man, and no wonder he reminds her of fire. “What do they call you?”
“You are meant to be in the deepest pits of Hades’s realm,” she snaps, and shifts her grip on the stale bread so that she can throw it at him. He’s the whole reason she’s here to begin with, him and his thievery.
He shrugs and walks closer to her, watching her like one would watch a wild animal. Good. Here, in this dark alley where no one would find a cooling body until morning, it is he that should be afraid. “Gods forget,” he says, “and Hades had grown cold in his place beneath the earth.”
She pauses, considers. “You stole fire for Hades?”
“No,” he corrects, “I stole fire for the people. But Hades benefited as well. Enough that he was willing to forget the terms of my punishment.”
“What do you want?” she asks for the second time. “Why are you here?”
He stops, too close to her, “The question is why are you here?”
She steps into his space now, following him as he backs away from her, “I am here because of you, fire-stealer, because gods may forget but they do not forgive, and I am the punishment they have unleashed upon the world.”
“What a punishment you are,” he says, looking at her lips, and she forgets to hate him only long enough to kiss him.
Hermes watches her, watches them. He doesn’t know Zeus’s plan, if this is part of it or not, but he watches her, and he worries. He thinks it is, he can see Aphrodite’s magic clinging to Pandora, but he doesn’t know why.
He would go to his mother, but she’s always difficult to find, Gaea preferring to live in streams and rivers rather than face the man she bore a son for. But his mother’s father, on the other hand, is always in the same place.
“Grandfather,” Hermes greets, touching lightly down onto the earth, “How are you?”
“How am I always, boy?” Atlas grunts out, legs and arms straining as he holds up the sky above the earth. “Tired.”
Hermes lips quirk up the corners. Some days, he thinks he’s more Atlas’s grandson than he’s Zeus’s son. “I need some advice, Grandfather.”
Atlas raises an eyebrow, “I’m listening.”
So Hermes tells him everything, from beginning to end, because he can’t figure out what his father’s plan is, but Atlas might. He’s known the man for longer, at least.
Atlas nods, slow, and says, “A bride of gods, a gifted child. I can think of only one reason to create such a child.” Hermes waits. Atlas sighs and says, “There is a jar, within Olympus, that becomes sealed when it leaves the realm of the gods. After that, only a being neither mortal nor celestial may open it.”
“What are they planning to put inside?” Hermes demands, heart spiking. What are they planning to unleash upon the unsuspecting earth?
His grandfather smirks, “It doesn’t matter. What matters is this – what are you going to put inside?”
Prometheus goes by Epimetheus, masquerading as his own brother.
“We shouldn’t do this,” Pandora says, even as she steps inside his home, even as he slides off her dress. His hands are covered with shiny burn scars, and she wonders if he holds that fire still. Everyplace he touches her is white hot, every bit of her skin that touches his skin feels branded.
She should run. That would be the smart thing to do, and thanks to Hermes she’s a smart woman. But she was made for him, she knows that now, made to complete him and she feels a pull to him that she can’t deny.
She’s a smart woman, and she should run. She completes him, but he won’t complete her because she doesn’t have any missing pieces for him to fill.
“You’re meant to be my wife,” he reminds, greedy eyes and greedy hands roaming over her, and this is why Hephaestus sculpted her, why Aphrodite taught her.
Prometheus is not a foolish man. He should know better than to trust her, than to believe she is a gift that comes freely. But he is still a man, and she has the beauty of a goddess, and he will not turn her away and she can’t bring herself to make him.
He is soft and hard and wonderful, and Pandora curses both of them for their selfishness even as she pulls him closer.
Hermes goes to Nyx, to the young woman hiding behind the skirts of the goddess of darkness, and says, “Please. I need her.”
“She’s my daughter,” Nyx says, arms spread as she plants herself firmly in front of him, eyes wide and pleading. “I need her.”
Nyx can’t stop him, and knows it, but Hermes only smiles before flying away.
That night he steals her away, and Elpis clutches his shoulders but doesn’t scream or cry. Holding her feels like holding sunlight, like the wind on his face when he’s flying, and she’s exactly what he needs. “I’m sorry,” he says, because he’s the god of thieves, but she isn’t something he wanted to have to steal.
She’s not quite a child and not quite grown, has skin and hair the color of honey. “It’s okay,” she says, voice older than the rest of her, “Mother was being selfish. I have important work to do.”
He blinks, opens his mouth, then closes it. “You know what I need you to do?”
“No,” she says, “but I know what I am. That is enough.”
They have a wedding. Pandora tries to talk him out of it, tries to say that it doesn’t matter what people say, what they do, that it doesn’t matter how many men come asking for her, she is his and his alone.
Prometheus will not listen, insists that she is his love and life and that she deserves the title of wife. She’d be flattered if she wasn’t furious. He loves her but he does no listen to her, and it grates.
It’s a lovely wedding. She’s the most beautiful bride, because she is the most beautiful woman, and Prometheus looks at her like she is the fire he once stole. It worries her, because that fire burned him, and she doesn’t want to burn him. It worries her, because she’s not a fire, she’s a woman, his now-wife.
Somedays she asks herself what she’s doing, here with this man. She loves him, she thinks, and he loves her, she thinks but it never feels completely right.
They receive many gifts. The oddest is a large marble jar rimmed in gold. Prometheus tries to open and it and fails, muscles straining and fingers slipping. “Here,” he says, frustrated, and shoves the jar into her hands.
She sighs, “If you cannot open it, I don’t know why you’d expect me to able to,” she scolds, but to her surprise the lid comes off at her lightest touch.
Her surprise turns to horror.
Ugly, terrible things leap from the jar. Monstrous, horrifying things move past and around her and leap to infect everyone and everything they can find.
She’s too late, she knows she’s too late, but she slams the lid back onto the jar. Something knocks against it, straining to get out, but whatever thing was at the bottom of the jar remains there still.
She turns to her husband, cold and afraid and wishing for that fire that he seems to always carry.
Prometheus is thin and weak and blood drips out of the corners of his mouth. Disease has ravaged him, and as a being crafted by godly hands she is safe from the horrors of the jar, but he is not.
He lifts a hand, reaching for her. She leaps towards him, but she’s too late.
He’s dead, and his body hits the ground with a tremendous crash and crumples to dust.
By the time Hermes get to their home, Pandora is long gone. The jar remains, and she had closed it too soon. He pulls and tugs, going so far as attempting to break the jar, but it’s no use. He’s a celestial being, and his hand cannot open it.
He must find her. Hermes goes hurtling into the air, determined to track her down, but there’s so much suffering, so much death and despair. He must find Pandora, but people are hurting. He strikes his caduceus into the ground and both of his familiars come to life, two massive hissing snakes. “Help them!” he orders before continuing his search.
He’s no god of healing, but it seems as if he’s about to become one.
Pandora stands at the cliffs edge, beautiful face twisted in grief. People are suffering, dying, the world has become a horrid, ugly thing, her husband is dead, all because of her –
Stepping off the cliff is the easiest thing she’s ever done.
Then Hermes comes swooping up under her, catching him in his arms and flying her to safely.
“Let me go!” she howls, tears streaming, “Let me go! I want to be with Prometheus!” Something feels different, her love for him seems more like a dream than her reality, but she wants it back none the less.
Hermes dumps her on the ground, and she’s never seen a god angry before. If she was planning to live long enough to have nightmares, she’s sure this would make an appearance. “If you must,” he hisses, “then you shall. But not before you open this.”
He drops the jar at her feet, and she scrambles back from it, “No! No, please, don’t make me do more, I’ve ruined so much already –”
“You’ve ruined nothing,” he says firmly, “Open the jar.”
“I refuse,” she says, tilting up her chin and meeting his gaze even as her body is wracked with sobs, “I am not one of them, not human, but I love them. I won’t hurt them.”
Hermes snarls as he pushes her to the ground and cages her body beneath his own, “Trust me.”
“Trust you?” she spits, and flips them over so it’s her pinning him to the ground. “It was you who’s cursed me most of all, I should kill you!”
“You’re not that powerful,” he says dryly, “Pandora, please. Open the jar, and if you still wish it I will deliver you to Hades and Prometheus myself. I promise you, gifted child. Just open the jar.”
Pandora hesitates, looking at him for signs of deceit and finding none. She reaches for the jar.
Elpis is clawing against the lid, this isn’t what was supposed to happen, she can’t help anyone from inside here, without her humanity is doomed –
The jar containing her opens, and she pushes herself out and into the world.
The first thing she sees is the famed Pandora, as beautiful as Hermes said she would be, and as miserable as Elpis had feared.
“Don’t cry,” she says, and out from under her mother’s darkness she’s grown, is more woman than child. She presses her forehead to Pandora’s, cups her face in her hands and says, “Do not cry, gifted child, child of gods. I am here.”
She is shining, here on this cliff, a bright and powerful as she could not be while with the goddess of darkness. She is here, but also everywhere, stretching as far as all those other terrible things from the jar, filling up the world until more of her exists than all those horrible things.
Pandora stops crying, and says, “Oh – oh, you were what I was missing. I didn’t know.”
“Neither of us are missing anything,” Elpis, goddess of hope says, and it would be so easy to shift closer and press her lips to Pandora’s lips, this perfect woman sculpted by gods, and she can’t blame Prometheus, he should have known better, but who could look at this woman and not want her.
Pandora tries not to feel like a dishonest woman, because she loves her husband, or she did before she opened the jar, but Prometheus, as good as he was, treated her like a possession, a prize, it’s why he insisted on a wedding they didn’t need.
Looking at Elpis, all she feels is possessed, more thoroughly than she ever did under Prometheus’s hands.
“I should go to my husband,” she says, because although despair no longer threatens to push her down she should still go to him, go to Hades and bargain and argue until she gets him back. She does love him. She was made to love him.
“Aphrodite’s magic clings to you no more,” Hermes says, “I’m sure you could love him, he is a good enough man. But you do not have to. Besides, you know where he is. Hades won’t let him go anywhere this time.”
Elpis smiles, but it doesn’t reach her eyes, and says, “I am here by the grace of Hermes, Pandora. I – I would follow in his footsteps, if you would let me.” Pandora blinks, uncomprehending, and she continues, “I would steal you for my very own, if you would let me. You love humanity, and you can help them by my side. If you want.”
Pandora closes the remaining space between them, kissing Elpis with a gentleness she didn’t know herself capable of, a gentleness her and Prometheus had never shared. “I love my husband,” she says, but it sounds wrong, sounds fake, and it shouldn’t, because she lived with him, and she loved him. Didn’t she?
But Elpis feels like home. Touching her feels like safety, and Prometheus had always felt like danger – in the best ways, in the most thrilling ways, but he never felt like a place for her to return to, a place she belonged.
“Give me a chance,” Elpis says, settling her hands on Pandora’s hips, “You can always leave to find your husband. But just – not now, not yet. Give me some time.”
Pandora hesitates, but – her purpose is fulfilled, she’s done what she was created to do. The gods of Olympus have no more use for her, and her life from this point on is her own. She was made to be Prometheus’s wife. But that’s not what she has to be.
“Okay,” she says, and can think of nothing else to offer her, has nothing else to offer.
Luckily, it seems that’s all Elpis needs, because she pulls them together again. Elpis is soft and gorgeous and this feels completely different from the all the times she’d kissed Prometheus, feels like larger and scarier and more beautiful.
Elpis’s skin on her skin doesn’t feel like a brand – it feels like freedom.
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Artemis is born first. She’s a babe for only moments, springing into gangly-limbed childhood between one breath and the next.
Her mother is red faced and sobbing, prostrate on the ground and reaching for her. “He’s too big,” she sobs, “He won’t come out – I’ve failed! Hera has won and I have failed!”
There’s blood, too much blood, blood that she herself is still slick with. “No,” she says firmly, kneeling in between her mother’s legs, “We have not failed.”
It takes too long, too much blood and screaming, but hours later Leto sleeps, exhausted and pained but alive.
Her brother does not grow as she did, and she cleans him and swaddles him and hold him against her chest. There is too much intelligence for a freshly born-babe in his eyes. She pets the soft golden curls on top of his head.
She looks to Leto, bloody and torn and nearly forced to die with her son inside of her, and decides that her mother’s fate will never be her own.
The only man she’ll ever love is the one currently in her arms.
Apollo grows, faster than he should but slower than her until they match, until they are not-quite adults, beautiful adolescents in a godly package.
Her brother worries her; sometimes he reminds her too much of their father and she fears for him. She’s never afraid of him, her golden twin brother, but in that regard she thinks she may be alone. He’s too smart and not careful and feels as if every beautiful thing is his to possess.
The first time he forces himself on a mortal woman, she shoots a silver arrow through his shoulder. It bleeds, an arrow shot by her, more than it would if any other goddess had done it. “They are mine,” she declares, standing in front of the scared girl with her torn clothes, “You will not touch what is mine.”
Apollo says, “Very well, sister,” slick with blood, and she wants to go to him, to heal him and take care of him as she has their whole lives, but she stands her ground. In this she will not be moved.
He leaves, and when she turns to comfort the girl she’s already gone.
Her brother doesn’t touch any other unwilling women after that, although there are still plenty of willing women. And why shouldn’t there be? Apollo is gorgeous and strong, brave and just when he forgets to be selfish and petty.
There are men, however, whom are not always so willing. Nothing so harsh as that first time with that girl, nothing that dramatic – but enough that it pains her to see the callous way her brother treats them. Artemis stays silent on that. She is not the patron god of all of humanity, and she can’t hoard them all.
Her brother is a warrior and a poet and harnesses his chariot to the sun so that he may bring light to all the world. She loves him, but sometimes – sometimes she hates him. She is a huntress and a midwife, a bringer of life and a taker of it, and there is something terrible in her power. She thinks this is what Persephone must feel like, as the goddess of spring and queen of the underworld. It’s intoxicating. But it is a quiet sort of power, a harder one.
He is the sun and she is the moon, and there are times she fears that is all she is – a reflection of her younger brother’s brightness, cursed to be nothing more than a poor imitation.
She’s fully grown the first time it happens, older than many cities and twice as beautiful as her brother’s sunrises.
She’s sweat soaked and blood covered, but the mother and her sons sleep soundly and safely after the difficult birth. If she were to tell the other gods this they would not believe her, but being the goddess of childbirth is her hardest job by far.
“Come,” the sister of the mother says, a pretty young thing with large eyes and a wide mouth, “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
Artemis could clean herself up just fine, but allows the young woman to lead her to her room, to remove her blood stained clothes and run a warm cloth over limbs that are sticky with dried sweat. The woman goes to her knees before Artemis, running the cloth over her legs, and then the woman touches a place no one has ever touched.
Artemis jerks with surprise, looking down, her mouth agape. “My lady goddess,” the woman murmurs, parting her wide mouth and licking her lips, “I would thank you for aiding my sister, if you be willing.”
There’s a low curling heat in the pit of her stomach and something fluttering high in her chest. It’s something she hasn’t experienced before. “I am to remain a virgin,” she says, blank, because many men have looked at her like this woman and she was revolted by all of them. She’s not revolted now.
“Virginity is a man’s invention and a man’s concern, my lady,” the woman says dismissively, beginning to move her hands in way that makes Artemis flush all over, “There are no men here.”
That’s the last bit of talking they do until morning.
Artemis has many more eager women coming to her, offering to worship her. She accepts, again and again, and there’s never anything more than temporary sparks of desire, yet she enjoys all the women who seek her out, is delighted by them and seeks to delight them in return.
She is bathing in a lake one evening, golden hair having grown longer than she usually keeps it and brushing past her shoulders. She’ll have to cut it soon. She ducks beneath the serene, smooth lake, and when she pops her head up there’s the sound of rustling and footsteps, then clothing being shed.
There’s a man dipping his toes into the lake, and Artemis rises, ready to kill him for his insolence.
Then she meets his scared eyes, and she’s done nothing to provoke his fear, not yet. Then she has to look again, eyes raking over his naked body, and this person certainly looks like a man. Yet –
“Who are you?” she demands, hands on her hips.
“Sipriotes, miss,” the person says, and bends to pick up the discarded clothes. “Apologies, I did not expect anyone to be here. I’ll go.”
“Why?” Artemis asks, taking a guess, “There’s plenty of water for two women to share.”
She knows she’s guessed right when Sipriotes’s mouth parts in surprise, and then widens in a pleased grin. “Thank you, lady,” she says, dropping her dress back at the lake’s edge and stepping into the water.
“Your hair is a mess,” she observes, looking at the tangled bun on top of Sipriotes’s head, “Let me help you with that.”
“It’s okay, miss,” she says politely.
Somehow this woman hasn’t figured out she’s a goddess yet. Artemis is in no rush to tell her – she’s scared enough of her as it is. “I insist,” she says, swimming over and twisting Sipriotes around so her back is to Artemis. The woman’s muscles are tense, and Artemis runs light fingers over the pale, criss crossed lashing scares. Artemis is smart, so she doesn’t ask the obvious, stupid question and undoes the woman’s bun. Her tangled long black hair tumbles down to her hips. “What a mess,” she says quietly, not explaining whether she talking about her hair or her back.
Sipriotes relaxes, tilting her head forward as Artemis gently untangles her hair until it lies smooth.
Artemis tries, but she can’t get the woman from the lake out of her head. She lives alone at the edge of the village, doesn’t bathe with the other women because they don’t welcome her. They don’t shun her, but they don’t wash her hair or her back and it makes Artemis’s blood boil.
She expects better from those she has claimed as her own.
The sun’s just setting when her brother appears at her side, watching her watch Sipriotes gather water from the well. “He’s not your usual type, is he?” he asks, leaning against her and tangling his fingers in hers.
“Yes,” Artemis says, “she is.”
For the first time in her life Artemis feels uncertain, but kicks at the door anyway.
It opens. The wariness on Sipriotes’s face is replaced by confusion. “Hi,” Artemis says, “Do you like bear?”
The creature is slung over her shoulders. She’d just killed it, and it occurs to her too late that a normal woman wouldn’t be able to casually hold a bear across her back. “I like you,” Sipriotes says, stepping aside to let her in, “you can bring the bear if you like.”
She offers Artemis warm wine and insists she sit as she skins the bear, sticking chunks of it on a spit and salting the rest of it. This time she keeps up a steady stream of conversation, eyes warm and smile soft, and Artemis wishes she could blame the wine for the heat on her cheeks.
“I like your shoulders,” Artemis says, watching her finish up preparing the bear meat.
Sipriotes pauses and turns to Artemis, eyebrow raised. Her dress is stained red with the bear’s blood and her silky black hair is braided to the side. Artemis wants to run her fingers through it. “You do?”
She stands, moves slowly in case this isn’t what Sipriotes wants, and presses her hands to her back the same way she had in the lake. “Yes, they’re broad. Strong. Like mine.”
Sipriotes turns, and Artemis trails her hands from her shoulders to her face, pressing her thumb against Sipriotes’s bottom lip. “The bear will burn,” she says, eyes dark.
“I’ll bring you another one,” Artemis says, walking her backward until they reach the bed, until Sipriotes’s knees hit the edge of it and she falls back, until Artemis can climb on top of her and straddle her waist.
Sipriotes holds up a hand, and Artemis captures it in her own and turns it so she can leave a butterfly kiss on each knuckle. “I know who you are, Artemis,” she whispers, “Are you – are you sure? No man can touch you.”
Artemis leans down, pressing more kisses across Sipriotes’s collar bone, and says, “There are no men here.”
That’s the last bit of talking they do until morning.
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By her very nature Hestia is not supposed to have favorites, but Hades has always been hers.
She is the eldest sister, and he the eldest brother. She wonders if that is perhaps why they somehow end up being the responsible ones.
“I like it down here,” she says, curled up in his throne. “It’s quiet.”
He snorts, head bent over the reams of paper, endless lists of the dead. Somehow, she never sees Zeus with paperwork. “It’s dark, and cold.” She glances around. The only light comes from the softly glowing moonstones, from the bioluminescent designs etched into the walls.
She extends a hand, “I can–”
A cheerful fire crackles to life in the center of the room, warm and sweet and smelling of cedar even though there’s no smoke. “Sister!” he snaps, “Return that to Olympus immediately!”
She pouts, holding the fire steady, “Why? It’s my fire, I am its keeper, am I not? I can give it to whoever I choose.”
“Zeus has decreed it is a privilege of those that reside in the heavens,” he glares, “I will not see his wrath turn upon you. Put it back.”
Hestia closes her palm, and the fire snuffs out, returning to its home on Mount Olympus. “Little brother Zeus would do well to remember his place.”
“I’m sure he would say the same of us,” Hades says wryly, eyes dropping back down to his desk.
She is the keeper of the hearth, the bringer of fire, the guardian of the home. The spirit of Mother Gaia pulses in her more clearly than the others, no matter the claims Hera likes to make
Zeus is a little boy. A powerful little boy for sure, but a child none the less. She and Hades grew in their father’s stomach together, his was the hand she grasped through the years in their horrid prison.
She dislikes little boys telling her how to govern her realm of hearth and home.
Prometheus was not a smart man, but he was a brave man, an ambitious man.
So when a goddess appears in front of him, offering him an opportunity for glory, he does not refuse. He grins with eyes too bright and says, “Fire? The tool of gods back in mortal hands? We could do much with that.”
“Yes,” the goddess agrees, “but it will not come free. If you succeed you will be sent to Hades’s realm, of this I am certain, and when you are – you must bring fire to him as well. That is the price of our bargain.”
“Agreed,” he says instantly, and does not question why a god needs a human to get him fire. His is not the place to question gods.
Myths will say that he was a Titan, a god among gods, but that is not true.
He was a lone, ambitious man. The act of a single person can often be mistaken for the work of a god.
Hestia’s throne sits unused on Olympus, more concerned with tending her hearth fire than sitting high above mortals.
Any being which must assert their authority through status symbols likely has very little authority to begin with. “You’re planning trouble,” Hera accuses one day, her clothing purposefully plain next to her husband’s and her hair piled atop her head in an exhaustingly elaborate fashion.
Hera did not become wife of Zeus, Queen of the Gods, by being stupid. She can be accused of many things, but stupidity is not among them.
“Whatever do you mean, little sister?” Hestia asks, reaching a hand into the fire and watching the flames dance harmlessly over her skin. None of her other siblings would be so fortunate, should they try to touch her fire.
Hera cross her arms, lower lip jutting out, and Hestia’s mouth twitches. They are all so painfully young still, now. Hera is little more than a girl, and Hestia thinks she would be fond of her if she were not so clearly hiding fangs behind her pretty lips.
Loving your family never meant having to like them.
“You won’t get away with it, whatever it is,” Hera declares before turning on her heel and striding off.
Hestia cups a ball of flame in her hand, the warmth of it seeping down to her bones. “Whatever you say, little sister.”
The climb up Mount Olympus takes him weeks. He’s exhausted and hungry by the time he reaches the top, having run out of food some days ago. But he makes it – something that no other human can claim.
He follows the goddess’s instructions to the letter, waits until the moon is high in the sky before creeping into the palace. He doesn’t touch any of the statues, the tapestries, the golden goblets or silver plates. He doesn’t even let his gaze linger on them, for he is after a prize far more valuable than wealth.
Fame. Notoriety. His name written in the heavens, never to be forgotten.
The hearth is in the center of the throne room, larger than twice his size and more golden than red. He takes a trembling step forward, eager and terrified all in one.
The goddess appears in front of him, more silhouette than anything else. “This fire will burn you,” she warns, eyes fever bright and sparking just like the inferno behind her, “It will kill you. It is only a matter of when – not if.”
“I understand,” he says, because it doesn’t matter, death does not matter. Death comes for all men. If he succeeds in returning fire to humankind, he will be more than a man – he will be a legend.
“Very well.” She spicks up a globe of fire in her hand. Prometheus reaches for it, but she does not hand it to him. Instead she opens her mouth impossibly wide and places it on her tongue, lips closing around it and her whole face turning red from the heat.
She grabs him by the front of his shirt and jerks him forward, placing her mouth to his mouth and pushing the ball of celestial fire onto his tongue.
“There,” she says, leaning back. “That will dampen it enough for you to make it back to the land of mortal men, but you must not open your mouth until you are ready – as soon as it’s exposed to the air it will consume you. If you are not back in the mortal realm at that point, your death will be for nothing.”
It burns, it’s complete agony. He can already feel the fire eating its way through the soft, wet muscles of his cheeks. But he gives the goddess one sharp nod and then he’s sprinting his way out of Olympus.
He doesn’t have much time.
Prometheus is long gone by the time Hera drags herself to the throne room, sleeping robe askew and Zeus’s teeth marks on her collarbone. She’s older than her husband but still so terribly young, and for a moment Hestia pities her.
“What did you do?” Hera demands, voice coming out rough. Hestia can’t see any bruising on her throat but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any. “I know you did something!”
She knows the woman Hera will grow into, has seen many girls become that same woman, and as the wife of Zeus it’s nearly inevitable. But she’s not a woman yet, just a girl who’s gambled everything for a play at power and hasn’t yet figured out if she’s won or lost.
“It’s cold in Zeus’s chambers,” Hestia pats the empty space beside her, “Won’t you sit with me, little sister?”
Hera stares at her, mistrust heavy in the air and plain on her face. She will learn to hide her thoughts better one day. “It’s not cold in there.”
“Isn’t it?” she asks simply, and for a split second Hera’s face crumples. “Come, little sister.”
Hera takes one hesitant step closer, then another, eventually stumbling to her knees beside her and staring into the fire, Hestia is sure, so she has an excuse for her eyes to water.
“None of that now,” she adjusts Hera’s robe and pulls her hair from her face, the normally immaculate locks frizzy and tangled. She summons a brush and runs it through her sister’s hair, careful and steady.
The tension leaves Hera’s body by degrees until she chokes out, “It’s warm here.”
“As it always will be, when you are beside me,” she says, because she can promise that at least. Whether Hera will choose to sit at her side in the future is another matter entirely.
Burns have surfaced all across his body, blistering legions turning into bloody caverns of ash where he once had flesh.
Most of his lower face is gone, his jaw open and gaping and only bone. The ball of celestial fire is nestled at the bottom of his throat; it’s burned through until only a thin layer of skin separating it from the open air. He has to hurry. Every step is agony, he hasn’t been able to take a breath for several minutes, and at this point death can only be a relief.
He will not die in vain.
Prometheus finally, finally steps upon mortal soil, but he does not stop there. He runs home, to his city, to the center of the square. People recognize him, even with half his face burned away, and there are screams.
He collapses in the city square and reaches what’s left of his hand into his throat. He pulls all but a spark of the celestial fire free, and opens his hand.
He’s consumed in an instant, and his last sight is of fire flying – into stoves, lighting hearths, candles twinkling to life.
They will carve his name into the skies for this. He dies satisfied.
“How could this have happened?” Zeus rages, “How dare he steal from the gods! I will have Hades destroy him in every possible manner!”
“Yes, my king,” Hestia murmurs. She doubts he’ll ever make note of the contempt in her voice at his title.
King of the Gods. As if gods have ever cared for kings.
Hera remains remarkably, carefully silent at her husband’s side, hair neatly coiled the exact circumference of Hestia’s fingers.
It wasn’t something Hestia asked of her, nor what she was expecting. It is, however, a very pleasant surprise.
Maybe there’s hope for her yet.
Prometheus opens his eyes, which he wasn’t expecting. Everything still feels like it’s burning, but his body is back in more or less one piece.
He’s in a place both dark and cold, and when his sight adjusts he realizes Hades, god of the dead, is standing before him.
“You’ve angered my brother greatly,” the god says, but he doesn’t sound all that upset. “I’m to give you the worst punishment imaginable for your transgressions.”
Prometheus opens his mouth, and out drops the smallest flicker of a flame. “From the goddess,” he says, and the spark goes twirling, dancing across torches and leaving them lit, passing by a hearth so it roars to life.
Hades eyes widen as he watches the sparks progress, until it disappears down the hallway to light the rest of his realm. “Foolish older sister,” he says, softer and kinder than Prometheus thinks the god of the underworld is supposed to look.
The whole place looks brighter with the fire, it goes from ominous to nearly – homey, a place not only to arrive at but one to return to.
Hades slides his gaze back to him, “Those burns are from celestial fire. I cannot heal them – you must live with them.”
“I understand,” Prometheus says, even though he doesn’t. If he’s to be subjected to the worst punishment imaginable, what does it matter if he’s burned or not?
The god smiles, as if he’s reading his thoughts, and says “Very good.”
The next thing Prometheus knows, he’s back in the lands of mortal men. Different, perhaps – but alive.
Fires are lit in her name, each home’s hearth dedicated to her, and Hestia smiles.
Hers is not a domain so easily extinguished.
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Apollo comes to her, warm and smiling. He likes her body, its gentle curves, the flawless skin, how it shines with the youth and strength of spring. He is the sun and she is the earth, and it is from his rays that she gains her strength, and it would be expected of them to love each other. The god is golden, from his skin to his hair to his mischievous eyes, and there is not an inch of him that is not as lovely as the rays of sunlight peeking through the leaves.
Kore is not stupid. She knows Apollo does not linger, that she will be a wife in name and little else; he will lie with her and worship her and then grow bored of her.
Hermes comes to her, eyes sharp and hands gentle. He likes her mind, her acuteness, the way she views the world as a gem cutter would a raw emerald. He is wings and air and she is firmly rooted in the earth, she is as far from him as one can be, but his skin and hers are the exact same shade and she finds the shape of his mouth pleasing. She likes the way he considers her his equal.
But Hermes is meant to fly, spends his time carrying messages for Zeus and meddling in things that ought not to be meddled in. He may be a fine enough man, but he’s no husband.
She has two offers – each from powerful gods, each attractive and clever. There’s no reason she should find them both as unappealing as congealed chicken fat, yet she does.
“I do not often find you alone,” a deep, feminine voice says, and Kore suppresses a sigh as she turns to greet the approaching woman. She sits deep in the forest under a blossoming apple tree, but this is not her dominion alone.
“I am not often alone,” she concedes, observing the blood soaked goddess. “I’m assuming none of that is yours?”
Artemis doesn’t have enough hair to toss it over her shoulder, but she runs a hand through it, pushing it out of her face and streaking it copper in the process. “Of course not. I hope you weren’t too attached to the bucks of this forest.”
“Animals are not my concern,” she answers, “Besides, I am the goddess of spring, and therefore am born from death. It would be foolish of me to reject that which bore me.”
“Funny you should say that,” she says, “since all of Olympus is gossiping about how desperately you seek to leave the sanctuary of what bore you.”
Kore raises an eyebrow. Artemis is clumsy with her words, but she supposes the woman has never had a need to be otherwise. There are few as transparently straightforward as the huntress. She smiles, “Perhaps it is more funny, dear cousin, how easily the words prison and sanctuary become entangled.“
Artemis crosses her arms and sucks her lower lips between her teeth. “No,” she says finally, sobering, “I don’t think that’s very funny at all.”
Kore arranges her skirts around her, the green of the thread and that of the grass nearly identical. “If you’re here to plead your brother’s case for my hand, I’m willing to listen.”
The huntress snorts, derisive, and Kore raises an eyebrow. “I would not recommend my brother’s hand,” she says, “There are other parts of his anatomy which leave many satisfied, however, if that falls within your interests.”
“I am a more desirable bride as a virgin,” she answers instead of saying that the thought of touching a man she does not love makes her skin crawl. Artemis laughs as if she just told a joke, but if so Kore is ignorant of the punchline.
She does not know if she could love either Hermes or Apollo, at least not for the eternity that marks a god’s impossibly long life. It would result in a rather lackluster love making, which is presumably their main goal in pursuing her.
She dislikes her options. Behind her is the gilded cage of her mother’s overprotectiveness, and ahead of her lies the gilded cage of a loveless marriage.
“Kore,” Artemis says, frowning, “if – if you are to defy Demeter, you must go someplace that she cannot enter, a place where her magic cannot reach you.”
“Where might that be?” Kore asks dryly, “She is as I am – all that grows from this earth is our domain. Perhaps in the sea I could hide from her, but Poseidon is no friend of mine and has no reason to grant me asylum.”
Artemis shrugs, a wry twist to her lips. She cracks her neck on either side and walks back from where she came, but not before calling out over her shoulder, “I guess there is no such place Kore, goddess of spring, born of death and Demeter.“
Kore is still for a long time, staring at the place where Artemis stood.
Perhaps she is not so clumsy with her words after all.
Slipping away from her mother’s watchful eye is always monstrous task, even more so since the rumors of her proposals, but she manages. She finds the River Styx and follows it against its current, walking past and through all the warning sign that she’s gone too far, ignores the prickle along her skin as she crosses the threshold from this world to the next.
Almost immediately she comes across a hooded figure standing besides a small boat. “Charon,” she greets confidently. She tries to catch a peek under his hood, but he tilts his head away from her and manages to give the impression that he’s frowning at her even though she can’t see his face. “I need passage across the river.”
“You are not dead, lady goddess,” he says.
She holds out a shiny gold coin, “I can pay.”
“You are not dead,” he repeats, “You may not be ferried across.”
She nearly snaps at him, but instead takes a firm hold on her temper and thinks. Charon did not say she was not permitted to enter the underworld, only that he may not ferry her across. She peeks into the rushing river. It’s so powerful and fast that it churns grey foam and the water itself looks black, or perhaps that is simply whatever lies beneath. She skims her hand across the surface and the skin of her fingertips comes away burned and blistering.
“May I swim?” she asks.
“There are no rules preventing the impossible,” he tells her, but his shoulders stiffen as if he’s grown nervous.
Kore is not nervous. Either she survives and manages to enter the underworld, or she dies and Charon will have no choice but to ferry her across.
She sheds her gown – it will only weigh her down and get in her way. “My lady goddess,” Charon says, and Kore would almost say he sounds panicked. “Please do not –”
She jumps into the river.
It burns all over, white hot pain that makes her want to scream, but she has no interest in discovering what would happen if she were to swallow any of this supposed water. The current fights against her at every turn, and her muscles bunch and strain to not be swept away. It’s improbably difficult, the most difficult thing she’s ever done, but she grasps the edge of the shore with peeling hands and heaves her bloody body unto the ground.
Her entire body is one throbbing wound. Perhaps she should have listened to Charon before diving headfirst into the river, but it’s too late for regrets.
“Are you insane?” a thunderous voice demands, and then she’s being lifted by strong arms until she’s settled against a muscular chest.
She forces her eyes open, and the man glaring down at her has hair the color of the night sky and skin as pale as bone. His nose is long and sharp, his mouth wide and thin. The only bits of colors are his eyes, a green so dark that at first glance they look black. She raises a hand and cups his face, and the water clinging to her doesn’t seem to hurt him the way it hurt her. “Hades,” she says, and everything pains her just as much as before but his skin soothes hers. The skin on her palms comes away healed.
He’s angry with her, but his touch is gentle. There’s not a stitch of clothing on her, but he doesn’t glance or grope, only pulls her against him and uses the sleeve of his robe to clear the burning water from her face. “Yes, insane goddess, I am Hades.”
She had not meant to meet him, only to hide among his realm until she could think of a better plan. But she likes him already, an instantaneous and childish feeling, one she can’t remember having before.
She turns into his chest and lets out a pleased sigh, content to go wherever he brings her.
“They call me Kore.”
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She believes that she was born without the ability to feel love, that she is destined by the circumstances of her birth to be cold and emotionless and alone.
Bursting from the skull of Zeus, she was borne neither from passion nor love. Neither conceived her and so she can conceive neither. Pallas Athena is born fully grown, steel-eyed and iron strong. Athena is born, and no one weeps.
She has little patience and little love for the rest of her family. Those she is not constantly exasperated by – such as the exuberant twins, Apollo and Artemis’s smiles bright enough to blind – she cannot bear to be around.
Hermes is wise, but greedy, and she won’t stand his avarice. Hephaestus – he’s different, he doesn’t smile often but he has kindness in his eyes and cleverness in his hands. Athena sits beside him in his forge, and he does not avoid her or grow tired of her constant corrections. He takes her criticisms of his work silently, either taking them and reforming his works or ignoring them without giving any sort of explanation. She likes his silences, his large dark eyes, likes the way he built himself better legs instead of trying to get new ones fashioned for him. Zeus could have done it, as could his brothers, but Hephaestus did not ask.
Aphrodite is born as she was, and for a moment Athena thought she would no longer be alone, that she would have a sister of her heart. But Aphrodite is the personification of love and passion, and does not struggle with their absence as Athena does.
Her new sister’s coming is a double blow. The goddess is beloved by all, coveted by all, pursued by all – including Hephaestus. Athena doesn’t believe the loveliest woman in existence will choose a malformed god that does not even have a throne on Olympus, but she is wrong.
The gods compete for her, offer her castles and servants and all manner of extravagant gifts. Ares campaigns the most aggressively for her hand, promising all sorts of things that no sane man would barter.
Hephaestus offers a single copper rose fashioned from his own two hands.
Aphrodite goes home with him. Her throne on Olympus, empty more often than not, becomes adorned with simple copper flowers.
Athena tells herself she did not want him anyway, and forces what’s left of her heart to turn to stone.
Medusa is a simple village girl. She has thick black hair she wears in braids, dark skin, and startlingly green eyes. Many call her beautiful, but she does her best to hide it, wearing simple grey dresses and letting no makeup adorn her face, allows not a single glittering necklace around her neck.
She is clever. Her father is a farmer, her mother a midwife, but she thinks she could be more. She becomes a priestess of the goddess Athena where she’s educated by the other priestesses, her now-sisters, Stheno and Euryale.
Her attempts to be plain are not successful for long. She catches the eye of Poseidon, a god so tremendously powerful that her knees shake whenever he looks at her. Medusa does not leave the temple often, terror clutching her heart whenever she catches sight of Poseidon waiting for her at the edge of the village.
She does not go to him. She hopes he will stop waiting.
One day a messenger comes to the temple, sweat soaked and eyes wide. “Priestess Medusa!” he gasps, “please, come with me! My wife – she’s having a difficult birth, the midwife said to come to you. You must help us!”
Medusa wavers. She is not a disciple of Artemis, but her mother trained her well. Theirs is not a large village – if she refuses to help, if she places her fear over this almost-mother’s needs, she is not fit to call herself the priestess of any goddess. “Lead the way,” she says, swallowing down her fear and lifting her skirts to follow the man out of the safety of the temple and into the village.
The birth is long, and hard, and she and the midwife are only partially successful. The mother is saved, but of the two children who grew in her womb only one still breathes. The father thanks her even as he touches the cheek of the babe they could not save, and Medusa tries not to wonder if they would have both lived if she had not hesitated. She does not think so, but knows the possibility will haunter her regardless.
He offers to walk her back, but she declines, unwilling to separate him from his new family, and makes the long walk to the temple alone.
She’s almost there when a man appears, easily walking besides her. His eyes are sea-storm blue and his skin tanned, tall and thick with rippling muscles. “I’ve been waiting for you,” he says, mouth tilted up that the corner.
Medusa stares, heart in her throat, and can think of nothing to say. So she runs.
She’s on the steps of the temple when a thick arm catches her around the waist. “Not so fast,” Poseidon murmurs, lips dragging against her neck. “We’ve hardly had the opportunity to become acquainted.”
“We can’t,” she says desperately, unwilling to struggle and risk angering him. “We are at a temple of the virgin Athena!”
“Only the steps,” he reaches beneath her skirt, “she won’t mind. It’s all right, isn’t it? You’re such a pretty thing.”
She bites her lips to keep from crying. Poseidon is the god of the sea, and she is merely a mortal woman. “No,” she whispers, sending up one last plea to her patron goddess. “No, I don’t mind.”
Athena is furious. She has no patience for Poseidon’s misdeeds on the best of days, but her priestess, in her temple – she has not the power to kill the god, but she’s eager to teach him a lesson.
She goes storming into his palace, and all his servants go scurrying when they see her.
“Lady Athena,” a soft, amused voice greets, “what a pleasant surprise.”
She turns and glares at the smiling Amphitrite. She never knows what to make of this woman. She’s the personification of the sea itself and is closer to a being like the great Mother Gaia than she is to a goddess. Yet she’s content to be the wife of Poseidon, to be the sea he commands.
“Do you know where your husband is?” she demands.
“Always,” she responds, still with that same pleasant smile, and Athena feels a chill she can’t explain go down her back. “How might I help you, Lady Goddess?”
“He owes me recompense,” she snaps, “He’s raped one of me priestesses in my temple. I demand satisfaction.”
Amphitrite smiles, and Athena is reminded all at once that she’s in the middle of the sea, in the middle of Amphitrite’s domain. This is not the place to cross her. “If it is satisfaction you seek, it is not my husband you should be looking for.” Athena opens her mouth, but Amphitrite cuts her off, “Tend to your priestess, Lady Goddess. Nothing you seek is here to find.”
Athena is too wise to fight a battle already lost. She leaves the palace empty handed.
Medusa sits in a hot spring, legs pulled to her chest and her chin resting on her knees. She has not told Stheno and Euryale of the events of last night. How can she, when they will surely toss her out if she reveals she’s no longer fit to serve in a temple of Athena the Virgin.
“Did you bleed?”
Her head snaps up, and she’s staring into cool grey eyes. “My lady!” she gasps, and hurries to press her forehead to the rock, prostrating herself as best she can in the hot spring.
“I asked you a question,” Pallas Athena says.
Tears gathers in her eyes, and Medusa blinks them away. “No, my lady. He was gentle.”
The words feel sour in her throat, but they are true. He was not rough with her, did not bruise her as the tales say he likes to do, did not leave her bleeding, only with a vague soreness that would be easy to ignore if it had any other cause.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Athena says harshly, grabbing her chin and forcing Medusa to look at her. “There is nothing gentle about what he did. Be still. I will make it so that neither he nor any other man will ever touch you again.”
Dread settles in the pit of her stomach. Medusa had not liked Poseidon’s hands on her – much of her skin is rubbed raw from where she tried to scrub away the phantom sensation of his touch. But she had not planned to remain a priestess forever. She had one day wanted a husband and children of her own, and that desire was not something Poseidon’s actions had managed to change.
But Athena is a goddess, and she is merely a mortal woman.
“Thank you, my lady,” she says, and closes her eyes.
Whatever she does, Medusa hopes it will at least not hurt.
Athena is in one of great libraries when Aphrodite settle besides her. She forces down the instinctual swell of bitterness at the sight of the goddess and says, “Aphrodite. You should have told me you were coming.”
“If I had, you wouldn’t be here,” the other goddess retorts, and Athena keeps her face blank against the entirely accurate accusation. “I know you have a temper, sister, but was not your treatment of your priestess a little harsh? It’s hardly her own fault that she caught the eye of Poseidon.”
It takes a moment for Athena to realize who she’s talking about. “My transformation of Medusa was not a punishment, but a gift.”
Aphrodite snorts, “Some gift. I wouldn’t normally interfere with your affairs, but the girl has been praying at my temple for months. Turn her back.”
“So that another man may make prey of her?” Athena snaps, stung in way she refuses to show at Aphrodite’s chastising. “I think not.”
“The way she is now, no man will love her either,” she says, “Why do you deny her her happiness?”
Athena slams the book shut that she was trying to read, thoroughly incensed. “You stupid girl, why would she ever want a man’s love after what Poseidon did to her?”
