It's amazing how much a snap of a finger can accomplish.
To Hades, the notion is almost inconsequential. As Lord of the Underworld, he holds a dangerous amount of power at his fingertips, ready to destroy, create. Always more of the former than the latter. Just how he liked it.
It's not his preferred method of doing things, but, then again, neither is the insane amount of paperwork he has to fill out as an alternative. Forms upon forms upon forms for every little deed required to maintain his humble abode. A disgusting undertaking, but, ultimately, the lesser evil.
Snapping his fingers gets jobs done easier, sure, but, in addition to taking an unprecedented amount of power from his very being, it’s reserved for only the most gruelling of tasks. There’s a reason, after all, that he doesn’t simply lounge around and snap away. A reason Nyx had had so much trouble bearing the brunt of managing the region by herself.
You see, paperwork is for assigning shades to their designated places in the Underworld. Paperwork is for delegating tasks to other members of the house. For signing off on renovations and rewarding the featured house servant. For menial tasks, easily overlooked, never requiring his undivided focus and attention.
A snap of a finger, on the other hand, is for stopping the very flow of River Styx itself. A snap of a finger is for transporting all (and he means all of them) the shades in one area of the Underworld to another. A snap is for overpowering Nyx should the need ever arise. A snap is for bringing the dead back to life.
A snap is exactly what Hades needs for this.
He is quiet as he steps into his son’s room, releases a breath when he sees his sleeping form. These are both rare occasions, the Lord of the Underworld deliberately staying quiet and the prince ceasing his escape attempts for a moment of rest.
Hades will not get another opportunity anytime soon.
He towers over Zagreus’ bed, lets his shadow settle on the sheets for a moment. An inky darkness cast upon the red his son dons. This is not hesitation, he tells himself, merely a moment of deliberation as he ponders the potential consequences of what he’s going to do (what he has to do.)
They do not outweigh the benefits of going through with it.
(He does not think of apologies. Simply because he isn’t not sorry about this. This is necessary. Needed . They will all be better off with this. Zagreus will see. Zagreus will learn.)
Finally, Hades places one hand over Zag’s head, careful to make the touch soft, barely noticeable. He doubts he’s ever done this, pat his son on the head. Or touched him at all in a manner that did not hurt him. Not in years at least.
(I’m sorry, he does not say.)
With his other hand, he snaps his fingers.
Zag floats down Styx with all the grace of a dead fish waiting to be scooped up by a bird.
"Bone Hydra again, huh?" Hypnos chimes, eying him amusedly as the prince shakes off the river's hold for... was it the 31st time? He'll assume it was the 31st time. "You know you really should-"
"Get rid of the mini hydras before going back to charging at the main one, I know," Zag drawls, exasperation masked thinly behind a smile. "I just happened to lose my footing near the end. Nearly stumbled into the lava, but one of the little hydras got me with a fireball instead," he regales, sighing at the memory.
Both fiery deaths. Both deaths he's already had the pleasure of experiencing.
Hypnos winces, starts to look at him with the usual expression of sleepy sympathy before patting his shoulder the way Zag has grown accustomed to. They wrap up the conversation before he walks towards his father's desk, steeling himself for another lecture. Or perhaps just a taunt this time? A sneer? Lord Hades has regarded him with a mere grunt more than once or twice. Zag wouldn’t put it above him to do it again.
"Back again," Hades observes and Zagreus arches an eyebrow.
"Forgive me for saying, father, but I notice your tone isn't as venomous as it usually is." He flashes a sly smile, all pomp and optimism. "Is this perhaps a sign you've accepted my escaping