“Not everyone is you, Pallas Athena,” Aphrodite says, something cruel in the curl of her mouth, “Not all are so willing to turn all that is capable of causing them pain into stone.”
She knows. Athena supposes it was inevitable, that the goddess of love would know what used to lie in Athena’s heart, but her fists clench anyway. “Did you tell him?”
“My husband remains as oblivious of all but his machines as ever,” she says. “Return Medusa to her former form.”
Athena is not willing to be pushed around by a flowery, half rate goddess who wages no wars and wins no victories. “I refuse. I did right by my priestess.”
Aphrodite shakes her head, but leaves her at long last.
Medusa doesn’t stop praying to Aphrodite, no matter the long years that her prayers go unanswered.
She keeps her snakes covered in a tight headwrap, and they sleep willingly on top of her head.
In the temple, her gaze is of no concern, for her sisters were not men and therefore could not be turned to stone. But every time someone came calling to the temple, she hid in her room and refused to come out, terrified of turning some well-meaning traveler to stone on accident.
A wounded man stays at the temple – a hero, with the mark of the gods on him.
Stheno demands that Medusa tends to him, says that she’s the best healer of the three of them. “He’s out cold, and god-touched besides,” Stheno says impatiently, dragging Medusa from her room. “You won’t turn this one to stone.”
Medusa gives in, tending to his wounds, careful to keep her eyes downcast in case he awakens.
He’s a beautiful man, the only one she’s seen in a long time. His skin is a rich bronze, his hair is thick and black, and is cheekbones are high. His lips full and soft, as Medusa discovers when she carefully skims her fingers over them. “His name is Perseus,” Euryale tells her.
“Perseus,” she repeats, and flushes all over.
She goes to him in the night and sits besides him. At first she only watches him, waiting for his wounds to heal and for him to awaken and leave. But days pass, and he heals, but slowly. She starts talking to him, describes her days as a child. She tells him of her parents, of training to be a midwife, of how she eventually rejected that training to become a priestess of Athena. Days pass to weeks, and she speaks of Poseidon, of the gift (curse, her sisters say, when they think she cannot hear the) Athena gave her, of the future she coveted and has now lost forever.
She holds his hand as she talks, traces the lines of his hands and both dreads and hopes for the day that he awakens.
The day comes. She hides in her room and sits with her legs to her chest, just like on that day that Athena came to her.
There’s footsteps and then a knocking on her door. “Medusa?” a deep voice calls, “Are you in there? It’s Perseus.”
She slowly uncurls and walks to her door. She does not open it, but she presses her forehead against it. She wishes she knew what his eyes looked like.
“If – if you’re in there, I just – I just wanted. I – Thank you, Medusa. For tending to me. I would not be alive if not for you. I can never repay you for your kindness.”
He stands there, waiting, but she cannot bring herself to speak to him.
“Okay,” he says, softer this time, “It’s okay, you don’t need to say anything. I hope we meet again, Priestess Medusa.”
She hasn’t cried in a long time. She’s not surprised to realize she’s crying now.
Days turns to weeks turn to months. She does her best forget the man she never truly met.
Then he returns.
She’s sitting in the library when Euryale comes for her, telling her she’s needed in the main room.
She barely catches sight of him before she bolts, hurrying to leave before she accidentally kills him. Euryale blocks her way, glaring. “You will not turn him to stone, Medusa. Go.”
“Priestess Medusa,” he calls out with that same rich voice, “I’m wearing a blindfold. Our gazes will not meet. Please, do not run from me.”
She takes a deep breath, forcing her heart to calm and her limbs to stop trembling before she can make herself turn and face him. She takes lead-laden steps until she stands in front him. He has fresh scars from when she saw him last, and she aches to touch them.
He holds out a small box to her. “Please know these are yours no matter your answer, Priestess Medusa. They are not bargaining chips. They are a gift.”
“Thank you,” she says automatically, confused. “My answer to what?”
He smiles at her. His lips look even nicer like that. “Lady Medusa, I heard you all those nights you were by my side, all those long hours when your voice guided me back to the mortal realm. I have traveled the world, and I have yet to meet a woman as extraordinary as you. I would take you for my wife, Lady Medusa, if you are willing.”
Her knees buckle, and his hands wrap around her elbows, holding her upright. “I can’t,” she chokes out. “I can’t, I’ll kill you.”
“The box in your hands holds a pair of eyes,” he says softly. “Take off my blindfold.”
It can’t be. He can’t be saying what she thinks he is. She raises a trembling hand and removes the blindfold.
Where his eyes should be there is only emptiness. There’s minimal scarring, meaning they were removed in intentional precision. “If you take my eyes for you own, you will no longer have to worry about turning people to stone. I doubt they are as lovely as yours must be, but I wish for you to have them none the less. I wish for you to have the choices they provide weather you are my wife or not.”
Medusa carefully transfers the precious, precious box to one hand and grabs the back of Perseus’s neck with the other, pulling him down and pressing their lips together. He wraps a careful arm around her waist and pulls her flush against him. He’s warm and solid, and his mouth is soft and pliant. He’s everything she ever hoped being held by a man would be.
Her hair covering falls off, and when they break apart he’s laughing. The snakes unbound are fully grown now, and drape nearly to her waist. They reach out and brush against him. “Friendly, aren’t they?” he asks, holding up a hand for their inspection. “Can I take that as a yes, Lady Medusa?”
“Yes,” she says, and kisses him again, just because she can.
Athena sits high on a roof, watching Medusa hang laundry in the baking summer sun. Perseus’s brown eyes fit perfectly in her face, and Athena’s eyes are drawn to the swell of the woman’s stomach.
There’s a shift in the air besides her. “Come to rub my ignorance in my face?”
Aphrodite sighs and leans so they’re shoulder to shoulder. “Dear sister, I would never.”
They sit in silence for a moment, until Athena can take it no longer. “I know you must think me cold–”
Aphrodite bursts into laughter, and Athena is startled into silence. “Your temper runs hot enough to burn all of Olympus to ashes,” she says cheerfully. “Cold has never been a word I would use to describe you. Stubborn, of course. Petty, most certainly. But never cold.”
“I am the only goddess without a lover,” she says blankly, because all know of Artemis and her women, of how Hestia uses her vow of chastity to deter suitors and not much else.
“So?” Aphrodite asks, “I do not see why that matters. Poseidon beds more people than any of us, and yet he runs as cold as the ocean depths he lives in.”
Athena stares, wide eyed, and admits something to her that she’s never admitted to anyone, “I don’t think I was born with the capacity to love anyone.”
Her sister smiles, soft, and says, “Often, love is sacrifice.” Neither of them look to where Medusa takes her blind husband’s hand and places it against her stomach. His laughter is bright and cuts across the air when he feels his child move. “That is an art you know well, sister.”
For a single moment, Aphrodite’s fingers tangle with hers and there’s warm lips pressed against her forehead.
Then she is alone once more.
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Hades rubs at his temples. As a nearly all-powerful being, he should be immune to headaches, yet he finds himself in constant suffering. If Hermes were not so irritating he would entrench him for a cure, but dealing with his nephew always causes more pain than it relieves.
“I did not know she was a goddess,” a light voice says, petulant and apologetic at once, “I would not have tried to kill her if I had known.”
He looks down. The river child-goddess Styx stares up at him, big liquid eyes and trembling bottom lip. “I’m not mad at you,” he says, “You did just as you should.”
“I know,” she says imperiously, but he does not miss the way the child’s shoulders droop. She inches closer and fists her hands in his robes, “She’s pretty.”
Kore lies in his bed, curled under his sheets and sleeping soundly. He’d rinsed her in a waterfall that flows from the edge of the earth into his domain, cleansing her off the corrosive water of the Styx. Her skin is as dark as the richest earth, and her hair has been bleached white by the river. Her light snoring breaths make him smile, and he admits, “She is that.”
Styx tugs at him, biting her lip. He does not have the time to indulge her, but she still believes that he’s cross with her. He bends enough so that her arms can encircle his neck and he lifts her, easily balancing the small child on his hip. “Accompany me as I patrol the edge of realm. She should not have been able to get to the underworld in the first place.”
She rests her head on his shoulder and tucks her thumb in her mouth. It’s a good thing he doesn’t take much stock in dignity. “If I must.”
“You must,” he commands, smiling since she cannot see him.
She falls asleep by the time he’s halfway through. “Hecate,” he sighs.
“Poor thing,” the disembodied voice of the goddess of magic and other inexplicable things coos. She slips out of the darkness and pulls Styx from Hades’s hip into her arms. “She was so worried that you would be upset with her that she tired herself out.”
“Why would I be upset with her,” Hades asks, “when it is you who eroded the barrier so an insane goddess could pass through?”
Hecate grins, wicked and unapologetic. “Demeter’s daughter is beautiful, isn’t she?”
“Demeter’s daughter,” he repeats, lead pooling in his stomach, “I must return her before my sister kills me.”
“Don’t be silly,” Hecate scolds, shifting the still-asleep Styx to a more comfortable position in her arms. “The girl came to you for sanctuary, how can you deny her? You’ve never claimed cruelty as a trait before. Best not to start now.”
Hades scowls, “Perhaps you should stop meddling in affairs that don’t concern you, before I expel you from my realm and leave you to my brothers’ tender mercy.”
Hecate’s grin softens, and she goes on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek. “You’ve never claimed cruelty as a trait before now, Lord Hades. Best not to start now.”
She fades back into the shadows. Hades forces a frown onto his face in case she’s still watching, but he knows he’s not fooling anyone, least of all himself.
The fabric of reality dividing his realm from the mortal one is worn thin where Hecate meddled. Hades could repair it on his own, but it’s hardly his specialty. “Sister,” he says, pitching his voice just right so it will reach the ears it’s intended for, “if you’re not too busy, I could use some assistance.”
There’s a pressure in the air besides him, and he holds out his hand, pushing through the layers of his own magic and grabbing her hand to guide her from Olympus to his side.
“I like what you’ve done with the place,” his grey-eyed sister says, “so warm and welcoming.”
Hestia’s fire burns happily within his domain, but hall torches and bioluminescent rock can only get him so fair. In the center, where his palace resides and homes and people unfurl around him like a rose, the fire is enough; it is soft and steady in his cities.
But here, at the neglected and empty edges of his realm, it’s gloomy at best.
“You still do not allow Apollo to fly his chariot through your realm?” Athena doesn’t ask him why he’s called, a loom appearing in front of her as she pulls his robe from his back with brisk, impersonal movements.
“Apollo would not fly through my realm even if I personally invited him, and so we remain without sun. We do well enough.” He only wears a knee-length chiton, and sits on the ground next to the loom. Athena relaxes, the changes so subtle that he doubts few would notice them. She doesn’t like people looking down at her, and Hades stands at least a head above her even when he slouches. Sitting is easier. “I liked that robe.”
She’s already half unraveled it, the thread white even though his robe was black. “I know. It’s soaked in your magic, in your aura, in your scent. It is exactly what is needed to repair the fabric of your realm, Hades.” She weaves faster than is possible for any human. Already he can see the block of glittering white fabric beginning to take shape. “You should punish Hecate severely for her transgressions.”
He doesn’t bother to hide his grin from her. Athena knows the flavor of all their magic, and it doesn’t surprise him that she knew this was the other goddess’s work. “She had fine intentions, I’m sure.”
Athena scoffs, pressing the loom down and up so even more inches of fabric are revealed. “She’s arrogant and meddling and more trouble than she’s worth. She’s already crossed Zeus and Poseidon, and one day your goodwill will run out and she’ll have no one left to turn to.”
“Perhaps,” he says, resting his chin on his hand. “Many of the magical wards around my home are her design, you know. Tricky, dark magic is her specialty.”
“Which is why she was able to create a weak spot,” she snaps, “You should be more careful.”
Hades likes Hecate. Once she spent a whole week arranging thousands of frozen fireflies like constellations high in the air above them so that the residents of the underworld could pretend they were under a mortal sky. She may capable of terrible things, but so is he. “I will, sister.”
Athena glares at him like she can tell he’s lying her to her. “Here,” she says, handing him the improbably large piece of cloth, “you must do the next part on your own. I can do no more for you.”
“You’ve done more than enough,” he praises, and neatly cuts a doorway for her to leave though. “Thank you, Pallas Athena.”
Her steel grey eyes appear to soften, but it’s hard to tell when he can barely see her in the weak light. “Be careful, Hades. I mean it.”
She leaves before he can respond, which is likely for the best sine he isn’t sure what he would say. He begins the painstaking process of stitching the cloth into the fabric separating his world from the mortal’s. Each stitch must be tiny and perfect, and sewing is not among his strengths. It will take him the rest of the night to complete it.
He’s just sewing the last stitch when there’s a whisper of wings and a presence besides him. There is a single god who can enter his realm without his permission. “Hermes,” he greets, already resigned to his headache. “Do you have a message for me?”
“Demeter is on the war path,” he says. “She demands her daughter’s return.”
Hades steps back to admire his handiwork. Hardly pretty, but functional. “As always, if Demeter wishes to speak to me she’s more than welcome to step into my realm and do so.”
“She’s powerless in your domain,” Hermes says, crossing his arms, “She will never expose herself that way. She won’t come.”
“Then there’s nothing I can do for her,” he answers, beginning his walk back to his palace.
Hermes falls in place besides him. “She’s a dangerous enemy to have, Uncle.”
“Don’t I know it,” he grumbles, “Every time she’s cross with me another city starves, and I have rush of new people who must cross my river and enter my realm.”
“Kore does not belong here,” he argues, “Let Demeter take her back.”
Hades dares not ask why Hermes cares so much about this when for everything else he cares so little. He doubts he’d like the answer. “Kore crossed the Styx,” he says, and curses Hecate for putting thoughts into his head. He should just send Kore back to her mother, but Hecate is right. Anyone desperate enough to come to him for protection is someone too desperate for him to turn away. “She may stay as long as she likes.”
Hermes stares at him. His eyes are dark like Hades’s own, but so startlingly different in every other way. “You will regret standing against her,” he warns one final time before flying into the air and out of his realm.
Hades rubs at the bridge of his nose. He can feel the headache coming on.
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Zeus claims the sky as his domain, free and open and pure, and his it becomes.
Hades goes to the underworld, and it’s messy and horrible and heartbreaking, but he claimes it uncontested, and his it becomes.
Poseidon goes to the sea, but it already has it’s sovereign.
His first though is that she’s beautiful. Skin the color of pearls and hair the dark, rich green of seaweed. She’s tall with the type of aristocratic bone structure that would make him think her delicate if not every other aspect of her was as fearsome as Hera at her most irritable.
“You come to my land seeking to make it your own,” she says, and she’s not quite walking and not quite swimming as she circles him. “Who are you to rule the sea?”
He clears his throat, and he’s a powerful god, he and his brothers are the most powerful gods that still exist on this earth, but his knees shake before her. It’s not a good feeling. It’s not infatuation – it’s fear. “I am Poseidon.”
She tilts her head, and her pretty blue eyes are as cold as sea floor they stand in. “Goodbye, Poseidon. Perhaps your brother will be able to find what’s left of your corpse in his underworld.”
The water whips around him, doing its best to rip him apart, forcing itself into his lungs and suffocating him. He didn’t think he could drown, but he might be about to be proven wrong.
Then a net closes around him, pulling him up so he breaks through the surface and takes a large, grateful gulp of air. He’s hauled over the side of a boat and dumped on its floor, the person who saved him wildly fighting the angry waves. “You must have really pissed the Lady off,” a light, teasing voice says. Poseidon is still coughing, his eyes watering and lungs screaming. This boat is going to capsize and they’ll both die, so he doesn’t get how this person can sound so lighthearted.
Except they’re not. Their little boat is being expertly handled against the thrashing waves. Poseidon blinks, and he’s inclined to say the person sailing is a woman, considering the budding breasts and hips. But the hair is cut short, and the chiton is designed for a man.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Caeneus,” his unexpected rescuer answers.
That’s a man name, and Poseidon opens his mouth to questions it – then closes it again. “Thank you,” he settles on, “You saved my life.”
Caeneus finally steers them to land, and Poseidon dismounts to help him pull and anchor his boat to shore. “Anytime,” he says cheerfully, “What did you do to make the Lady so mad, anyway?”
“You know her?” he asks, staring. This man appears to be a mere mortal, yet how could a human know that woman?
He grins at Poseidon and points out to the glittering sea. “We all do. She is the ocean itself, and just as powerful and unknowable. You better be careful not to anger her again – I don’t know anyone who’s survived her wrath twice.”
“Right,” he says blankly, even though that’s unavoidable. He’s to be the god of the sea, and if he has to wrest the mantle of monarch from her corpse then so be it.
Caeneus claps him on the shoulder, his work-roughed palm more comforting than anything else Poseidon has known since escaping his father’s stomach. “Come to mine, you look half dead. I’ll make you something warm.”
He takes a long look at his savior. Skin a dark shade of brown, and his eyes are amber in the setting sun. His black hair is cut short, and the muscles of his arms and legs shift with each moment. “Very well,” he answers, and is inordinately grateful that he’s too cold to blush.
Caeneus takes him to his home, a hastily constructed shack on the beach’s edge. The wind whips through the cracks in the wood so that no matter where you stand you’re always chilled. “This is the worst woodwork I’ve ever seen,” he says. He slides his hand across the wall and is completely unsurprised when it comes away with splinters.
“I’m a sailor, not a carpenter,” Caeneus answers, intent on mixing together a bunch of ingredients Poseidon only half recognizes. “It stay upright.”
“Barely,” he returns, cupping his hands around the cup that’s shoved at him.
Caeneus doesn’t ask him to leave. Instead they squeeze onto Caeneus’s too small bed. Poseidon curls around the smaller man, tangling their legs and tucking Caeneus’s head under his chin. “You’re so warm,” Caeneus murmurs, half asleep already, and Poseidon’s heart clenches.
He makes sure he’s asleep when he carefully, so carefully, lowers his head and brushes his lips against Caeneus’s cheek.
When Poseidon wakes up, the sun is bright and Caeneus is gone.
He should go marching back to the ocean, but first he has something important to do. He’s just not sure how to go about it.
He can’t ask Zeus, his younger brother knows plenty of war and not much else. Which leaves –
It’s easy enough to slip into the underworld, although he regrets doing so the second he arrives. It’s almost completely dark, and lonely. Lost souls are immediately reaching for him, cold hands brushing against his skin.
“What are you doing?” a familiar voice demands, and Poseidon nearly wilts in relief when Hades appears at his side and guides him away from the wailing souls. “It’s not safe here.”
“What’s wrong with them?” he asks, glancing back, his chest clenching at sympathy at their cries even though he knows there’s nothing he can do for them.
They slip through the realm, and they land in front of a partially built stone castle. The goddess Hecate guides them construction with her magic, her visage that of a young child since it’s still morning in the mortal realm.
Hades sits on the ground, and the skin beneath his eyes is dark and bruised. He looks like a strong wind would blow him over. “Nothing, everything, I don’t know. I’m working on it. Why are you here?”
“I don’t suppose you know how to build a house?” he asks, though he doesn’t expect much. It seems he’s not the only one having trouble claiming authority over his domain.
His brother laughs, eyes crinkling at the corners. “You’ve come to the wrong sibling, little brother.”
Oh. That’s true. “Do you think she’ll help me?”
“Yes,” Hades answers, lips still twitching. “Now leave me to my anarchy, I have more than enough trouble to deal with without you causing more.”
That’s fair enough.
Poseidon heads to Olympus next, careful to peer around corners to avoid Zeus and Hera. Their marble palace is already constructed, and he tamps down on the bitterness that they rule unchallenged. In the center of the throne room, next to a roaring fire, sits Hestia.
“Sister,” he greets, tentative. “I need help building a home.”
She looks from her fire to him, and when she smiles he feels all his tension drain from his shoulders. “Of course, little brother. If it is help you require, then it is help you shall have.”
Hestia tears apart the shack with a flick of her hands, says, “I’ll ask Demeter for some better wood,” and is gone and back in the blink of an eye. They build it by hand after that, and Hestia’s soft voice guides him whenever he hesitates or stumbles. They are gods, so it doesn’t take too long, and when they finish they have a small, beautiful house right on the edge of beach, one with a large bed and lots of light, one with a fire pit in the center that has Hestia’s name inscribed in the bottom so that she may look over this home she helped build.
“Thank you,” Poseidon says, the sun beginning to set.
Hestia winks at him, “Anytime, little brother,” and is gone in the next moment.
He hopes Caeneus likes it. Unfortunately, he won’t be able to stick around to find out.
He has a queen to challenge.
He finds her again, in her palace of polished rock at the bottom of the sea.
“There’ll be no helpful sailor to save you this time,” she says, head tilted to the side. Already the water is colder around him, the current stronger.
He swallows, “I am Poseidon. I am to be the god of the sea.”
She glances him over, unimpressed. “Why do you want it so badly? There is nothing about you that is of the sea.”
“I am a god,” he answers blankly, and doesn’t say that it was this or the underworld, and that wasn’t a mess he was willing to take on.
She snorts, a flicker of amusement appearing in her emotionless gaze. “You are too soft, and too kind, to ever be a master of the sea.” He opens his mouth, but she raises a hand, and he closes it. She takes slow, deliberate steps towards him, and he swallows and doesn’t look away. “I will make you a bargain, Poseidon, god of nothing.”
“I’m listening,” he answers, and tries not flinch when she places a cold hand against his chest.
“I am Amphitrite,” she says, “sister of Gaia, and I have lived long before your conception, just as I will live long after your death.” Poseidon pales, and oh, he had no idea the class being he was dealing with here. This is very, very bad. “If you wish to rule the sea, then you must rule me.”
He swallows, “Lady, I – a thousand apologies, I did not know–”
“Silence.” His mouth clicks shut. “I was born as I am, and I will die that way. But – I need not live this way.” He doesn’t understand, and she must see that, because she touches her own chest and says, “I have a heart as cold and dark as the oceans I bore. I will give it to you, and I and the sea will be yours to command. But I require your heart in return, so that I may know kindness and softness.”
He doesn’t know what to say. Hearts aren’t things to be given away lightly. But he must become lord of the sea.
“Take time, if you must,” she says, that same cold amusement in her eyes. “I am as immovable as the ocean, and I will be here when you make up your mind.”
He’s propelled up and onto the shore, far more gently this time around.
“POSEIDON!” he barely turns when a body slams into him, and lips press against his. Caeneus pins his wrists to the sand and kisses him, long and slow and more than distracting enough to make him forgot about the offer from the personification of the sea itself. “You built me a house,” he murmurs, “You built me a house.”
“Do you like it?” he asks, dazed.
Caeneus grins above him, wicked and beautiful, and rolls his hips into Poseidon’s. “Come with me, and I’ll show you how much I like it.”
Poseidon means to go back to the sea, to Amphitrite, but every morning Caeneus kisses him good morning. He learns of the sea, though. He goes out with Caeneus each day and learns it motions and its temper, the taste and smell of it. Learns how to understand it, and learns how completely and totally uncaring it is, how the coldness of its depth is the totality of it.
The sea is not kind. It has no sympathy, no love, no capacity for such small things as forgiveness or mercy.
He means to return to her, but it becomes harder and harder every day.
Days turn to weeks turn to months. He and Caeneus grow closer, and closer, and Poseidon has no idea how he’s supposed to turn his heart over to Amphitrite when it’s now held by a mortal with amber eyes who leaves mouth shaped bruises all along Poseidon’s collar bones.
“Poseidon,” Caeneus says, quiet in the oppressive stillness of the night, head on his chest and curled into his side. The moon is large and high, and pools silver on their bedroom floor. “You’re a god, right?”
“I am,” Poseidon says, amused. Caeneus knows what he is, but this is the first time he’s mentioned it.
Caeneus pushes himself up so he can look down at him, and Poseidon reaches up to cup his face. Caeneus leans into it, covering his hand with his own. “Could you make me into a man?”
“You are a man,” he says automatically.
He rolls his eyes and pulls himself up so he can swing his leg over Poseidon, straddling his hips. “You know what I mean.”
Poseidon shifts enough that both their breaths hitch, and he says, low, “No. I’m sorry. I’m not – I have no domain, and my powers are limited.” He could maybe do it, but transformation is not among his natural talents, and Caeneus is too precious to risk unless he is certain.
He’s disappointed, but smiles through it, and leans down to kiss him. “It’s all right.”
It’s not. If Poseidon were the god of the sea in more than name, if he had taken Amphitrite’s offer, he would be able to transform his lover like he desires.
He’s a god, brother of Zeus, and he can’t give Caeneus the one thing he’s ever asked of him. What good is he, what good is any of his power, if he can’t make the people he loves happy?
He’s flips Caeneus over and kisses his neck so his lover won’t see the self-hatred that’s plain on his face.
Poseidon sneaks away in the middle of the night, presses a soft kiss to his sleeping lover’s slack mouth, and enters the ocean.
“You’ve decided then?” she asks, head tilted to the side.
“I will not be a loyal husband,” he declares, back straight. “I love Caeneus.”
She laughs, and for the first time he’s not afraid of her. “Do with your mortals what you wish. It’s no concern of mine.”
“Okay,” he says, and steels himself. “Okay. I accept your offer Amphitrite, sister of Gaia.”
She holds out her hand, nails more like claws, and tears open her own chest without flinching. Her blood slick and dark as it pours from her, swirling in the water around them She pulls a dark, round thing from her chest and holds it out to him.
“I,” he looks down at his chest, and he doesn’t – he’s not sure if he can do what she’s done, and he would feel foolish asking for a knife. She steps forward and places her hand with its claws against his chest, slippery and warm with blood, and cuts open his chest for him.
It’s excruciating, and his knees buckle against the pain of it. Amphitrite holds him up, and waits.
She can’t to this part. It has to be him. He reaches inside his chest and pulls out his heart, beating and warm. He clumsily places it in her chest. It’s startlingly, violently red against the dark green color of the rest of the inside of her. She does the same, slipping her own heart into his chest.
Their skin heals over instantly. Amphitrite’s mouth drops open, and her cheeks flush pink. She smiles, small and soft, and for the first time she looks – happy.
Her heart in his chest cold as ice, and its chill suffuses his body, edging out to fill him entirely.
He can feel the ocean now, all of it spread across the globe, the tides and the creatures the reside in it, it’s plants and animals and nymphs. “It’s so much,” he says, and is surprised at the sound of his own voice, at its curtness.
“You feel only part of it,” she says, stepping forward, “It is a force too powerful for a god to control. I am a force to powerful for a god to control. However, you hold my heart. As I will now obey you, so will the sea.”
“You could overpower me,” he says clinically, knows the power she wields by what he can’t feel rather than what he can.
She presses a hand to his chest, and they both startle. She’s warm now. She wasn’t warm before. Or perhaps he has simply grown colder. “I could,” she says, “but I will not.”
He has no reason to trust her, but he’s painfully aware that he doesn’t have a choice in the matter. “I’m going to Caeneus,” he says, and a sense of unease grows within him. Even the shape of his lover’s name in his mouth doesn’t feel the same anymore.
“Do as you wish, husband,” she turns from him, going deeper into her – their – palace.
This time, he uses his own powers of the sea to push him to the surface.
It’s not as satisfying as he thought it’d be.
i hope you liked it!
The first time he hears of Orpheus is when Ares comes to him, in spring, when his wife his gone. Ares only comes to him when his wife is gone.
“Apollo has a son,” he says, dark eyes darting around like there’s something chasing him. There is always something chasing the god of war, and many of them now reside in Hades’s realm. No matter how many times he’s tried to reassure Ares that he’s safe here, he doesn’t believe him.
“Apollo has many sons,” he returns, dry. He reaches out and places two fingers under Ares’s chin, sees the bone-paleness of his skin against the rich red-copper of the younger god’s, and swallows. “You look tired.” Crescent purple bruises are carved deep beneath his eyes.
Ares doesn’t shrug off his touch, but neither does he lean into it. “I,” he finally meets his gaze, and Hades smiles, warm. Ares’s lips twitch up like he wants to return it, but can’t. “I haven’t been sleeping. There’s a war in the East, and they’ve been invoking me for weeks. I think I need to go there.”
He knows. There’s been hundreds of new people in his realm every day. Thanatos and Charon haven’t slept in weeks. Neither has he, for that matter.
“What will you disguise yourself as this time?” he murmurs, “Another general?”
That was the wrong thing to say. Are’s eyes go impossibly distant, and his skin gains a sickly grey hue. His hands aren’t shaking, so Hades has no reason to take them in his own. He can’t decide if he’s disappointed by that or not. “No. I – no. Just a foot soldier. Less guilt that way. Less – less. Just, less, that way.”
Less nightmares, less fear, less blood on his hands. Less of the constant, inescapable battle-fury that keeps him alive, but also keeps him from sleep, even on his best days. When Zeus declared his son the god of war, this probably wasn’t what he had in mind.
Hades hopes it isn’t, at least.
“Be careful,” he says, and Ares flinches.
He grabs Hades’s wrist before he leaves though, and squeezes it so tightly that it would snap if Hades was a mortal man.
There’s that, at least.
Persephone wears not the vibrant red that marks her as queen of the underworld, but the soft green that names her the daughter of spring. She sits on a smooth rock in the middle of the sea, her curly dark red hair brushing her bare shoulders. It’s the last day of summer. She goes home tomorrow.
Demeter does not strain to keep her daughter at her side anymore. Now she’s merely content to keep her away from Hades.
“Were you waiting long?” a voice like lapping waves asks in her ear, and Amphitrite sits at her back. She presses a kiss to her shoulder, and her long green hair tumbles down Persephone’s front and blends into her dress.
She tilts her head, allowing Amphitrite to trail salty kisses up her neck. “No. Have trouble sneaking away from your husband?”
She snorts. “I do not sneak.”
“You said you had news from my husband,” Persephone reminds, does not allow herself to become distracted. Not yet.
“About, not from,” she uses a single claw to cut through the back of Persephone’s dress. It falls down to her hips. “They’ve been waging war for months. A bloody horrible thing. And rumor is Ares was in Hades’s realm. People are saying that Ares sends the dead to your husband as tribute.”
People are idiots. Besides, she likes Ares. She does not mind that he visits her husband; she only wishes he would visit her as well. “Is that all?”
Amphitrite shrugs then bites at Persephone’s ear, “Won’t you come to the sea with me? My palace has many places more comfortable than this rock.”
She leans back, pulling Amphitrite down with her, and does not answer.
She is not Poseidon. She does not forget that Amphitrite possesses, but is not to be possessed, and she dares not follow this personification of the sea itself into her domain.
Amphitrite loves her. She may not give her back.
Persephone is not Helen either. She will not be the cause of any wars.
Thanatos, the boy who Hades still calls Icarus, sits with his head in his hands. Hades reaches out and absently runs a hand up and down his spine, thinks not for the first time that he must have been a sight to see with his golden wings, for that glorious moment before he fell. “Persephone should be crossing the shore soon. Why don’t you go and wait for her?”
“I know what you’re doing,” he says, voice muffled, “Styx can bring her. Or she can walk herself, since there’s not a thing in this realm stupid enough to attack her.”
Hades leans down and kisses the top of his spine, “She likes it when you’re there to help her off the boat. Please?”
Icarus turns and glares at him. Hades kisses him below his left eye, lets his lips linger on the delicate skin there. “You’re cheating,” he accuses, a blush high on his cheeks, “this is cheating.”
“Stop working for a couple hours and go get my wife,” he commands softly, “The armies of traumatized dead will still be here when you return.”
Icarus listens – finally – and slips away to the river.
Hades looks back over the map. The problem with the dead is they never go anywhere, so his realm only gets bigger. He’s going to need get Hecate so the two of them can raise another city at this rate.
There’s a push in the air, and he startles. No one enters his realm without permission, but he recognizes the outline of the person trying to push through, and allows it. Ares tumbles from the air, and into his arms. He’s covered in blood, his long black hair is soaked through with it.
“Not yours, I assume?” he asks, gripping Ares’s forearms. He’s strung so tightly he’s nearly vibrating.
“I wish it was mine,” he says, somewhere between a scream and a sob. Hades wishes this was the first time Ares had come to him like this.
Ares locks his wrists around Hades neck and pulls him down, knocking them both to the floor in his exuberance. His mouth connects to Hades’s, slick and tasting like sulpher and metal. “I have to go back soon,” he gasps, dragging his lips along the edge of Hades’s jaw, “they’re invoking my name. Distract me until then.”
He still has hours until Persephone will return home, and besides she would not deny him this. “Okay,” he whispers, and when he rolls them over they’re no longer in his office, but his bed. Ares keens and strains his body up towards Hades, and he grabs the young god’s wrists and pins him to the bed. “Do not worry,” he says, and Ares’s whole body glistens red with blood that isn’t his own. “I’ve got you.”
Ares relaxes, just the smallest amount, under his hands.
He’ll take what he can get.
She can tell Ares was there before even steps foot in her palace, and knows it for sure when she enters her bedroom to find her husband naked on their bed and covered in blood.
“How is he?” she asks, and he startles, having been so deep in thought he hadn’t noticed her.
“Persephone,” he greets, his whole face going soft as he pushes himself up. He holds out a hand to her, and she doesn’t hesitate to drop her cloak and crawl over the bed to him. She hikes up her dress and straddles him, arms crisscrossing behind his neck. She kisses him slow, licks over the places where Ares had bitten his lips. “I’ve missed you.”
She rolls her hips downward, and is gratified by the way his hands flex on her thighs, “As I have missed you, husband.”
She kisses mortal blood off his skin, and tries not to worry too much about the man who left it there.
He’s survived every war since his birth, and he’ll survive this one too.
Aphrodite enters his realm, her hair piled atop her head and held together with copper pins fashioned in the shape of delicate flowers. “Apollo has a son,” she says, biting at her bottom lip.
He and Persephone share a glance before he says, “Apollo has many sons.” He feels as if he’s had this conversation before.
She quirks her lips in a half smile, “This one is different. He plays the lyre, he plays it better than his father even. He plays it so well that – that there are rumors that he can sooth any beast to sleep. And,” she adds, even quieter, “that Ares himself is soothed by his playing.”
“Why are you telling us this?” Persephone asks coldly. Hades places his hand on top of hers. They like Aphrodite, after all.
“Because I know Ares cares for Hades,” her eyes flicker over to him, “and I believe Hades cares for him as well. I – I could not accept his proposal. My love was not the peace he thought it would be. But I wish him well.”
“We can neither kidnap nor kill a son of Apollo,” Persephone says. Hades feels compelled to add that they shouldn’t want to either, but he can already tell this is a situation which is quickly going to spiral out of his control, if it hasn’t already.
Aphrodite raises a hand to tuck her hair behind her ear, then lowers it when she realized her hair is already up. “He loves a mortal girl, Eurydice. If she were to die, he would be beside himself in grief. Enough to take his own life, even.”
“Really,” Persephone says flatly.
Aphrodite continues, “Then he would be a subject of your realm. You could compel him to help Ares, could you not?”
“I have subjects, not slaves,” he says, “I can’t make him do anything.”
Persephone puts her hand on his arm, eyes bright. “I have a better idea.”
Aphrodite’s plan had merit, but this is better. Smarter. It gives Apollo less reason to be upset at them later, since his son comes to them now on his recommendation. Although he’s far too attached to all his limbs to dare cross her regardless.
Orpheus bargaining with her husband now, and she’s given Hades strict instructions, that Orpheus must agree to play in their courtyard for eternity if he fails. He won’t cross her either, even if he wants to, even if he’s not totally comfortable with this plan.
She knew when she married him that he was too soft hearted for his own good. It’s half the reason she married him in the first place.
For now she circles the girl that the half-god had been so willing to risk everything for. She’s attractive enough, but plain, and she has no particular talents nor is she overtly clever. “What makes you so special?” she asks, when she sees nothing but an average young woman.
Eurydice smiles then, and she’s much prettier that way. “He loves me,” she answers, cheeks flushing. She hesitates, but asks, “Will you really let him take him me back?”
“As long as he listens, as long as he leaves the underworld without looking back at you, you are free to follow him and return to the world of the living,” she agrees, but knows that will never come to pass.
Orpheus loves her too much to risk leaving without her, and his doubts will overcome his hope. He will look back, and become trapped here forever.
The window of one of the spare rooms is open, and the most beautiful playing comes through. Hades sits at the edge of the bed, and reaches to run the back of his finger across Ares’s cheek.
The war still rages. A war always rages. Yet Ares sleeps, the bruises under his eyes becoming lighter by the day.
He turns toward Hades, straining in sleep for his touch. Hades hesitates, but his realm is stable enough for now. He slips beneath the covers, and almost immediately Ares curls into his side, tangling their legs together and pillowing his head on Hades’s chest so he can feel Ares’s damp exhales on his sternum.
There will always be another war, and Ares cannot stay. But for now he sleeps peacefully in Hades arms, and that will have to be enough.
Persephone sits in her garden in the courtyard, listening to the same beautiful song.
“This one is my favorite,” Eurydice says, seated besides her and beaming.
She glances over to Orpheus, who grins wide as he performs a love song for his beloved wife. Behind him is the cottage tucked in the corner of their courtyard where Eurydice and Orpheus live.
“Mine too,” she says.
Hades was too soft hearted for his own good. She’d known that when she married him.
i hope you liked it!
Chapter 11: The Minotaur
a break in the regularly scheduled Serious Programming to bring you this
There are times when Hermes’s role as the messenger god weighs on him. Declaration of war have left his lips, the words he’s carried have ended whole countries and damned villages to a slow painful death. The secrets he carries tears at him, the horrors he’s had to face only so he could later tell of them, the warnings he repeats that are ignored and all he’s witnessed is for nothing, since it happens all over again in front of him.
There are times the news he brings that tears at him, eats at his soul like necrosis – the death of Kore, Poseidon destroying another seaside village, every whisper of Pandora, informing Ares of yet another war.
– isn’t one of those times.
Aphrodite’s lovely face is slack with surprise. At her side Hephaestus rubs his chin and says, “That seems physically improbable.”
“How did she manage to not die?” Aphrodite demands, then says, “Wait, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know.”
Hermes grins, and doesn’t bother to hide the complete delight he’s taking in this, “But my lady, it is my sacred duty to tell you these things. When Queen Pasiphae ensnared Daedalus’s help to be mounted by the bull–”
She gives him a cross look and is gone in a powerful gust of wind, and he has to grab onto the volcano wall to keep from falling over.
“That wasn’t very nice,” Hephaestus says, off hand. It’s clear he’s still thinking of the mechanics of a human-bull hybrid.
“I’ve been accused of being many things,” Hermes says cheerfully, “nice is not among them.”
Artemis lounges in her tent with one of her huntress’s face between her thighs, inexperienced but eager, and she so does love taking on new women.
“Sister!” Apollo shouts, appearing at her side and glaring down at her. “Have you lost your mind?”
Her huntress startles and freezes, unsure whether to leave or continue. Artemis rolls her hips up, and the girl ignores the appearance of the sun god and continues with her task.
“Not that I know of,” she says, tilting her head up so she can look at her brother without altering her position, “Why do you ask?”
“Poseidon cursed a mortal queen to fall in love with a bull, and she gave birth to a bull headed monster today,” he crosses his arms and glares.
She swallows the laugh that bubbles up, but she must not be entirely successful because he starts tapping his foot. “Well, isn’t that interesting. I’m not sure what it has to do with me.”
“Sister dear, Artemis, patron goddess of childbirth,” he says with syrup thick sweetness, “why on earth did you bless that child? There’s no way it could have been born without your help. It had to have been you.”
Her huntress pauses again, and Artemis will answer her questions later. She squeezes her thighs about her ears, and the girl resumes. “Oh come on, don’t give me that look. This is hysterical. People are going to be talking about this for years.”
He considers this for a long moment, then uncrosses his arms, “Okay, you have a point.”
“I know. Now if you don’t mind, I’m a little busy,” she gestures to the huntress between her legs.
Apollo snorts, “Get a few more girls in here, and maybe I’ll consider that busy.”
He slips away, but Artemis’s eyes narrow. That sounds like a challenge.
The girl replaces her mouth with a hand and asks, “Should I gather the other huntresses, lady goddess?”
“I like you,” Artemis says, and the girl laughs, cheeks flushed and lips shiny.
Hermes appears in the middle of the garden of Hades’s palace, and blinks twice.
The queen of the underworld is half naked and on top of Amphitrite, and several things fall in place at once. “Is this why you don’t get upset with Hades for his affair with Hecate?”
“There is no affair with Hecate, you’re just an indiscriminate gossip,” Persephone retorts. “And if they were having an affair, I wouldn’t have a problem with it, and it wouldn’t have anything to do with Amphitrite.”
“Oh,” he says. He feels rather derailed from his original point. “I came here to–”
“If this is about the minotaur, we already heard about it,” she says, “You can go now.”
They’ve already heard about it! “From who?!” This is the best news in centuries, and this person is ruining it.
“Aphrodite,” Amphitrite says, “She’s cross with you.”
Oh, this is war.
Ares feels a shiver go down his spine, and looks across the battle field. People are dying around him, but people are always dying around him. He doesn’t see anything particularly horrendous, so he doesn’t know who could have invoked him so powerfully that he felt it.
A young woman who had shared the last piece of sweet bread with him last night gets a spear shoved straight through her chest, and Ares decides he has more important things to worry about.
Athena is halfway through a tapestry that is to hang in Hestia’s rooms when Aphrodite appears next to her and says cheerfully, “Guess what Poseidon did?”
Normally Athena would fling anyone who dare to disturb her to the depths of Tartarus, but she’s always willing to talk of Poseidon’s misdeeds. “I’m listening.”
Hermes appears on her other side, glaring. “You trollop.”
“He made a queen fall in love with a bull, and she just had the kid. It’s got a bull head.” Her sister’s smile is positively vicious.
“I’ll make you suffer,” Hermes hisses, and slips away. Aphrodite follows, the sounds of her laughter echoing in the room.
Athena blinks, looking back to her loom, but is unable to concentrate.
Even she hadn’t seen that one coming.
Hera doesn’t get involved, she does not have opinions, as a rule if it doesn’t concern her then it doesn’t concern her.
She waits for her husband to leave, and tries not to worry about his mutterings about bulls, the queen-mother Europa, and how Pasiphae had the right idea of it. She steps into the throne room, and the fire burns cheerful and bright in the center of it.
She sits beside it, and no sooner has she done so than Hestia appears at her side. “You’ve heard then?”
“Hermes told me,” she rubs at her temples.
“Aphrodite got to me first,” Hestia says, and the goddess of the hearth seems entirely too cheerful, “I can say, of all the misdeeds Poseidon has wrought, this one is certainly … unique.”
She slumps and buries her face in her hands, “This whole family is mad, and we’re doomed to only become worse.”
Hestia laughs and puts an arm around her shoulder, “Come now, I think Hades is quite reasonable.”
Hera shifts enough only so that she can glare, “Hades chose to rule the dead and married Kore. He’s the maddest of us all.”
Hestia can’t refute that, so she starts finger combing Hera’s long, curly hair. Hera slumps back into her hands, and Hestia’s smile is soft as they sit there in silence, the only noise that of the crackling fire.
When Hephaestus returns to the volcano, it’s to his wife sitting in his throne with her arms crossed. “What did you do?” she asks.
“I just gave him a little suggestion, is all,” he says, and scoops Aphrodite into his arms so that he may reclaim his throne. She snuggles into his side, and if she’s trying to convince him that she’s mad at him, she’s doing a terrible job of it. “Daedalus has always been a very devout follower; he deserves a few good ideas.”
“He’s had enough ideas,” she says, because without his help the queen wouldn’t have found a way to consummate her love of the bull, “I don’t think he needs anymore.”
“Maybe,” Hephaestus murmurs, dragging his nose up her temple, “but imagine this – a labyrinth, bigger than any other, than this whole volcano.”
“That’s nice, dear,” Aphrodite says, and then proves to be distracting enough that Hephaestus puts his ideas aside.
At least for a little while.
Caeneus has only ever had two loves in his life.
First is the sea. He’s loved her his whole life, heard her siren song from the time he had long curly hair and still tolerated being put in dresses and called a girl. He loves the sea like his parents go to temple, in an unmovable and inexplicable way that he no longer questions.
Second is Poseidon. Foolish, but so achingly kind. He’s a man who professes his wish to master the sea without ever really understanding it, and Caeneus smiles and kisses the stress lines from his brow but does not worry.
The sea has never loved him back, and it never will. She is power and coldness and loss, and her beauty is in her tragedy. Poseidon is warmth and thoughtfulness and strong hands on his hips. He is nothing like the sea, and he will never rule it.
Caeneus knows this, and he’s relieved by it. Poseidon loves him back. Poseidon is not the sea.
Then he wakes up to his lover’s lips on his neck, cold enough that flinches away from the sensation, and for a terrifying moment he doesn’t recognize the person touching him as the man he loves.
“I can do it now,” he whispers, and cool fingers splay against his waist, “I can make you the man you want to be.”
Caeneus wants the body that men usually have, wants people to stop looking at him and seeing a woman. But if Poseidon had asked, he would have told him – Caeneus would choose his lover over a new body, would rather live as he does now than have Poseidon harm himself for his benefit.
But he did not ask, so Caeneus closes his eyes and accepts the gift his lover is so eager to give him.
Amphitrite has never had a heart before.
She was the sea, and what she desired, she took. Men, women – she wanted, and she had, and then she moved on.
But the heart in her chest is softer, warmer. It turns her pearl hued skin pink and makes her swim to the surface to watch the sun set, makes something like empathy stir inside her when before all she had was selfishness.
The heart in her chest is in love, and she thought it was something she could control, something she could stop. It’s not. It will be one day, when she masters this heart in her chest, but not yet. She spends hours following Caeneus as he sails her seas, guides fish into his net and feels her borrowed heart beat that much faster whenever he pears into the ocean and she catches sigh of his gorgeous amber eyes.
So she says to Poseidon, “You spend too much time on the shore for a god of the sea.”
He glances at her, and his eyes are green just like hers, are cold and uncaring just like hers used to be. She wonders what her eyes look like now. “Caeneus is on the shore.”
“Bring him here if you’re so concerned with your mortal,” she says, focusing on weaving shells into her hair and giving the impression that she couldn’t care less what he does with his mortal plaything. “The palace is big enough.”
He stops and turns to her, eyebrow raised. “You do not mind me bringing him here?”
“Do with your mortal as you wish,” she repeats, and stamps down on the trembling joy in her chest, “It’s no concern of mine.”
Caeneus doesn’t know how to love a god of the sea. He knew how to love Poseidon – take him onto the water to watch the sunrise, feed him warm, sweet drinks, and let him curl around him at night and listen to his stories of his siblings, of impossible gods who do impossible things.
But now he sits in a palace under water, with his own room and the freedom to see the other side of the ocean he loves so dearly. There are no sunsets here, no cocoa to barter for, and Poseidon doesn’t tell him stories any more.
Poseidon still loves him. He kisses him and holds his hips when they sleep together and keeps him by his side while he crosses the sea and gains more and more control over this domain that he now commands. Poseidon still loves him, he tells himself when he itches to return to the surface and the home Poseidon build for him, and the life he built for himself.
He didn’t want to be a consort of the king of sea. He just wanted to be Caeneus, a man who loved a man and was loved in return, a man who loved the sea even though it would never love him back.
The sea will never love him back. He’s known that since he was a child, so the real question is – how much of the Poseidon he knew is left, and how much of him the depths of the ocean?
There’s a hurricane that requires her husband’s attention, and even he is not so foolish as to bring his lover to a place as dangerous as that. Which means it’s the perfect time for her to run into him in the interior gardens, as he stares up through the iridescent seaweed to the rays of sunlight that just manage to penetrate the water. “Do you miss it?” she asks him, and he startles, swinging around to face her and stumbling away.
“My lady!” he says, and falls to his knees before her, bowing his head. It’s what she expects of all mortals, but not from him, never from him. The heart in her chest loves him, and if it’s not her heart, well – the rest of her doesn’t know the difference. “A thousand apologies.”
“You are welcome here,” she says, and smiles. She’s never smiled quite like this before, she’s never felt quite like this before, fond and fluttery and so painfully eager that it would be embarrassing if she ever dared articulate it. It’s a wonder Poseidon managed to get anything done at all if this is what he had in his chest.
He looks up, hesitant, and she holds out her hand. He takes it, and she pulls him to his feet, pulls him closer until they’re nearly touching and he’s forced to look up into her eyes or be stuck staring at her chin. He’s warmer than her, she can feel the heat pouring off him in waves, and she wants him to hold her in his arms so she can languish against him like she would a sun-warmed rock.
Before she had a heart, she took who and what she wanted, when she wanted it.
Now she has a heart, and she takes his hands in both of hers and says, “Would you like to visit the surface? I can take you, and bring you back before my husband returns.”
He’s hesitant because he’s afraid of her. Caeneus will never love her, because although she holds the heart he loves she is not the person the heart belongs to. Not that he knows any of that, not that anyone will ever know the details of her and Poseidon’s arrangement. But she doesn’t want Caeneus to be afraid of her. She wants him to smile at her like she is a sunrise. “Yes, please,” he decides on finally.
She stands and watches as he walks through his home, as he touches the hearth and looks longingly at the bed, as he stands in the small cottage that he clearly prefers over her palace, over all the riches and adoration that comes with being consort to the sea.
Caeneus is a simple man, whose heart loves with a simple love.
He is a man whose heart loves someone who now has no heart, and Amphitrite can’t bring herself to tell him. She’s the one who took it away, and she won’t give it back.
She likes having a heart, and one day she will need to return it, but not now, not yet, not for a long time.
Caeneus lies besides Poseidon, curled up so his head rests on the god’s outflung arm and he can watch his chest rise and fall as he sleeps. There are bruises on Caeneus’s hips and down his chest, bite marks on his shoulder and up his neck. It’s not the first time his lover has been rough with him, and he doesn’t mind, like that Poseidon doesn’t touch him like he’s afraid he’ll break, likes that whenever he’s rough he’s careful enough with his strength not to ever cross the line from bruising to breaking.
It’s different than it used to be. It’s been different for a long time, ever since Poseidon somehow convinced the Lady to hand over her title as monarch, to share her power with him for no reason that Caeneus can see. It’s not love between them, because the sea does not love. But she got something out of it, something valuable enough to bargain away part of her power, and as soon as she did the man Caeneus loves ceased to exist.
He slides out of bed and angrily rubs at his eyes. He can’t do this anymore, can’t sleep and live with this man who has his lover’s face and memories and nothing else.
He knows this palace well, and everyone else knowns him too. The servants don’t question him, only offer shallow bows before hurrying on his way. He’s a fisherman who lives on the outskirts of society. He’s not any sort of person that people were meant to bow to. He stands in front of an ornate set of carved doors, the beautiful shimmering inside of a muscle shell of impossible size. Two guards stand at each door, but neither move to stop him as he pushes it open and slips inside.
“Lady?” he whispers. Large, bioluminescent carvings flare to life all across the room, bathing them in soft golden-green light. Amphitrite pulls herself out of bed, green hair loose around her and the rest of her on display, pale and flawless, as perfect an example of a beautiful woman as Caeneus has ever seen, and he averts his gaze. “Lady!”
“So modest,” she teases, and when he glances over she’s in a simple white robe and pulling her hair up behind her. She looks vulnerable like this, almost like his mother did when she would rouse him and his father from sleep in the darkness of early morning so they could catch the fish while they were still sleeping. “What’s going on Caeneus? I thought my husband had exclusive rights to your nights,” she winks, and he forces a smile.
He walks over to her, takes her hands in his because he knows she likes how warm he runs compared to her, and her smile slips off her face. “Please,” he whispers, “Poseidon is different than he once was, and I want to know why. Please.”
She shouldn’t tell him, but the heart in her chest loves him, and she loves him too, thinks she would even without Poseidon’s heart influencing her.
So she tells him, and when he starts crying she brushes away his tears and he doesn’t stop her. “He’ll never love you like he once did,” she tells him, “It’s not that he doesn’t want to, he just can’t.”
“The sea doesn’t love you back,” he says, because he knows, because he’s a skilled sailor, because he’s one of the people who has worshipped her his whole life without ever expecting anything back, because that’s what an ocean gives back – nothing at all. “Can – can I give you my heart?”
She stares. “Excuse me?”
“Let me give you my heart,” he pleads, “so that I may hold Poseidon’s in my chest. You can have mine, I know I’m only a mortal–”
“You’re all mortal to me,” she says, because a hundred years, a thousand, ten thousand, what does it matter – she and Gaia were around long before gods and humans, and they’ll be around long after them. “If I give you Poseidon’s heart, you will become a god.”
He pales and flinches away from her. He’s not in this for power, this was never about power to him. It was always about love. “Lady, I’m not trying to – I don’t want that.”
“If you become a god,” she continues, because she loves him and that means she wants him to be happy, even at her own expense, “you will be alive when the time comes for me to reclaim my title of monarch. One day I will take back my heart from Poseidon, will reclaim the cold, black thing in his chest as my own, and when I do he will no longer be master of the sea. When I do, you can give him back his heart, and he will love you as he loved you before, as he will always love you.”
Caeneus has a hand over his chest and there’s so much hope shining in his eyes that it’s almost painful to look at. “Please, Lady. Please. I love him, let me carry his heart, let me have him back once you are done. I will wait.”
“It will be a long time,” she answers honestly, “Empires will rise and fall before I’m willing to give this up, before Poseidon will be willing to give up his power over the sea.”
“I will wait,” Caeneus repeats, “I love him. If you have my heart, maybe you will grow to love him too. If you have my heart, you will protect him, you will keep him safe.”
Amphitrite loves Caeneus, and Caeneus loves Poseidon, and Poseidon is incapable of loving anyone at all. “Very well,” she whispers, because a heart is a heart, and just like Poseidon she’s unable to deny Caeneus anything.
She breaks open her chest and takes out the warm, beating heart of Poseidon. She slits open Caeneus’s chest for him, and holds him upright while struggles to take out his heart and clumsily places in into her chest. She heals over instantly, and nestles Poseidon’s heart in Caeneus’s ribcage. He too heals over, and his eyes flash with power as the heart settles inside of him.
Caeneus becomes so much more than a mortal man in that moment.
This heart doesn’t feel too different, she still loves Caeneus because she’s capable of loving and he is worthy of it. “Go,” she says, “Say your goodbyes, and leave. If you stay, he’ll just continue hurting you, and in a few thousand years he’ll hate himself for it. Leave now, and spare both of you that pain.”
He leans forward and cups her face in his hands, kissing her on each cheek. “Thank you,” he breathes, and then he’s gone.
Caeneus can feel the power of a god flowing into him, but he doesn’t care about that, the only reason he’s glad he’s a god now is so he’ll live long enough to get Poseidon back, to get the Poseidon who loves him back.
He goes back to where Poseidon is sleeping, and takes a long, careful look. It will be a long time before he sees this man again. He kisses him on the lips, softly and carefully, the way Poseidon first kissed him when he thought he was sleeping.
Then he leaves, stepping outside the palace and using his newly gained powers to bring himself to the shore.
Poseidon is furious, bur Amphitrite won’t budge, says only that Caeneus left. He throws a temper, and half the palace is lost in the aftermath, but she does not care.
She doesn’t tell him that she no longer carries his heart. It doesn’t matter. Caeneus’s heart beats in her chest, and she sits on her throne amongst the rubble and does nothing more than sigh at the way he threatens to tear the world apart looking for his lover. It will pass. The depth and coldness of the sea is unable to sustain such fits of wild passion.
Years pass. Rumors reach them of a sea god, one who is known for rescuing sailors and fisherman from storms, one who they say used to be a mortal fisherman himself.
They call him Glaucus, and say that he swallowed a magical herb to become a god.
She smiles when she hears these rumors, and thankfully Poseidon has long given up trying to get her to explain herself. The rumors are only half right, but she likes hearing them none the less.
It comforts her to hear that Caeneus is well.
i hope you liked it!
feel free to bother / harass me at: shanastoryteller.tumblr.com, where these stories always end up first
Chapter 13: The Gods Are Dead
this is the response to an ask about what happens to gods in the modern world
Time passes. The world changes. Temples fall. People now speak their names as if they are fairytales.
The gods are dead.
Apollo’s chariot lies broken and forgotten in the ruins of a city no one knows the name of anymore. He watches the sun crawl across the sky of its own volition, without him to push it forward.
“Do you miss it?” Artemis asks him, appearing by his side. They stand at the top of a sparkling glass building, almost the same as ever. She walks among the mortals more than he does, she always has, and She’s dressed like one of them. Tight clothes and half her head shaved, sparkling gems curling up the delicate shell of her ear. She looks like one of the teenagers that fill his concert stadiums.
He thinks of the way his chariot threatened to escape his grasp every morning, the oppressive heat of the sun beating down on him, the burns and the undercurrent of fear that one day he would lose his grip on the reins and plunge the world into darkness.
Apollo leans his head on his sister’s shoulder. The sun rises slower without him, but it rises just the same. “No. Not really.”
Hephaestus’s workshop has evolved with the times – from a volcano base to a modern lab, but always a workshop bursting with creation. The cyclopes are still his best assistants.
Aphrodite steps over discarded parts and expertly walks around frantic cyclopes carrying bubbling concoctions. Her dark hair is swept up in a bun and she wears chunky glasses and a blood red pantsuit that almost hides the fact she’s the most beautiful woman to walk the earth. “I have a client, try not to blow up the house. Again.”
“Yes dear,” he says, but doesn’t looks away from his soldering. She hadn’t expected him too. His prosthetics are off and on the floor besides him, and he’s seated on a too-tall chair to compensate for the loss of height.
She reaches out and carefully touches the corner of his eye. Crow’s feet have started to work their way onto his face. They’re getting old. “It’s the couple that’s fighting because he wants kids and she doesn’t want to carry any kids but doesn’t want to say that. It would probably be easier if I just told them to adopt and threw them out the window.”
“Yes dear,” he repeats, sparks flying. A few land on her, but she doesn’t burn. Of course.
She moves her hand up and pushes it through his hair and resists the urge to pull him from his work and abandon her own so they can make out on his worktable. “I love you.”
Aphrodite turns to leave, but Hephaestus grabs her wrist and pulls her back. He holds up a single copper lily, the edges of the petals still glowing with heat it had taken to shape them. He carefully slides the stem into her hair so it sits at the base of her bun. He grazes her bottom lip with his thumb as he pulls his hand back to his side. “Yes dear.”
She makes imprudent deals to control an earth that no longer falls under her domain, and she enacts her revenge against the mortals in whatever way she can. They have forgotten her, forgotten the earth, and in their ignorance they seek to destroy it.
She shakes the bedrock and splits it open, but still they do not learn, and as the temperature of the earth rises so does her temper.
The sea is not hers to command, her power is of earth and of earth alone, and even now she gave more than could afford to lose to keep her grasp on it. But these mortals do not learn.
Demeter goes to the sea and makes an inadvisable bargain. She goes to the crumbling remains of Olympus and makes an even worse one.
Typhoons and hurricanes whip across the land. If they seek to destroy her, she will simply destroy them first.
Hera sits on a pure white couch in an elegant mansion, smiling for the journalist seated across from her.
“What do you think is the most influential decision you ever made?” he asks, “If you could pinpoint the success of your business to one moment, what would it be?”
She tilts her head as the light of the camera flashes. “Why, divorcing my husband, of course.”
“Would that be your advice to young women hoping to be as successful as you?” he asks, “To not get married?”
Hera thinks of thousands of years by Zeus’s side, and how little it got her. She thinks of Hestia’s men, and Artemis’s women, of Hephaestus’s love Aphrodite, of the way Hades softened the sharpest of Persephone’s edges.
She says, “Do not get married to someone who makes you less than you are. If you are not a better person for being together than apart, then do not be together. It’s as simple as that.”
Simple, but not easy.
Leaving Zeus was the hardest thing she’s ever done.
Persephone isn’t forced to spend half the year on the mortal earth anymore. She goes when she pleases, which isn’t often.
Sometimes she’ll sit by Artemis’s side while she brings a new life into the world and holds the warm, wriggly child first. She visits hospitals and makes the flowers bloom out of season, and spends long hours sitting under the sun and feeling it’s warmth touch her face.
Hades left his realm rarely before, and even more rarely now. More people are being born than ever, meaning more people are dying than ever. Their realm is massive, comprising of all the dead of several millennia. Hades and Hecate spend their days as always – desperately trying to expand the realm so that they don’t all have to live on top of each other.
“Have you heard?” she asks one day, seated on his desk and leaning across it so he can’t work on the latest draft for another level of their realm. “The gods are dead.”
He gives up on attempting to tug it out from underneath her. “Are they? That’s odd, none of them are here.”
Persephone doesn’t bother to hide her smile. They haven’t figured it out yet. Maybe they never will. But when death comes for them, as death does for all, it will be to Hades and Persephone’s door they are brought. Hades himself will usher Gaia and Amphitrite into the underworld, when the time comes.
That time is not today.
“Darling, I really do need to work on this,” he ineffectually tugs on the map again.
She pushes him back into the chair, climbing on top of him and pressing their foreheads together. “No, you don’t.”
“No, I don’t,” he agrees, and obligingly moves his head so Persephone can nibble at his neck. He manages a whole thirty seconds before going, “I mean, I really do, Hecate said if I didn’t have a plan by the time she leaves for the mortal realm tomorrow, I’ll either have to wait until she gets back or do it by myself, and I’d really prefer to do neither–”
Persephone kisses him to shut him up, twisting and pushing them through the realm so they land on their bed. “I’ll help you finish it later. Focus on me now.”
Hades doesn’t answer, but he does flip them so he’s above her and reaches below her skirt, so she’ll take that as agreement.
Hestia sits around a bonfire, watching a group of teenagers get drunk and dance around the flames. They’ll never be younger than right now, never feel as much love for each other as they do right now.
She is besides an old man who warms his hands from the fire coming from an abandoned trash can.
She lies on a bed as a girl lights two dozen candles around it as a surprise for when her lover gets home.
She watches a young man make dinner for his boyfriend for the first time and burn the chicken on both sides. They eat it together anyway.
She sits on the kitchen counter when a sister takes out a pie from the oven, made special for her little brother’s birthday.
She is there when a father ticks the thermostat up high in freezing dawn of morning so it will be warm by the time his wife and children awaken.
Most people don’t have hearths anymore. But there is warmth, and love, and for Hestia that is enough.
As their names fade from existence, as his name is called less and less on the battlefields of mortal men, the more Ares sleeps.
He falls asleep in too tall trees and on park benches. He sleeps in seedy motel rooms and naps in every one of Athena’s libraries. He sleeps curled up on a chair in Aphrodite’s office, and on the floors of a lot of veteran resource centers. As fast as he can tell, that’s the most they help any veteran.
Still, his favorite place to sleep is the underworld.
He goes knocking on Orpheus’s door, who is always willing to play for him. “Hades is here,” Eurydice says, “Would you like to me to go get him?”
He shakes his head, “Persephone is home. I wouldn’t want to intrude.”
Eurydice and Orpheus share the same look of faint disapproval, but neither of the say anything, for which he is grateful.
He lies in the soft grass of the garden Persephone made, and lets Orpheus’s playing lull him to sleep.
Later, he’s woken by strong arms picking him up and holding him against a familiar chest. He doesn’t even have to open his eyes to know who’s holding him. “I can go,” he yawns, his actions at odds with his words as he pulls himself even closer the warmth coming off the king of the underworld.
“No,” Hades says. “Stay.”
Ares lets out a content sigh as Hades presses his lips to his forehead, and he’s not great about touch, about people laying their hands on him and getting in his space. But Hades has always felt safe, felt like home.
The gods are dead.
Long live the gods.
Chapter 14: Hera and Hephaestus
psa this one's a little darker than usual
Hera, the young goddess of marriage and family, is only unfaithful to her husband once.
She seduces Zeus first, right as the war ends and they’re all pain and ash and thrumming with the excitement of victory. She smiles just so and touches his bloody chest, her hand pale against the dark copper of his skin and, and when he looks at her his eyes spark with the lightning he so easily commands. She is named his wife that very night, her body littered with bruises from his rough, eager hands, and she tells herself the bile at the back of her throat tastes like victory.
She is queen of the gods. This is what she wants.
They’ve all claimed their domains and gone their separate ways, Demeter to the earth, Hades to the underworld, and Hestia to Olympus where they plan to build their palace. But Poseidon still lingers. “Don’t you have an ocean to conquer?” she asks.
He looks at her, then behind her to where Zeus is busy sketching plans for Olympus. “You don’t have to do this,” he says softly, “you – you can come with me if you want. Or I’m sure Hades would take you.”
Hera has no time for Poseidon and his soft heart. “I will only belong to the best,” she says, tossing her head so her crown of curls fall over her shoulder. “You should go. You have work to do.”
“There are more important things than power,” he says uncomfortably, shifting from foot to foot.
“No,” she says, “there aren’t.”
Hera would not mind Zeus’s women so much if they were not constantly giving him children, something she has been unable to do.
She is an obedient wife. She does not turn her powers against him, and she’s tolerant of his mortals at first, but the longer she is empty of child the less patience she has. How can she be the goddess of family without one of her own?
Her spite gets in her way, and she hurls every kind of obstacle and curse she can at the woman her husband lies with. At first he is angry with her, and bruises litter her throat and wrists. Then, as her wrath and powers grow, he is afraid of her. He watches her warily, sneaking to the mortal realm when before he wouldn’t even try to hide it. He submits when she pins him to the bed and rides him hard, desperate for a child of his, desperate to fulfill the perfect image of wife and mother she’s built for herself.
No matter her magic, no matter how many times they lie together, Hera does not get with child.
She goes to Hestia, and her sister presses a hand to her stomach and purses her lips and says, “Must it be his child?”
Hera stares. She’s the goddess of marriage and family. She is not capable of infidelity. “I – I can’t.”
“Just once,” Hestia says, “the problem is not with you, nor with him, clearly. Only the combination of you both. Lie with any other man, and you will have your child.”
So Hera, just once, puts on a disguise and goes to the mortal realm. She finds a man with skin darker than Zeus’s, a rich warm brown that matches his soft eyes. She lies with him, and it hurts. He is kind and patient and kisses the edge of her jaw, her shoulders, her navel. But to be unfaithful grates against her very nature as a goddess, and every moment is agony. He finishes, his mouth whispering kind things against her own, and she leaves as soon as she can.
It works. She becomes round with child, and is happier than she’s been in a long time. She does not mind Zeus’s mortals, and he even becomes kinder while the baby grows inside of her. His hands become softer, and he spends less time away from Olympus.
The baby is born, and Zeus is furious.
The child is too dark to be his, and he tears it from Hera’s hands while she lies exhausted from the birth. “What do you care?” she cries, struggling to stand, “You have dozens of children. What does it matter if I have one?”
He holds the baby in one hand and grabs her jaw with the other, pulling her to her knees. “You are my wife,” he hisses, “the goddess of marriage and family. You will have my child, or no child at all.”
He throws the baby from Mount Olympus. Hera screams, pushing herself away from him and attempting to jump after it. Zeus catches her around the waist, and with a crackle of power and roar of rage, he sends a lightning bolt after the baby.
The child may have survived the fall, but not the lightning.
“NO!” Hera screeches, clawing at his arm as she struggles to escape his grasp. Normally she’s not this helpless against him, but delivering her baby has left her weaker than she’s ever been before.
He presses the flat of his hand against her swollen womb, adding pressure until she cries out in pain and tries to squirm away from him. “My child,” he repeats, voice low and terrible, “or no child at all.”
He lets her go, and she collapses, grasping out a hand over the edge of Olympus. But the blood between her thighs is still wet, and she can’t find the energy to stand. She wonders if she’ll have to crawl down the mountain to retrieve her baby’s corpse.
“Sister!” Soft hands grab her shoulder and gently roll her onto her back. Hestia’s face fills her vision, and Hera has never seen the older goddess of hearth and fire look so cold. “I’ll kill him,” she says, hands hovering over Hera like she’s not sure where to begin. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t think this would happen, I didn’t think he would – I didn’t think.”
Hera curls on her side until she can place her head in her sister’s lap. She’s not sobbing anymore, she’s never been one to fall into hysterics, but she can’t stop crying, a steady stream of tears dripping silently down her face. Hestia runs trembling hands through her hair. “Don’t,” she whispers, “I did this, this is my fault. I – I should have known better.”
Hestia’s hand cup her face, leaning over so she can look her in the eye. “This is not your fault.”
Her sister stands and picks her up in her arms. Hera tries to tell her to put her down, that Zeus will be angry if she leaves, that she did this to herself. But she falls unconscious before she can get any of it out.
Hera awakens someplace soft and warm. She opens her eyes, and she’s inside Hades’s palace. Her confusion lasts only until her memories come rushing back, and then she has to bite her lip until it bleeds to stop herself from crying out.
“Hestia brought you here. She’s returned to Olympus to cover for you both. Do not worry – Zeus doesn’t know where you are.” She turns her head, and sees the goddess of magic at her side. Hecate smiles, “I have mended you, do not worry. All is well.”
All is not well. That statement is so far from true, and her instant urge is to crush Hecate to dust for the audacity. Before she can make up her mind one way or the other, there’s a soft knock on the door. It opens to reveal her elder brother. “I have something that belongs to you,” he says, and Here focuses on the bundle in the crook of his elbow.
Her baby’s corpse. She’s relieved someone thought to get it. Her heart feels like lead, and all the control she’d had over her emotions is gone instantly. She hopes they’ll leave her alone to hold the body of her child and weep.
Hades gingerly sits on the edge of the bed, and Hecate rises to help Hera prop herself up so she’s at least sitting. “He’s a strong little thing,” Hades says, and Hera doesn’t understand.
Then a warm, wriggling baby is placed in her arms. He’s got great big eyes and his mouth splits into a toothless grin when he sees her. “He’s alive,” she says numbly.
“Not without sacrifice,” Hecate says softly, and reaches over to undo the blanket he’s swaddled in.
Her son has no legs below his knees.
“Zeus’s lightning bolt didn’t kill him, but we cannot return what was lost,” Hades says, pained. “When he’s older, maybe we can do something, give him something in place of legs. But for now, there’s nothing I can do.”
The king of the underworld is the most powerful god after her husband. Hera knows that, even if Zeus doesn’t. If Hades can’t do anything about her son’s legs, then no can. But he’s alive, Zeus didn’t manage to kill him, and Hera finds herself so grateful that she’s holding a smiling, living child that she can’t be anything but relieved. Her son is alive, and happy. He doesn’t need legs.
“I can’t bring him back to Olympus,” she looks up at them, “Can you find someone to raise him? Someone you trust?”
She doesn’t trust anyone, so it can’t be her choosing.
“You’re going back to him?” Hecate demands, “Hestia said – but I thought for sure – you don’t have to! Don’t go back to him!”
“I must,” she holds her son to her chest, and he reaches out with chubby hands to tug at her hair. “I am the goddess of marriage, and he is my husband.”
Hecate stares, aghast. “Don’t – don’t, Hera. Please. Stay here. Hades will protect you.”
She looks up at her brother, and he raises an eyebrow. He would protect her, he would put himself in between her and Zeus’s wrath if she asked him to. But she won’t, and she thinks he knows it. She says, “I am Hera of the Heights, of Argos, of the Mound. I am the cow eyed, white armed goddess of marriage and of family. I am Hera, queen of the gods.” She looks down at her son, and her heart clenches, because for now a title that cannot be afforded to her is that of mother. “I will not abandon my dominion, nor my husband. I will return to Mount Olympus.”
“But you don’t love him,” Hecate says helplessly.
Hera stares, baffled that anyone could think her marriage had anything to do with love. “Of course not. But this isn’t about love. It’s about power.”
The goddess of magic swallows, then says, “I will raise him.”
Even Hades is surprised by that. “Hecate?”
“I will raise him,” she repeats, “He will stay with me, safe in the underworld where Zeus cannot find him, until he’s old enough and strong enough to protect himself.”
“Thank you,” Hera says, and lowers her head enough to kiss the top of her son’s head. “Tell him that I’m the one that threw him from Olympus.” When she looks up, Hades is resigned while Hecate looks on in horror. “Tell him, tell everyone. I gave birth to a hideous son, and I threw him from Olympus. His legs were crushed in the fall. I did this. Zeus tried to stop me, but could not.”
“Why?” Hecate asks.
Hera smiles down at her son, her heart full with a helpless sort of love. “So that when he ventures from the safety of the underworld, Zeus will have no reason to hurt him. So that when he comes to Olympus, Zeus will be unable to hurt him without explaining he was the one that tried to kill him in the first place.” She runs the back of her finger down his cheek, and he grabs it, his little fist holding onto her. “Blame me, and he will be safe.”
Hecate looks like she wants to argue. Hades puts a hand on her shoulder and asks Hera, “What’s his name?”
Her son smiles, and tugs at her hand, the beginnings of a giggle gurgling in his throat.
“His name is Hephaestus.”
When she returns, she no longer has any patience for Zeus’s mortals. When before she had only inconvenienced them, now she’s not playing any games. Those that do not die end up wishing they had, and she’s especially vindictive to any mortal carrying her husband’s child.
She sits on her throne, waiting, a smirk curled around the corner of her lips.
Zeus barges in and charges towards her. He’s so angry smoke is rising off his skin. “You,” he hisses, “this is your doing.”
“Whatever do you mean?” she asks, unflinching when he slams his hands on either side of her head, crushing the back of her throne with the force of it.
“She and the children are dead,” he snarls, “my children are dead! I know this is your doing, it reeks of your handiwork.”
Hera slides forward to the edge of her thrown, their faces nearly touching, and spreads her legs. He flexes his hands, because even at his most furious he still wants her. She is his wife and his queen. She banishes her clothing so she’s spread out before him, hair piled high and jewelry glinting around her neck. “What are you going to do about it?”
He kisses her hard enough to bruise, and Hera crosses her legs around his back, urging him closer. “Why are you doing this?” he hisses, mouthing at her neck, because he hates her even as he loves her, hates her because he loves her, and loves her because he hates her.
She waits until he’s inside her to lick the shell of his ear and whisper, “My child, or no child at all, husband.”
When he breaks her skin with his teeth, she only laughs.
They do this to each other. Maybe they are meant to be together.
Chapter 15: Poseidon & Glaucus
They’ve all abandoned their duties, the world has changed and they’re not needed like they were needed before.
All but the three of them, the most powerful of gods.
Zeus stubbornly remains on the abandoned Mount Olympus. Even Hera has left him, shaking herself free of her shackles and her crown all at once.
Hades continues as he always has. It’s possible he wouldn’t have noticed anything had changed if it weren’t for Persephone’s new freedom that allows her to spend all months of the year with her husband.
Then there is him.
Poseidon sits on his thrown at the bottom of the sea, restless in a way he can’t remember ever feeling before. Amphitrite sighs from her place besides him, then stands to face him. “Perhaps it is time.”
“What are you talking about?” he snaps, although he knows the answer.
She smiles at him, soft and exasperated and even a little fond after all these years. “You knew it wasn’t forever. We both did.”
He presses a hand to his chest, and – he is of the sea, and he is not supposed to be feel fear. But he does. “I do not remember the man I was before I was King of the Sea. If – if I return to that person, I do not know what I will be, who I will be.”
Amphitrite holds out her hands. Feeling like a child, Poseidon takes them. “I know exactly who you will be, and what you will do. It’s time, Poseidon.”
He’s never loved her, couldn’t love her. But she’s been his constant companion for almost his entire life, and he cares for her, as much as he is capable of caring for anyone. “What will happen to you?”
“That is none of you concern,” she says, “but I will be what I’ve always been – the sea.”
She uses a single claw and opens her chest, the inside of her a dark green except for a pulsating red heart. He sighs and breaks off a piece of his throne to do the same to his own chest. It’s not like he’ll need it after this.
He takes out the cold, dark lump from inside him and places it safely below her ribcage. Her skin heals over and pales, and the warmth of her eyes snuffs out. She slips the beating heart below his sternum, and his skin heals over just as quickly as hers had.
Poseidon didn’t know how cold he had been until he could feel warmth again, like a bonfire in his chest unfurling to fill him, warming the bottoms of his feet and tips of his fingers. The tidal wave of grief and love and happiness and sorrow nearly threatens to barrel him over, all the emotion he’d only felt echoes of now overwhelming him.
But even with all of that, he instantly knows something is wrong.
“This isn’t my heart,” he says, and it functions like his heart, these are his emotions and feelings, but – it’s not his heart, it’s not the heart he traded away to Amphitrite for power so long ago.
“No,” she agrees, “it’s not.”
She almost looks like she’s smiling.
He means to question her, to demand answers in spite of personally knowing how worthless it is to ask anything of the sea. But before he gets the chance, he’s being pushed away and onto the shore, and he knows better than to try and go back and attempt to get answers she doesn’t feel like giving. He doesn’t think she’d kill him, but he’s not interested in finding out.
He looks out at the impossibly tall structures before him, the glass city sprawling at the end of the beach when before there had only been a – been a – a cottage.
“Caeneus,” he breathes, and is gone in the next moment.
He knows the entrances to the underworld well, even as the world moves and changes they never have. It takes him no time at all to be standing by the River Styx with Charon in front of him. “You are not dead,” the boatman says reproachfully.
“No,” he says, “Summon Hades, I must speak to him. There’s someone in there who – someone I – someone,” he finishes, and it’s been thousands and thousands of years since he last has Caeneus in his arms, but it doesn’t matter. The heart in his chest is a heart that is capable of love, and he loves Caeneus just as he did as a fledgling god with dominion over nothing.
Charon has no face that he can see, but he still gets the impression he’s being laughed at. “The underworld contains many someones.”
“Call Hades,” he says, low and dangerous, and the waters of the Styx churn angrily at his temper. He may no longer be the king of the sea, but he is still a god of it, and a powerful one at that. Charon takes a step away from him, no longer laughing but also not moving to help him.
There’s a shift in the air, and a young woman stands before them. Her skin is as dark at the water of the river, and her eyes are the grey of its foam. “Who dares disturb my river?” the goddess Styx demands. He meets her gaze, and her mouth drops open. “Poseidon? What are you doing here?”
“That is not Poseidon,” Charon says, “He doesn’t feel like a king.”
He wants to slap himself. Charon is blind.
Styx raises an eyebrow, “Looks like he finally got with times. The king of the ocean is no more.” She circles him like a predator circles prey. “There’s something different about you.”
“Lady Styx,” he grits out, “Please. Summon my brother, I must speak with him. I’m looking for someone.”
She shakes her head, “I can’t. He and Hecate are expanding the realm today. They can’t be disturbed.”
He doesn’t care about his brother’s obsession with home improvement, but he doesn’t say that. “Persephone then.”
“The Lady is currently among the mortals,” Charon says.
He clenches his hands into fists. He knows it’s been thousands of years, and a little more time won’t make much of a difference. But he’s already lost so much time. He doesn’t want to lose any more.
Styx sighs as if she finds him troublesome. “Thanatos,” she calls out conversationally, “I need you.”
There’s another shift in the air, and a familiar figure appears in front of him. “What do you need?” the death god asks, ink on his hands and smudged across his forehead. “I’m busy.”
“Icarus,” he says. It’s hard to regret the actions he took with Amphitrite’s heart in his chest. He wanted, and so he took. Such is the nature of the sea. However, there many things he did then that he wouldn’t have done if he’d had his heart. Those years with Icarus are among them.
He’s never said no, never pushed him away or lashed out. But if Poseidon had had his heart, he would have known that it wasn’t what the young man wanted.
Icarus’s mouth drops open, but he shuts it again. “Poseidon,” he greets carefully. “Can we help you with something?”
“I’m looking for a mortal. His name is Caeneus, my magic should be clinging to him. He died – a long time ago, I’m assuming. I don’t know exactly when.”
Icarus’s eyes go distant as he reviews a mental list of the dead. He blinks, then slowly shakes his head. “There are many by the name of Caeneus in our realm, but none that are god-touched.”
He says, “That’s impossible. I transformed him myself. The magic would have clung to him, even in death.”
“Yes,” Icarus agrees. “But he is not among our realm, which means he’s not among the dead. This Caeneus of yours is still alive.”
“That’s impossible,” he repeats, but fainter this time. He presses a hand to his sternum, where a heart that isn’t his own beats.
Styx laughs and drapes herself over Charon, who tolerates it. “Poseidon, nothing is impossible.”
He goes to Aphrodite next. She’s dressed as a mortal, wearing glasses she doesn’t need and a dress too short for current mortal fashions. She’s curled up on a chair reading, and she slowly lowers her book to look at him. “So the rumors are true,” she says finally. There’s something like sympathy on her face. “They all said you were different once you became the god of the sea. None ever knew the reason was that you lost your heart.”
“Traded it, actually,” he says, “and we didn’t want you to know. That’s not why I’m here.”
She raises an eyebrow, “Oh?”
“I need your help,” he taps his chest, “This heart isn’t mine either. I need your help to find the man it belongs to.”
She closes her book and puts it aside, eyes sparking with interest. “Very well, Uncle. I will do my best.”
Aphrodite finds him. They arrive at a small house jutting out of the edge of a cliff, the sea wide and churning below. A man stands at the edge, subtly manipulating the waves with the push-pull motions of his hands. “I didn’t know you knew Glaucus,” she says. “What are you doing with his heart?”
Glaucus. A minor sea god who looked after lost fisherman. “His name is Caeneus,” he says, already walking away from her.
“Good luck!” she calls out before returning to her home and her book.
He walks over slowly, not sure what he’s expecting. Anger, certainly. Perhaps a fight. Maybe if he lets Caeneus beat him up, he’ll be more willing to listen to him. “Hey,” he says, when he’s only a few feet away, bracing himself for – something.
Caeneus stills, turning to face him. His eyes widen, and he takes a hesitant step closer. “Poseidon. Is it – is – do you have,” he pauses and reaches out a hand, pressing a hand against Poseidon’s chest. “What’s in here?”
“Your heart,” he croaks, and reaches out a trembling hand and pressing it to Caeneus’s sternum. “Just as my heart is here.”
“You can have it back,” he says, taking another step closer, and the sun reflects off of Caeneus’s eyes so they shine gold. “I was only keeping it safe for you.”
He reaches for his chest, but Poseidon grabs his hand. “Don’t. Without my heart, you’ll die.”
Caeneus smiles, “That’s all right. I’ve been waiting for you to come back for it, and now you’re here.” His smile dims, “Will you kiss me first? Is that all right?”
Poseidon pulls him closer and presses their foreheads together. Caeneus’s arms wrap around his waist, and something inside him settles. “I will not,” he whispers, and Caeneus tenses. “You must keep my heart, because it belongs to you. It always has.” He shifts to kiss his cheek, and he can smell the salt from Caeneus’s tears that are threatening to spill. “I shouldn’t have traded it to Amphitrite. It wasn’t mine to give away.”
“Then you must keep mine,” he says, and he’s shaking, “because it has belonged to you for just as long.”
Poseidon kisses him then. Caeneus melts against him, and the first true sunburst of happiness blossoms in his chest.
This is the beginning of the rest of their lives.
Chapter 16: Hera and Ares
Zeus’s mistress Io remains in her form of a cow, guarded by Hera’s servant Argus, and Hera is content.
She will remain in that form until her death. Hera hopes that lying with her husband was worth the sacrifice.
Zeus won’t speak to her, unwilling to admit the cow is actually his lover and ensure her death, and equally unwilling to stand against his wife to try and rescue her. Hera has him just where she wants him, and it can’t last, it never does, but she intends to enjoy it while it does.
Then Artemis comes to her, gold and fierce. She never flinches away from her queen, staring her in the face as if she is nothing more than another of her huntresses. If Hera did not hate her for being her husband’s daughter, she thinks she might actually like the girl. “Io has a destiny,” she says, “you must let her go.”
“I don’t care for her destiny,” Hera says idly, “especially when that destiny involves getting with my husband’s child.”
“She is to give birth to a new line of kings,” Artemis hisses, “to be the wife of a death god, to be mother goddess of a whole new people. She is not meant for us. You must let her go.”
“I am Hera,” she says, “I am Queen. I must do nothing.”
Artemis growls, hand twitching for her bow, but Hera only raises an eyebrow. Let the girl try. There are few that can stand against her, and the huntress is not among them. Artemis lets out a low breath and says, “Do it, my queen, and I will grant you what it is you most desire.”
“Some peace and quiet?” Hera asks.
“A child,” she answers. “Let Io go, let her fulfill her destiny as a goddess of the Black Land of the Nile. If you do that, I, the patron goddess of childbirth, will personally use every ounce of power I possess to ensure you conceive and deliver a child of Zeus.”
Hera’s eyes narrow, “Neither my power nor his has ever been able to achieve this. What makes you think you are any different?”
“We all have our domains,” she says, “just as you cannot command the sea, just as your husband has no power over the art of weaving, so can I ensure a healthy child when you could not.”
She taps her fingers against her throne. They call her a mother goddess, though she’s raised no children. Hephaestus may be her precious son, but he doesn’t know that it was not her that threw him from Olympus. Very few people know that. And she didn’t raise him regardless, that honor belongs to Hecate.
A child, of her and Zeus. A child she can raise.
“I accept,” she announces. “You may take her, and Zeus may fulfill her destiny.” She leans forward, brings the oppressive weight of her power to the fore and lowers the pressure of the air until Artemis is left shivering. “Know this, Patron Goddess of Childbirth. If Io births a son of Zeus before I do, I will travel to the Black Land of the Nile and slay her and her children with my own two hands. Not even Hades will be able to put her back together again.”
“Yes, my Queen,” Artemis says, unable to keep her teeth from chattering.
Hera is true to her word. She allows Hermes to think he’s tricked Argus and to steal Io away. She pretends to be outraged at the audacity, at the pure white cow traveling to the sands of the Nile.
Artemis is true to her world. Hera lies with Zeus, like she has so many times before, and a child grows inside of her. One day she stands before her husband and brings his hand to the swell of her stomach, “This is your child.”
Something almost like happiness steals across his face. She forgets, sometimes, that they hate each other only as much as they love each other. After so much time together, many would think it would be one or the other. They simply opted for both.
Artemis is there during the birth, her easy confidence more comforting then Hera will ever admit. Delivering Hephaestus was easy compared to this. She screams and cries and Hestia’s hands on her shoulders are all that keeps her from collapsing and begging someone just cut the child from her. She doesn’t think she can die in childbirth, not with Artemis between her legs. She wishes she’d thought to ask before this began.
But she does not die. Her son is born, just as healthy and beautiful as Hephaestus was. “Well done,” Artemis says softly, placing the squirming child into her arms.
Zeus touches her hair and kisses his son’s forehead. “We shall call him Ares.”
“Very well,” she agrees, so tired her eyes struggle to stay open.
She hands her son to Hestia, and finally allows sleep to take her.
Ares grows into the spitting image of his father. Same copper-red skin, same silky black hair. Her husband keeps it short, but her son lets his grow long. The minutes Hera spends every morning brushing his hair are among her favorite.
He has an eager smile and a soft heart. Hera doesn’t know where he got it, since it’s certainly not from her or Zeus. Demeter tolerates his bumbling after her, though any time Kore attempts to meet her cousin Demeter’s temper frays. Poseidon allows Ares to explore the depths of the sea with a minor sea god acting as his guide. Apollo plays for him, and Artemis teaches him to hunt. Zeus’s lightning doesn’t burn his son, and when storms rage he takes Ares to the top of Olympus and teaches him to throw lightning bolts.
Hera selfishly does not allow Ares to go to the underworld. She knows he would be safe there, that Hades would protect him as he protected Hephaestus, but that’s precisely why she won’t allow it. They got to raise one of her sons already. It pains her to share Ares with them now.
He is happy, and kind, kinder than anyone would expect a child of her womb to be.
“He must choose a domain,” Zeus rumbles, watching Ares shoot arrows with perfect accuracy.
“He is a child still,” Hera says, “let him remain so for a little longer.”
“If he does not choose a domain,” Zeus warns, “one will choose him. We are gods. We must be gods of something.”
She flickers her gaze at him, and he scoots an inch away from her. “He is a child, and for now a child he will remain. We are not Demeter. We shall not thrust the responsibilities and power of a deity on a child who is not prepared for it.”
Zeus disapproves, but says nothing more.
Her son will be the god of something patient, something soft. The god of lost children, of heartbroken suitors, of forgiveness. Something where his gentle heart will aid him instead of hurt him.
She traded her happiness for power. She doesn’t regret it. But Ares doesn’t need to do the same – she’s the most powerful goddess that still walks the earth. He’s her son, and he’ll want for nothing she can provide.
Ares is almost fully grown, long hair reaching his hips even braided, and the strength of his limbs is such that he can keep up with Artemis on her most vigorous of hunts, that he can throw his father’s lightning bolts halfway across the world.
He’s been to every place, and met every god of the earth, sea, and sky.
Except for one.
It’s not hard to find the volcano. He’s strong enough and old enough to take care of himself, and his mother does not worry when he says he’s going to the earth. But he did not tell her where, precisely, on the earth he was going.
He has strong legs. It’s easy for him to climb to the top of the volcano. He’s almost made it to the top when something grabs his shoulders, stilling him. He turns, and stares into a large, single eye. “What are you doing?” the cyclopes growls.
“I’m looking for Hephaestus,” he says, “He’s my brother.”
“My master has many brothers,” the cyclopes says.
Ares shakes his head. He is not the product of his father’s fling with a sprite or mortal. “I am Ares, son of Zeus and Hera. Just as Hephaestus is. I came here to meet my brother.” The cyclopes hesitates. He asks, “What’s your name?”
“Brontes,” he answers, surprised.
“Brontes,” he smiles, “I just want to meet him. I’ve never met him before. I won’t linger.”
There’s a moment where Brontes looks conflicted, and Ares tries to look as unassuming as possible. “Fine,” he huffs, “but don’t get angry at me if he dips you in lava.”
“That would be fun,” he says brightly. Lightning doesn’t burn him. So far the only thing hot enough to cause him pain is Hestia’s fire. He probably could go swimming in lava.
Brontes looks at him as if he’s slightly unhinged. He just keeps smiling.
There are more cyclopes underneath, and bright glittering machines that Ares can’t even begin to wrap his mind around. “Who are you?” someone demands, and a hand grabs his wrist and yanks him away from a boiling vat of lava that he’d been peering into.
He looks up at a man taller and broader than he is. He has skin almost as dark as the obsidian of his volcano, but lighter eyes. They are the color of dark amber, of molasses. “We have the same eyes,” he says happily.
Hephaestus releases him instantly. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“Why not?” he asks, “The mortals talk of you. No one else will. But you’re my brother, right?”
“You shouldn’t be here,” he repeats, “Does Zeus know where you are?”
He shrugs, taking a step closer. His brother takes a step back. He wonders if he’ll have to treat Hephaestus like a spooked horse. “Father doesn’t keep track of where I am. Mom know I’m on earth.” Hephaestus flinches, small enough that he almost doesn’t notice. “We have her eyes, you know.”
He can’t stop starring at Hephaestus’s skin. They do not work like mortals – Demeter, Hestia, Zeus, and Hera are all different shades despite coming from the same parents. But – Ares looks so much like his father. Kore looks like Demeter. Yet Hephaestus looks nothing like their father. He can see their mother in him, in the eyes and shape of his jaw, even in how angry he is right now. He looks like Hera does when she’s about to lose her temper, lips pressed into a thin line and the careful stillness of his shoulders.
“I wasn’t trying to make you angry,” he says plaintively, “I only wanted to say hello.”
Unlike their mother, Hephaestus lets out a deep breath and seemingly all his anger along with it. “I’ve been avoiding you.”
“Why? You don’t even know me.”
Hephaestus kicks him lightly in the shin, the pretty gold and copper of his metal legs catching his eye. “You have legs, and I do not. Hera did not throw you from Mount Olympus as she threw me.”
Ares looks hard at his brother’s face. The stories say his mother threw her son away for being ugly, but he seems just as handsome as any other god Ares has seen. His features are strong and chiseled, and he supposes that could have looked unattractive on a baby, but –
– his mother loves him. Hera loves him with a ferocity only matched by her temper, she loves him at his most mischievous and irritable, loves him when a stray thunderbolt sets Demeter’s hair on end, loves him when even Artemis and Apollo have grown tired of his antics, loves him when Athena can tolerate no more of his questions. He is her son, and so her love comes without conditions.
He doesn’t think Hera would have loved his brother any less just because of how he looked.
He also knows that if he tries to say that, it’s likely Hephaestus will push him into a lava pit.
“Well, that’s not my fault,” he says, “If you don’t want us to be brothers, can’t we at least be friends?”
Hephaestus’s face softens. He looks like their mother then too. He crosses his arms, “You can’t tell your parents.”
Our parents, he thinks but doesn’t say. “Obviously. Where did you get so many cyclopes?”
The last remnants of his brother’s stern façade shatters as he throws back his head and laughs.
Ares is very near maturity, more adult than child, and his father constantly pressures him to choose a domain. He usually quiets with one sharp glance from his wife, but the fact remains that it is time for Ares to take his place among the gods of the pantheon, to have temples in his name and worshippers like a proper deity.
He doesn’t really want any of that. He wants to continue hunting with Artemis, learning with Athena, building with Hephaestus.
His brother lets him help out in his workshop sometimes, if he’s very careful and does exactly as he’s told. Otherwise he sits on a table, legs swinging, and watches his brother work and tells him about what he does in the time in-between visits. He talks about their mother enough that Hephaestus doesn’t flinch at her every mention, which Ares can only consider an improvement. Sometimes Brontes will stand beside him and they’ll eat sweet buns together.
Unfortunately, all things, good and bad, must come to an end.
There are two giants, Otus and Ephialtes, who grow tired of hearing of the golden boy of Olympus, who grow jealous of his kindness and his beauty.
These two giants sneak onto Mount Olympus in the middle of the night, sneak into Ares’s room, and kidnap him. They’re not stupid enough to attempt to kill him. Instead, they stuff him into an urn, and seal him inside. Ares rages and fights, uses every trick he can think of to break out his prison, but none of them work.
Stuck at the bottom of the urn and seething, he can’t help but think that if he’d listened to his father and chosen a dominion he might be strong enough to free himself. But he didn’t, so he can’t, and instead he waits.
Days turn to weeks turn to months. He knows they’re looking for him. He knows his mother will tear apart the whole universe attempting to find him if nothing else. But – what if they can’t? What if he’s stuck in this urn for the rest of eternity?
In his darkest moments, his sorrow turns to rage. He is a god, son of Hera and Zeus, how dare they do this to him?
Then, one day, the urn opens.
Hermes peers down into it, then his face splits into a grin. “We’ve been looking for you!” He reaches down and hauls Ares out, and for a moment all he can do is blink at the glaring sun. Then his vision clears, and he sees they’re in the midst of a battle. The giants are fighting against the gods, against his parents, against the twins, against his brother. It’s bloody carnage, but – he can’t help but feel touched that all these people came looking for him. “Almost everyone offered to help find you,” he says, “but Hera didn’t want to draw too much attention to ourselves trying to sneak into their territory.”
No sooner has Hermes finished speaking than a giant barrels into his mother with sickening snap. Her shoulder slopes at a grotesque angle, but it hardly even slows her down.
“I have to help,” he says, a desperate urgency filling him. They came to help him, and now they’re getting hurt. That’s never something he’d wanted.
“Ares, wait!” Hermes calls out as he goes hurtling toward the battle. He doesn’t wait. Fighting on the ground can only do so much good, they’re strong but they’re outnumbered one hundred to one. He darts to Artemis, twisting around the bodies she’s throwing over her shoulder. “I need your bow!”
“Ares!” she says joyously, then, “What?”
“Trust me,” he says, “give me your bow.” A giant comes running towards them. Artemis flips him over her shoulder while continuing to stare at him in confusion. He’d be impressed if he wasn’t so worried. “Artemis, please!”
She hands over her bow. She moves to give him her quiver of arrows as well, but he’s already moving away from her. Next it’s to his father, who’s hurtling lightning bolts towards the swarm of giants crowding him. They’re deadly, but only so effective at close-range. He grabs a sizzling lightning bolt right from Zeus’s hand, the only being on the planet who could do that and survive, and keeps running. “Get clear!” he calls out over his shoulder. “Everyone move!”
He runs up past Hermes, needing to get to high ground for this to work. “Get everyone off the battlefield,” he says to Hermes. “Now.”
Hermes pulls a face, but by the time he makes it to the top of the mountain, the gods have shaken off most of the giants, are far enough away that he doesn’t have to worry.
He can do this. He’s Ares, the son of Hera and Zeus. He’s been trained in archery by the great huntress herself. He breaths in, and strings his father’s lightning bolt like an arrow. He pulls it back, breaths out, and lets the lightning bolt fly.
It lands in the middle of the battlefield full of confused giants. With a great clap of thunder and a burst of light, they’re all gone.
All that remains of the traitorous giants is a crater.
The gods are approaching him, his mother at a limping gait that makes his chest ache. Zeus gets to him first, grin stretched wide as he grabs him by both his shoulders. “My boy! That was magnificent!”
“Thanks,” he says. The smell of charred flesh is in the air, and it makes his stomach roll.
They kidnapped him. They stuffed him in an urn for over a year. They hurt his mom.
That doesn’t mean he enjoyed it. He never wants to do anything like that ever again.
“This was destiny,” his father says enthusiastically, and Ares has no idea what he’s talking about. “This is what you’re meant to do, son.”
He stares. He hopes it’s not.
The other gods are still far behind. Artemis and Apollo each have one of his mother’s arms slung over their shoulders and are helping her up the mountain. Hermes and Hephaestus aren’t far behind.
He’s never seen his father look so proud of him. There’s a leaden pit in his stomach he can’t explain.
“In honor of my son’s great feat,” Zeus booms, his voice carrying across air, speaking with the voice of the king of the gods so his words become law, so they spread to every corner of the world, “I declare him Ares, God of War.”
Ares can’t breathe.
This isn’t what he wanted.
Chapter 17: Ares, God of War
Ares, the God of War, has a throne on Olympus, has followers and temples and tributes.
Ares, the God of War, has the screams of the dead and damned echoing around in his skull, and has not had a moment’s peace since his father declared his dominion over battle.
He tries to ignore them. He can’t stay on Olympus, not anymore where his father’s proud gaze follows him and he can’t help but flinch from it. At first he hides in his mother’s rooms, curling up on her lap and crying like he hasn’t since he was very small. “I can hear them,” he says, tears dripping down his nose and onto her dress, “I can hear them calling for me.”
She combs her fingers through his hair and drops soft kisses onto his forehead. “I’ll kill him. How dare he – how dare he.”
“You will do no such thing,” he says, and turns so he’s looking up at her. He presses his hand to her cheek, and she leans into his touch. Her eyes are alight with fury and grief, and it soothes him just to see them. Her eyes are his eyes, are his brother’s eyes. “You are the goddess of marriage. To kill your husband would be to kill yourself. Would you make me an orphan, Mother?”
There is a war raging within him now, soldiers and generals and widows crying out for him, but for now all he is worried about is preventing a war within his home.
Nothing would tear apart the pantheon so firmly as to pit Zeus against Hera.
She doesn’t say anything, but her grasp on his hand becomes almost painful, so he will take that as agreement.
He can only stay away for so long. He must go to whoever invokes him most strongly, to who builds him the biggest altars, to who provides the largest sacrifice. He is not a god who is lucky enough to be able to watch his domain from afar, to simply provide blessings and guidance. The screaming inside of him quiets only when he joins them on the battlefield, only when he is in the thick of it with a sword in his hand is it quiet enough for him to think.
Only when his battle fury turns the tide of a war is he, even just briefly, free from the crushing weight of his followers and his domain.
He does not get to choose which side to support. Whoever worships him more, whatever side invokes his name the strongest is the one who gets his aid.
He shows up sobbing at his mother’s door, whole body vibrating in pain because the soldiers shout his name in a glorious chorus and he should be with them now, but instead he’s here. Hera grabs his upper arms to keep him upright, eyes wide and concerned.
“I don’t want them to win,” he confesses, the words making his lips burn, “the soldiers are simply soldiers, but the generals and lords and kings seek glory for money, for profit, for nothing but selfishness. Their enemies only want to live.”
“I will take care of it,” she swears to him, and he has no idea how she expects to do that. Yet he trusts she’ll find a way, because she always does. He comes to his mother, asking her to help him, and she always has. “Now go, before you are hurt even more.”
Hera had no influence on the battlefield.
But it is not solely the battlefield where tributes are made.
She is the goddess of marriage and family.
She goes to wives and husbands, to sons and daughters, to sisters and brothers. She whispers in their ears, speaks of devotion and fealty, makes them all wail for their missing family members caught up in a war none of them wanted.
Hera brings their grief and desperation to the fore, until they’re nearly mad with their need to have their family brought home.
They build a temple to Ares, sacrifice gold and food and anything of value they can spare. They cry prayers over hearth fires, and burn messages to the god of war to bring their family members home.
The tides change. He’s midway through the battle when the he feels the shift, when he realizes his mother somehow did as she promised and he no longer has to fight for these people, that now he can fight against them.
He doesn’t want to fight at all. But if he must, then at least he can fight for those he believes in.
Ares doesn’t allow himself to fall into bitterness or anger at his father often. But he wishes, not for the first time, that Zeus had named him the god of justice, of peace, of fairness, of loyalty. That Zeus had named him the god of something he believed in, something he could believe in fighting for.
All war does is kill good men and women, all it does is breed resentment and anger in the victors and losers both.
Although. Ares is of the opinions that wars never have any true victors. Just people that lose less than the people they’re fighting.
There is a lull. No one is invoking him powerfully enough that he can’t ignore their cries.
He goes to Haephestus’s volcano and slides into a magma pool, the burning heat of the lava the perfect temperature to work out the knots of stress in his back and thighs.
“It’s unnerving to see you in there,” his brother says, and Ares opens his eyes to see Hephaestus looking down at him in concern. “You look tired.”
Permanent purple bruises have formed under his eyes. He can’t remember the last time he saw himself without them. Everything hurts, it always hurts, even when there is peace there are people who covet war and call out to him and it tears at him whenever he leaves a tribute unanswered. He’s exhausted and rode hard, stretched so thin that he’s terrified he’ll snap at any moment.
He looks at Hephaestus’s concern and admits to him something he hasn’t told anyone, something he’s too afraid to say to his mother just in case she decides to smite Zeus for it. “I think that these wars might be killing me.”
His brother’s face goes tight, but he doesn’t say anything. That’s all right. Ares hadn’t expected him to – there really is nothing to say.
He wonders if the screams will still find him in death.
“I need a favor,” Hephaestus says the next time Athena comes to visit, wringing his hands, anxious in a way he usually doesn’t let anyone see.
Athena tilts her head to side. “I’m listening.”
Ares is resting, the moon high as he lays back in the middle of the battle camp and tries to quiet the cries in his head enough to catch even an hour of sleep.
“War is not just about fighting, about blood and battle.”
His eyes pop open and he looks over to see Athena sitting by his side. He pushes himself up cautiously. “Sorry?”
“You should pay more attention to the generals,” she says, “war isn’t won with blood. It’s won with strategy. With planning, with tactics.”
“I don’t know much about all that,” he admits, “it’s enough of a struggle just to keep up with the soldiers.”
Her face softens, “I know. That’s why I’m here. No one expects to win wars alone, Ares.”
This is how Athena, goddess of knowledge and weaving, becomes a goddess of war. She is a master of strategy, of planning campaigns, of ensuring that a victory on the battlefield remains a victory at home.
Some of his tributes go to her. Some people pray to Athena now instead of him.
He still hears the screaming. He still doesn’t sleep.
But it relieves just enough pressure that it feels like he can breathe again.
Ares and Athena are not the only names that get invoked on the battlefield.
Hades’s name has constantly been on their lips. They damn their enemies to a torturous afterlife, to thrice the pain and suffering they receive on the battlefield.
He tries to ignore it. It is not his domain. But the more he hears it, that more it stabs at him. Most of these people are soldiers. Cursing generals is well enough, but most soldiers didn’t choose to be here. He didn’t choose to be here.
Ares has never been to the underworld. It’s the one place his mother never let him venture.
He knows that the smart thing to do would be to go to his brother and ask him to speak to Hecate, the woman who raised him. Or even Hades himself – he doesn’t know how well Hephaestus knows the gods of the underworld. For all that he grew up there, he doesn’t speak of it much.
But if Hades’s wrath is to fall on anyone, Ares would rather it be him.
It’s easy enough to follow the souls of recently departed soldiers to the River Styx. Charon presses a hand to his shoulder and asks, “What business do you have here, God of War?”
“I knew a child who was called Kore,” he answers, and he doesn’t expect this to work, but he hopes it will. “I wish to speak to a woman who calls herself Persephone.”
He can’t see Charon’s face, but the air around him turns thoughtful. “It is summer. The Lady is with her mother.”
He’d forgotten about that.
“Then I request an audience with her husband,” he says, and he clasps his hands behind his back so that Charon can’t see them shaking. He can’t turn into a mess here. People are screaming in his mind, but he can’t let it get to him here, not if he wants anyone to take him seriously, not if he wants to help his fellow soldiers instead of hurting them.
“You are not dead, and so I cannot ferry you across the Styx,” Charon says, almost apologetically. “But – hold on.” He turns to the river, “Goddess Styx, could you come here?”
A little girl with skin even darker than Hephaestus’s and eyes and hair of soft grey appears in front of them. “Yes?”
Charon points to him, “He wishes to speak to our lord.”
Styx turns her grey eyes on him, and he can’t help but feel unnerved. She circles him, looking him up and down, seemingly looking into him. “Very well,” she says at last. She moves her arms together, then apart. Two sides of the river flow in opposite directions so that a dry walking path is revealed in the river bed. “Move quickly. The longer I maintain a break in my river, the longer things besides you may be able to sneak across.”
“Thank you,” he gives her a shallow bow, and then goes sprinting across the riverbed. It takes him longer than it should – the river is not overly wide, and it should be quick, but it seems like he runs nearly an hour to reach the other side. He heaves himself onto shore, panting, and as soon as he’s across the river comes crashing together once more, flowing back into the proper direction.
He makes it to Hades’s palace, but once again it takes longer than it seems it should. It takes too long, he’s been away from the battle field too long, and it shows. He tries to pull himself together, he’s come too far to fall apart now, but it seems to be a wasted effort. The screaming of people crying his name is so loud he can’t hear anything else, and it paralyzes him, he can’t move, he can’t feel, his muscles are tense enough to snap because he needs to answer the people calling for him, but he can’t there’s no easy way out of the underworld so he’s just stuck here –
Suddenly it all cuts off to a dull roar, and he gasps as he comes back to himself, squeezing his eyes shut to keep from crying. Hands cup his face, and calloused thumbs wipe the tears from his cheeks. “You must be Ares,” a soft voice says, “Charon said you were coming. Are you all right?”
He forces his eyes open, and Hades, King of the Dead, swims into focus. “How are you doing that?”
“Doing what?” his eyebrows dip together. “What are you doing here?”
He grabs Hades’s hands, and pulls them from is his face, but leaves their fingers tangled together. Luckily Hades doesn’t pull away. Ares doesn’t know what would happen if he did. “I – I know that they invoke you to punish their enemies, on the battlefield. They dedicate some of the pyres to you and ask you to burn their enemies in death, for eternity.”
“I hear them,” he says, “I know what they say.”
“Try not to,” he begs, and he can hear the screaming still, he’s shaking and can’t stop and he wanted to appear strong while asking the god of the dead for a favor but he’s barely able to keep standing. “I know they ask of it, I know they erect tributes and we must all answer the call of our names, but they’re not evil. They – some of them are, I mean, but don’t – try not to – please,” he ends on, and it’s just not fair that the soldiers must continue fighting after their death. Most of them hadn’t wanted to fight while they were alive.
Hades still looks confused, and Ares will beg if he has to, he knows it’s hard to go against what worshipers demand but this is important. He’s about to try again when Hades says, “I am the god of the death, lord of the underworld. Ares, I hear their cries but I am not bound by them. I rule the dead. The dead do not rule me.”
He stares. He – he’s never heard of something like that before. He answers the call of war because he must, his mother is bound by the chains of her marriage because she is the goddess of family. Demeter’s power is from the earth and of the earth, and when it suffers she suffers, even Poseidon is not immune to the sea’s temperament. Their powers are all double edged, half blessing and half curse.
“Oh,” he settles on finally. “Kore – I mean, Persephone?” They tell tales of the punishments she inflicts on those that have upset her. He knew her as a child, and he’s less surprised than most by what she became.
“My wife does what pleases her, and nothing else,” Hades answers. Ares doesn’t understand. She is Queen of Life and Death, how can that not pull at her, how does it not twist her into a shape she doesn’t recognize?
“Okay,” he says, and he has to leave, but at least he no longer has to worry so much after fallen soldiers. “I apologize for the intrusion. I should go.”
Hades slides his hands up his arms, and settles at his shoulders, and oh, Ares becomes distracted enough by those hands on him that for a moment it’s almost quiet in his own head. “If you like. You may stay as well. It seems as if you could use some rest.”
He drops his head forward on Hades’s shoulder, and he likes the solidity of him, the undercurrent of strength and power he gives off. He’s never met the man before, this is entirely inappropriate, but when Hades’s hands settle onto his hips he wants nothing more than curl up in his arms and ignore the war for a little while.
Hades feels like peace. He’d forgotten what that felt like. “I can’t stay.”
The god of the dead presses a kiss to the edge of his jaw that ignites something in Ares since before he was declared the god of war. He wonders what Hades would do if he kissed him properly, he wonders if he pulled off his blood and war stained clothes if Hades would touch his too-hot skin. “Then I request that you return,” the god of death says.
He shouldn’t. The time he manages to not be on a battlefield should be spent with his mother, or Hephaestus. He shifts enough to press their foreheads together. He looks into Hades’s dark eyes, and says, “I will.”
Ares returns to the midst of war feeling lighter than he has in a long time.
Chapter 18: Eros & Psyche
Aphrodite can’t get comfortable during her pregnancy. She’s always too hot, constantly sweating whether she’s in the in the oppressive heat at the bottom of the volcano, or in the icy air at the top of it. It makes no difference. No matter where she goes or what she does, she can’t find any relief. Hephaestus hovers over her, wringing his hands and leaning his head against her stomach. Her distended skin is too warm to the touch, and both of them can’t help but worry about their child that grows inside her.
They beg help from Artemis, who has no help to give them. “The child is healthy,” she tells them, mystified. “The mother is healthy, though pained. I can do nothing for you because there is nothing to be done.”
Time passes. The child is born. They call him Eros.
He warms in Artemis’s hands as she cleans him and Aphrodite eagerly waits to be handed her son. Artemis cries out and has to put him down, blisters appearing on his hands. Aphrodite moves to pick him up, and she can stand his heat for longer, but after a few minutes he leaves a welt of burnt flesh against her chest. Hephaestus tries next, and manages to hold his son for a whole quarter of an hour before his skin is eaten away.
Artemis can do nothing. She insists there’s nothing wrong with him, it’s just how he is. Hephaestus crafts gloves of flexible metal so they can care for him – the babe’s fire reacts to the warmth of another person. Clothes and objects remain unburned. They go to Hermes, to Apollo, to Hestia, and none can help them. Hestia tries to hold the child. She is the keeper of celestial fire, which burns hotter than anything, yet she too comes away burned. “The celestial fire is of me, and so it cannot harm me,” she tells them regretfully, “Eros is not, and so he can.”
No one can help them.
Eros cries, constantly unhappy because he longs to be held and rocked, longs for the warmth of his parents but they can only give him snatches of affections, stolen moments before he burns them and they must retreat behind cool metal.
Aphrodite is desperate. She sneaks away to Mount Olympus, goes against her husband’s wishes and goes to Hera. She’s crying as she speaks, and Hera watches her with cool, impassive eyes. “There is nothing wrong with your son,” she says. “He is as he was made to be. If you cannot provide the care he needs, find someone who can.”
Aphrodite stares, betrayed. Hera has been kind to her in the past, was the one who helped her choose her husband when all of Olympus sought her hand. Aphrodite is a daughter of Zeus, but not of another woman, and so Hera hadn’t hated her.
Hera loses some of her sternness. “I have given you the answer you need, if not the one you wanted. Return to you child and husband.”
She tells Hephaestus where she went, and instead of angry he becomes contemplative.
Ares is blood soaked and exhausted when his brother appears beside him in the middle of a battlefield. “Hephaestus,” he greets, startled, “Is something wrong?”
“I need your help,” says the man who had never once asked him for anything, “I know it hurts to leave, but–”
Ares shakes his head, “There will always be another war. What do you need?”
He can wield the lightning bolts of Zeus and he takes bathes in lava to soothe the ache of his muscles. Ares is not bothered by heat or flame because it passes through him, he manages to do these things because he absorbs their heat instead of being harmed by it.
He’s in his brother’s bed, holding his nephew, and Eros gives him a gap-toothed little grin from where he’s splaying out against his chest, skin against skin. “Cute kid,” he yawns. Hephaestus is on one side of him, and Aphrodite on the other.
Ares leeches most of the heat from Eros, so he’s cool enough to touch, so his parents can pat his back and kiss his forehead. “Thank you,” Hephaestus says, finally able to touch his son without consequence.
“Anytime,” Ares says, eyes sliding shut.
With his brother’s family curled around him, Ares finds enough calm to sleep.
When Eros is older, he learns to control it. He always runs hot, but by the time he’s gotten big enough that the cyclopses are constantly chasing him in fear of him getting into something he shouldn’t, he’s learned to regulate his temperature to the point he doesn’t burn anyone any more.
Or at least, he doesn’t burn any gods anymore. No matter how hard he tries, he’s too hot for any mortal to touch unharmed.
Before that, Ares spends every moment away from the battlefield with Eros that he can. He’s not always able to sleep, but he lies down with Eros on top him and with Aphrodite and Hephaestus on either side.
Rumors run rampant, like they always do. People say Eros is the product of a union between Ares and Aphrodite, they say that Aphrodite has been cheating on her husband since the moment they married.
“I’m sorry,” Ares says, face pinched.
Hephaestus smiles, and Ares relaxes. “You are only doing what I’ve asked of you. There’s nothing to apologize for.”
Ares can’t help but feel guilty anyway.
Eros grows, from a toddler to a man. He burns, a wide laughing mouth and eyes like the sun. When he’s declared the god of passion, no one is surprised.
He has the best features of both his parents, and is devastatingly beautiful, with a face that Helen herself would weep over. He is the son of the goddess of love and the god of craftsmanship, and passion is necessary for both.
Passion is many things. There is passion in love, and he goads many a shy couple into a desperate embrace. There is passion in war, and when the battlefield grows stilted and tired he joins his favorite uncle there and brings their energy to the fore. There is passion in academia, and Eros encourages many scholars who spend long nights seeking answers they may never find. There is passion in art, and he blesses uninspired artists to create their heart’s desire.
Passion is a quickening heartbeat, a want that must be sated, a determination to follow through. It is burning until you are nothing more than ash simply because the fire is too beautiful to put out.
Eros is a favorite among the gods, because so much of what he does benefits them. He quickens the pulse of a people, and they use that energy to do great deeds in the gods’ names.
He is beautiful and powerful and loved. He wants for nothing, until –
- until his mother sends him to help a village girl who has been praying to her for months.
Eros sees Psyche, and instantly knows the weight of love in his chest.
Psyche is beautiful.
She knows this, it is the one thing about herself that she knows. All her life people tell her this, when she’s a babbling baby and a little girl and a fully grown woman, it’s what people say to her.
Men come to her seeking her hand, crossing borders and monsters to end up at her door. “I have no dowry,” she tells them, “I cannot cook, I am a poor seamstress, I have never cleaned a home.”
“I do not care,” they all tell her, with their greedy eyes and their greedy hands, “You are beautiful.”
Her mother and aunts shooed her from the kitchen as a child, saying the steam would ruin her pretty hair, wouldn’t let her sew because the needles would harden her soft hands, didn’t want her to spend hours cleaning because the she was too lovely to mar with common dirt.
Other children wouldn’t play with her, including her sisters, and soon she ran from all her tutors whose gazes made her shoulders itch. The first time someone lays tribute at her feet, like she is some sort of goddess and not a simple village girl, she runs away and locks herself in her room.
The tributes and prayers don’t stop, and she hates them. She only wants to be like everyone else, wants to read and cook and have friends. Every night she bundles up the gifts and tributes people give her sneaks away to the temple of Aphrodite. She lays these things where they belong, with the goddess of beauty and love. “Please,” she begs, every night, “please make it all stop, revered goddess. I can’t live this way.”
She does this, for years and years, but her prayers are never answered. She sinks lower and lower, feeling confined to her home like a prisoner since she can’t leave it without flowers being thrown at her feet or someone remarking on her figure and face. Her sisters will not speak to her, and her parents will not listen to her. She eats less and spends days languishing in bed, growing weaker and more tired by the day.
One day, after turning away yet another suitor and being turned away yet again when she tries to help her mother in the kitchen, she goes far out of the village, where no will find her, where no one will be able to remark on the beauty of her corpse.
She walks to the edge of a cliff, and takes a deep breath. “Lady Aphrodite,” she whispers, “let me be ugly in my next life.”
Eros sees her falling, and bids Zephyr to save her. She is caught gently by the wind. However, she’s so weak and malnourished that the shock of not falling to her death causes her to pass into unconsciousness. He wishes he could have save her himself, that he could take her in his arms now and cradler her close to his chest.
But he burns.
If he touched her, he would harm her, so he will not.
“Take her to my home,” he says, conflicted because he has no interest in growing into either Zeus or Poseidon. But he cannot touch her, so it’s not the same. “I’ll be along shortly.”
Zephyr carries her away, far into the distance.
This is not what his mother intended when she sent him here, but he can’t leave Psyche among the mortals. If she tried to kill herself once, she’ll do it again, and then where will he be?
Eros feels heavy with love, and he does not know this girl, he does not know how this is possible unless it has been arranged by the Fates. Psyche is a beautiful girl, but he is a god. He is the son of the goddess of beauty and every other goddess he knows is comparable in the grace of their form and face. Beautiful mortals do not tempt him.
He has other things to attend to, so he puts aside the problem of Psyche so he can go convince a young noble lady to kiss the baker’s daughter.
Psyche wakes up, which she wasn’t expecting. What’s more, she’s not in pain. She’s being carefully deposited on soft grass by a being she can’t see. “Where am I?” she cries. She doesn’t think this is the afterlife. She’s on top of a large mountain, and a large, gorgeous home with marble columns sits on the edge.
There is an edge. She can still jump. She takes one hesitant step closer when a strong gust of wind pushes her back and something like a voice says, This is the home of a god, do not desecrate this place with your blood.
“Okay,” she says, a mixture of relief and fear clogging her throat, “Can I – can I go inside? It’s cold out here.”
The wind pushes her towards the home, so she takes that as permission.
It’s all marble and gold and fur, perfectly decorated and with many rooms and interesting things. But Psyche finds the bedroom, and in between the long journey outside of her village and the adrenaline of being caught by the wind and brought here, she’s exhausted. She climbs onto the soft bed without thinking, and is asleep the moment her head touches the pillow.
The moon is high in the sky by the time Eros returns home. He steps inside, and doesn’t light any of the torches out of fear of startling the girl. He finds her in his own bedroom, and only has a moment to stare at her silhouette against his white blankets before she’s stirring, pushing herself up looking around the room. Her eyes aren’t as good as his, so she can’t even see the outlines of objects. To her, it is complete darkness. “Who’s there?” she demands, voice scratchy from sleep, “What do you want?”
“I am a friend,” he says, not saying his name. He knows the impression mortals have of him, and the last thing she needs to hear is that he’s the god of passion while she lies helpless before him in his bed. “The wind brought you here because you threw yourself from the cliff face. Why would you do that?”
She sits up and pulls her knees to her chest. “I don’t want to talk to about it.”
He sighs, but doesn’t push. “I’m not here to make you do anything you don’t want to do.”
“What are you here to do?” she asks, “Why am I here?”
She sounds sad, and scared, and he wishes he could touch her. He wishes he could take her hands and kiss her forehead, but he can’t, not without hurting her. “I think it would be best if you stayed with me, for a while. Until you no longer find cliffs so tempting. I have a beautiful home, and am often gone while attending to my duties, so feel free to make full use of it.”
“What do you get out of it?” she demands.
He smiles, wry, and knows she cannot see it. “I suppose I could use a housekeeper.”
He meant it as a joke, but she perks up at the words. “A housekeeper? Really?”
“If you like,” he says, although there are nature sprites who tend to his home for him if necessary. “I apologize, we’ve been speaking in the dark this whole time. I’ll light the lanterns.”
He moves to do so, a flicker of flame already appearing on his fingertips when she screams, “NO! DON’T!”
Eros freezes. “Psyche?”
“You can’t look at me,” she says desperately, “Please. Not – not ever. If you saw me, you wouldn’t be so nice to me. I – I want you to be nice to me. Don’t light the lanterns.”
“Never?” he asks, and he’s already seen her from afar, he knows what she looks like. But it sounds as if she’s seconds away from away from crying, and it seems like it would only be a cruelty to tell her this now.
“Never,” she says, “please. Please.”
Staying away from home during the day is a small thing, what with his parent’s volcano always open to him, and he can see well enough in the darkness that he’s not in any danger of tripping over his own feet. “Very well, Psyche. If that’s what you want. We will only meet in darkness, and I shall never see your face.”
Psyche takes his offhand comment about housekeeping seriously. She’s never cleaned before, but she’s seen it done, it’s simple if not easy. The first time her hands blister and crack she can’t stop smiling for the rest of the day. She spends her days cleaning, and at first that takes up all her time. She’s unpracticed, and slow, and she falls into the same bed utterly exhausted. It leaves her no time to dwell on the life she left behind, or the hollow ache below her breastbone.
It’s hard work, and it leaves her ravenous. Before, she ate almost nothing and slept most of the day away. She doesn’t do that here, can’t, has more of an appetite than she’s had since she was a child. Nymphs bring food to the home, fruits and vegetables, bread and cheese and meat. At first she makes only simple meals, but as the cleaning takes less and less time she finds herself trying more things. Cooking is harder to get the hang of than cleaning.
Her friend comes to her at night, slipping into her room. She always knows when he’s there, even if she’s deep in sleep, and will wake up to speak to him. Psyche never leaves the bed, and he never comes from across the room. She sits up and listens to his voice, of the people he saw and things he did. She tells him the same, even though at first she thinks he does not care. But he does, because he asks her questions and compliments her on polishing the floors until they shine. One night after a particularly bad failure, the first thing he does is ask, “Did you try and burn down my kitchen, Psyche?”
He’s laughing, so she throws a pillow at him, and is satisfied by the dull thud of it hitting true and his laughter growing louder. “If I had tried I would have succeeded, and you would have come home to an ash pile.”
“Then I’m pleased by your restraint,” he says, and she scowls at him even though he can’t see it. “What was that horrible smell supposed to me?”
“Lamb,” she says, sighing. “I don’t think I’m a very good cook.”
“Perhaps not. Why don’t you try doing something else? What else do you enjoy?” he asks.
She sits cross legged on the bed and frowns. “I don’t know,” she says finally, “I’m a poor artist and a worse singer. I have no eye for needlework. I like knowing things, but I’m not a fan of learning. I – I like cleaning. I like using my hands.”
“Focus on what you like. Try to do some things with your hands. The garden could use some looking after,” he suggests.
“I do have to eat,” she points out, “I might as well learn to cook.”
He snorts. “Spare both yourself and my kitchen. Don’t worry about that. Worry about the mint that’s taking over the rose bushes.”
She doesn’t know what he means until she gets up the next morning and finds a day’s worth of food waiting for her, already made and much tastier than anything she’s managed. Next to it is a book on gardening.
This, she has a knack for. It is a god’s garden, so it has always been beautiful, but under her hands it becomes even more so, flourishing and vibrant under her attentions. She plants flowers that bloom and glow at night, so that her friend may walk through the garden and be greeted by something that doesn’t slumber.
Her hands are calloused and hard, and dirt gets stuck under fingernails. Her hair is a sweaty mess and breaking at the ends, and her skin is tanned in patches, her arms and the back of neck darker than her stomach and thighs. Freckles pop up in unexpected places, on her wrists and shoulders, a single one slightly off center of her sternum.
She has never felt more beautiful.
Psyche is stronger now, food and hard work having thickened her waist and brightened her eyes. She does not fall asleep exhausted each night, but instead sits up waiting for her friend to visit her, eagerly listening to his adventures of the day and telling him of all the things she did, of the new plants she’s trying to grow and how the shrubbery is stubbornly growing in uneven heightd.
“My hands are all rough,” she tells him one night, like it’s a secret.
He doesn’t understand. “Have you tried rubbing olive oil in them?”
She laughs, and gets to her feet, confident she knows the room well enough that she won’t stumble or fall and walking towards his voice. “No, it’s a good thing, it’s never happened before. See?”
She reaches out and he shouts, “No! Don’t touch me–”
It’s too late, her hand has already blindly grabbed onto his arm. She lets go, “I’m sorry! I didn’t know–”
“We have to get you to Hermes, before the burns get too bad,” he says urgently.
Now she’s the one who doesn’t understand. “What burns?”
He quiets. “You’re not hurt?”
She flexes her hand, mystified. “No. Should I be?”
“I – everyone else always was,” he says.
“I’m not everyone else,” she says confidently, and takes another step closer. She grabs onto his arm again, fumbling until she can hold his hand in hers. He flinches, but doesn’t pull away from her. “See, I’m fine.”
Carefully, and oh so slowly, he curls an arm around her waist and pulls her forward until she’s flush against his chest and full lips press against her forehead. “I’m – I’m glad.”
He’s not just talking about her not being burned. She feels such a surge of affection for him in this moment, and being held in his arms she realizes something. She loves him, this man she’s never seen and doesn’t truly know. He’s kind and funny and has given her back a life she hadn’t known she’d lost. He’s never touched her or coveted her, and even now in his arms there’s nothing lecherous or uncomfortable about his touch.
That might change, if he saw her. If he knew how she looked, he might forget about the rest of her, and to lose his affection and regard now would kill her as surely as that fall from the cliff would have.
But he does not need to see her to touch her.
She shifts enough so that he raises his head, and gathers her courage. She presses their lips together, lightly at first, then less lightly when he returns it. “Come to bed,” she says, when they part, dizzy with emotions she’s never had before.
“Are you sure?” he asks, voice rough.
She’s never been more sure of anything in her life.
That’s her life now, her days filled with cleaning and gardening and her nights with her friend, her now lover. He’s never told her his name, and she doesn’t want to ask. He doesn’t see her and she doesn’t know his name. It seems better that way, more fair. She falls asleep in his arms every night, and he’s gone by the time she wakes, gone before the first ray of sunlight creeps through the window.
He loves her. It’s obvious, so incredibly obvious that she’s ashamed she didn’t notice before. He let her sleep in his bed even before they were sleeping together, gave over his home to her and requested nothing in return, listens to her and laughs with her. He loves her, and she loves him, and it’s time she trusted him.
She’s wide awake when he comes to her, greeting her with a kiss. He notices her stiffness and pulls back. “Is something wrong?”
“I think it’s time you saw my face,” she’s shaking, and she can’t stop it. She loves him and is terrified his love for her will change when he sees her.
She sits up in bed, and he kneels in front of her on the floor, holding her hands in his. “Psyche, you don’t have to if you don’t want to. It’s okay.”
She shakes her head, “No. I love you, and – and we should be together in the light of day, our love is too big to fit in this room anymore.”
He kisses her wrist and says, “Whatever you like.”
How will she live without this love? Hopefully she won’t have to find out. She reaches for a lantern and sets it in her lap, lighting it with careful fingers. A soft glow fills the room, and she squeezes her eyes shut, waiting.
A finger touches a spot on her sternum, then her shoulders, her neck, her cheeks, then the tip of her nose. “You have freckles,” he says, “I like them.”
She opens her eyes. Her lover is smiling at her, and he’s gorgeous, every bit as pretty as she is with dark eyes and even darker skin. Most importantly, he’s looking at her like a person, with love and affection. Not with something blank and othering like so many people have looked at her before, not like she’s an object or an art piece.
The tidal wave of relief is so great that she’s weak with it. She realizes her mistake a second later when the lantern slips out of her hands, spilling hot oil.
Her lover reacts faster than any mortal man could, pushing her out of the way and catching the lantern at an awkward angle, so most of the burning oil spills down his arms and chest. “No!” Psyche cries.
He looks down at his blistering skin with fascination, “That’s never happened before.” He winces, and clenches his hands as the burns spread along his body, as his skin cracks and bleeds.
“Lie down!” Psyche cries, grabbing the sheets and trying to mop up the oil, trying to stop it from spreading. “What were you thinking? You should have let it fall on me!”
It’s burning more than hot oil should, and she’s sobbing as tries to stop it. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he says, voice slurring as his eyes slide shut. “I would never let anything hurt you.”
“No!” she grabs his shoulders and shakes him, “Wake up! You have to wake up!”
He doesn’t respond. Psyche thinks back, frantic, to when he thought he had burned her when they first touched, to the person he said they needed. “HERMES!” she screams, “HERMES! A GOD NEEDS YOU!”
There’s a flash of light, and the messenger god of healing and is in front of them. “Eros,” he says, dropping down beside him and not looking at Psyche at all. “What happened to you?”
He touches his chest, and then they’re both gone.
Psyche is left alone crying next to an oil soaked sheet.
Hermes takes Eros to his parents, both of whom drop everything to come to his side. “What happened?” Hephaestus demands.
Hermes concentrates on containing the burns before they can spread any further. He can worry about healing them alter. “He dropped oil on himself.”
“He’s a god,” Aphrodite snaps, “no oil can harm him. Even if it could, it wouldn’t be able to do this.”
Hermes shoots them both a grin, “It seems like your boy’s fallen in love. Only true love could cool him enough to burn him, only true love could hurt him like this.”
It’s at that moment that Eros gasps awake. He reaches out, and Aphrodite takes his hand. “Mom,” he says, eye wide, “please, go to my house, there’s a girl there–”
“Did she do this to you?” she asks dangerously.
“It was an accident. I pushed her out of the way, I didn’t know I would burn,” he moans in pain, then grits his teeth against it. “Mom, please. Please go to her.”
She looks to Hermes, who’s busy mixing a salve. He doesn’t look up at her as he says, “Your son will be fine. I’ll take care of the burns.”
Hephaestus meets her gaze and gives a sharp nod. “Go, I’ll stay with him.”
Aphrodite doesn’t want to leave him, but gives in and does as her son asks of her.
She shows up just in time to stop the mortal girl from hurling herself from the mountain side. “What do you think you’re doing?” she snaps, and takes a moment to register that it’s the village girl she sent Eros to help so long ago. This wasn’t what she’d had in mind.
Her red eyes and tear soaked face does more to sooth Aphrodite’s temper than any excuses she could have given. “He’s dead,” she sobs, “I love him, and he’s gone, and there’s no reason for me to live any longer. Please, let me die.”
Aphrodite sees the glow of love on her, and knows the girl’s affection for her son is true. “He is not dead,” she hesitates and adds, “yet.”
True love has started wars and left all involved nothing but dust and regret. Her son deserved more than that. A love must not only be true – it must be pure.
“If you wish for him to live, you must help me,” she says.
Psyche prostrates herself before her, “Anything! I’ll do anything!”
Aphrodite moves them to warehouse full of mixed grains. “You must sort these before dawn. Barley is necessary for a poultice that will heal my son. Hurry.”
Psyche looks at all of them and despairs. But her lover needs her. Eros needs her.
She gets to work.
The night is halfway gone and she’s not even a tenth of the way complete. There’s no hope, her love will die, and there’s nothing she can do to stop it. She gives in, and is sobbing in the middle of the warehouse when she feels a tickling sensation on her hand. She looks down to see a small ant. “Why are you crying?” the ant asks.
“I need to sort all these grains, and I cannot do it,” she says, sniffling. “My lover needs the barely to heal.”
The ant considers this. “I will help you,” it declares, “and in return you must allow me to take all the beans from this store.”
“They are not mine to give,” Psyche says regretfully, “so I cannot accept your help.”
“Then your lover will die,” the ant says callously, and leaves.
She looks at the unsorted pile of grains. Not if she can help it.
Psyche shoves up her sleeves and gets back to work.
Aphrodite shows up, and Psyche is still working. She’s gotten through three quarters of the grains, and Aphrodite is impressed. She did not think she would manage to get through even half. The girl clearly hasn’t slept, and even now doesn’t pause in her work. “Lady,” she says, “I’m not done yet.”
“That is enough,” Aphrodite says, looking at the sizable pile of barley. She produces a glass bottle and puts it in front of her. “To stave of death while we make the poultice, we need water from the river Styx. There is a spout on top of my son’s mountain. You must collect this water and return it to me.”
Psyche’s shoulder’s slump, but she doesn’t hesitate when she takes the glass bottle. “I will do it.”
Psyche calls for the wind, begging it to take her to the top of the mountain. If the lady wishes, it says. She’s lifted into the air, and brought there. She’s freezing, and it’s hard to breath in the cold air. Dragons sit on either side of the spout, snapping their jaws at her. “Please!” she calls out, “I need the water of the river Styx! I act in the name of Aphrodite.”
They hiss and spit fire at her, and she clings to the side, trying to avoid the flames. “We are not commanded by the Lady Aphrodite,” a child’s voice says, and Psyche looks up to see a girl with black skin and grey hair looking down at her from the back of one of the dragons.
“Please,” Psyche says, “Lady Styx, grant me some of your river. Eros need it to live.”
Styx frowns, and says, “This is not a water which brings life.”
“Please,” she repeats, “I swear no harm will be done in your name, I swear my intentions are honest.”
The child goddess sighs and says, “Come and get it then. If my dragons’ flames pass through you, then you speak the truth, and may have some of my river. If you lie, then I shall see you again in the underworld.”
Psyche nods and walks forward, not breaking eye contact with the child goddess. The dragons screech and flame roars towards her and then – it goes through her. She reaches the top of the mountain safely. She holds out the glass bottle.
Styx laughs and fill it for her. “Happy travels,” she says, right before pushing her off the mountain. Zephyr catches her halfway down, and it takes several seconds for Psyche to stop screaming.
Zephyr deposits her back on the ground, and Aphrodite appears before her. Psyche hands over the bottle.
Aphrodite undoes it and pours the water out, and the grass dies wherever it falls. “It’s too late,” she says, and Psyche’s heart is in her throat, “the only thing left to do is to go to Persephone and beg a spark of life from her.” She slashes her hand down, and opening into the underworld appears. “Persephone will not grant any request of mine. You must go.”
She barely finished speaking when Psyche throws herself through the portal.
Aphrodite stares at the place where the girl stood, stunned. Hermes appears beside her. “Your son is well and only sleeps,” he says, “Isn’t this a bit unnecessary?”
“My son has a heart that will never stray. She must prove herself worthy of it,” Aphrodite answers.
Hermes stares, “You will petition Zeus for her?”
“If she proves herself worthy,” she says, then looks at the place where she poured out the incalculably dangerous water of the river Styx. “She’s doing quite well, so far.”
Psyche stumbles as she goes through the portal and falls on her knees. This ends up being rather lucky, as it’s taken her to the throne room of the palace of the underworld. Not only is Persephone there, but so is Hades and a god she thinks might be Thanatos. Both Persephone and Thanatos throw Hades narrow eyed looks, which he ignores. “Miss Psyche,” he says, “we’ve been expecting you.”
“Have we,” Persephone says dryly.
Psyche shuffles forward until she’s kneeling in front of Persephone and presses her forehead to the cool obsidian floor. “Lady Goddess,” she says, “I beg a spark of life from you.”
Persephone rises from her throne, and circles her with slow measured steps, her face blank and cold. “I’ve seen you garden,” she says finally, “you have quite a talent with plants.”
“Thank you, Lady,” she says.
Persephone crouches and grabs her chin, jerking up her chin to get a good look at her. “Well, aren’t you a pretty little thing,” she murmurs. “I will give you a spark of life. In return, you must give me your beauty.”
“Take it,” Psyche begs, elated the price is so small, “I don’t want it, I’ve never wanted it. All I want is Eros.”
Her coldness melts away, and the goddess of life and death shakes her head, a small smile curled around the corner of her lips. “He chose well,” she says.
Psyche doesn’t understand until there’s another rip in the air, and her lover steps through. He looks healthy, alive and well. “Eros!” she cries, forgetting her place and standing in the presence of the king and queen of the dead. Before she can kneel once more, Eros runs to her and picks her up in his arms, raising her into the air and spinning her.
“I was so worried about you,” he says, kissing her, then kissing her tears away.
“I thought you were dying!” she says, running her hands over his chest and shoulders and nearly falling in relief when the skin there is whole and unburned.
He winces and kisses her once more, “My mother – I asked her to help you, not test you. I’m sorry.”
“You should be grateful,” Hades says, and they both turn to face him. “Psyche has proven herself, and Aphrodite intends to contest Zeus so that she may stay by your side for eternity.” He smiles, “If Aphrodite is unsuccessful, come to me. I will do what I can.”
They both bow to him, and then are gone in the next moment.
Aphrodite goes to Hephaestus, “You are his son, Zeus would want the request to come from you.”
“You are his daughter,” he shoots back, even as he paces.
She sighs, “I was born of his blood and sea foam. It is not the same, and you know it.”
Hephaestus gives a grudging nod. Neither of them are favorites among Olympus, so he goes to someone who is.
Ares looks at him consideringly. “You should ask Mom yourself. Father will do as she says.”
“Hera hates me,” Hephaestus snaps. “She will reject my son’s request if I’m the one to present it.”
Ares grabs the back of his brother’s neck, pulling them together until their foreheads touch. Some tension gradually bleeds out of Hephaestus. “Try, for me,” Ares says. “If she denies you, I will ask her, and she will not deny me.”
Hephaestus goes to Mount Olympus when Zeus is gone and kneels before Hera. He looks up, and can’t help but think that Ares is right – they have her eyes. Eros has her eyes too. “My son has fallen in love with a mortal girl whom he wishes to marry. I petition you to allow her to become immortal.”
He’s braced for anything, shoulders hunched. Her laughter, her scorn, for her to throw him from Mount Olympus like she did when he was freshly born. “Would this make you happy?” she asks.
He blinks, mouth open. Is this some other cruel trick, to force him to admit it’s something he wants only so she can take greater pleasure in denying him? “Yes,” he says, because it’s true. It will make Eros happy, and when his son is happy, he is happy.
“Very well,” Hera says coolly. “We will have the wedding on Mount Olympus, and once they exchange vows she will become like us.”
He stares, frozen in shock. He didn’t expect it to be that easy. He’s never heard of anyone requesting anything from Hera and just getting it besides Ares.
“Was there anything else?” she asks.
Hephaestus shakes his head, “No, my queen. Thank you.”
He’s gone before she has a chance to respond, before she has a chance to change her mind.
Eros and Psyche’s marriage is the event of the century. Gods great and small show up for it, even Hades is convinced to leave his realm to attend.
They pledge their lives to each other, and Hera officiates as the goddess of marriage. Once they swear their loyalty to one another, she takes a small square of ambrosia and hand feeds it to Psyche. She swallows it in two bites, and when she’s finished she glows with her new status as an immortal.
Eros grabs Psyche and dips her.
When he kisses her, the gods’ cheering is loud enough that it causes thunder storms all across earth.
Chapter 19: Hera Leaves Olympus
Olympus has fallen.
It’s marble columns lay cracked and broken. The sun doesn’t pass over it anymore. Hestia’s fire pit has been empty and cold for decades, with nothing left on the mountain to fuel it.
Olympus has fallen, yet Hera and Zeus are still there.
Ares has tried talking to his mother. He long ago gave up any hope of trying to save his father, but Hera isn’t touched by madness like Zeus is. All that keeps her there are her oaths of marriage and loyalty, all that chains her to the crumbling remains of what they once were is her marriage to Zeus, who will only be convinced to leave Olympus on a funeral pyre.
Ares begs. He cries. He does anything and everything he can to convince his mother to leave, but she only touches his face with cold hands and presses her cracked lips to his cheek. She won’t leave her husband.
She won’t be moved by him. So he has to find someone she will be moved by.
He’s down in the underworld, where he spends so much of his time now. Persephone is often there as well, but she only smiles at him, is never angered by his presence in her realm or her husband’s bed.
(“You worry too much,” Icarus tells him, early on when they are both young and fumbling and in love with the same man. “She is not a jealous woman. Hades loves us all – he simply loved her first.”)
But it is neither Hades nor Persephone who he seeks today. He goes to the edge of the underworld, ever expanding and changing, because it is where she likes to be best. “Hecate!” he calls out, “I request an audience.”
There’s a shiver in the air, and the goddess of magic stands in front of him. He doesn’t know what to think of her, the woman who’s so close to his lover and who raised his brother. He’s never been able to find a title that fits her quite right.
“Ares,” she greets, “to what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Staying by Zeus’s side is killing my mother,” he says. “I’ve tried to get her to leave, but she won’t listen to me.”
Her lips quirk up at the corners. “Listening has never been her strength. What do you expect me to do about it? I’ve tried to get her to leave Zeus before. I failed before, and I will fail again.”
“I know. I don’t want you to talk to Hera. I want you to talk to Hephaestus,” he says
Hecate’s eyebrows rise. He’s managed to surprise her. “If he won’t listen to you, why would he listen to me?”
“I haven’t tried asking him,” he says. “He doesn’t believe anything I say of our mother. He’ll believe you.”
“And what makes you think I have anything positive to say of her? She’s a petty snake – she’s lied and manipulated and outright killed to get what she has.”
“Yes,” Ares says. “And what does she have?”
Hecate smiles at him.
Hephaestus is startled to discover Hecate in his kitchen. She rarely leaves the underworld. “Aunt,” he says. It’s what he’s called her his whole life. She’d always refused the title of mother. “Is something wrong?”
“Yes,” she says, and he snaps to attention. “Hera rots away on Olympus for loyalty to a man who has never showed her the same devotion.”
“How is that my problem?” he snaps, stung. Hecate has never brought Hera up to him before. He can’t think of why she would do so now.
She grabs one of the apples from his fruit bowl and bites into it. She looks at him thoughtfully as she chews. He crosses his arms and glares. She swallows and asks, “Have you really not figured it out yet? I raised you to be smarter than this.”
“Speak plainly.” It’s something he said often in his adolescence. Styx used to just try and drown Hecate when she became cryptic.
“Hera is your mother. She bore you and her blood runs strong in your veins.” He’s about to snap at her again when she says, “But you are not a son of Zeus’s blood, and he has never been able to forgive you for being a child of his wife but not of him.”
His legs are mostly metal, but he still loses feeling in them and has to grab for the edge of the counter. “What?”
Hecate’s eyes go distant. “She was so desperate for a child when she had you. So young, all things considered.”
He sits down across from her, “Tell me everything.”
Hephaestus is reeling even as he climbs the crumbling, ashy remains of the once great Mount Olympus.
Hera has always seemed unbreakable to him. As cold and perfect as marble, a mother in name only who tossed him to his death when he was only a few hours old.
It was all a lie.
She went against her very nature as a goddess to conceive him, something she’s never done before or since. She carried him and bore him alone, and fought against Zeus to save him when blood was still slick between her thighs.
She gave him over to Hecate to protect him. He grew up in the underworld not because he was something forgotten and useless, but because he was cherished. He was raised in the underworld to keep him safe, not to keep him away.
She gave him his name, gave him his life, and has loved him silently all these years.
He could have grown up on Olympus, could have grown up with her. She would have cared for him as fiercely as she cared for Ares. He could have grown up with Ares, could have known his brother when he was small and straining towards freedom, wouldn’t have met him for the first time as a brash adolescent sneaking into his volcano.
If it weren’t for Zeus throwing him from this very mountain when he was only a few minutes old, he could have grown up with a real family.
He loves Hecate. He loves Hades. Styx was his best friend growing up.
But it’s not the same. And it’s not fair.
Hera is beautiful, even as she’s dying.
Her hair is piled on top of her head in intricate curls, and her dress is silk. But she’s so thin it looks as if even sitting on her throne tires her. She’s too pale and her skin is bruised, her eyes sunken.
Zeus lays slumbering in his throne beside her. He swings from mania to exhaustion with nothing in between.
“Hephaestus,” she says. Even as the rest of her body deteriorates her eyes are as bright and sharp as ever. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
He falls to his knees in front of her, and her eyes widen. “Staying here and clinging to a power that doesn’t belong to us anymore is killing you. It’s time to leave.”
“I am the goddess of marriage and family. As long as my husband remains here, so shall I,” she informs him, head tilted arrogantly so she can stare down at him.
“We aren’t the gods of anything anymore,” he says, “not really.”
She looks away from him and her lips twitch like she’s not trying not to smile. “No. I suppose not. But I am still a wife, and with my husband I will stay.”
“The goddess of marriage and family,” he repeats, “What of Ares? Of Hebe?”
“Hades looks after Ares. Hebe is fully grown, and has been for many centuries.” Something he can’t explain passes over her face. “Someday, all children must say goodbye to their mother for the last time. None of us are exempt from that, not even gods.”
He places his hands on her lap, palm up. She blinks, looking rapidly between his hands and his face. He can’t remember if he’s ever touched her before. “Hera of the Heights, of Argos, of the Mound. Hera the cow eyed, white armed goddess of marriage and of family. Hera, queen of the gods.” He flexes his hands, and she slowly places her cold hands in his. “Mom. You once saved me from death by Zeus’s hand. Let me do the same for you now.”
She becomes impossibly paler and tries to yank her hands away, but he doesn’t let her. “What are you – I don’t know what you’re talking about. Let go of me!”
“Hecate told me. She told me everything.” He kisses her knuckles. “Leave this mountain. Leave Zeus. Come with me.”
She looks to her slumbering husband, a mere shadow of the man he used to me. “I love him.”
“You hate him too,” he says. “Denounce your status as a goddess and come with me. Mom, please.”
“It was always such a thin line between the two with us, between love and hate,” she says, still looking at him. “He’s mine. I chose him, and I made him choose me. I did this, to the both of us. I should stay.”
Hephaestus presses her hand to his cheek, and her gaze finally skitters back to him. “I’m yours too. Ares is yours. Hebe is yours. Don’t die for you husband. Live for you children.”
“You’ve never cared about me before,” she says. “You shouldn’t bother. Just because I didn’t throw you down this mountain doesn’t mean I’ve ever been a mother to you.”
“Maybe this is our chance then,” he says, “maybe this is our last chance to be something more than strangers. Come with me, and be something other than Zeus’s bride and queen.”
She’s too sickly to walk. Hephaestus carries her down what remains of Moiunt Olympus in his arms. When they’re halfway down the skies open and ligntning crashes down around them. The claps of thunder aren’t loud enough to drown out Zeus’s anguished screams.
Hera hides her face in her son’s shoulder and weeps.
Hephaestus’s metal legs don’t hesitate or miss a step the whole way down the mountain.
Olympus has fallen.
Only Zeus remains.
Chapter 20: Apollo and His Daughters
Apollo has many sons.
He only ever has nine daughters.
He has his first when he’s young, too young to know better.
Daphne is beautiful and coy, and leads him on a merry chase. He catches her, and finally silences her laughing mouth with his own. They sleep together, and she leaves bite marks up his neck.
Her father, the river god Peneus, finds out about them. Apollo had not known it was secret. Peneus is a hard, selfish god, and he slits Daphne’s throat for her impurity. Better a dead daughter then one who does not listen.
Apollo finds out too late. He arrives to Daphne dead on the side of her father’s riverbank, stomach swollen in a way Apollo doesn’t remember it being the last time he saw her, which was – which was – it couldn’t have been that long, could it?
He cuts open her stomach, throat too tight to call for his sister’s help, heart too tight to bear anyone else looking at Daphne’s slack, bloody face.
The child is still warm.
The child is still alive.
He cannot bring himself to bury Daphne, to sentence her to an afterlife beneath the earth. Instead, he transforms her into a large laurel tree, so her beauty will remain eternal. He presses a hand against her trunk and says, “My hair will have you, my lyre will have you, my quiver will have you.” Apollo looks down at the baby, too small, tucking into the crook of his arm. “Our daughter will have you.”
He calls her Calliope. Their daughter weaves laurel leaves into her hair every day of her life.
When he is older, but not wiser, he gets drunk on the top of Olympus. It is not the first time, nor the last, but this time it is different.
This time Hestia, goddess of the hearth, of warmth, of family, places her delicate hand around the back of his neck and leads him to her rooms.
Months later, he lands his chariot, the sun finally set. His arms are shaking, and his legs are covered from burns when the sun grew tired and tried to consume him, but could not. Hestia stands before him, something held in her arms. “What’s wrong?” he asks roughly, throat dry and the skin of his lips cracking. Hestia rarely leaves Olympus.
“I am no mother,” she tells him, and he doesn’t understand until she places a warm, squirming bundle in his arms. He holds it to his chest automatically. “Her name is Terpsichore.”
She leaves before he has the chance to question her. He looks down, and the baby has his golden eyes and her dark hair. “Hello, little one.”
Calliope is fully grown now. Apollo leaves Terpsichore in her care, and promises to come when called.
“Yes, Father,” Calliope says, rolling her eyes as her little sister grabbing fistfuls of her curly hair. There’s an ink smudge across her face, and her home is bursting with books. He should really talk to Athena about letting Calliope use one of her libraries.
He kisses both their foreheads before leaving.
Apollo falls in love with a Spartan prince, graceful and strong and with a wide, pretty mouth. He falls in love with a mind that can match him, with a smile that leaves him breathless. Hyacinth captures his affections and attentions utterly, and for a few short years Apollo is enchanted, for a few short years Apollo feels a love deep in his chest that is only surpassed by the love he has for his sister.
Then Hyacinth is killed.
He shows up at his daughters’ door, and Calliope and Terpsichore take one look at him and usher him inside. He can’t bring himself to speak, but he’s covered in blood that isn’t his own, is pale and shaken and mourning.
They clean him and care for him and settle him to bed, although he cannot bring himself to sleep.
Less than a week later, there is a mortal woman there looking for him. Her eyes are red, but she stands tall and her lips are pressed into a straight line. A toddler who shares her dark coloring clutches her skirt. “I am the Princess of Sparta, and wife of Hyacinth.”
Apollo hadn’t known Hyacinth had a wife. He hadn’t asked. Surely he would have noticed – but then again, perhaps not. Love makes people stupid. “I am sorry for your loss.”
“As I am sorry for yours,” she says in return, which surprises him. “Sparta must have a prince. I am to be remarried.” She brings the little girl forward, and she can’t be more than a couple years old. “This is Urania, the child of myself and my husband. I have been ordered to kill her.”
Apollo flinches. He knows such things are done, but – she is Hyacinth’s daughter. “I will take her.”
She smiles. “I thought you might.” She kisses the girl on both cheeks, hands her to Apollo, then leaves as quickly as she’d came.
Urania watches them with big liquid eyes that she got from her mother. He stays with his daughters for a year after that, playing with Urania and watching Terpsichore dance and listening to Calliope’s beautiful poetry. Urania loves the stars. She stares up at them each night, and Apollo patiently explains the name of each one.
When she is fully grown, he begs a piece of ambrosia off Hestia and feeds it to her.
Urania is his daughter as surely as if his blood ran through her veins. He cannot bear to watch her age and die.
Marpessa chooses Ida over him, but it is too late. She already swells with his child, and he could use that to keep her. He could force her to stay at his side, she loves him, she said so, it would not be such a cruel thing.
But she is not wrong in her assessment. Apollo is immortal, and will not grow old with her, will not change with her, will not die with her. Ida will.
There’s fear on her face, and he thinks she deserves it, for proclaiming to love him and choosing another. But he is not interested in keeping her captive for a lifetime.
“Have the child, and give it to me,” he commands, “and I will leave you to your life.”
Ida is furious in his jealousy that Marpessa will bear a child for Apollo before she bears a child for him, so there is that comfort, at least.
Artemis delivers the child to ensure it goes smoothly. She’s beaming as she holds her niece. “What will you call her?”
“You choose,” he says, running the back of his finger over the babe’s soft cheek.
His sister considers the squalling child for a long moment before she says, “I think you should name her Thalia.”
“Thalia it is,” he says.
She’s mischievous, and reminds him of himself on his worst days. She grows, and pulls pranks on nymphs and deities. Her older sisters are constantly straining to keep her out of worse trouble.
He gets a frantic message from Calliope that Thalia has gone missing, and he eventually finds her at the edge of a scorched battlefield, the soldiers long gone but the bodies and stench remaining. He’s furious at her for going to a place so dangerous, but when he marches up to her he sees something that he hadn’t expected.
She’s hallway through a story about pranking a wood nymph that he knows is at least half lies and a quarter exaggeration. Curled up on the ground, clutching his stomach as he laughs so hard he can’t breathe, is Ares.
Apollo hasn’t seen the tormented god of war this carefree since he was a child.
Thalia finally notices him, and cuts herself off, paling. “Oh, uh. Hi Dad.”
Ares is downright giggling. “Hello Thalia,” Apollo crosses his arms and glares, “You shouldn’t go wandering away from your sisters.” She winces and nods, ducking her head to look up at him through her eyelashes, doing her best to look contrite and innocent.
It might have worked, if Apollo hadn’t taught her that look himself.
He sits down on the ground next to Ares, who doesn’t acknowledge his presence beyond shifting enough to use Apollo’s thigh as his pillow. “Well,” Apollo says, “keep going.”
Thalia lights up and launches back into the story, and when she finishes she continues into another which is mostly true and somehow even more ridiculous.
Because he’s an idiot with a death wish, Apollo ends up spending a month with Hecate in the underworld. He stumbles out one night when she falls asleep, because he feels if he doesn’t leave now there’s a possibility that he never will.
One of the most horrifying moments of his life is looking for the way out, and finding Hades instead. The god of death looks to him, walking around naked in his realm, to the direction he came from, and says, “That was you? Are you crazy?”
“It … it was a good time,” he says faintly.
“Obviously,” Hades shakes his head, and slices his hand down in the air in front of them, creating a doorway for Apollo out of his realm.
Apollo gives him a clumsy salute and steps through.
Roughly a year later, he’s playing his lyre when a little girl with black skin and grey hair and eyes appears in front of him. It’s terrifying enough that he accidentally snaps one of his strings.
“Lady Styx,” he says, voice higher pitched than normal. “Is there something I can help you with?”
The child snorts and reaches her hands into absolutely nothing and pulls out a baby. She holds it out to him. “Hecate says this is your problem now.”
Improbably, the babe already has a mouth full of too-sharp teeth. Her eyes shift between every color, unable to decide, and there is something a little too knowing about her face for one so young. Artemis says he too was born knowing too much.
A child of Apollo and Hecate can only be a mistake, something that will never fit quite well among others of her own kind.
He sighs and take the baby. “Very well.”
“I like the name Clio,” the child goddess says before leaving him.
Thalia tells him it’s too small and to give it back. Urania is fascinated, and takes over most of the child’s care, which is likely for the best since Calliope is neck deep into a new epic, and would be cross if she needed to pull her attention from it to rear a child.
As Clio ages, she stays just as unsettling and strange. Hephaestus shows up around the time she starts breaking into Athena’s libraries, even though stunts like that get people worse than killed. “I don’t know why she gave her to me,” Apollo says as they watch the teenager devouring a stolen tome on the history of the Persian Empire. “Hecate raised you, I don’t understand why she didn’t want to raise her actual daughter.”
“You’re a better parent than she is,” he says thoughtfully. Apollo gives him an unimpressed look, but he says, “I’m serious. Your girls are turning out to be quite lovely – all of them.”
“Of course they are,” he says, nose in the air, but grins when Hephaestus elbows him the side.
By the time she’s an adult, Clio is easily one of the most accomplished scholars to ever exist. She and Athena regularly get into academic debates that last weeks, and scare off anyone from daring to come closer.
She stays strange, and too smart, and Apollo loves her utterly.
Apollo is lying on the beach when a large wave overtakes him and drags him into the sea. He struggles for the surface, but can’t seem to shake the waves, and is dragged to the sea floor. He’s a god, so he won’t suffocate, but he’s terrified when the water drags him down to Poseidon’s palace and deposits him in front of his wife. “Apollo,” she says, “I can see what your daughters will become.”
He has no idea what she’s talking about. “Excuse me?”
Amphitrite grabs his jaw and pulls him closer. He doesn’t dare resist. She looks into his eyes, then smirks. “The god of prophecy doesn’t know that which he has wrought. How … ironic.”
“Is it?” he wonders. He really hopes she doesn’t kill him.
“Quite,” she smirks, and with a flick of her wrist she’s naked before him. “I wish for one of your daughters to be mine as well. Lie with me.”
“Uh,” he says eloquently, because Amphitrite has never given her husband any children, he hadn’t even known she could. If he sleeps with her, Poseidon might kill him, regardless of how many people the god of the sea sleeps with that aren’t his wife. But if he refuses her, she might kill him, and it’s not like having sex with Amphitrite is any sort of hardship. She’s as gorgeous as she is terrifying. “Okay.”
He’s deposited back on the shore the next day, feeling oddly used.
If Poseidon has any opinions on Apollo knocking up his wife, he doesn’t voice them.
Amphitrite doesn’t foist the baby upon him as soon as she’s born. Instead years pass, and one day a dark skinned, amber eyed sea god shows up at his door. There’s a teenager at his side, who has Apollo’s coloring and Amphitrite’s bone structure, and hair that shimmers golden-green in sunlight. “Glaucus,” Apollo greets warily, “and who might this be?”
“I call her Erato,” Glaucus says, “I’ve raised her since birth. It’s time for her to join her sisters.”
Erato is not as terrifying as her mother. Instead there’s a sweetness about her that she must have gotten from Glaucus. She’s shy at first, and spends many days looking out into the sea. But his daughters are persistent, and soon she’s laughing and joining them. There’s something dreamy about her, and she loves love, writes romantic ballads and beautiful poems, so much so that Aphrodite commends her talent.
Erato is also the most like him in the area of her love life, meaning she leaves behind a constant trail of heartbroken men and women.
Calliope complains about the constant wailing around their home, and Clio proves she has some of her mother’s talent with magic when she casts an unplotable spell around their home so former lovers stop following Erato home. Of course, she forgets to tell both Apollo and her sisters about this, and it’s very confusing for everyone until Clio remembers to tell them where the house is.
His daughters’ home is a place of constant music, poetry, and literature. He thinks he’s starting to suspect what Amphitrite was talking about.
Not all hunts are easy things.
Apollo feels the moment his sister is wounded, the arrow through her abdomen as painful for him as it is for her. He’s in his chariot, and he can’t leave it, if he leaves his chariot unattended the son will consume it, and then consume the earth. “Calliope!” he snaps, and his eldest daughter appears by his side.
“Father?” she asks, huddling into him and away from the sun. “What’s going on?”
“Artemis is hurt, I have to help,” he says urgently, and places the reins into her hands. “You can do this.”
She pales, but steps forward, keeping a white knuckled grip on the chariot. “Go.”
He kisses his forehead, and goes to his sister. Her huntresses have set up an honor guard around her, defending and dying as cruel faced giants draws closer. “ARES!” he screams, and he doesn’t know what they’re fighting for, what this war is about, but it doesn’t matter. “WE NEED YOU!”
The god of war appears, and he’s clearly come from some other battle, covered in mud and other worse things. He throws himself into the battle, but it’s not until they gain more aid that the tides turn in their favor.
He first sees Erato on the field, water swirling around her as she slices through them all, the power of her mother making her golden eyes glow. Clio is at her back, the glittering magic Hecate passed on to her filling her hands.
Thalia has long curved knives flying from her fingers, and all who face her don’t figure out they’re dead until she’s already left them behind. Urania is letting loose arrows against the giants and though she’s not his by blood, not a goddess by birth, none would know it watching each of her arrows hit true and take down another enemy.
Terpsichore uses her honed abilities of dance differently here on the battlefield, twirling and ducking around enemies with her sword flashing as it slices through all who go against her. Celestial fire licks up the sword, and the daughter of Hestia and Apollo is laughing as she dances through the battlefield.
He wants to yell at them, to tell them to get off the battlefield, to get to safety. But it is thanks to them that the fight is being won, so he says nothing.
Ares looks around, grimaces, and catches Apollo’s eye before he disappears from the battle. They must be invoking his name. Apollo is only grateful he managed to stay as long as he did.
The giants are all dead by the time Apollo manages to make it to his sister’s side. She’s pale and covered in blood, her huntresses seated around her and trying to stop the bleeding. “What were you thinking?” Apollo demands, grabbing her hand and pushing her hair from her forehead. Terpsichore comes forward and lays her burning sword against the wound, sealing and cauterizing it at once. Both Apollo and Artemis scream
“They – took – a – child,” she pants, leaning in for his touch, for his comfort, and he has never been able to deny her anything. He pulls her up, biting back a scream at the pain that rips through them both, and props her up against his chest. “A – nymph’s child. Zeus’s child. They killed – it’s mother. That – that sort of injustice will – will not be – tolerated.” She lays her head back against his shoulder, tears leaking from the corner of her eyes, and Apollo almost wishes the battle were not over, because he wants to murder something.
“I’ll get it,” Erato says, and a moment later she returns with a toddler in her arms. She has the copper skin of Zeus, and pale blonde hair. “What do we do now? Zeus does not care for his children.”
“I think it’s time you became a big sister,” Thalia says, and Erato looks stricken. “Right Dad?”
He looks to his sister, who nods. “I can think of no better place for her. She cannot stay with me – a hunting party is not place for children.”
“Very well,” he sighs. “Does she have a name?”
The girl attempts to hide behind Erato’s hair, then says, “I am Euterpe.”
“Welcome, Euterpe,” he says.
It’s then that the sun finally sets, and Calliope stumbles into existence next to them. She’s covered in deep, bleeding burns, but it’s not as bad he feared it would be. She’s certainly faired better at her first time driving the chariot than he had. “What’s happening? Is everything all right?”
“We have a new sister,” Thalia says brightly, even as Clio rushes forward to tend to her burns.
Euterpe, thankfully, seems to inherit none of Zeus’s madness. She has a singing voice like a clear bell, and soon surpasses even Calliope’s talent with the lyre.
He knows, technically, that Euterpe is his half-sister. But it takes him no time at all to regard her as his daughter, to love her with same simple ferocity as he loves her sisters.
For a while, all is well, is quiet. His daughters are all fully grown, accomplished and beautiful.
Then Demeter corners him when he’s walking through quiet city and pins him against an alley wall. “If Amphitrite thinks she can one up me over this,” the goddess hisses, “she’s sorely mistaken.”
At least this time he knows what’s going on when Demeter starts pulling her dress off. “You can’t raise the child,” he says. He’s not adverse to laying with Demeter, although at this rate it looks like there will be less laying and more standing against a rough alley wall. But Demeter only knows how to love in a way that crushes all it touches. He won’t let her do that to his child.
“Fine,” she snaps, “Now get moving.”
He’s vaguely terrified the whole time, and it mostly reminds him of his month with Hecate. He’s left alone and naked in the alleyway an hour later.
Nine months later, a baby is delivered to his door by a nervous wood nymph. His daughter still has the squashed appearance of a freshly born baby. “She didn’t waste any time,” he comments, settling her into the crook of his arms. “Does she have a name?”
“Polyhymnia, my lord,” the wood nymph says, then bows before fleeing.
He brings her to the home where all his daughters live.
She grows, and she’s the spitting image of Demeter, of Persephone back when she answered to the name Kore. Her voice is lower than Euterpe’s, but just as pretty and when they sing together it’s the most beautiful sound he’s ever heard. She’s quiet, and thoughtful, her big brown eyes watching all around her with a measured stare.
Polyhymnia asks after her mother, something none of the others had done, and Apollo doesn’t know what to say. The truth is too callous, but he can’t bear to lie to her. Instead he begs an audience with Persephone, and says, “Your sister asks after the mother you share. I don’t know what to tell her.”
Persephone has no advice to offer, but she starts spending some of her time outside of the underworld with Polyhymnia. It is enough, and her questions stop, and Apollo tries not to feel guilty that he never really answered them.
Cassandra is unlike any woman he’s ever met, unlike any person he’s ever met, and the flames of love and passion burn inside him in a way they haven’t since his Hyacinth died.
She’s bull headed and irritating, and whenever he tries to complain about it Artemis rolls her eyes and his daughters laugh at him. He supposes he’s not doing a very good job hiding that he’s in love with her. Not even from her, because at one point she crossly asks if he’s ever planning to do anything with her, or if she should accept the offer from the butcher’s son.
They don’t leave her house for five days.
She is curious, hungry for knowledge, hungrier for it then she is of him. She wants to know impossible things, wants to be an impossible thing, and so Apollo laughs and takes her hand and says, “I will make you a bargain. I will give you the gift of prophecy, if you will grant me the gift of your hand.”
He’s never take a bride before. He hasn’t wanted to.
Cassandra is screaming and laughing, and she throws her arms around his neck and kisses him until she’s breathless. He takes it as a yes.
That’s when everything goes horribly, incredibly wrong.
It’s too much, all the horror she sees is too much, and Apollo tries to tell her to focus on the good, to see the happiness of the future. But she can’t, gets too caught up in too many wars, and she wastes away in front of his eyes even as her stomach swells.
He tries to take back the gift, tries to save her, but he can’t. It cannot be ungiven, and his headstrong, vivacious lover fades before his eyes. He only manages to alter it, to change it so no one believes the horrible things she cries to prevent the horror people feel when she looks at them and screams the way that they’ll die.
Artemis helps deliver their child, but halfway through her face goes pinched and worried, and Apollo knows that Cassandra won’t make it.
“I’m sorry,” he weeps, kissing her gaunt face, feeling the sharpness of her cheekbones under his lips, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know this would happen. I didn’t want this to happen.”
She looks at him with glassy eyes, barely reacts when Artemis places their child on her chest. There’s a growing pool of blood under her, but she can’t be saved, she will die, here, now.
Apollo wonders if she saw this coming.
She blinks, and meets his gaze with a sharpness and awareness he hasn’t seen for a long time. “She is your last daughter,” Cassandra says, “Melpomene is the last daughter you will have.”
He kisses her, his last chance to do so.
She’s dead before his lips leaves hers.
Apollo tries to flee, to run from the claws tearing apart his heart, but Artemis doesn’t let him. She yanks him back and pushes Melpomene into his arms. “You can’t leave,” she says harshly, “She needs you. Your daughter needs you. You’re not allowed to run.”
He crumples, leaning his head onto his sister’s shoulder as he sobs, and her calloused hand grasps the back of his neck. Melpomene is stuck between them, soft and warm and alive.
Melpomene is Thalia’s other half, her best friend, and they do everything together. Her dark hair is a mass of unruly curls just like her mother, her laughter is just like her mother’s.
She, like her sisters, is his pride and his joy.
Apollo has nine daughters
Calliope, who reigns over written epics.
Terpsichore, who reigns over dance.
Urania, who reigns over astronomy.
Thalia, who reigns over comedy.
Clio, who reigns over history.
Erato, who reigns over love poetry.
Euterpe, who reigns over song.
Polyhymnia, who reigns over hymns.
Melpomene, who reigns over tragedy.
They are known as the Muses.
Their hold loosens on the earth. Gods aren’t needed like they were before, their names are not chains like they were before. Some embrace this. Ares eagerly shakes off the power he’d never wanted, and Athena lets it pass through her hands like water, wise enough to know that attempting to hold onto it will only hurt her in end.
Some do not embrace this.
Demeter’s skin used to be dark.
It was the rich brown of potting soil, it was the fertile black earth that washed up from the Nile River. Her skin was deep, life-giving brown.
It’s not like that now.
It’s pale desert sand, cracks all along it like baked earth and tree roots searching for water that they can’t find. Her hair hangs thin and grey against her temple, and her dark eyes have turned milky.
She clings to her power over the earth by her fingertips, and she knows that she’s just delaying the inevitable. There’s no coming back from this, not really, the strings of her fate have long been woven. But she will not go quietly. The mortals may take the earth from her grasp, but she’s never been one to cross without consequences. She still isn’t.
Demeter goes to the sea. She hasn’t dared step foot in there since her birth, but now she has so little left to lose. The water’s barely to her knees before a wave rises up from the smooth ocean and drags her below.
Poseidon has long been absent from the sea, yet his palace stands as tall and imposing as ever. Because it was never really his palace, his kingdom, his power.
It was always hers.
“Well, well,” Amphitrite says, circling her with curious green eyes, “Time has not been kind to you, I see.”
“It has to you,” she says tightly. Amphitrite looks the same as Demeter saw her last, has aged even better the goddesses who shed their mantels of power the moment they became too heavy. Then again, Demeter expected nothing less. “I want to make a deal.”
“You have nothing I desire, Sister,” she says, smiling even though it feels like she’s mocking her.
Demeter almost laughs – oh, if they could see them now, if Hera or Hestia could see them now, see her now. How they would laugh, to see how low she has fallen. How they would shudder, to see the truth of what she is, what she has always been. “I have this.” She cuts open her chest and pulls out her heart – rich red, a heart that has not failed her, a heart that can feel love and pain and desire and fear and happiness.
“Sister,” she whispers, eyes wide, unconsciously moving away from her, “what are you–”
“I already know I don’t get to see how this ends,” she says, “I’m not someone he’s interested in saving and I’m certainly not someone she’s interested in saving. You have faired far better than me in that regard.”
Amphitrite’s hands are shaking. Demeter likes the way she’s gone impossibly pale, the fear in her eyes, the way she was so arrogant the moment before and know she isn’t. She has power over so little these days. She’ll take what she can get. “Give me your heart,” she says, “give me power over the sea, and I will grant you a heart with the capacity to feel all the emotions you are so fond of.”
The queen of the sea shakes her head, “Don’t do this, you don’t need to do this.”
“I am Gaia,” she says, hard, speaking a name she hasn’t used in a long, long time. “I am Mother Goddess to all, the first to walk this plain, and your elder sister. You will not deny me.” They call her Demeter. She was born Demeter. But she was something else, something far greater, before she risked it all to be born a lowly goddess. “I gambled, and I lost this game. But I will not go out without a fight.”
“You were second to walk this plain, technically,” Amphitrite says softly, eye lowered, showing vulnerability to Demeter that she wouldn’t show to anyone else. “Thinking this was a game was your first mistake. He never thought of it that way.”
She’s about to snap at her, then Amphitrite cuts open her chest and takes out her cold, dark heart. She slips her heart into her sister’s chest, and Demeter does the same, pushing her violently red heart into the darkness of Amphitrite’s chest. Demeter feels what little grasp on humanity she’d managed to maintain drain away, leaving only a pit of heavy coldness along her spine. A pink flush comes to Amphitrite’s cheeks and a smile tugs on her lips, her eyes warming with the emotions she hasn’t been able to feel since Poseidon left her.
Demeter can feel the power of the current beneath her, the water eager and ready to do her bidding. “Use my heart well,” Demeter tells Amphitrite, Gaia tells her little sister, before using the water to carry her far from where her sister and heart remain.
She will die. But her heart will on, her little sister will live on, and that will have to be enough.
Demeter leaves the sea and climbs the steps to what remains of Mount Olympus.
Only Zeus remains, and all that remains of him is skin and bones and sunken eyes. He maintains authority over the skies even though it’s killing him. He’ll maintain authority over it until it kills him.
She needs that power.
She doesn’t care if it kills her.
“My king,” she murmurs, kneeling before his crumbling throne. Their once great pantheon lies around them, nothing left but rubble and ash.
He almost meets her eyes, copper skin now sallow and black hair now white. “She left,” he tells her, high pitched and something terrifying in the edges of his eyes, “She left me – she was never supposed to leave me.” He reaches out and grabs her shoulder, bony hand surprisingly strong, “I miss her.”
Demeter only has one thing left to trade for Zeus’s power.
“Give me what our mother Rhea gave you,” she says softly, “Give it to me, and I will stay on Olympus and you can go to her.”
“There must always be one on Olympus,” he tells her. She doesn’t think he recognizes her. “As long as I am on Olympus, we’ll be fine. He can’t do anything if I’m here, as long as one of us is here. I am here.” Tears leak from his eyes and drip down his face. He doesn’t wipe them away. “She’s not here. She was supposed to be here. I did not want to be alone. She – she was supposed to stay. As long as she stayed by my side, she would be safe. She’s not safe anymore.” His face crumples, the truest expression of grief she’s ever seen from him. “Her sons think they can protect her, but they can’t. They can’t even protect themselves. Only I could keep her safe! But she left. She’s not safe anymore.” Quieter now, “I wanted her to be safe.”
“Give it to me,” she repeats, firmer. She doesn’t have the time for his existential crisis over his missing wife, nor does she have the energy to pretend she cares. “What did mother give you, Zeus? What do I need to take?”
“You can’t take it!” he screeches, scrambling back and away from her. “You can’t have it! I need it! Mother gave it to me, said I had to keep it safe, said I had to stay on Olympus. You can’t have it!”
Demeter growls and grabs the front of his too-big robes, pulling him upright, getting ready to yell at him.
Then she sees it.
His eyes are young, are brown and beautiful. They are eyes that haven’t aged.
Those are not the eyes he was born with.
He fights her, but the heart of Amphitrite beats in her chest, but the strength of Mother Gaia remains in her limbs even now. She plucks his eyes from his head like grapes from a vine. She wonders how old he was when Rhea did this to him, when the woman who called herself mother tore out her son’s eyes and put these ones in instead.
“No!” he sobs, and his voice is clearer somehow, there’s more strength to him even as his face is soaked in blood. “Demeter, do not – it is not your burden to bear!”
“It is no burden,” she says eagerly, “it is a gift.”
She swallows them whole, each eye getting stuck in her throat and she has to force it down. They are part of her, and after a disorienting moment she sees the world as Zeus has seen it his whole life.
It’s no wonder at all he went mad. She’s almost impressed he lasted as long as he did.
It will drive her mad too, but she doesn’t care. She’ll be dead long before that can happen.
“What have you done?” Zeus asks in horror, “Demeter – please, they’re not meant for power, they’re meant to save us. To save us all.”
“I am not Demeter,” she says, and presses her hand to his head, using some of the power coursing through her veins to stop his bleeding, to save him from the swiftly approaching death. “You want her? Go to her. Nothing is stopping you now. And it’s no use trying to stop me.”
Less than an hour later, Zeus takes hobbling, slow steps down Mount Olympus. He doesn’t want to, wants to stay, wants to fight her, wants to take back what she stole, but he can’t. He has no power and no strength and no eyes.
She sits on the abandoned, crumbling throne and curls her lips into a cruel grin.
She has dominion over earth, over water, and over air.
She will make these mortals beg for mercy before they kill her – Gaia, Mother to All, Earth Goddess.
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Styx does not have a home in the underworld, not really. She has a room in Hades’s palace, of course, and a nook in Hecate’s house. Charon has a cottage by her river, a humble thing for a being of such great power, and she’s shoved her way onto his narrow bed and curled into the warmth of his chest more than once. She darts through the horrors of Tartarus, and plays in the Elysium Fields.
All of the underworld is open to her, and she’s lived here the entirety of her existence. But she’s yet to find a piece of it that feels as if it belongs to her, that doesn’t feel borrowed.
Hecate brings home a baby with no legs beneath the knee and wide, curious eyes.
Styx adores him instantly.
Hecate is a busy woman – her duties in the underworld keep her constantly moving, and she spends much of her time shrouded in her secrets. She is the goddess of magic, and there are things that only she can do, things that other people can’t even know about. She is not a person with much time to spare, and babies take a lot of time.
Hades watches him often, directing the traffic of souls and overseeing construction with the child held to his chest. Charon fashions a sling, and the baby sleeps against his back while Charon ferries souls across her river.
Time passes. The baby is not like her.
The baby grows.
Hephaestus is a child, and he lives in a dangerous place. His aunt raises him, and she is a busy woman who does important things, and it seems to him like nothing in their home is safe to touch, that it is all cursed or corrosive or even, at time, sentient.
The palace is not much better. Hades always welcomes him, has a warm smile for him, but is too busy to linger. He walks on wobbly legs of glass that Aunt Hecate fashioned for him, and they allow him to walk, but they pain him too. He cannot run or jump, he cannot explore the edges of the underworld like he so desperately wants to because his legs are delicate, clumsy things. They are glass, and they shatter too easily.
“Don’t be sad,” a voice says in his ear, and he’s grinning before he even turns around. Lady Styx is there, smiling at him. She looks to be his age, although she is much older, and she has black skin and grey hair and eyes. Her skin is the color of her river’s water, and her hair and eyes the color of the foam when it rushes too fast. For as long as he can remember, she has always had kindness to spare.
“I’m not sad,” he says stubbornly. “Aren’t you busy?” She is a goddess, one as powerful and important as his aunt or Hades. He wants to grow up to be just like her.
She shrugs, “My river knows what to do. Do you want to go on an adventure?”
“Yes,” he says instantly. The only time he’s allowed to explore is when Styx is with him. If his glass legs break, she can carry him, and if anything tries to attack or hurt them, she can stop it.
She grabs his hand, smiling. It’s cold. She’s always cold, the same icy temperature as her river. “There are volcanos in Tartarus. Have I taken you there before?”
He shakes his head, and in the next instant they’re gone.
Styx and Hephaestus manage to get in all manner of trouble, including, but not limited to: accidentally giving Cerberus two extra heads, devising and implementing a manner of torture for Tantalus that is so brilliant Hades can’t even get mad at them for it, and figuring out it is possible to surf of Styx’s rough waters with glass legs, but only if you’re very, very stupid and have the goddess in question by your side and laughing so hard she forgets that her primary job here is to prevent you from dying.
When he’d found them, Hades had given them the worst admonishment he knew how to give: a disappointed frown. Hecate had laughed and told them to be careful of his legs.
Hephaestus’s childhood had its bright spots. Almost all of those bright spots included Styx.
Hephaestus looks older than her now, a young man when she is, as always, a child. He’s gotten quieter as he ages, his dark eyes permanently thoughtful.
“You shouldn’t come here without me,” she scolds, sitting down beside him. He doesn’t respond, swinging his hammer down on glowing metal with a boom loud enough that the volcano shakes with it. “You know Hecate doesn’t like you going into Tartarus alone.”
“You were busy,” he says, not accusatory, just a statement of fact. “Here, cool this for me.”
She sighs, but cool water rushes from her hands and onto the superheated metal. It hisses and steams, but when the air clears Hephaestus holds it up and appears to be satisfied. “Must it be in a volcano? We can make you a forge in safer part of the underworld.”
“Volcanos are useful,” he says, the same answer he always gives her. “I have more of these to do if you want to stick around.”
Helping him build whatever he’s currently working on is pretty boring. But he’s her friend, and it must be important if he’s risking his life by going into Tartarus on his glass legs to do it. “Sure,” she sighs slumping down to sit crosslegged next to him. He pats her on the head, which she’s all prepared to be insulted by - she’s a kid, but she’s not a kid – when she sees his lips curled up around the corners of his mouth. He’s making fun of her on purpose, which is still annoying, but is less hurtful than him treating her like a kid just because he looks older.
The first set of legs that Hephaestus makes for himself are made of iron. They’re not as pretty as he’d like them to be, but that’s all right. He can run in these legs, jump in them, fight in them. He is no longer a being made of glass, no longer someone who can be easily broken.
Styx is the first person he shows them to. He leaps and somersaults in them, something he could never do before. She’s delighted at first, smiling and clapping, but by the time he finishes, arms out-thrown and beaming, she’s wilted. She sits hunched and tries to keep her smile in place, but it’s trembling.
“What’s wrong?” he asks, kneeling in front of her. “I thought you would be happy for me.”
“I am!” she hiccups, and now she’s crying, big fat tears that he wants to wipe away but can’t. She cries the water of her river. If he touches them, he’ll burn. “I am happy!’
He risks it, tugging the end of his sleeve down to quickly wipe her left cheek, then ripping it and throwing the cloth away as it burns. “You don’t look happy.”
“You’re going to leave,” she says, and he goes cold. “You have legs, and now you’re going to leave, and I’m not. I am the Goddess of the River Styx, I must stay with my river. But you’re going to leave.”
His heart breaks seeing Styx cry. He loves Hecate, loves Charon, loves Hades. But if there is one person in this realm he can truly call family, it is her. They share no blood, but she’s the only sister he’s ever known. “I’ll visit! You can visit me too. I wasn’t born here, Styx. Hecate isn’t my mom. I was born on Olympus, and I can’t hide in the underworld from Hera forever. I don’t want to either.”
“I know!” she says, her breath coming in stuttering gasps as she tries and fails to stop crying. “You’re so smart, and all the things you make are amazing. You need to go out there, so other gods can see you, so that people can see you. I just – I’m going to miss you.”
He’s a god – a little river water won’t kill him. He pulls Styx into his arms, ignoring the pain in his shoulder as her tears burn through his skin. She resists for a moment, then goes slack, throwing her arms around his neck. He says, “I’m going to miss you too.”
Hephaestus does not want to cause an uproar. He’s had fantasies of storming Mount Olympus, of confronting Hera, of doing any number of foolish, stupid things. But he is not a foolish, stupid man.
Hecate has picked out a volcano for him already, one she tells fits all his requirements and is not in the domain of any other god, even the lesser ones. He will go slow. He will build, and improve the lives of the mortals. Temples will be erected in his honor, tributes placed at his feet, his name on all their lips. He’ll build his power the hard way, until they can ignore him no longer, until Hera and Zeus have no choice but to offer him a place at their table on Olympus.
But not yet.
For now, he builds something else, something even more important.
“Can I open my eyes yet?” Styx asks, pouting.
Hephaestus’s hands are on her shoulders, pushing her forward. “No.”
She scowls. She can tell they’re by her river, in a bend where no one travels through, but that’s it. Her knowledge of the geography of the underworld is always in relation to her river. “What about now?”
“Yes,” he says.
She wasn’t expecting it, so it takes her a moment to blink her eyes open. “Did you make this?”
“Hecate helped,” he admits, “I wasn’t sure what to do for things like curtains and windchimes. Do you like it?”
It’s a house. A small one, not much bigger than Charon’s. It’s made of obsidian, but not several pieces put together. It looks like the whole things was carved out of one massive piece of obsidian. The walls are black and smooth and shining. There’s a large, round bed in the center that’s a pale blue, the chairs in a deep purple, and her curtains are a soft yellow. The house is black, but Hephaestus has filled it with color, given her a rainbow tucked in every space. Copper pots hang in the kitchen, and there are signs of his forging everywhere – in the cabinets, the door knobs in the shape of flowers, the singular windchime hanging in her open window, even though there is no wind here.
“Do you like it?” he repeats. “I know you tend to just – end up wherever, but I thought you should have a place that was just yours. If you want something different I can change it–”
“No.” She swallows and touches her wall, the silver design in her walls that he must have inlaid himself. “It – it’s perfect.” Quieter then, “You gave me a home.”
No place in the whole of the underworld has ever felt like it belonged to her. This one does. It doesn’t feel borrowed.
Hephaestus ruffles her hair, “It seems only fair, since you did the same for me. This realm wouldn’t have been my home without you.”
They’re smiling at each other, and the tension she’d been carrying ever since she realized Hephaestus would be leaving drains out of her.
He’s older now, almost an adult, and he’s leaving the underworld. But he’s not leaving her.
“You’re my best friend,” she tells him, in case he’s forgotten.
“Good,” he tells her, “because you’re my best friend too.”
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The first time Kore throws herself into the River Styx, she is reckless and stubborn and feels like she has so little left to lose, only an overbearing mother she yearns to escape.
The first time Kore throws herself into the River Styx, she fights and swims and survives. She is picked up on the shore and carried to safety in Hades’s arms.
The second time Kore throws herself into the River Styx, she is reckless and stubborn and feels like she has everything to lose. She lets the water take her, and she drowns.
The second time Kore throws herself into the River Styx, it kills her.
Kore wakes up after falling unconscious while being carried by the King of the Underworld. Her skin is fully healed, no longer blistering and burning. She’s naked under the soft blankets, but she was naked when she dove into the river, so she’s not too worried about it.
“I didn’t know you were a goddess,” someone says, and she turns her head to see a little girl sitting by her bedside with black skin and grey eyes and hair. She’s glaring at her, “I wouldn’t have tried to kill you if I’d known. You shouldn’t touch my water – it’s not good for you. It will kill you. It does not care what you are.”
“It did not kill Achilles,” Kore says, pushing herself up so the blanket falls to her waist.
The young Lady Styx huffs and gets to her feet, pushing open the long wardrobe on the other side of the room. “It did, actually. What my river takes, it keeps.” Kore raises an eyebrow. Styx doesn’t explain further, only places a dark blue gown on the bed. “Hecate put some of her old things in here for you. She’s taller and thinner than you are. But you are a goddess. You can make it work.”
“I can,” Kore agrees, amused. She pushes herself out of bed, and her hair falls into her face.
Her hair has been a dark brown her whole life.
She strides over to the wardrobe and pulls it open, starring at herself in the mirror.
Her hair has turned pure, snowy white. The hair on her head of course, but the rest of it too. Her eyebrows, the light hair on her arms and legs, going down her navel, the hair between her legs – all of it white.
“You’re lucky nothing worse happened,” Styx scolds. “My river usually does much worse than that.”
Kore touches one of her new, pale eyebrows. “That is an excellent point, Lady Styx.”
With some clever magic, Kore pulls on the now perfectly fitting gown. Hecate doesn’t tend to bother with them, only dresses up if there’s some sort of celebration that requires her attendance – something that hasn’t happened in a long time, ever since she irritated Zeus and Poseidon to the point that they called for her head on a spike. The gown is old, even by their standards, but its beautifully crafted, stars plucked from the heavens and sewn into the bodice, waves from the seven seas curling around the long skirt. “This is very valuable,” she says, “Is Hecate sure she would like me to have it?”
Styx shrugs, “She said it was a young woman’s dress, and however she may look, she’s not a young woman any more. It’s my favorite dress of hers – I was quite cross that she gave it to you, but I did almost kill you. So I suppose that’s fair enough.”
“Ah,” Kore says, not quite sure how to respond to that. “I see.”
Styx grins at her and grabs her hand. The child goddess’s skin is freezing to the touch, but Kore doesn’t flinch back out of fear of being rude. “Come with me now. Hades wants to see you.”
The girl leads her through the twisting hallways to a polished wooden door. It’s not the throne room, where Kore thought that the girl would take her. She’s seen the grand inner chambers of Poseidon and Zeus’s homes before, of the lesser gods even, and Kore braces herself for something just as grandiose and intimidating.
Styx opens the door and pushes her inside before vanishing.
Kore blinks and looks around.
The room is smaller than she expected. It’s lined with shelves packed with scrolls, and mounted on the opposite wall is large map that’s constantly shifting and changing, and it take her almost a full minute of looking at it to realize it’s a map of the underworld.
“You’re looking better.”
Kore’s eyes snap down, and it’s only then that she notices the figure of Hades, King of the Underworld, hunched over his desk. His hair pulled in messy low ponytail, and there are dark bags under his eyes. He’s in a simple black chiffon, one no more presumptuous than any mortal noble would wear. He’s the most unassuming, unremarkable thing in already unassuming, unremarkable room.
Suddenly, she feels over-dressed.
“Thank you,” she says, not knowing what else to say. She feels – awkward, almost, in front of him, which isn’t something she’s ever felt with anyone. She wants to climb into his lap and rest her head against his shoulder. She wants to force him into some proper clothes for a king. She wants to put him to bed and make him sleep until he loses those bruises under his eyes.
She’s never wanted to do any of those things for anyone before. She doesn’t even know him.
Although – she knows he came for her. That he found an intruder into his realm and picked her up and soothed her, carried her to safety and washed her of the corrosive water of the Styx. He placed her in his palace and did not touch her as so many other men would have touched her.
So perhaps she does know him. At least a little.
He rests his chin on his hand while he looks at her. “Hermes came with a message from your mother, demanding your return.” She doesn’t even have the time to panic before he continues, “I denied her. If she wishes to speak to me in person, I told her she is welcome to step into my realm herself.”
“She won’t do that,” Kore says, “She fears your realm. She fears how her power means nothing in your domain.”
Kore had never known her mother to fear anything – except the land of the dead. She’d grown up thinking Hades must be a hulking, formidable figure to pull fear from her mother’s breast, but that’s clearly not the case.
He smiles, and it’s the first hint of sharpness she’s seen from him. “I know. There will be consequences, of course. But those are my concern. You are a guest of my realm, Goddess of Spring. Walk where you please, and do as you please. No one will stop you.”
He’s already looking back down at his papers, eyebrows drawing together as he scratches out a series of numbers and rewrites them. It’s a clear dismissal, but Kore can’t bring herself to move.
She’s never met this man before. Yet he stands against her mother, yet he welcomes her to his realm, yet he permits unrestricted access to his home, yet he grants her every freedom he’s able.
“Thank you,” she says again. He gives an absent nod, already reaching for another scroll.
She leaves as quietly as she came.
Hades in unsurprised when the first wave of deaths occur. Charon is run ragged in his efforts to ferry them across the river. It’s made all the harder because Styx keeps her river churning at a fast pace to dissuade any of the impatient souls from attempting to swim across.
“This is only the beginning,” he warns them. Styx pulls on Charon’s robe, and the ferryman lifts her and settles her onto his hip even though his arms are shaking from navigating the boat across her river. “Demeter’s wrath is – far reaching.”
“Is the girl worth all this trouble?” Charon grumbles.
Hades smiles and tugs on the hood of the man’s robe. “You were.”
Styx yawns and snuggles into Charon’s side. “I like her. We’ll keep up, don’t worry.”
Hades can’t help but worry. Styx and Charon are young yet, and he hates to do this to them. He won’t go and confront Demeter, however – that’s not his battle to fight. For now, the best thing he can do for Kore is whether the storm of her mother’s anger.
The best thing he can do for Kore is give her time. So that’s exactly what he’ll do.
He goes to Hecate after, a map clenched in his fist. “Time to expand?” she asks when she sees him.
“It will be,” he says grimly. “it’s better if we can get ahead of it.”
Hecate doesn’t disagree. They spend the next three days planning it, and a week hence they’ll pull the edges of his realm wider. If they do it right, it will almost double the size of the underworld. If they do it wrong – well, it’s best that they don’t.
He returns to the castle exhausted. He wants to go straight to bed, but he should review the lists of the dead so that they can all be sent to the right parts, to the areas of his realm that will fit them best. If he leaves them in the waiting area too long, not only will they get restless, but it will fill up, especially with the volume they’re going through. A full waiting area tends to end in disaster, restless souls causing disasters even when they don’t mean to.
He walks through his palace, souls and other beings inclining their heads as he passes. He’s already resigned himself to falling asleep as his desk when he pushes open the door and sees a head of white curls bent over his desk. “Lady Kore,” he says, surprised. He’d given her access to all parts of his realm. He still hadn’t expected to find her in his office. “Is something wrong?”
She’s got ink smudges on her cheek and her dark purple dress is wrinkled. “I’m nearly finished,” she says, eyes unfocused. “You’ll want to check it over, of course. But I’m a quick study. I’m quite certain I’ve gotten it right.”
Hades doesn’t understand. He walks over to her, and spread across his desk are the new names of the dead, and Kore has written a number next to each name. The numbers are the same that flash across the map hung on the wall – each one corresponding to a sector of his realm. There are scrolls and scrolls of names that are the product of Demeter’s temper tantrum, ones that had built up while Hades had worked with Hecate to ensure that there was enough room for everyone.
All but the one currently spread out on his desk is complete.
“You must have been working on this for days,” he says blankly. “You didn’t need to do that.”
She smiles at him. She has such a pretty smile. “You didn’t need to let me stay, or shield me from my mother.”
“That’s not the same thing,” he says. He had decided he was going to help her. That didn’t mean she needed to help him in return.
Kore reaches up, her fingertips lightly dragging against the delicate skin beneath his eyes. “You’re exhausted. Go to sleep. I’ll finish this up.”
“You don’t need to,” he says again, and he can’t stop looking at her. He doesn’t know why.
She tucks his hair behind his ear and says, “I want to. Get some sleep.”
He walks back to his room, but all he can think of is Kore’s fingertips on his skin.
The weeks drag into months, and the death toll grows ever higher. Throughout it all, Kore is there.
She’s at the river’s edge to help unload the new souls from Charon’s boat. She’s there when Styx falls into an exhausted sleep, letting the girl rest with her head pillowed on Kore’s lap. She’s there, every day, by Hades’s side, effortlessly shouldering half the work to keep his realm running, to keep everything smooth.
“You know,” Hecate says, sitting across from Kore as she pours over the map of the realm and the population counts of different area, “this is the most successful seduction attempt of Hades I’ve ever seen.”
“I’m not seducing him, I’m helping,” she says absently, then look up at her, “Wait, is he seduced? Because I could be. If he’s interested.”
Kore hadn’t known she could want someone before Hades. The thought of touching Hermes or Apollo curdles her stomach, but Hades – that excites her. She’s never felt this way before. But she didn’t think Hades felt the same. He doesn’t touch her, doesn’t look at her. They spend almost every minute of every day together, and not once has he sent her a covetous glance.
Then again, if he were the type of man to covet her, she wouldn’t love him.
Because she does love him. She’s known that since the beginning.
Hecate laughs and taps her on the nose. “My dear, he’s walking on clouds, even as your very presence threatens to plunge this realm into ruin. I would consider him quite thoroughly seduced.”
“Does he love me?” she asks, and she sounds young, and it is a childish question. But it’s important. If Hades loves her, she has a plan. It’s a plan that’s been lurking in the back of her mind since that very first day, since Styx let something slip that Kore is sure she didn’t mean to. But – she won’t do it if Hades doesn’t love her. She won’t repay his kindness with betrayal if he won’t forgive her for it.
Hecate is silent for a long time. She sounds surprised when she says, “You know, Kore, I think he does.”
Hades loves her.
She loves him.
There is a marriage in her future, if she does this right. But it will be no gilded cage – she’s tired of looking to other people to save her, looking to Apollo, to Hermes, to Hades.
She’s going to save herself.
Kore hasn’t used her powers here, unsure of how spring would conflict with death.
She does it now, in the middle of the night, when Hades slumbers.
There’s no life in the earth surrounding the palace, but it does not worry her. She is the daughter of Demeter, she is the Goddess of Spring. Life from death is what she does best.
She takes off her shoes and digs her feet into the ground, closes her eyes, and uses every ounce of her power to turn this barren land into – something else.
The trees are first, great towering things that fill the edges of the courtyard. Then grass, then flowers in every color she can imagine, all in full bloom. Shrubs and rose bushes, delicate ivy crawling up the sides of Hades’s palace. She covers it all in fauna, in life. Then she falls to her knees, pushes her hands into the earth, and makes something new.
It’s small, but it’s there. She rejects all that her mother has made, and, for the first time, makes something completely on her own. It’s barely a tree, barely as tall as she is. It blooms red, and as she forces it to age, the blossoms grow into heavy, round fruits, just as red as the blossoms. It is only a single tree, in the middle of the courtyard. She hopes it will be enough.
“Lady Styx,” she says, “I need you.”
The child goddess appears before her, rubbing at her eyes. Her yawn cuts off midway through as she gapes at the lush garden that now exists where before there was only barren earth. “Did you do this?” she asks, looking down at the kneeling goddess.
Kore holds out her dirt covered hands. They’re trembling. She’s parched and dizzy with the effort it took to make a garden in a place where living things aren’t meant to thrive, to exist at all really. Styx takes them in her own cool hands. “Do you trust me, Lady Styx?”
The child goddess nods.
“Good,” Kore sighs, nearly drooping in relief. “I need you to do me a favor. I’m going to jump in your river.”
“You can’t!” Styx says immediately, grey eyes wide. “You’re too weak! It will kill you!”
“Yes. It will.”
Hades is pulled from his bed and thrown against the stone wall with such force that, if he were not who he is, he would be dizzy from it. He blinks up at Hermes towering over him. Charon shimmers into existence behind the messenger god, scythe raised to behead him. “Don’t,” Hades said.
“You dare tell me what to do after what you’ve done?” Hermes hisses.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” he says, and points.
Hermes turns. Charon still has the scythe raised. “Why didn’t you stop her? What is the point of you if you simply let her die?” Hermes reaches out a hand – Hades doesn’t know what Hermes is planning to do, and he’s not interested in finding out.
He’s up in an instant, grabbing Hermes’s wrist before he can touch Charon and holding it just tight enough that his bones creak in protest. “None of that now,” he says mildly. “What’s all the fuss about?”
“You need to come to the river,” Charon says. “The rest of the twelve gods are there. They are angry.”
“Demeter as well?” he asks. He’s surprised. He didn’t think anything could entice Demeter to face him once more.
Hermes tries to pull his arm back, but Hades doesn’t let him. Charon is still standing within hitting distance. “Of course she’s here! Her daughter is dead!”
He stares. “What are you talking about? Kore is fine. She’s here.”
“My lord,” Charon says quietly, and this is impossible, even if Kore had died she would simply end up here, there is no true death unless he wills it.
“STYX!” he roars.
She doesn’t come. For the first time, Styx does not come when he calls.
“Come with me,” Charon begs, “Please, my lord. Come with me.”
Hades goes. They go through the courtyard, and he’s so astounded by the changes that his legs forget to move at the sight of it all. There’s a garden in the land of the dead. Flowers bloom. Tree branches hang low with heavy fruit. But he’s drawn to something else – there’s a small tree right in the center that looks almost as if it’s glowing. He reaches out and touches one of the round red fruits that he’s never seen before, and as soon as his fingers press against the firm skin it drops into his hand.
Charon tugs at his arm, desperate, “Please, my lord, we don’t have time.”
He nods, absently tucking the fruit in a pocket of his robe, and following Charon to the edge of the river.
Hermes, as the messenger god, is the only one able to enter his realm without his permission. Across the grey and angrily churning river stand all the others – Apollo, Artemis, Hestia, Athena, Hera, Poseidon, Hephaestus, Aphrodite, then at the end stand Zeus and Demeter. Hermes next to Apollo, arms crossed.
“What have you done?” Demeter spits, and Hades is sure that Zeus’s hand on her arm is all that prevents the goddess from attempting to leap across the river and tear his head from his neck. “What did you do to her?’
“Hades,” Hestia says quietly, “she – we all felt it. How did she die?”
Demeter howls and leaps at Hestia. Poseidon stands between them and holds her back, an utterly bored look on his face. “Brother, an explanation, if you please. Some of us have our own realms to attend to.”
“Lady Styx,” he says, forcing a calmness he doesn’t feel into his voice. “Please come here.”
There’s a moment when nothing happens, and if she makes him to track her down within his own realm, he will be cross with her. But then she appears in front of him, shoulder hunched nearly to her ears, and her grey eyes wet. “I only did as she asked! Don’t be mad at me!” she hiccups and says, quieter, “Please don’t be mad at me.”
All at once, the entirety of the fury that had been building in Hades’s chest leaves him. The sorrow is just as strong, but no matter what, getting angry at Styx will solve nothing. He bends down on his knee and reaches out to touch her shoulders. She flinches away from him, and he pauses. “Lady Styx,” he says softly, “I would never hurt you. You know that, don’t you?”
She nods, a quick, sharp motion. He slowly holds out his hands, waiting, and doesn’t bother to hide his relief when she places her cold, trembling hands in his.
“Did Kore jump in your river?”
It’s what Hades expected, but he has to close his eyes against the tidal wave of grief that threatens to overwhelm him. The River Styx is the barrier between life in death, and as such it is neither. Those who die in the river do not go to the underworld. They are simply unmade, their bodies dissolved and their souls broken into a thousand lost pieces. “Why?”
“She said it was the only way,” Styx look anxiously into the depths of her river, “She’s running out of time. I told her she didn’t have a lot of time, that she had to do it quickly, that I would not be able to help her.”
Hades doesn’t understand.
“What is she talking about?” Apollo demands.
Hephaestus rubs his wrists, “Styx, are you saying – that’s impossible, she wouldn’t have enough time – she wouldn’t even be able to think to do it.”
Just then, cutting across the air: “I hadn’t expected an audience quite this large.”
Everyone turns toward the voice.
Her eyes are now as white as her hair, and she’s almost transparent. Across her body are tiny cracks of pulsating grey – places where she’s used the clay of the river to push her soul back together again. “You did it!” Styx cries, running to the edge of the river.
“Thanks to you,” she smiles, “Your river tore me apart, as it must, but you did a very good job of making sure enough of me stayed together so that I could find all my own pieces.”
“What are you playing at?” Demeter snaps, eyes wild. “Get out of that river, this instant!”
“She can’t,” Hades says, heart clenching in his chest. “She isn’t alive. Not really. She is simply of the river – if she leaves it, she will be of nothing.”
Is a cursed river spirit the only escape she could see? It is a clever one. Demeter won’t dare touch her, can’t touch her, for all that bound Kore to her mother died along with her, but – but it is not a life.
She walks across the surface of the river until she’s almost close enough for Demeter to touch. “I am Kore no longer,” she says, face impassive. “I am of your body no longer, my power is not from you any longer. I am not something you can control any longer.”
“No,” Demeter snarls, “Now you are dead. Is it worth it?”
The woman who used to be Kore smiles. “Yes.” She turns and walks back across the river, to Hades. She holds out her hands. “Did you bring it?”
“Bring what?’ he asks, mystified.
Styx pushes into his side and digs into his pocket. He lets her, and she pulls out the strange red fruit he’d taken from the equally strange tree. “Here!” She tears it in half. In the fruit are bright seeds the color and shine of blood.
She meets his eyes, and her smile softens. “Sorry about this. You’re going to have to learn to share.”
“What are you talking about?” he asks. He hasn’t felt this hopelessly confused in several millennia.
The woman who used to be Kore takes one of the fruit halves from Styx. “I am the Goddess of Spring. Life from death is all I know.”
She bites into the fruit, and the juice drips down her chin like blood. Her eyes are the first to change, no longer a terrifying white but a warm brown. Her skin darkens and color bleeds into her hair again, her curls turning the same bright red as the fruit. The grey clay flecks off her skin, and it’s whole and unblemished.
She steps from the river onto the shore. She does not crumple. She does not dissolve into dust.
She tosses her hair over her shoulder, and with a twist of her wrist a red gown covers her body. She lifts her skirt and stamps her feet into the ground, laughing. Trees sprout up around them. Flowers bloom along water’s edge.
There is nothing that happens in this realm without his permission. But he couldn’t stop this if he tried.
“I am Persephone!” she declares, eyes bright. “I am Queen of the Underworld.”
Her power is now tied up within his realm, the roots of the trees she grew are far reaching. She’s twisted the rules of her power and his, and stolen part of his realm out from under him, found every loophole and escaped her mother’s grasp by becoming something she could never touch or understand, by becoming something that was already a part of her all along.
If he hadn’t fallen in love with her already, he would now.
“Might you need a king?” he murmurs, stepping closer. The other gods are yelling from across the river, but he can’t bring himself to care. “Ruler of the underworld is such a heavy burden to bear alone.”
She grins, all teeth, and when he gets close enough she reaches a hand around the back of his neck and pulls him down until she can cover his mouth with her mouth.
His arm curls around her waist, and she lets him support her weight as he continues kissing her, as she continues kissing him, as they begin the rest of their lives as King and Queen of the Underworld.
Half of the gods across the river are laughing, and the other half are furious, but Hades and Persephone are unconcerned.
They’re gods. There’s no need for them to stop and breath – they can continue standing on the river’s edge and kissing until everyone gets bored and leaves.
No matter how long it takes.
Hades thinks this is a most excellent beginning.
Later, she agrees to spend half the year with her mother to cool her temper. But her grin doesn’t leave – it is her choice, it is a decision she makes that neither her mother nor Hades can go against.
She is Persephone, daughter of Demeter, Queen of the Underworld, wife of Hades, Goddess of Spring.
She is Persephone.
All the choices she makes are her own.
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Chapter 24: Icarus, (Temporary) King of the Underworld
Hades very rarely leaves the underworld, especially during the six months when he rules alone.
But when he and Hecate go where none but them dare to tread, to the dark, unknown corners of the realm to push it wider, he can’t be disturbed. Icarus doesn’t know what, exactly, they do, but he knows it’s dangerous, delicate work. As such, neither Hades nor Hecate can be found during these long days, no matter the cause.
Hades only ever expands the realm when his wife is here, so that she can rule over the dead in his absence.
Except for this time.
“But why can’t you wait?” Icarus asks, wringing his hands together. “You’ve always been able to wait before.”
“The realms are tilting on their own right now, we’ll be able to push it farther than we ever have,” he says, scanning the plans that only ever appear to be a mess of lines when Icarus looks at them. “If we wait, we lose this opportunity. You’ll be fine. You know how to do it all.”
“I’ve never done it alone! I’m not you or Persephone – can’t Charon do it? Or Nyx? They’ve been here longer than I have,” he protests.
Hades looks up and reaches out a hand to pull Icarus closer. He wants to resists, to be petty because Hades is making him do something he doesn’t want to do. But Hades asks for so little, and he’s quite terrible at denying him. His arm curls around Icarus’s waist, pulling him flush up against his side. Icarus glances up, and one look at those soft, dark eyes has him melting, as always. “You’ll be amazing, because you are amazing. Nyx and Charon are wonderful. But only you can do this.”
“Fine,” he says, giving in, as he suspected he would from the beginning.
Hades has to go meet Hecate, but he does spend several minutes letting Icarus pin him against his bookshelves and kiss him, which is rather nice.
Icarus opens the doors to the throne room. Guards line the wall, as is customary, even though it’s not in use. Two thrones sit there. One is simple and made of gleaming black obsidian. The other is more elaborate, made of silver and decorated with bones and blooming vines. Both were made by Hephaestus.
He walks forward, and no one stops him. No has the authority to stop him, they didn’t even before Hades left. The only ones who could challenge him are Charon and Styx, and they’re both staying far away just in case he tries to trick one of them into taking his place.
There’s nothing for it. Persephone is gone, Hades is gone, and someone must rule.
He drags his feet as he takes his final steps forward. Both the thrones are cloaked in power, and if any but their owners sit in them without permission they would be more than simply killed, because most people in this realm are already dead. They would be unmade, erased completely, and nothing could bring them back.
Icarus takes a deep breath, legs trembling. Then he takes his finals step forward and sits on Hades’s throne.
He lets out a sigh of relief and goes boneless. For all that it looks like it’s made of hard, cold stone, it’s actually rather comfortable.
Styx and Charon materialize in front of him, and go into a deep bow. “My king.”
“Shut up,” he snaps, “You’re lucky I don’t force one of you into this thing instead.”
Charon is making a raspy sound that Icarus recognizes as laughter. They straighten, and Styx is grinning, “It suits you, I would just look silly.”
“Flattery won’t hide your cowardice,” he says. “You’ve been here the longest. It should be you in this throne.”
“I’m just a kid!” she protests, “That would be a disaster.” She vanishes without another word. He wonders if he could use his temporary status to make her come back, but he won’t risk it. An angry Styx isn’t something he likes dealing with on the best of days.
Charon holds out his skeletal hands, and a fat scroll appears. “The most recent logs, King Thanatos.”
“Please don’t call me that,” he says, pained. He gets up off the throne and takes the scroll, “I’ll be in Hades’s study.”
Charon vanishes. Icarus walks out of the throne room, and the doors slam shut behind him. He refuses to go back there until Hades returns. Besides, if his lover has taught him anything, it’s that a ruler that spends more time on a throne than out of it isn’t very good at his job.
For the first two days, all is well. He’s been doing this work for hundreds of years, it’s nothing new, even though for the first time he does it without either Hades of Persephone to guide him. Then Hermes appears beside him, holding a writhing, reedy looking man. The man’s trying to scream, but no sound is coming out. “Our King Zeus wishes for Hades to deal with Sisyphus, traitor to the heavens, personally,” he says, face slack with boredom.
“Hades is busy,” he says, “Put him in the waiting area with the others. He’ll see to it when he returns."
Hermes blinks, then looks uncomfortable. “Zeus wanted it dealt with immediately.”
Icarus is tempted to tell Hermes that he doesn’t particularly care what the lord of the sky wants, but he knows that’s not very fair. Hades would never let Zeus take out his temper on him, but he knows not everyone has that same protection. “Fine. But I’m too busy to be creative, I’m just going to tie him to a tree in Tartarus and leave him there to get eaten.”
“That’s appreciated,” Hermes says, and his instant relief is almost worth the interruptions to his paperwork. The in-between places are almost full, he has to start moving people out otherwise – well he doesn’t know what will happen, but it won’t be good. And for that to happen, he needs to do an awful lot of paperwork. So he better make this quick.
Sisyphus is far from the first person Icarus has dragged to the depths of the Tartarus. So he’s not sure how, exactly, he’s the one that ends up pinned and tied to a mountain as the mortal darts away. Which is annoying, but it’s not like there’s many places to hide in Tartarus, and some celestial ropes aren’t really enough to keep him bound for long.
What is should have been was only a mild inconvenience.
Instead, it becomes something so much worse.
In the few hours it takes him struggle free, great hulking figures have already drawn near, and Icarus isn’t just the son of an inventor anymore, he’s Thanatos, the Death God, he’s Hades’s lover and the current king of the underworld.
But in all his long years on this plane, in all the times he’s been to Tartarus, he’s never actually seen a titan up close before.
Three of them crowd around him now, their rotting, pulsating power like a stench clogging his nose and lungs. He tries to leave, to slip through the planes of this place like he has so many times before, but nothing happens. He tries again, and again, and again, but still nothing happens.
Ares is on the battlefield. He’s not sure what this war is about about – he thinks it’s a political one based on the all the finery of the generals, but he hadn’t bothered to find out. Their prayers called to him, and so he came. He thinks Athena is on the other side, having been invoked just as forcefully as he had. Their complicated battle plans seem like something she would do, at any rate.
He shoves a spear up through a woman’s abdomen, twists, then pulls it out. There’s a horrible stench as her stomach splits open and spills onto the ground, along with an assortment of other organs, blood soaking her feet. He waits for her to fall.
“Um?” she says, looking at her still beating heart on the ground. It’s not connected to any other part of her. She looks incredibly uncomfortable.
“Huh,” he looks from her arrangement of entrails to her face, “When’s a seer when you need one?”
She narrows her eyes and lifts her sword threateningly, and Ares cracks a grin. Then there’s a burning hand on his shoulder and he’s twisted around to face a wide eyed and frantic Persephone. “Something is wrong in the underworld!”
“I figured,” he says, looking around to the increasingly confused soldiers as people around them fail to die.
Persephone grabs his chin and forces him to look back at her. “You have to go there, and find out what’s wrong. It’s summer, I can’t enter the underworld, and the only people who can go there without permission are Hermes and you. And if something’s wrong with Hades, I don’t want it to be Hermes.”
He sucks in a breath past his teeth. He hadn’t considered that Hades could be hurt. “I’m going,” he says, and is gone as soon as the last syllable leaves his lips.
“What is this?” one of the titans asks, and Icarus knows about the titans, but he can’t tell them apart, not like this. Their skin is dripping like candlewax, their mouths and eyes are deep caverns. They all look like things that live in the bottom of Styx’s river, and they make his skin crawl. “The King has been careless with his toy. If we feel generous, perhaps we’ll leave enough of you behind for him to mourn.”
A hand rippling with energy reaches for him, and he doesn’t know what to do, he can’t leave and his power is nothing to the titans, any attack he could muster would only be an irritant, and oh, he doesn’t want to die again, not when it’s for good, not when it will count this time –
There’s a rush of wind, and a laughing voice says, “Sorry, Iapetus, Crius. I’ll be taking this one.”
“DO NOT!” the titans thunder, and Icarus doesn’t know what they’re talking about until he feels burning hands on his shoulders and he’s being dragged away, he’s flying in a way he hasn’t since he was last with his father, and there’s laughter from whoever took him right in his ears and the increasingly distant screams of rage from the titans they’ve left behind.
When they stop, they’re deeper in Tartarus than he’s ever dared go before. The volcanoes are on the edges of the realm, and their bright magma gives off enough light that it’s a permanent day around them, but it gets darker and darker closer to the center.
There’s nothing but blackness in front of him, and when he turns to face his rescuer, he falls to his knees.
He escorted Helen of Troy to the afterlife himself, he has seen all of the major goddesses in their finery and splendor.
He has never seen a woman as beautiful as the one that stands before him.
She stands at twice his height, and her skin shines like moonlight. She’s got dark, tightly bound braids and eyes as black as obsidian. He thought he knew power, the weight and taste of it, but he was wrong. Her strength hangs about her like a thick mist, like it’s too much to be contained within her body. “Phoebe,” he breathes, and tales are told of how horrible the titans were, but not of their beauty.
She smiles, “My granddaughter is fond of you, Icarus, as is this land’s king. I would not want to disappoint either of them.”
Granddaughter? But then he remembers – Phoebe bore Leto, who bore Artemis and Apollo, but she also bore Asteria, who had only one child. Hecate.
“I don’t understand,” he says, and still can’t bring himself to stand in her presence. “I thought – I thought you were all – gone. That the titans were dead, that only ghosts and ghouls remain.”
“Oh, Icarus,” she says, voice like a melody, “You are a god because the mortals believe you are – what they believe, you become. The power you have is given, the power our descendants have is controlled. But us? We were here before all else. We created the mortals, just as we created our children, and they have as much power over us as our children do.” When she smiles, it’s all teeth, and for a moment he feels just as afraid as he did with those dripping, rotting hands reaching for him. “We can be bound, we can be maimed, but ghosts? Not until the universe itself collapses will we cease to breathe.”
He’s starring, and he can’t move, can’t even bring himself to breathe.
“You’re scaring the boy,” a voice rumbles. In the darkness, it first looks like a patch of the night sky, but then he steps forward. It’s a man, and he has the same memorizing skin as Hecate – black as night with swirling, twinkling constellations shining in sharp contrast against his dark skin. The titan Coeus stands before him, and he’s just as powerful, just as intimidating, as his lover. “How considerate of you to save him from being lunch.”
“I doubt Hades would allow us our peace if we were to allow him to be eaten,” she says, “I doubt even our dear granddaughter could sway him in our favor.”
“I don’t understand,” he says, “aren’t you – angry?”
Phoebe shrugs, “We were overthrown by our children, just as we overthrew our parents, Gaia and Ouranus. Such is inevitable, with the passage of time.”
“All things repeat,” Coes says, “One day, we will walk the earth again. We are content to wait. We have nothing but time.”
Icarus doesn’t like this, not at all. He thought all the titans were like the monsters that tried to eat him. He didn’t know some of them were like – this.
He doesn’t know how to feel about that.
The moment Ares slips into the underworld and his feet touch solid ground, Styx appears in front of him. “Hades and Hecate are expanding the realm and we can’t disturb them, so Hades left Thanatos in charge, but Hermes came and made him take someone to Tartarus, but now Thanatos has disappeared, and we can’t find him, and the in-between area is full and we can’t fit anymore, and the shore is full, and no one else can die until we move them, and if the shore is full Thanatos won’t be able to slip through the planes until they’re moved, but we can’t move them without the king, so he’s stuck in Tartarus and we can’t find him!” she says all in one breath, then throws herself at him, wrapping her skinny arms around his thigh and burying her face into his hip. “You have to find him!”
This is actually less dire than he thought things were. He pats her on the top of her head and asks, “Tartarus, you said? Can you take me there?”
She tilts her head up to peek at him with her teary grey eyes. “It’s dangerous. And we’ll have to take the long way – no one attached to the underworld can move through its planes until the dead stop taking up so much room.”
“That’s fine, I’m not worried. You’ll protect me, won’t you?” he asks with a determined sort of cheer.
“I’ll take you there, but then I’m running away,” she reaches up to grab his hand.
That only seems fair.
As promised, Styx guides him to Tartarus, then leaves him. Which is more concerning than he’d like to admit, because she’s a powerful goddess, and anything that can scare her away is something worth his wariness.
He doesn’t get long to be wary, because a then a dripping, roaring titan of all things is attacking him, and he has to twist and dive to the ground to keep from losing an arm. There’s more of them closing in, each of them horrific and strong and with a stench of rotting power that fills his throat, and he’s good, in spite of being one of the younger gods he has more battle experience than any of the others, and he holds his own. But it’s not easy, it’s actually the hardest thing he’s ever done, and soon he’s slick with his own blood.
He fights for a full day, never pausing to catch his breath or hesitate, and slowly, very slowly, making his way farther into Tartarus.
He wishes he’d thought to bring his mom.
Hera fought the titans when she was young. Before she was the mother or wife or goddess of anything, she was a titan-slayer, and he could really use that about now. He has a feeling that if he fails, that if he dies in Tartarus, that it’s not the kind of death Hades could save him from.
Icarus sits, and he listens. Phoebe and Coeus pass the time be telling him stories, of the other titans, of how things were before Zeus freed his siblings from his father’s stomach and led them all in a rebellion. “What of Amphitrite?” he asks, thinking of the woman whose halls he walked for so many years while he was the consort to her husband. “She was one of you, wasn’t she? How come she wasn’t imprisoned?”
“Oceana,” Coeus says, “was what we called her. She was always so much more clever than she let on, so much older than us.”
“Older?” Icarus asks, and that same unease makes his stomach roll.
Phoebe’s voice is filled with a reluctant admiration. “She is Gaia’s little sister, older than even Ouranus. Of course she is older than us. Gaia and Ouranus had faded, the other first gods had faded, but Oceana remained. Amphitrite remained. Not matter how the times change, not matter how she changes, she endures.”
“She had separated from us long before the battle,” Coeus turns curious eyes on him. “I’m surprised you know of her nature.”
“She doesn’t hide it,” he says, but it’s – different. She doesn’t have the same raw power as the titans in front of him do, and Amphitrite was one of the most powerful gods he’d ever met. He’d thought of the titans’ power as equal to hers, but standing in front of them now, he knows better. “It’s obvious if you pay attention.”
“So few pay attention,” Phoebe trails a delicate finger down the side of his face, “Perhaps Hades was not so foolish in choosing you.”
He does his best not flinch away from her, and tries to think of something diplomatic to say to that. He’s coming up blank, but luckily he’s saved from having to answer by a faint voice callout out, “ICARUS! THANATOS!”
“Ares!” he says, and he’s on his feet and running before he can think better of it. “Ares! I’m here!”
He knows Phoebe and Coeus are gone not only by the sudden absence of the oppressive weight of their power, but also by the darkness he’s plunged into without their skin to provide light to see by. Luckily for him, Ares has plenty of experience fighting with blood in his eyes, so it’s only seconds until calloused hands are grabbing onto his forearms. “Finally!”
That next moment he’s pulled from Tartarus, and he’s standing in Hades’s study, the desk overflowing with scrolls. He can’t focus on that, because he’s starring at Ares in horror. The god looks worse than he’s ever seen him, bleeding and bruised, exhaustion in every line of his body like he’s been fighting non-stop for months. “What happened to you?”
“I’m fine,” he says, trying to wave him off but swaying and losing his footing instead. Icarus has to brace himself up against Ares’s side to prevent the god of war from toppling over.
“Go to Hades’s room, I’ll send Orpheus and Eurydice to you soon,” he says. “Sleep, and try not to bleed too much.”
“Why does everyone keep saying that to me?” he asks, and slips away in the next moment.
Icarus wants to worry about that, but he has more important things to do. He sits down at Hades desk, and starts assigning the dead their places in the underworld, what he was about to do right before Hermes appeared and demanded he drop everything to cater to Zeus’s whims.
Most of the souls have already received judgement, so it’s easy, scratching in names under certain places and glancing up at the ever shifting map above Hades’s desk to ensure it’s all going smoothly. About an hour in, Styx appears besides him and throws her arms around his neck. “You’re back! And you fixed it, people are dying again!”
He takes a brief moment to return her hug, then says, “Ares is hurt. Tell Eurydice to bring her bandages and needle, and Orpheus his lyre. I don’t want him leaving until he’s fully recovered.”
He face darkens, then she nods and disappears.
Icarus looks at the stack of scrolls and despairs. He’s going to have work straight through the next few days before Hades gets back to ensure everything is in order for his return.
What a mess. Next time Hades asks him for a favor, he’s locking himself in his room and refusing to come out.
Ares had purposefully fallen asleep on the cool marble of the bedroom floor in an effort not to get blood on the bed, and besides, he’s fallen asleep in far worse places.
Then people are shaking him awake, and Orpheus and Eurydice are peering down at him. “You’re a mess!” Eurydice says accusingly, and ineffectually tries to pull him to his feet, “We have to get you cleaned up, come on!”
He would much rather bleed out on the floor, actually. It’s more comfortable.
“You better do as she says,” Orpheus says, “you know how she gets.”
“I’m a very scary and powerful god, you know,” he says tiredly. He pushes himself into a sitting position, and winces as the wounds on his back open again.
Eurydice presses her hands against his chest, “I’ve changed my mind, don’t move. You’ll only make it worse.” She has servants bring damp, hot towels, and wipes the blood and grime from his skin. She pauses to stitch his wounds closed, and Orpheus braces himself against Ares’s side so he doesn’t have to struggle to keep himself upright. She’s nearly finished with his torso when he realizes he’s forgotten something and curses. “Hermes!” he calls out, “Come here!”
“Please be dressed,” the disembodied voice of the messenger god says before he appears in the flesh, hand over his eyes. He peeks through his fingers and pales, “What happened to you?”
“Go and tell Persephone everything is fine,” he says.
Hermes looks at him, splayed out and nearly every bit of him bruised or cut. “You don’t look fine.”
“Tell her everything is fine,” he repeats, glaring.
“At least let me heal you first,” he tries taking a step closer.
Ares shakes his head, “They’re not wounds you can heal. Eurydice doing a fine job, leave her to it.”
Hermes is still hesitating, but with three angry glares directed his way, he just sighs and says, “Very well Ares, I’ll deliver your message,” and leaves.
Eurydice finishes not long after, and she and her husband heave him to his feet. “I should go,” he says, and he’s exhausted and hurt, but he can hear the call of the mortals, they’re invoking him and praying to him, and he should go to them.
The couple pushes him into the bed, and Eurydice tucks the blanket up around his shoulder as Orpheus settles onto the floor in front of him. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she scolds, and when he leans into her touch without thinking about it, without being able to stop himself, she shifts him again until his head is in her lap. He should pull away, he shouldn’t be leaning into her hands as she carefully works out the knots in his hair. He should leave.
Orpheus starts playing, the music so beautiful that it almost manages to drowned out the cries of his believers. Ares’s eyes slip shut and he falls into a peaceful sleep.
One week after he’d left, Hades returns to his palace. Icarus is just finishing up assigning places to this most recent batch of the dead when he feels his lover’s eyes on him. He writes down the last name and banishes the scroll to the archives before looking up.
Hades is leaning against the door frame, arms crossed. He has dark circles under his eyes, and he seems thinner, like the effort to expand the realm has taken him months rather than days. “You look good at my desk.” Icarus hates himself for the pleased flush he can feel on his cheeks. “I told you that you’d be fine.”
He rolls his eyes and says, “I got trapped in Tartarus and met a few titans, and people stopped dying for about a day and half. Ares came and saved me. He’s in your bed, and he’s been sleeping for the past couple of days. Oh, and there’s some mortal Zeus is mad at running around Tartarus, I think he’s probably been eaten by now but I haven’t had the time to check.”
He expects Hades to be angry. He should really know better by now. Instead Hades walks over and leans across the desk to kiss him, gentle and warm. “Amazing,” he says when they separate, a smile hovering around the edges of his mouth. “Sounds like you did great without me.”
“If you ever leave the underworld again, I’m going with you and you can stick a crown on Styx's head instead,” he informs him, eyes narrowed.
Hades’s laughter fills the study, and Icarus feels himself relax for the first time in a week.
He’s glad Hades is home.
When he was younger, he was a girl.
His mother told him it was an act, that to keep himself safe he had to grow out his hair and wear dresses and answer to a different name. He likes his name, so he hadn’t liked that part, but everything else – well, that was fine.
He liked being a boy, but he liked being a girl too, liked it when merchants called him little miss, when women admired his soft skin and shiny hair, liked how pretty he was, felt more at ease dying yearn with the women than he thinks he ever would running with the boys.
Sometimes he did want to run with them, sometimes he liked the trimness of his waist and how broad his shoulders were, liked the way he filled out his favorite dresses even when his mother told him it made him look too much like a boy and to pick another. It was not quite either and yet both, and when he tried to untangle it he just gave himself a headache, so he stopped. He didn’t like the fake name, and being called ‘she’ never really felt right, even though he adored it when people called him Miss or Lady or Ma’am.
Achilles decides around the time he’s a teenager that it doesn’t make a difference. He is who he is, and that’s all that matters.
It’s not long after this that pretty much everything else he thought he knew gets thrown into chaos.
His mother always said they were hiding. It never occurred to him to wonder what it was they were hiding from.
“You have the hand of destiny upon you!” Zeus bellows, looming over him with skin like copper and eyes like grave soil.
Achilles thinks he mostly has the village’s eyes on him, since Zeus had triumphantly stripped him in the middle of the village square, which Achilles had thought to be rather unnecessary.
Everyone thought he was a girl, and knew he had a penis, so he’s not really sure what Zeus was trying to prove. Now he’s just naked and cold.
“You will turn the tides of the war! The heavens have foretold it!” Zeus proclaims.
“Uh,” he says, “I think you have the wrong person.” He’s been raised as a girl his whole life. The only weapon he knows how to wield is a knife, and only then in the kitchen.
“I do not,” Zeus says “If you do not fight, the world will be forced into ruin.”
Achilles really doesn’t see how the world is his problem.
“If you do not fight,” the king of the gods continues, lower, more menacing than he feels is really necessary, “then Patroclus will suffer a horrible fate caused by your inaction.”
When Achilles is thirteen, a young man arrives, dark skin and hair and eyes. He bows before his mother and says he has been sent to serve them by Achilles’s father, Peleus. Achilles knows he has a father, of course, but he can’t remember him.
“What crime have you committed?” Thetis asks contemptuously, “I know a punishment when I see it.”
Patroclus doesn’t answer.
“Fine,” his mother says, “you belong to my son now.” She walks away, but Achilles stays behind. His hair is long, and one of the older girls had braided flowers into it. His dress is dirty though, and that doesn’t normally bother him. But he’s not normally in front of people who look like Patroclus.
He’s been wondering if he actually liked boys, or if he was just getting caught up with all his girl friends who liked boys, and talked about it all the time.
Good to know he absolutely, definitely likes boys.
“Lord Achilles,” the man says, getting on bended knee in front of him. “I am yours to command.”
He wrinkles his nose, and adjusts the straps of his dress, more out of something to do with his hands than anything else. “I’m a Lady,” he says, then crosses his arms, and puts nose in the air. “Follow me then. You will help me and mother mix the dyes.”
Patroclus doesn’t say anything at all, but Achilles can feel the man’s presence at his back.
Things are different after that. Thetis refuses to acknowledge Patroclus’s existence, so it is Achilles who gives the orders, who tells him to help them carry the baskets of yarn, who tells him to gather the berries they need to make the dye. He’s mostly silent, but sometimes Achilles catches a hint of what he thinks might be a smile.
Years pass, and Patroclus is always there. When they spend days by the river they’ll talk of the village, of the customers, of anything and everything they can think of. Patroclus still refuses to speak in Thetis’s presence, but outside of it he’s warm and easy and has a smile like the rising sun.
Achilles is sixteen, and his days are what they’ve always been. His mother’s sternness, dyeing and weaving clothes to sell, running wild thought the village with his friends. And Patroclus, there to witness it all, to smile at him and offer his arm for Achilles to steady himself on when they walk down steep hills, solid and there.
“Your bodyguard doesn’t talk much,” one of his friends remarks one day, curiosity making her eyes sparkle.
“Who?” he says, then looks behind them to where Patroclus follows a half dozen steps behind. Achilles has tried to get him to keep pace with them before, but it never sticks. “He’s not my bodyguard.”
She looks at him as if he’s slow. “He’s a warrior that spends his day doing what you tell him to do. He’s not a servant, he’s choosing to listen to you.”
Is he a warrior? He’s built like one, certainly, but Achilles has never seen him take up a weapon. “Mother said he was sent here as a punishment.”
“Some punishment,” she snorts, “He looks at you like you’re his salvation. You might want to do something about that.”
He pretends to misunderstand her and changes the subject. She sighs and lets him, but she’s not fooled.
Patroclus is still as achingly handsome as he was three years ago. Achilles has grown up, isn’t a kid anymore. He knows he’s beautiful, he knows by the glances and comments of the men and women around him that he’s beautiful.
But Patroclus has never called him beautiful, has always just been his companion, his friend, his confident.
Achilles doesn’t think he’s willing to lose that, not just on a chance he could get something different.
Patroclus is too precious to gamble away on hope.
Achilles isn’t inclined to believe the words of a man who strips him in front of his village and makes grand proclamations in lieu of simple conversation. But he is the king of the gods, so he can’t really be dismissed either.
He does what he promised Patroclus he wouldn’t do – he leaves the village. His mother is weeping, and his friends wring their hands, a fear in all their faces that he feels but does his best not to show.
He has to know. He has to be sure.
It takes him four days to travel to nearest great temple dedicated to Apollo. He waits until the moon is high in the sky, until Apollo won’t be busy harnessing the sun. He walks into the temple, looks at the statues, the offerings, the smoldering candles belonging to holy men who spent all day sitting and praying, waiting for a sign.
Achilles doesn’t have time for that. He places his hand on his hip and looks up at the ceiling. “So is it true, or not? If you want me to do something, you’re going to have to tell me yourself.”
“You are impudent, Lady Achilles,” a voice like melody says in his ear, and he whirls around.
Apollo stand in front of him, golden and bright, like he’s swallowed the sun instead of simply mastered it. Achilles considers bowing, but decides that gods have caused him too much trouble to be worth the trouble. “Is it true? If I stay out of the war, will Patroclus die?”
The god of prophecy says nothing for a long moment. Then he sighs, and sits, looking more like an old man than an all-powerful being. “If you attempt to stay out of the war’s path, Patroclus will – have a much more difficult time, a more painful time. But all things must die, Achilles. I am not Hades, and I cannot tell you in what manner Patroclus will make his end. But your lives are linked, and the direction his life takes depends on the choices you make.”
“What am I supposed to do?” he demands. “I was raised as a woman. I cannot fight, I am not strong, I know nothing of battle. Am I meant simply go out there and die?”
“No,” Apollo says, “you are not meant to die.”
The baker’s son has strong hands and kind eyes. He finds Achilles enchanting, and tells him so, pushing warm bread into his arms and looking at his lips.
Achilles’s heart threatens to beat outside his chest, and he’s very beautiful, but he’s never had – he’s never done – this is new, to him. But he takes the bread and licks his lips, and he comes back. Again and again and again, every time letting the baker’s son touch him a little more, kiss him a little harder.
This last time, Patroclus scowls, and looks irritable and uneasy for the first time since Achilles has known him. “What’s wrong?” he asks, confused. He looks around them, but can see nothing out of the ordinary, nothing so horrible as to put that look on his best friend’s face.
“He takes too many liberties with you, Lady Achilles,” he says, glaring.
It takes him a long moment to figure out what he’s talking, and he blushes. “He only takes the liberties that I allow him to,” he says. He reaches out and grab’s Patroclus’s hand in his own, threading their fingers together. “Come on, you’re just in a mood. Let’s go swim in the river together!”
Patroclus’s scowl lessens, but not as much as he thought it would.
It takes him months to find the entrance to the underworld. He complains, loudly, at every shrine to Apollo he comes across that maybe a lift, or even some directions, would have been really useful, but the god doesn’t appear again.
There’s a shiver over his skin as he passes from the mortal realm to a place not quite that, and not quite the underworld either. The river Styx rushes in front of him, the stream so fast that stepping foot in it and not getting swept away would seem an impossible task even if it were a normal river.
It’s not a normal river. It’s so much more dangerous.
Its waters are black, churning with grey foam, and he knows the stories. Everyone knows the stories. No one can touch its waters and live to tell about it. The River Styx keeps what it takes.
But he can’t fight this war as he is. He needs strength, needs power, and he doesn’t have the time to get it through normal channels. He doesn’t have time to train and fight and learn.
Patroclus needs him. Achilles needs the power to protect him now.
He takes a deep breath, wondering if it will help, and prepares to jump into the river.
Achilles startles, and looks up.
A little girl stands beside him, black skin and grey hair and eyes. “It will kill you.”
“If it doesn’t, I’ll be invincible,” he says
She shakes her head, “It will kill you. There’s no if. There is only death, but not even that, death is not so bad. Death comes for us all. What my river offers isn’t death. It’s an ending.”
“They say someone did it once,” he says. “They say someone bathed in the water and lived, that they became an unstoppable warrior.”
“That did happen. Once. But the price they payed was too big. You do not want to pay it,” she says. “Don’t do this. Go home, and face whatever death waits for you. Do not hasten past it into something worse in my river.”
Achilles goes on one knee, so that she can look down at him instead of the other way around. “Please. I love him. If I can save him, I’ll pay any price, and I’ll do it gladly. I won’t regret it.”
She’s crying now, and he reaches up to brush her tears away. His skin is left blistering and peeling where they touched him, and she grabs his hand in between her own, soothing his hurt skin. “I know you won’t. That’s why it’s so sad.”
“I don’t understand,” he says. “Are you going to help me?”
“Yes. It’s a horrible, terrible idea, but I’ll help you.” The waters of her river calm, and still, as they’re never meant to do. “Bathe in my river, and if you live you will be invulnerable, you’ll have the strength of ten men. You will have the power to turn the tides of a war.”
“What’s the price that I’ll pay?” he asks, but he’s already taking off his clothes, already preparing to enter the river of the underworld.
Styx is still crying, “I can’t tell you. You’ll know when it’s time.”
He shrugs and jumps, slipping beneath the surface of the river, as still and shining as obsidian. The pain is excruciating, and immediate. He screams before he can think not to, and the water of the Styx flows down his throat, gets caught in his lungs, is in him and on him.
It’s burning him away, and when he manages to surface again, he realize he really has been burned, has been eaten away.
He looks down at his hands, and they’re bone, all his flesh is gone. Then the river dissolves his eyes, and he can see nothing, can barely feel, and it must be magic that keeps his bones in place, because there’s nothing left of him to do it.
A child’s hands pull him to shore, and he’s nothing but bones now, he doesn’t know how he can fight a war like this. But then he has the uncomfortable and painful sensation of – of his flesh growing back, which is clearly something no one was ever meant to experience. It feels like a thousand white hot coals being rubbed all over him, and he’s screaming as soon as he has enough of a throat that he can manage it.
He doesn’t know how long it takes – minutes, hours, days, years – but when it’s done, the river is flowing again. He’s lying on the bank of the river, naked and shivering, his flesh new and different. He can already tell it feels different.
The goddess Persephone stands above him, her hands still faintly glowing with power. “No blade can pierce you now, no fire can burn you, no shield may stop you. You are both the shield and sword. Wield yourself well, Lady Achilles.”
She bends down to kiss his forehead, her lips like fire, and then she’s gone.
Styx is kneeling by his side, and silent sobs wrack her frame, her shoulders hunched and shaking.
“Why are you crying?” he asks, forcing himself to have the energy to lift his arm. This time when he brushes her tears away, they do not burn him. “You helped me, just as I asked, and now I have what I wanted.”
She shakes her head, and is gone in the next moment. He can’t see her, but her voice echoes out from all around him.
“What my river takes, it keeps.”
Achilles is seventeen, stumbling home from a night spent with a silk trader with large hands and plump mouth. He nearly falls on his face, but someone grabs his arm, jerking him upright. It takes several seconds of him blinking in confusion for the face in front of him to swim into focus. “Patroclus,” he says, and takes a step closer so they’re pressed chest to chest. “What are you doing here?”
“You’re drunk,” his friend accuses, fingers like a vice around his arm. “You have to be more careful.”
He is drunk, and young, and beautiful, and it makes him reckless. He twists himself out of Patroclus’s grip only to push them even closer together, looping his arms around Patroclus’s neck. “Why? You’ll keep me safe, won’t you?”
“I can’t always be by your side, my lady,” Patroclus says, low, and a sorrow on his face that Achilles doesn’t like.
He presses a quick, delicate kiss along Patroclus’s cheekbone, because now is not the time, but he can’t help himself. “Yes, you can.”
They walk home together, arm and arm, and Achilles pretends they’re more than a maybe, more than a possibility. He pretends like they’re in an inevitability, and smiles the whole way.
Achilles throws himself into the war, fighting his way across the battlefield, fighting his way to the only person who matters.
Rumors of him spread fast, and quickly. They say he has the hand of Ares on him, that Athena has blessed him with a prowess in battle that she’s granted no other. He doesn’t know if that’s true. He just knows that he must keep fighting, or risk not getting there in time, risk not being where he needs to be when he needs to be there.
He reaches the frontlines just in time to see Patroclus about to be overwhelmed by three soldiers on top of him, and Achilles doesn’t hesitate. He throws himself in there, pushing Patroclus onto the ground and shielding his body with his own, leaning on his elbows so he can look down at him.
“No!” Patroclus shouts, his eyes wide with horror.
Their enemies’ swords fall upon Achilles’s back, gleaming in the rising sun.
“I told you not to die,” Achilles says, “I said don’t die, and this is what I find?”
The soldiers are confused, and rain more blows down upon Achilles, each of which bounces off him like it’s nothing. Patroclus is covered with blood, most of it not his own, and Achilles can’t help but want him anyway. It’s been too long since he saw him last. “I told you not to leave the village!”
“I guess we’re both promise breakers, then,” he says, and then jumps to his feet. He takes a sword from one of them, and kills them all in the next few blows. He’s a mediocre swordsman, his skill cobbled together from his past few weeks on the battlefield. Luckily, even mediocre skills are impressive when you can’t be harmed and have the strength of ten men.
“Stay behind me,” he warns, lifting his stolen sword in front of him. “It looks like it’s my turn to protect you.”
Let more warriors come for them. A dozen, a hundred, a thousand, it doesn’t matter. He’ll fight them all to keep Patroclus safe.
When it finally happens, it’s almost anti-climactic. It’s been building between them for so long, steadily building pressure, that Achilles expects them to explode at any moment.
Instead they’re washing clothes in the river, something they’ve done a thousand times before, and Patroclus snorts. “You have soap in your hair,” he teases, reaching out to wipe it from his braid, like he has a thousand times before.
Achilles grabs his hand and pushes him into the river, which has happened enough times that Patroclus only looks resigned as he’s swallowed by the water. Achilles dissolves into peals of laughter, clutching his stomach. He doesn’t notice Patroclus surface behind him, so he’s not expecting it when he’s grabbed around the waist and dunked under the water.
Now it’s Patroclus who’s laughing at him, and Achilles is going to have to redo his hair, and he spent all morning combing and weaving flowers into it. He glares, and pushes against the water to tackle Patroclus to the ground. He stumbles a few steps before falling back into the soft sand, half on the shore and half still in the river. “Lady Achilles, you wound me!” he calls, but he’s grinning.
Achilles falls on top of him, smirking at Patroclus’s pained groan at his weight. They’re both soaking wet, and he brackets Patroclus’s hips with his thighs, grabbing his wrists and pinning them into the sand. Patroclus is much stronger than him, could push him off at any moment, but he doesn’t. Achilles hadn’t meant for this to happen, had meant to tickle him, or perhaps shove mud into his face. But instead he trapped Patroclus beneath him, and beautiful and wet, and Achilles can feel his every exhale.
“Don’t hate me for this,” he says, and leans down.
The first press of their lips is tentative, unsure, then Patroclus strains into it, hungry, like he wants to swallow Achilles whole. Achilles has kissed a lot of men before, but none of them were Patroclus, none of them made his whole body feel like it was one fire, made him feel like he was losing his mind and falling through the heavens all at once.
Patroclus rolls them over, so now he’s the one pinning Achilles into the sand. He painfully earnest when he cups Achille’s cheek and says, “I could never hate you. I love you far too much.”
They don’t end up getting the washing done.
War is awful. Achilles isn’t suited to it, and he doesn’t like it. But he fights during those long years of the war, continues going where mortal men would fear to go, for he is no mortal man. Patroclus is there by his side, in his bed, and the only times he feels normal, feels human, is when his lover’s arms are around him.
Then Patroclus is killed.
There’s no container for Achille’s grief, for his rage. He kills a thousand men with his bare hands, begging for death, looking for it. If he can’t be with Patroclus, then he has no reason to live at all. The war rages on around him, and he fights, but he doesn’t care. Let the Trojans win, let the Greeks win, he doesn’t care. He did this to himself to protect his lover, and now he’s gone, and nothing matters anymore. None of this matters anymore.
He’s bathing in a river, closing his eyes against the tidal wave of grief that threatens to overwhelm him at every moment, when a familiar voice says, “I told you he would die. All things die.”
“You did not say it would be so soon,” he says, turning to look at Apollo, sitting at the river’s edge, radiant in a way a mortal could be. “I failed to save him, and lost myself in the process.”
“You did save him,” Apollo says, “there are things that are worse than death. Patroclus would have faced a fate far worse than death if you hadn’t been there. Never forget that.”
He looks down at his body – perfect, not a single scar, he’d never gotten one before the war and obviously didn’t get any after. “I want to die. All I want is to die.”
“Paris will shoot you with an arrow tomorrow, and you will go to the underworld,” he says. “I could stop that arrow. You don’t have to let it take you.”
Achilles pulls himself to shore, and grabs Apollo by the jaw. It’s like holding a star in his hands. “Make sure that arrow flies true, Apollo. Have all twelve of the gods bless it, and send me from this cursed plane, where I exist and Patroclus does not.”
Apollo looks sad, and in the next moment he’s gone.
He’s hit in the heel by an arrow the next day, and he feels a tug, and he’s gone. This was not death. It was simply an escape.
He’s standing by the edge of the River Styx once more, and its goddess is there, wet eyes and wringing hands. “Kill me,” he demands.
“I cannot,” she says, and she’s weeping once more. “You are of my river, and my river is the place between death and life. Neither can truly touch you.”
“Is this the price I pay, then?” he asks. “To be of life and death, and able to experience neither?”
“Partially,” she whispers, and before he can question her Hades, King of the Underworld, appears at her side.
He falls to his knees, mouth open and eyes wide. The sheer weight of Hades’s power threatens to crush him, to steal the air from his lungs. It makes his eyes burn, he can suddenly see too much, he suddenly knows too much. “What are you?” he breathes, because he’s stood before Zeus himself, and he’s never felt anything like this.
Hades smiles. It looks sad. Why do gods keep looking sad when they see him? “You can feel it now. You can feel so many things now. We need someone like you, someone who is of Styx, who can cross the barrier of both worlds and be affected by neither.”
“I don’t understand,” he says.
Hades cups his face in his hands, and kisses each of his eyelids. “Wait for me, and take care of her. I’m depending on you.”
That doesn’t make any sense, he still doesn’t understand. But Hades’s power concentrates, and the power of time itself exists within his hands. “There are no more gods of time,” he says, because they died out long ago, with Gaia and the other first gods.
“What is death, but the end of time?” Hades asks.
Achilles doesn’t get a chance to answer before Hades pushes him, hands pressing against his chest and making him glow with the god’s power before he goes crashing into Styx’s river. He tries to swim to the surface, but instead it feels like he’s sinking for an eternity, and then he finally breaks the surface, like he’s fallen out the other side. He’s gasping as he pulls himself to shore, soaked and shivering and he collapses onto the sand. He’s exhausted, and can’t explain why.
“What are you doing here? No one is supposed to be here,” a voice that almost sounds familiar asks.
He looks up, and a toddler is crouched at his side, looking no more than two although her eyes are far wiser. She has black skin and grey eyes and hair. “Styx?”
“Is that my name?” she asks, tucking her thumb in her mouth. “It will do, I suppose.”
He looks around, but everything more than a dozen feet from the river is blurred around the edges, like this river is the only solid thing here. It gives him a headache to look around too long. “Where are we? Where’s – everything else?”
“There is nothing else,” she says, “nothing has died yet. We are at the beginning.”
“Of what?” he asks, although he feels like he already knows the answer.
“Everything,” she answers, then frowns. She rips a piece of cloth from her cloak and wraps it around his eyes, so he’s plunged into darkness. He raises his hand to pull it away, but she grabs at his wrist, stopping him. “You see too much. You have to not look, otherwise it will drive you mad.”
“Okay. I won’t look.” All at once he understands, and he almost wants to laugh. All of them acting like this was the worst thing that could happen to him, and they were wrong. This is manageable, it’s something he can endure, because there’s a light at the end of this tunnel.
She climbs into his lap and snuggles into him, and he dares not think about how long she’s been here. She says this is the beginning, but is it really? Or is it just far back enough to do the trick? He’s going to have a lot of time on his hands, but he has to do his best not to think on that, otherwise he will drive himself insane.
She asks, “If I’m Styx, what are you?”
He nearly says Achilles, but catches himself. He knows better. “You can call me Charon,” he says. “I’m going to ferry people across your river one day. We’re going to be very good friends, I think.”
Styx grabs his arm and pull it around her like a blanket, and he doesn’t stop her.
He is to be the eternal boatman who ferries the souls of the dead to the underworld. One day, Hades will show up to claim the underworld, and then the real work will begin. Until then, he just has to take care of Styx, and watch the world slowly age.
Not all hope is lost.
Patroclus died. One day, he’ll have his lover returned to him. He just has to wait, is all.
“This is foolish!” he snaps, anger making his arms shake, making him want to grab something and break it.
Patroclus sighs, and hold out his hands. “Lady Achilles, please. Do not be angry with me.”
“Of course I’m angry!” he hisses, “You leave me to court war, and you expect me to what? Be happy?”
“I need not court what is already here,” he takes half a step closer, hands still outstretched. “War is coming, and I will not stand idly by as it comes for you.”
“We’ll run,” he says desperately, “we’ll go somewhere the war cannot find us, and live in peace, live together.”
Patroclus’s lips quirk up at the corners. “Lady Achilles, are you asking me to marry you?”
“If I were, would you stay?” he asks. He will become Patroclus’s wife this very night if it would convince him to stay by his side, to stay safe.
Patroclus shakes his head. “I have to do this. I have to go to war, and you must promise me to stay here, away from the danger. It is my duty to protect you, and my desire to protect you, because I love you more dearly than anything. Including my own life.”
“You mustn’t!” he insists, finally stepping closer enough that Patroclus can settle his hands on his waist. “You can’t throw your life away, because it’s precious to me. You can’t die, and you must return to me. If you’re going to do this against my protest, those are rules.”
“If I promise to return to you, will you wait for me?” Patroclus murmurs, ducking his head down until they’re almost kissing.
Achilles closes the space between them, pressing their mouths together with a desperation he hasn’t felt in years, trying to pour all of his complicated, messy love into the kiss, so that Patroclus has no reason to doubt him.
“I’d spend an eternity waiting if it meant having you back in my arms.”
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To conceive Hephaestus, she snuck away to lay with a mortal man.
To conceive Ares, she struck a bargain with Artemis, the goddess of childbirth.
But this time, when Hera presses a hand to her lower stomach and lets out a small breath of surprise, she has done neither.
Yet, a child grows within her.
Zeus pins her to their bed by her throat, eyes wild with rage, and Hera doesn’t flinch. “Have you not learned your lesson?” he hisses.
She pries his fingers off of her so she has enough air to speak, and says, “The child is yours, dear husband. I’ve lain with no other.”
He stills, searching her face for deceit. He knows her, and he knows when she’s lying. “How?”
“I don’t know,” she answers, and wonders how long it will take for the bruises on her throat to heal this time. “But the child is ours.” Her eyes narrow, and she flips them, pressing the weight of her power on top of Zeus so he has to struggle to catch his breath. “Beloved husband of mine, if you do to this child what you did to my first two, I will kill you. I don’t care what it costs me. Understand?”
She will not see another of her children torn from her and tossed aside, she will not see another of her children forced into a cursed role and made a god of terrible things. She’ll protect this child. No matter the cost.
“Do as you wish,” he answers, and disappears from underneath her.
Hera goes to Artemis, but tells no one else. Artemis doesn’t like her, maybe even hates her some days, but would never allow her hatred to get in the way of protecting a child. So she helps the queen of the gods through her pregnancy. It’s hard on Hera. She grows thin and weak, but refuses to let anyone see her, still so afraid of losing this child, of having everyone know she conceived a child and lost it. She’s the goddess of motherhood, and if she fails to bring this child into the world, she worries about what people will say of her.
Zeus doesn’t spend much time on Olympus anymore, and Hera is glad of it. She avoids Hestia, and Hermes, avoids everyone until Artemis barges in and says, exasperated, “Your son is worried sick, won’t you see him? He thinks you are dying.”
She looks down at herself, large protruding belly and too thin limbs, and says, “Maybe I am.”
“You’re not dying,” Artemis says, softening. “It is a difficult pregnancy, yes. But it doesn’t take more than you’re willing to give. You and the child will be fine.”
Hera wants to believe her, but neither of her sons birthed easily, and she can’t help but think this child will be so much worse.
Ares can’t track down his father, his mother is hidden away on Mount Olympus, and he wants to scream.
“What if he’s hurt her?” he asks, pacing in his brother’s workshop. The pleas of soldiers ring in his ears, and usually he can’t ignore them unless he’s in the underworld, but now it’s almost easy to push them to the back of his mind. His worshippers will have to wait.
Hephaestus doesn’t look up from his forge, but his shoulders are raised from tension that doesn’t come from beating metal into a different shape. “He wouldn’t.”
“What Father wouldn’t do is a very short list,” he says. “Mom never avoids me. Never!”
“Good for you!” Hephaestus snaps, and Ares steps away from him. He’s not a child anymore, he’s the god of war. He’s Hades’s lover, Hephaestus’s brother, the friend to many gods. But first, he was a son, and Hera’s love was the first he knew.
Hephaestus takes a deep breath, folding his anger back into himself and running a hand down his face. Ares wonders if this was a mistake, if he should find Aphrodite or Eros and makes his retreat before he makes anything worse.
His brother turns and faces him, “I’m sorry. I know you’re worried about your mother.”
Our mother, he wants to say, but won’t. He’s pushed his brother far enough today. He hesitates, because he doesn’t want Hephaestus to get mad at him again, then walks over and cups his brother’s face in his hands. He kisses both his cheeks, tries to think of something to say that doesn’t betray either Hera or his brother, and fails. He slips away in the next moment, determined to find their mother, even if she doesn’t want to be found.
He hasn’t been on Mount Olympus more than a few minutes when Artemis appears at his side, looping her arm through his. “She’s this way,” she says, tugging him in the opposite direction.
“She’s not hurt?” he asks, the tight knot of worry at the base of his chest already beginning to loosen. “My father didn’t–”
“He is to blame for her current condition,” she says, dry, “but she’s not hurt.”
He doesn’t understand until he’s pulled through a doorway that isn’t usually there and deposited in a room that doesn’t belong to his parents, and sees Hera lying there. “Mom!” he cries, rushing over to her. She’s pale and thin except for the roundness of her stomach.
“I’m fine, you did not need to worry,” she admonishes, and he sits on the bed beside her.
He looks to Artemis for confirmation, because he doesn’t quite trust his mother’s assessment of her own health. She smiles at him, wide and lopsided, and his shoulders slump in relief. He holds Hera’s hand, and is comforted by the strength of her grip. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
She opens her mouth to answer, but then her face contorts in pain, and Artemis is kneeling between Hera’s legs. It’s time. He almost leaves, but Hera doesn’t release her grip on his hand, and he doesn’t really want to go anyway. His father should be here, but he isn’t, so Ares will have to do.
There’s too much blood, and Hera’s screams echo around them. But Artemis is steady and sure, and both mother and child survive the birth.
Artemis places the babe in the crook of his arm as she cleans up, and he looks down at her. She’s small, and squalling, and he loves her. She’s his little sister.
Hera is exhausted, and he knows she fell asleep after giving birth to him, but has never been able to find the courage to ask about Hephaestus. Hera’s eyelids are sliding shut when he carefully places his sister on his mother’s chest. “She’s beautiful,” he whispers.
Her eyes open long enough for her to smile. “You name her,” she yawns, and then she’s asleep, tired out by bringing her daughter into the world.
Ares picks up the baby again, and by the time he turns to Artemis, she’s already shaking her head. “Do not worry, she’s fine, just tired. Pregnancy has always been hard on her. Give her time to recover – she’ll be back to her charming self by tomorrow.”
Once Hera is cleaned and made comfortable in bed, Artemis leaves, trusting mother and child to the god of war. Ares sits next to Hera, holding the baby, and is content to wait. “I think we’ll call you Hebe,” he whispers.
He hopes Hephaestus likes their new sister.
Hera is a goddess, and has regained all her lost strength by the time she awakens. She carries Hebe on her hip through Olympus, pride in her eyes at the parade of gods that come to make their respects to their queen’s daughter.
Zeus has many children, but Hera only has three, and they’re important. Hephaestus hates her, as he should, but her blood in his veins has protected him against all manner of horrible things, most of which she hopes he’ll never know the truth about.
Her husband softens when she places their daughter in his arms, but she is wary this time when she was not with Ares. Zeus loved their son, and so she thought she did not need to worry too much, didn’t think he would harm him. But she had forgotten that even his kindness scars. She will not forget this time.
Hebe grows up. Like her brothers, Hebe has Hera’s eyes, but she is clearly Zeus’s child. She, like Ares, shares his copper red skin and thick black hair. Ares keeps his hair long, down to his hips and in a thick braid when he’s on the battlefield. Hebe keeps hers cut short, in a sharp line that ends right above her chin.
She yearns to leave Mount Olympus, but Hera forbids it, and there are times when gods will cross her, when they will sneak and twist and lie to her, but none are so foolish as to interfere with her daughter. One day, when she’s old enough, when she’s powerful enough, Hera will let her go, but not yet.
Hera loves her daughter too much to lose her like she lost her sons.
At first, Hebe doesn’t mind her life. She has an adoring mother, a father who shines with warmth, a brother who visits her whenever he can, who always has a smile and kind word for her, no matter the horrors he’s seen or the exhaustion seeping into his bones.
She’s barely more than a child, a gangly almost-woman, when Zeus takes her to the top of Olympus to teach her how to throw lightning bolts.
It doesn’t go well.
She can hold them, but just barely, and her skin comes away blistered and burned. Even then, they’re too heavy for her to throw properly, and, no matter how hard she tries, they shatter uselessly at the base of the mountain. She keeps trying until Zeus takes the lightning from her bleeding hands and gently says, “I think that is enough.”
If he had disappointment in his eyes, that would at least be something she could rage against, but instead her father’s eyes shine with pity. That’s so much worse.
She flees and hides in her room, refusing to come out. Eventually, Ares comes for her, still sweat soaked from battle, holding a spear stained red with mortal blood. “Mom is worried about you,” he says, appearing beside her inside her room. Hera could have done the same, but hadn’t, and Hebe can’t explain why her mother’s respect grates at her. It shouldn’t.
“Did you struggle?” she asks, “When Father taught you to throw lightning bolts, did you burn? Did they weaken your arms until you could barely lift them?”
Ares frowns, and leans against his spear, exhaustion making him look old. “No. I’ve always been able to wield them.”
Frustrated tears well in her eyes, and she hurries to wipe them away before they can fall.
“Hebe,” he says, soft, “it’s okay.”
“No! It’s – it’s not!” She stands, hands clenched into fists. “What goddess am I? I’ve never even left this mountain, and it’s strangling me, it’s – Mama won’t let me grow. I’m the daughter of Zeus, yet I can’t wield his lightning, I’m the daughter of the king and queen of the gods, yet I’m the worst of us.” Tears spill down her cheeks, and she cannot stop them. “I’m an embarrassment. Maybe that’s the real reason Mama won’t let me leave.”
Ares watches her, silent and thoughtful. “Our mother loves you. She’s trying to protect you. Come on,” he holds out his hand, “I’m going to take you to see our brother.”
“We have many brothers,” she says, scrubbing at her cheeks.
“We have only one brother bound to us by Hera’s blood,” he answers.
The surprise is enough that she stops crying. “Hephaestus? Does he want to see me? I thought he did not like me. He’s never visited, even though he has a throne here.”
“He does not like Olympus,” Ares says, “but I think he might like you.”
Hebe hesitates, then takes her brother’s hand.
Hephaestus had not planned on hating his sister, not like he had planned on hating Ares, but he can’t help the angry curl of jealousy in his chest. His sister is coveted and protected on the very mountain he was callously thrown from, and it grates on him.
He tells himself that he doesn’t care, that it doesn’t matter, but he’s not very good at lying to himself.
It would be easier if Hera was like Zeus, if she did not care for her children, if her apathy was shared equally among all the children of her womb. But it’s not. Her love for Ares and Hebe burns bright enough to blind – it’s him alone who managed to earn her disdain when he was only minutes old.
When Ares shows up in his workshop, a girl with their eyes at his side, Hephaestus instantly knows who she is. He wonders if it would be rude to hide.
“I know you’re here,” Ares calls out disapprovingly, like he can hear his thoughts. “Come out. There’s someone I want you to meet.”
Hephaestus sighs, but steps forward, looking at this slip of a girl who shines like only a goddess born of Hera could. “Hello.”
She looks at him like he’s a puzzle piece. He can’t help but approve.
Hebe knows that Hera knows about the trips she takes with Ares to visit Hephaestus, there’s no way she can’t know, but she pretends she doesn’t, allows Hebe some of the freedom she’s so desperately craving. There a space in the volcano carved out just for her, where she bends and twists metal with her bare hands as if it’s clay. She can’t handle the heat of Zeus’s lightning bolts without burning, but molten metal is cool compared to that.
She doesn’t excel at it, but over the years she gets better, manages to make beautiful things with nothing more than hot metal and her hands. Hera proudly wears a small golden rose in hair, one of the first beautiful things Hebe ever made. Hephaestus had made the delicate veins in the leaves. Hebe hadn’t told Hera that, but she thinks she knows. There are so, so many things her mother pretends not to know that sometimes it’s hard for Hebe to keep track.
Many things have changed, but some things are still the same. She’s not a child anymore, she’s grown into a powerful young woman, with sparks of magic dancing along her fingertips. But still she has no domain, no followers, no place in the heavens to claim as her own. She knows what happened to Ares, what Hera is trying to protect her from by not allowing her to truly become a goddess of the pantheon. But if she ever wants to be more than this, more than Hera and Zeus’s daughter or Ares’s and Hephaestus’s sister, then she needs to be a goddess of something.
She spends long hours in her brother’s volcano, keeping the forge alight as she presses every ounce of magic she has into molten gold, as she shapes the thick, sparkling metal into her hands. When she’s done, she has a heavy golden apple, nearly dripping in her magic, magic made to incite conflict and hostility even within the hearts of gods.
Her mother wants things to stay as they are, wants Hebe to stay as she is, and resists anything that goes against that. Hebe is not so foolish as to openly stand against her mother, she is not Kore, who hated her mother and the cage she lived in.
Hebe hates her cage. She loves her mother. So she’ll have to carve out a dominion for herself in a way that’s not so direct, that’s just as powerful, but more subtle.
At the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, she tosses her golden apple into center of the party. Inscribed on it is: To the fairest.
To her parents and brothers, she will always be Hebe.
But to the rest of the world, she will be Eris.
Goddess of discord and strife.
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Chapter 27: Eris's Beginning
chronus = god of harvest, father of zeus
kronos = primordial god of time
It hasn’t even been a day, the party for the wedding is still in full swing. There are pockets of arguments, but nothing interesting has even happened yet when Ares corners her and says, “I know it was you.”
Hebe goes cold. She wants to deny it, to lie and worm her way out of it, but if he already knows then there’s no point. She can’t do damage control by pretending that the damage isn’t there. ``Have you told anyone?”
He raises an eyebrow. “And ruin all your hard work?” He sounds sarcastic, but like he’s serious too. She just stares at him, waiting, and he sighs. “No, I haven’t told anyone.”
“Are you going to?”
“I should,” he snaps. “This is dangerous, and stupid. There are better ways to get power. There are easier ways to power. You don’t need to do this.”
She grins, because he’s not going to stand against her. He’s going to glare and lecture, he might even nurse a grudge, but he’s not going to tell. She doesn’t need his approval, only his silence. “I don’t want power to be given to me. I want to take it.” She hesitates, because she doesn’t mean this in a hurtful sort of way, but says it anyway. “Father declared you the god of war, and so that’s what you became. Hephaestus made himself from nothing, made things from nothing for the mortals, and so that’s what they named him. The mortals declared him to be a god of crafting and so that’s what he became. But I don’t want to depend on Father or mortals.”
“If your power comes from neither from the Pantheon nor the people, then where?” he asks, and thankfully he doesn’t seem hurt, only skeptical.
“From where the first gods got theirs,” she answers. “They were granted nothing and took everything. I’m going to do the same.”
He blinks, then smiles for the first time during this conversation. “Chaos bore the gods, and so you will become a god of chaos?”
It’s not quite the same, the chaos that birthed the universe and the chaos she’s capable of claiming are not one in the same. But they’re linked, and she plans to use that link to her advantage. “Yes.”
Her brother frowns and rubs at his chin. His hair is loose and long around his hips, how he likes to keep but is rarely able to because it gets in his way during battle, and his chiffon is silk, something else he likes but doesn’t often get the opportunity to experience. “One golden apple and a couple of feuds aren’t going to cut it, not if you want it to last. A slow build is all well and good, and worked fine for Hephaestus. But that’s not what you need. You need this to be a stone in a river, you need ripples, and large ones at that.”
“A couple of feuding major goddesses are pretty big ripples,” she points out.
“It’s not a bad start,” he agrees, and she’s going to smack him. “But it can be bigger. It can be more, you can make it be more, and you know that. Why aren’t you doing it? Why aren’t you pushing it further?”
She looks away from him and admits, “I don’t want to cause you more trouble.”
He’s talking about a war. If she really wants to be the goddess of chaos, then a terrible war would be a wonderful beginning. But starting a war when her beloved brother is so hurt by them seems cruel, and she does not aspire to be the goddess of cruelty.
Ares grins, sharp and dangerous. He did not want to be the god of war, but no one can deny he’s good at it, that he’s molded his unwanted power into something deadly and different and entirely his own. “There will always be war, my dear sister. The humans simply don’t know what to do if they’re not spilling blood. Maybe they learned that from watching us. There will always be another war, I will always inevitably be summoned to the battlefield. One more terrible war won’t change that.”
“You really don’t mind?” she asks, cautious, because she wants it so badly she can taste it, but she won’t run roughshod over her brother just to get when she wants.
“What do you care?” he asks, but he’s still fond. “You wish to claim the primordial power of chaos for yourself. Strike fast, and strike hard. I’ll take care of myself, whatever destruction you bring.” She throws herself at him, and he catches her easily, pressing a kiss against her cheek. He puts her back on her feet, then pushes her back into the party. “Go. You have more work to do.”
Hebe grabs a flute of nectar out of the hand of the closest nymph, who is outraged at the audacity until he sees who has taken his drink, and then he only bows his head ins submissions.
For now, they cower from her because she is the daughter of Hera and Zeus, because she is the sister of Ares and Hephaestus. But that won’t last.
Soon, they will cower from her because she’ll have the power to unmake them all, and this is her beginning.
To the fairest, says the apple, and she’d left it ambiguous on purpose, because she wasn’t sure how she was going to play it. An argument about beauty among goddesses is all well and good, but not something they’ll wage war over.
“Who could it be for?” she asks, eyes wide and innocent, the sad and simple daughter of Hera. “Is not death the great equalizer of men? Perhaps it is for Hades.”
Minor arguments of beauty have been brewing all evening, but at this, everyone pauses, and looks at the golden apple with renewed interest.
“Clearly it is for me,” Aphrodite proclaims, who hadn’t cared for the apple when it was only a trophy to physical perfection. “For love comes to all, no matter the status and circumstances.”
Athena’s eyes narrow. Hebe is never quite sure if the two goddesses loved or hated each other, and often it seemed as if they didn’t know either. “Oh, how can love be fair, when it cuts so deeply? Perhaps it is in matters of intellect and warfare where true fairness lies, for all people can excel regardless of their history.”
Hephaestus usually sticks close to his wife, but at the moment he’s nowhere to be found, which is strange, because Hebe had seen him earlier. But what it means is there’s no one to restrain Aphrodite when she steps into Athena’s space and says softly, dangerously, “The pursuit of intellect belongs to the privileged and the lazy, while love strikes all equally.”
“Please, don’t fight!” Hebe cries, stepping between them. “Let us settle this without discourse. Perhaps an outside party to decide who is fairest between you? A mortal, since it is upon your fairness to mortals that you each claim the prize.”
“A fine idea, daughter.” Hera’s voice rings like the tolling of a bell across the party, and all fall silent as their queen walks towards them. Hebe tenses, because if anyone besides Ares can see through her, it is her mother. But Hera barely glances at her, instead striding into the middle of their semi circle with hair in complicated curls and piled high, a more intimidating crown than any gold or jewels she could wear. “But truly the fairest of us is I. For I am the goddess of family, and even those who have no intellect nor love to claim for their own have a family connected either by blood or by choice. Clearly I am the fairest of the Pantheon.”
For a moment, Hebe fears this will be the end, and both Aphrodite and Athena will lower their eyes and acquiesce the title of fairest to their queen.
But Hebe had not spent months calling magic from chaos and pressing it into molten gold for nothing. Without her influence, without the call for conflict her golden apple exudes, perhaps it would have been nothing, perhaps it would have all amounted to nothing.
Her golden apple refuses to be nothing. It tugs and pulls at them, it’s enticing strife demanding to be used.
Aphrodite and Athena, the motherless daughters of Zeus, stand against Hera, Queen of the Gods.
This is still small, still a not-quite-argument, but she knows what it will grow into. This is the beginning of a Great War, one born and nurtured by her magic. It will be of chaos, and so shall she be of chaos.
By this war’s end, they will curse her name. Eris, chaos child, the child of nothing more than the elements themselves.
Hebe will always love Hera, but Eris will have no origins. Chaos came before all else, and it has no mother.
Hades is walking down the hall of his palace, and then in the next moment he is not, he is in a place that is not quite here nor there, nor really any other place either.
There are only three beings who can move him in such a way, and he’s looking at all of them.
“Fates,” he murmurs, inclining his head. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“It has begun,” Lachesis rasps, a woman in the prime of her life and empty eye sockets. “A primordial goddess will soon walk this earth once more.”
An equally blind little girl runs her hand down the air in front of her, and for the briefest moments Hades sees a shining silver thread, one of the millions that the women are constantly weaving. “We could change it. Alter the destiny. It would just be one little snip.”
“All things must end,” comes the creaky, barely there voice of the crone, the single violet eye the fates share between them in her face. Atropos glares at her counterparts, and he knows that they can tell, even though they don’t have eyes. It was them that taught Charon to see without seeing so long ago, after all. “So this girl is the beginning of the end. We are born, and we will die.”
“Then we will be born again,” the child adds. Clotho reminds him of Styx too often, and he must remember that though she may look like a child, she’s not one, not even in the same way that Styx is no ordinary child. The fates play by a different set of rules. “Perhaps I like this world. Perhaps I do not want to leave it just yet.”
“We have time,” Hades says, and they all turn and look at him, swinging their bodies around in unison in a way that he doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to seeing. “The beginning of the end may be here, but the end is still a far off thing.”
Atropos says, wry, “To master time is not to be a master to all that works within it, Kronos.”
Hades flinches. No one calls him that. Very few even know to call him that. It's been a long time since primordial gods walked the earth, long before Cronus and Rhea came together to make his current form. “I know that.”
“From chaos we were born and into chaos we shall fade,” Clotho says. “How long can you avoid your end, Father of Time? How long until not even your time can save you?”
Hades almost smiles, but restrains himself. He’s doesn’t think they’d appreciate it. “Thank you for the warning, Fates. I will keep my eye on the ticking clock.” On the clock he controls, of course.
Their hands are moving through the air, touching strings he cannot see and rearranging them faster than his eyes can follow. “Goodbye, King of Death, Father of Time.”
Hades inclines his head, but doesn’t bother to voice his own goodbye. Once they resume weaving, he knows they can no longer hear him.
He returns to his castle under his own power, and goes in search of his wife. Persephone must be told first, after all.
Hebe is not the first god to reach for the power of chaos. But maybe it is time for the beginning of the end, maybe they should let her keep what she’s so desperate to steal.
Just because it nearly destroyed Dionysus doesn’t mean it will destroy her.
edit: my good dudes I understand the confusion but chronus and kronos are 2 different gods! :)
i hope you liked it!
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King Iasus has no desire for a daughter. He considers them weak, and therefore useless.
So when his wife dies to give him one, he leaves his baby atop a mountain to be killed by the elements.
Instead, a mother bear stumbles across the child, and decides to care for her.
She does not grow up weak.
Artemis hears rumors of a girl who lives in the forest. They say she is a wild, untamed thing, that she speaks the language of beasts rather than humans. They say she moves as if she’s born of the wind, faster than any four or two legged creature.
They say she’s faster than the great huntress of the moon herself.
Her huntresses say she is real, that they have seen glimpses of her, have seen evidence of her existence, but that she always slips from their grasp.
So Artemis goes looking herself.
She finds her bathing in a stream, more woman than girl, dark skin and a tangled mass of black hair. She’s built for strength, built to fight, with scars and bruises littering her muscled body. “Goddess,” she greets, not turning to face her, and Artemis can’t help but admire her audacity.
“So you do speak the tongue of mortal men,” she answers. “I had heard rumors otherwise. You know my name. I’m afraid I don’t know yours.”
She turns to look at her, something considering and judgmental about the press of her mouth and tilt of her head. “I’m Atalanta. Rumors are often wrong.”
“So I see,” she agrees, biting her lower lip to keep from smiling, since she hardly thinks Atalanta will appreciate it.
Atalanta steps from the stream, uncaring of her nakedness and every line of her tensed and prepared for a fight. “If you’re here to kill me, I won’t make it easy for you.”
She has no interest in killing her. That’s just a waste. “Race me.”
Atalanta falters. “Excuse me?”
“Race me,” she repeats. “No godly powers. No cheating. Just you, me, and the forest.”
“So you’ll kill me if I win?” she asks, but she sounds more confused than angry.
Artemis shrugs. “One way to find out.”
They race. It’s close. Even though she thinks her life is on the line, Atalanta doesn’t waver, doesn’t hesitate.
She glares up at Artemis, defiance and fear filling her eyes, and the goddess just smiles.
“Have you considered joining my hunt?”
Atalanta is her best huntress. She gets along with the other girls, smiles and laughs and never, ever stops giving all she does every ounce of her effort.
She’s been with them over a year when she corners Artemis, the same anger in her eyes as when they first met. “You touch the others. Why do you not touch me?”
“Do you want me to touch you?” she asks, neutral. Her huntresses are also typically her lovers, but she’s not going to require it. She wants Atalanta in whatever capacity she’s comfortable with.
“Yes,” she answers, reckless and brave, an adult but still so young to Artemis’s ancient eyes.
So Artemis tugs her close, slots their mouths together, and works on undoing her heavy leathers.
When Atalanta agreed to help rid King Oineus of his mad boar, she hadn’t known it would end this way.
She hadn’t known this would be the story of her exploits which would finally reach her father’s ears.
“You didn’t tell me you were a princess.”
Atalanta closes her eyes and takes a deep breath before turning to face her goddess. “You didn’t ask.”
Artemis reaches out to tuck her hair behind her ear. “You must know it doesn’t matter to me. You mortals are all the same to a goddess’s eyes.”
She doesn’t say anything for a long moment, instead leaning her cheek into Artemis’s hand. “He wants me to come home. He said – he’ll give the kingdom to me. He’ll name me his heir.”
“Do you want a kingdom?” Artemis asks.
“No.” She looks away. “I have no use for one, nor do I know how to run one. But I want him to give it to me. I want him to know he made a mistake, that my life wasn’t worthless, that my mother’s sacrifice wasn’t worthless, I want – I want him to be sorry.”
Her goddess sighs. “You know, making you a queen and being sorry are not one in the same.”
“I know,” she whispers, “I know. But I think I want it anyway. If only so I can burn it to the ground. It’s my birthright. If I destroy it, fine, it’s mine to destroy.” That’s not very fair to all the people living there, all the people she’ll be in charge of who did nothing to her, who were probably told she was stillborn.
But she is bear-raised, she’s a huntress. She’s been hurt, and she wants blood.
Artemis doesn’t chastise her for her rage, her unseemly desire for bloody vengeance. “There will always be a place for you in my hunt,” she says, and kisses Atalanta for the last time.
Her position within her father’s palace is exhausting.
Her father treats her like a man, takes her fighting and fishing and hunting. He hires her tutors to teach her all she doesn’t know, saying that she’ll pick it all up quickly, she’s bright enough. But the rest of the palace staff hover around uncertainly, unsure whether to treat her as a lady or a lord or a guest. The tailor comes and makes her a dozen beautiful gowns that she can’t fight in, and then the blacksmith makes her armor that’s too tight across her chest.
She misses her leathers. The huntresses don’t wear metal armor, it’s too heavy and loud, more of hinderance than a help. She doesn’t like the weight of the metal on top of her. She doesn’t like the weight of a lot of the things that she’s being forced to carry.
Her father wants her to marry, to choose a suitable king to rule the realm, to choose a man whose children she’ll bear.
She has no problem with marrying a man, and she would like to one day be a mother. But she abhors the thought of giving up a single ounce of control over what is to be her kingdom.
There’s not much need for deceptive cleverness in the forests, but she’s still capable of it, if needed. “Father,” she says, wearing one of the dresses that strain against her too wide hips and shoulders, not sitting right on her thick waist. Wearing a dress, like a princess, like a lady, like someone who can’t kill a lion with her bare hands. “Surely you can’t expect me to marry a man just because he is noble? Just because he is wealthy? His sons will one day rule our land. He must be strong so that he may sire strong children.”
Her father’s eyebrows dip together. All his advisors are glaring at her, but she pretends not to notice. “You’re right. After all, you got your strength from me.” It takes all her effort not to curl her lip. What strength she did not earn in blood and sweat was gifted to her by her mother. Not him.
“Let there be a contest,” she says, thinking of her first meeting with Artemis. “A race. If any man can beat me in a footrace, he shall be my king and husband. If he should lose, he should be killed for his arrogance, to think he could claim your land so easily, Father.”
He gives a great booming laugh and claps Atlanta on the back. “I like it! Very well, daughter, a race for your heart. And those who fail will be executed at the next dawn.”
The executioner grows to hate her.
He’s hasn’t been able to sleep in for many weeks.
There’s a formal dinner tonight, and Atlanta doesn’t know what to wear. Does she wear the armor so her father can show her off as a warrior? Or a dress so she can be presented as a lady?
In the forests, there was always something to focus her rage on. An animal to hunt, a woman to fight, Artemis there burning as bright as her brother’s sun. But here in this stilted, silent palace, she grabs onto her bedclothes and tears them to ribbons, needing to do something.
“If you hated them so much, I could have just replaced them, my lady.”
She pauses, her face heating up. She glances up and there’s one of the servants with a basket of laundry balanced on his hip. He smiles at her, light and easy, and she smiles back without thinking. “I – sorry.”
He shrugs, stepping forward to finish stripping her bed. “It’s your things, my lady. You may destroy them if you wish.”
Her face and throat feel tight, and she can’t cry, not now, not here, not with an audience. “I don’t want to destroy them.”
He drops the sheets, mouth parting. “I – I’m sorry, Princess Atalanta. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
She shakes her head and rubs at her eyes. “No, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean – I just don’t know what to wear, and nothing fits–” He grabs her wrists, and the callouses on his hands are different, not quite the same as the ones on her hands. His aren’t from fighting.
“You are the lady of this house and the future queen of this land.” His voice is soft, his hands on her are soft, his eyes are soft. “You don’t apologize for anything. Especially not to me. You could have me killed just for touching you.”
It’s been a long time since someone has been soft with her. She usually doesn’t allow it, even from those she cares about, wouldn’t have taken this kind of vulnerability from the huntresses or Artemis, wouldn’t have known what to do with it.
She doesn’t know what to do with it now.
“I wouldn’t,” she promises.
When he smiles, his eyes crinkle at the corners. “You’ll want to wear a dress to tonight’s event. It’s a summer party for foreign dignitaries, and on the surface the function is to socialize. If you show up in armor, they’ll take it as a threat.” He slips away and walks over to her closet, throwing it open. “My mother was a seamstress, and I may not be as good as she was, but I know a trick or two, and we have a few hours. Let’s see what we’re working with.”
“Okay,” she says, because what does she have to lose.
He pulls out a bright red gown and turns away as she gets changed. He walks around her with a critical eye. “The poor tailor doesn’t know what to do with you. He’s too used to trying to make women look small and modest.”
He carefully cuts away at the dress. He makes slits to mid-thigh on either side so she can finally move again, and cuts the back wide open so it’s no longer too tight around her shoulders. He grabs some thin golden rope from one of the curtains and threads it criss crossing over her now naked back to keep the dress upright, and he cuts the sleeves off entirely. His hands move almost too fast for her eyes to follow as he hurries to resew the edges in time.
She looks at herself in the mirror, and she doesn’t look like a stranger anymore. Her muscles and scars are on full display, her meaty calves and strong biceps, the claw marks from the wolf that tore open her shoulder and the time she fell down a cliffside and bashed her knee wide open.
She’s a woman. She’s their princess.
But she’s a warrior too. She was a warrior first, and she thinks she’ll always be a warrior first.
“Thank you,” she says, taking his hands like he’d taken hers. Now he’s flushing, and she wants – well, she wants. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think to ask. What’s your name?”
“Hippomenes, my lady,” he says, looking at her like she’s something different than he thought, like she’s something interesting and special.
Looking at her like she first looked at Artemis after that fateful race.
“Atalanta,” she corrects, squeezing his hands, “You may call me Atalanta.”
Hippomenes keeps coming to her rooms, and she keeps letting him. She’s wary of ordering or asking for him, since she’s his princess. She wants him to come to her only if he wants to.
He does want to.
He shows up to alter her dresses at first, but then when that’s done and he’s run out of excuses, he keeps showing up anyway. He’s worked in the palace his whole life, so he knows all the people and all the correct ways to do things, patiently explains to her how to play games in politics and how to win fights that are so rarely physical.
He’s teaching her how to be queen, and each day she falls more and more in love with him.
Each day, the body count from her failed suitors climbs ever higher.
Hippomenes could never beat her in a footrace, and if she takes a husband who doesn’t best her, after ordering all those men to die, her people will kill her for her deception.
She’s in an impossible position of her own making, so she turns to someone who has the power to help her.
Artemis goes to Hephaestus, because he’s always the easiest to find. She steps around the cyclopes and waits until he pauses in hammering away at a sheet of metal. “What?” he snaps, impatient.
“I need to talk to your wife and sister. One of mine needs their help.” Atalanta may not be her huntress of her lover anymore, but she’s still hers.
He frowns. “What does that have to do with me?”
“If I call them, they won’t come right away. But they will if you call. If you do, I’ll bring the huntresses to Ares’s next war,” she promises, because his brother is one of Hephaestus’s few soft spots.
He scowls but calls out, “Darling, Artemis wants to speak to you. Hebe, you too.”
“I’m busy,” whines the goddess of chaos as she materializes next to Hephaestus. The very air around them seems to get heavy with her presence, and Artemis shivers. It’s like being around Hera when she’s angry, but worse, somehow.
“Yes?” Aphrodite says, appearing with an arm draped across Hephaestus’s shoulders. “Eris, you don’t visit often enough.” Only her brothers and mother still call her Hebe.
“I’m busy,” Eris repeats, then focuses those disconcerting honey eyes on her. All of Hera’s children have her eyes. “What do you want?”
“To unite two people in love and shake the very foundations of a kingdom,” she says. “It seems like something the goddesses of love and chaos would be able to help me with.”
Aphrodite appears to the young man who has claimed Atalanta’s heart, carrying thee heavy golden apples made by Eris’s hands, and tells him that if he challenges Atalanta to a race and drops each of these apples as he runs, she won’t be able to keep from stopping to pick them up, and he’ll win both her hand and her kingdom.
A servant made king. Eris had been giddy as she’d shaped the golden apples and pressed her magic into them.
Hippomenes reaches for them, but hesitates, his hands hovering between them before he pulls them back. “She doesn’t want to marry. I love her, I do, you must know that, Lady Goddess. But she doesn’t want to marry, and she doesn’t want to share her kingdom.”
Aphrodite smiles, because Hippomenes looks almost as if he’s about to start crying, but he doesn’t take it back.
He loves her enough to lose her, if that’s what she wants.
“I am here at the request of Artemis, who came to me on Atalanta’s behalf,” she says gently. “She didn’t want to marry or share her kingdom. Then she met you.”
Tears falls from his eyes as he takes the three golden apples from her hands, grinning so widely that it threatens to split his face in half.
When Hippomenes challenges Atalanta to a race, everyone laughs at him.
No one is laughing when he wins.
Atalanta and Hippomenes keep the three golden apples on the mantle over their fireplace for the rest of their lives.
They rule long, and they rule well.
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Aphrodite is not born motherless.
They all tell tales of her creation, they speak of how Zeus’s blood spilled into the sea and turned into sea foam, and from that sea foam she arose, a fully formed goddess. Somehow, they always miss her mother in that tale, even though she’s so intrinsic to it, so important to it.
Somehow, they always forget the sea.
Amphitrite gathers Zeus’s blood in her hands, pulls it close to her chest, and thinks, unbidden, that she could do something interesting with this.
She uses her claw-like nails to cut open the skin of her stomach, until she’s surrounded by a bright red cloud of warm blood. “I will not carry you,” she mutters, mixing her blood with Zeus’s and pressing it into the shape of a women, “but you are still of my belly, of my flesh.”
She was a primordial goddess once, she was Oceana and Oceanus, was man and then woman, and knows how to create a body, how to create such a simple thing after all these years.
But even so, she’s still impressed when the woman turns to her, dark copper skin and heavy, long black hair. “You’re beautiful,” she tells her daughter, because she is, full lips and soft brown eyes. “You are of me, and I am the sea. You are sea foam, and your name is Aphrodite.”
“Aphrodite,” she repeats, no childlike wonder or curiosity in gaze, just the heavy knowledge of an adult, of a woman. She has ancient blood in her, and it leaves no room childhood. “My name is Aphrodite, and I am beautiful.”
“Don’t tell anyone that you are mine,” Amphitrite warns, but doesn’t give any further explanation. The sea doesn’t explain itself, and neither does she.
Her daughter doesn’t question her. Amphitrite wonders if it’s because she already knows, or if maybe she just doesn’t care.
She doesn’t ask before leaving. The sea doesn’t care for others’ explanations either.
“Where were you today?” Poseidon asks crankily when she swims back into the palace.
She ignores him, moving past and away from him. His scowl at her back is less worthy of her notice than a fly buzzing in her ear.
Poseidon may command the sea while he holds her heart, but he is not of it, is not like it, and he never truly will be.
Her father welcomes her with open arms when she arrives, proud of her beauty, of her strength, of the power that rolls off of her in waves.
“She can not just be a goddess,” Hera remarks, looking at her narrowed, judgmental eyes. “She must be the goddess of something. What shall it be?”
It’s not jealousy in Hera’s gaze, not exactly, it’s not that abstract. But she still can’t place it, so she demurs, “I wish to be like you, Queen Hera.”
She raises an eyebrow, and Aphrodite wonders at her misstep, but doesn’t have the time to contemplate it before Hestia says, “A lofty goal for a young goddess. If you wish to be an object of worship in Hera’s honor, then you must be the goddess of beauty, for she is the most beautiful.”
Hera barely keeps from rolling her eyes. Zeus says, “Oh, if you are to be a mirror goddess of my wife, then you must be the goddess of love. Of course.”
It’s said with completely sincerity, but Hera smiling in a way that makes Zeus take a half step away from her. “Of course. Husband dear, you’re too kind.”
“I can be both,” she pipes up, desperate to end this strange, confusing tension. Maybe coming to the pantheon was a mistake. Maybe she should have just stayed at the bottom of the ocean and befriended a giant squid and many small starfish and never had to worry or wonder about these complicated politics that she doesn’t yet understand.
Hera turns to her, and again those piercing amber eyes bore into her soul. She must find what she’s looking for, because she takes a deep breath then intones, “ So mote it be ,” in the type of voice only a queen goddess could have, carrying Aphrodite’s name and domain across the sea and through the air, whispering it in the corners of homes, placing her in the stars with a single breath.
Zeus seems oddly put out, as if he wanted to be the one to do that, but says nothing.
The ground rumbles beneath her feet, and Aphrodite stumbles, nearly falling. When she looks up again, there’s another throne on the pantheon, one of the purest white marble and delicately rounded corners.
Hera takes a step back and gestures to the empty throne. “For you, Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty.”
When Hephaestus hears what happened, he destroys an entire section of his workshop. His chest is heaving as he tosses another table of delicate silver instruments against is volcano wall, watching them bend and shatter with a dark, vicious sort of fascination.
He reaches for another, knowing he’ll regret this later even as he does it, but not being able to bring himself to care.
Firm hands curl around his wrists, and Hephaestus turns with a snarl, ready to push whoever dare interrupt him into the nearest vat of molten lava.
So, of course, it’s the one person that would have no effect on.
“Stop,” his little brother says, eyes hollows in his face, the skin beneath them bruised purple. “What are you doing? Just – no.”
“Let go of me,” Hephaestus snaps, trying to tug his arms free, but Ares won’t let him go. There was a time when he was physically stronger than Ares, when he could shove him and order him around. But that was a long time ago, and he can only pull uselessly on his arms, trying and failing to reclaim them.
Ares shakes his head. “Just – stop. I know you heard – I’m sure Mom had her reasons–”
“I don’t care about your mother ,” he shouts, but his voice catches at the end. He hopes Ares doesn’t notice, but he’s never been that lucky. “Of course I heard. Everyone heard!”
His brother steps forward, hand outstretched, but he steps away, his back hitting the rough cave wall. Ares stops, standing there, his face wretched and twisted in pain. “Please, don’t - don’t do this to yourself. This wasn’t about you.”
“Of course it wasn’t,” he says, closing his eyes against the tidal wave of bitterness clawing its way up his throat. “Nothing is ever about me.”
A calloused hand cups his face, hesitant and delicate, and Hephaestus knows that if he pulls away, Ares will let him, that Ares is so careful to not push him too hard or too far.
He came here from the battlefield, he’s ignoring the invocations of his name to be here right now, ignoring the screams in his head so he could go running to him.
His brother loves him. It’s the only balm against this, against the jagged edges of wounds that are only there in his head. He takes a deep breath and leans into Ares’s hand, letting him take some of this weight. “She’s Zeus’s child. She hates Zeus’s children. Why would she-”
“It’s not the same,” Ares says quietly. “She hates evidence of Zeus’s transgressions. That’s not what Aphrodite is.”
“I don’t care,” he snarls, and it takes everything inside of him to not push past Ares and continue destroying everything around him. “She’s a goddess now, she has a throne on Olympus now, and all she had to do was walk in. She’s a goddess of the pantheon on Hera’s word. Who else can say that?”
No one. Hera’s never used her power as queen like this before.
Ares winces, and Hephaestus finally notices that he’s shaking. “You have to go.”
“No,” he says, “no, I can say, it’s not too bad-”
“Go,” he says, “I won’t - I’m fine. Everything’s fine.” At Ares’s unimpressed look, he amends, “It’s fine enough. Thank you for coming. But don’t hurt yourself to stay.”
“I want to stay,” Ares says earnestly, then leans forward to press his forehead Hephaestus’s. “Take care of yourself.”
“I’m older than you,” he says, lips pulled in a helpless smile.
“Clean your room,” Ares orders before disappearing, slipping back to whatever battle he’s in the middle of dealing with.
Hephaestus takes a look around his destroyed work room, his instruments and creations shattered and glittering in broken pieces across the ground, and sighs.
It doesn’t matter. So what if this new goddess was just given something he had to work and bleed and earn? So what if Hera cares more for some domainless goddess off the street than she cares for him, a child of her blood and womb? It doesn’t matter.
This goddess, this Aphrodite, doesn’t matter, and is no concern of his.
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Styx knows Ares needs help.
Hades knows this. Charon knows this. Persephone knows this. Icarus knows this. Athena, Hephaestus, Aphrodite, Hera, Artemis and Apollo know this. Possibly everyone who’s not Zeus knows this.
But there’s only so much any of them can do.
Hades and the underworld is always a place that he can come to, a place for him to rest. Ares will go to his brother’s volcanoes and soak his aching muscles in the magma, Artemis finds him on the battlefield, Apollo plays him to sleep, Hera turns the tide of wars by whispering in the ears of mothers and wives, but it’s not enough.
There’s so much war in the lives of mortal men, and Ares struggles to shoulder it all, to endure it all.
Athena had helped the most. Having another war god to share the load helped, and it’s not like Athena is displeased with her increase in followers. But the wars didn’t stop, or even end more quickly, and if they weren’t all praying to Ares they were still praying for aid in war.
Styx wants to do something to help. But she’s tied to this river, to this place, and she doesn’t mind, exactly, except of course for when she does.
That’s okay. The underworld is where everyone ends up one day, and there’s someone right here who can help her.
She’s not afraid to go into Tartarus. Her river flows even there, and unlike those who are imprisoned there, she can leave whenever she likes. But just because she’s not afraid doesn’t mean she likes it, doesn’t mean it’s a place she goes often.
The edges are lined with active volcanoes, and the light of their magma is all there is to see by.
Those titans who retain their sanity, their personhood, are in the center of Tartarus. Those on the edge are more monster than god. They tend to eat every soul that they find that’s less powerful than they are, and Styx wouldn’t say she’s less powerful, but she is differently powerful, and she doesn’t want to have to call out for Hades to save her.
She can’t die. She is the space between life and death, but being consumed by a titan isn’t something she wants to experience regardless.
Unfortunately for her, the titan she needs isn’t the type to hang around the center of Tartarus, not causing trouble. He’s right on the edge. He’s always looking to cause trouble.
Pallas is large even for a titan, standing at the same height as a giant, so big that Styx could stand in the palm of his hand. His skin is mostly intact, but it’s stretched taught over his bones, and his mouth looks like it’s filled with jagged glass rather than teeth. “What does the goddess of the river of the dead want with me?”
His breath comes out putrid and rotten, like something died in it. Probably several somethings did. She wrinkles her nose. “I need to create a person, and I want your help to do it.”
She’s a child goddess, and she can’t bring about a child like other goddesses can. She may be one of the oldest being of the universe, but it doesn’t change her body, or her mind, doesn’t change the fact that in many ways she’s just the age she appears.
Besides, even if she was old enough to conceive a child, Pallas wouldn’t exactly be her first choice.
Pallas laughs, sending more of his rotten breath into her face. “Why should I? Why me? You’re powerful enough to make a person all on your own.”
“Any being I make on my own will be of me, will be a piece of what I am, and that’s not what I need,” she tells him. “You are the titan god of warcraft, of battle campaigns. I want your power, and I want your domain.”
He leans over, his eyes as large as a wagon wheel and soon all that she can see. “Direct little thing, aren’t you? You still haven’t told me why I should help.”
“Why not?” she counters. “A piece of you will be walking the earth once more, a reminder of you to fly in the face of all the gods who stole what you had. Why wouldn’t you want that?”
He makes a motion with his face that Styx thinks is supposed to be a smile. “And if I refuse, you’ll take it by force, is that right? You could take me on your own, and even if you couldn’t, Persephone could.”
It’s true. She wants to do this on her own, as much as she can, because she doesn’t want anyone to try and stop her. But if she asked Persephone or Hecate or Hades, or anyone else in the underworld, for help, then she’d get it. “It’ll work better if you give it willingly.”
Pallas laughs. “Very well, little girl. But remember this. You asked me for something, and I gave it.”
He raises his hand to his mouth, bites his thumb, and holds out his hand. Styx realizes what he’s doing just in time to summon a basin underneath it, to catch the couple drops of blood that falls from his thumb.
He’s so large that it’s enough to fill it, enough to fill a bath with, even if just the idea of it makes her stomach roll.
Pallas has already turned away from her, lumbering in the opposite direction, and Styx peers down at the titan’s blood. It’s not red, but black, the same consistency as oil. It’ll do.
She drags the basin to the edge of her river, not willing to risk any of her magic altering it by transporting it alongside her. She hasn’t done this before, hasn’t done anything like this before, and she’s only going to get one shot at this. Possibly two, if she makes a small person.
Now she’s grateful that Pallas lurks on the edges of Tartarus rather than the center. It makes hauling the basin to her river a much shorter process. She can see other titans in the distance, nothing more than hulking, dripping figures, but they don’t come too close. She wonders if it’s another favor of Pallas’s, or if it’s just because they know that messing with her means messing with Hades, and their bloodlust isn’t quite that self destructive.
Once she makes it to her river, it’s easy enough to guide the basin upstream, until she’s out of Tartarus but not quite back to the innermost circle of the underworld where the palace it. It’s in one of the many in-between spaces that Hades and Hecate have made, because she wants to be someplace where someone won’t accidentally stumble across her.
With a tug of her hands, the basin widens, doubling in size, and she uses her river to settle it on the bank of her river, make sure she’s on the side of the mortal world. She buries her hand into the earth of her shoreline, the soil damp and dark, and drops it into the basin.
The blood bubbles and steams as the soil hits it, and it smells just as bad as Pallas’s breath had. That almost makes her pause and reconsider what she’s doing, but instead she bends over to scoop up more soil in her hands to add to the basin. What’s she’s trying to make won’t come easily, after all, so there’s no reason to think that it’s gone wrong.
She keeps adding soil, and the smell gets worse, like sulpher, but she ignores it. She has to mix it together evenly, but she tries using a stick and it just evaporated as soon as it touches the bubbling mixture.
Styx plunges her hands in the mixture, ignoring the tingling on her skin. Her waters are more corrosive then a titan’s blood, but not by much. She beats the mixture until it’s the right consistency, moldable but still keeping its shape, until it’s more clay than anything else, and when she pulls her arms out they’re irritated and tinged purple, but her skin is still intact.
Now for the hard part.
She’s no artist, she’s not Athena or Hephaestus, she doesn’t have an eye for beauty like Aphrodite.
“Helen,” she says, and she doesn’t use her powers often, but she’s of this place more than anyone. She can command the dead just as well as Charon or Icarus.
There’s a ripple, and then Helen of Troy is standing in front of her, head tilted to the side. “Yes, my lady goddess?”
“Can you just,” she bites her lips, looks down at her hands, then says, “Can you just stand there?”
Helen raises an eyebrow, but says, “Yes, my lady goddess.”
Styx forms the clay into roughly the shape of a person, eyes flickering between her creation and Helen. She’s not talented, so she can’t use talent to make this. Instead she pushes her will into the clay to make it into the right shape, until she’s got a copy of Helen standing in front of her. It’s not exact, her mouth too wide and her nose too broad, her hips slimmer and legs longer, but it’s clearly a person, clearly a woman, and it will have to do.
“Thank you,” she says, and then dismisses Helen back to her home in the underworld.
There’s one more step to this, but she doesn’t look just right, there’s something missing.
“Icarus,” she sighs, because she’s exhausted and sore and wants to be done with this now, the whole idea had seemed much simpler in her head.
She’s not summoning him, just calling out for him, but there’s no hesitation before he’s beside her, ink smudges on his hands and his hair askew like he was running his hands through it. “I’m in the middle of,” he cuts himself off, and his eyes go wide. “Styx. What are you doing?”
She tells him, and he shifts his weight from side to side, nervous, but he doesn’t tell her that it’s a bad idea, doesn’t kick her creation into her river. “She’s missing something,” Styx says.
Icarus rubs his arms, but looks into the basin, then says, “I have an idea.”
He’s not as resistant the effects of titan blood as she is, and he winces and curses as he works, and several times he has to take a break to wait for the skin on his hands to grow back before he can continue. But he does continue, and even though it’s been so long since he’s done this, since he was trapped in the labyrinth, his movements are easy and confident.
There’s no more clay left in the basin, and on her back are two large wings, just like the kind Icarus was wearing when he plunged into the sea.
“Now what?” he asks, and she stands in front of her creation. This isn’t easy for her, to breathe life into something when death is all she knows, but she’s not just death. She’s the River Styx, the barrier between the living and the dead, and so she is both living and dying and neither. She breathes in, goes on her tiptoes, and then breathes out. The air coming form her lungs is golden and sparking, and when it touches the figure’s face it spreads, until she’s a figure covered in liquid gold.
Then it all sinks in at once, the glow that’d been surrounding her gone, but she’s not clay anymore.
Her skin is dark and her hair is the same shade, curled and falling to just below her chin. The lightest thing about her is her eyes, a soft brown.
Well, except her wings, of course.
They’re golden, unfurling from her back and spreading wide, and those soft eyes focus on her, and she says, “Hello, Mother.”
Icarus shifts on his feet, and it must be as strange for him to hear this as it is for her. “You know what I made you for?”
“Yes,” she says, because how can she not, when Styx pressed her intent into every inch of her.
“Go to Hera,” she says, “tell her. She’ll help you.”
Her creation nods, but Icarus coughs, and then in his hands is a short white chiton and a pair of sandals. “She may be more amendable if you don’t show up at her door naked, my lady.”
A smile curves around her lips and she takes the clothes from Icarus’s hands. Styx is running her eyes over her, looking for any mistake, any sign that she was once soil and blood and not a goddess, but there’s nothing.
For her first time making a person, Styx thinks she’s done a rather good job of it.
Her creation takes several steps back, snaps open her wings, and then is soaring into the air, flying away from them and towards Olympus.
Icarus is silent until she disappears from sight, then asks, “Are you going to tell Hades, or shall I?”
Styx gives him a reproachful look. “I really don’t think that’s necessary.
“I suppose,” he says, and Styx is relieved until he follows it up with, “It’s not like he won’t find out all on his own soon enough.”
She scowls and jumps in her river, where Icarus can’t follow her and tell her true things she doesn’t want to hear.
Hera feels the moment someone dares touch her throne, and she’s there the next moment, fury in her veins and power gathering in her hands, because whoever dares be so disrespectful of their queen is soon going to find themselves nothing more than a pile of ash.
It’s a woman, pretty but mostly unremarkable.
Except for the huge golden wings attached to her back.
Hera pauses, mouth open, thrown enough off kilter that the woman has time to say, “I apologize, Queen Hera. I needed your attention.”
“You have it,” she says, and there’s power in this woman, enough of it that if she’s here to steal herself a seat on the pantheon she just might manage it. How could Hera have missed this?
She steps forward, and Hera’s prepared for a threat, but she doesn’t offer one. Instead the woman whispers in her ear, “I was created to help your son, my queen. But first I need you to help me.”
A goddess cannot be truly formidable, cannot consider herself a true deity, if she doesn’t have a domain.
And she was created to have one very specific domain.
She doesn’t have the time to build it naturally, but with Hera she won’t have to.
Hera will speak her name and her dominion into existence, and it shall be hers.
When she hears the details, Hera throws her head back and laughs. There’s a grin curling her lips as Hera opens her mouth to announce her to the world.
Ares is exhausted. That’s not new, or unusual, but his limbs feel heavy and his movements sluggish. A sword gets past his defenses and splits open his shoulder, and he doesn’t even have the energy to wince. This battle has been raging for weeks, and he’s been fighting for all of it. It feels like it’ll never end, and he can’t even slip away. The solders believe in him so deeply, they call out his name in their sleep and give him offerings every hour of the day. No matter how badly he wants to rest, if only for a couple hours, he can’t, not when their belief pins him in place.
Then the battle begins to shift.
They’ve been struggling to hold this ground the whole time, but now they’re gaining it, pushing their opponents back, and Ares lifts his sword with renewed vigor. They’re winning. If they win, then maybe he can finally rest.
“You’re welcome,” a voice whispers in his ear, but when he swings around, sword outstretched, there’s no one there. For some reason, his eyes are drawn up to the nearest tall hill, and someone is standing there, glinting gold in the rising sun. He thinks it’s Apollo at first, but the silhouette is all wrong.
He’s beside her in the next moment, this goddess with dark skin and golden wings and an eager, greedy mouth. “Who are you?”
“I am who will soon replace you in the hearts of men,” she says. “Not all of them, perhaps not even most of them, but many. Their belief will make me stronger, and I will answer more of their calls, and even more of them will flock to me, until I’m as powerful as you or Athena. They pray to you, but what they really want is me.”
“Who are you?” he repeats, and there’s something familiar about her, something he can’t quite place but that puts him at east in spite of what she’s saying.
She smiles, tilting her head up towards the sun. “I am Nike, the goddess of victory.”
Victory is how wars end. Victory is how he gets a chance to catch his breath.
All his exhaustion is gone, replaced by joy, and he lifts Nike up by her hips, spinning as he holds her up in the air, her golden wings giving off a kaleidoscope of light all around them.
As soon as he touches her, he knows why she feels so familiar.
It seems he owes Styx a thank you. He wonders if she’ll take him distracting Hades from whatever lecture he’s intent on giving her as gratitude enough.
Now that he’ll have the time to do it, after all.
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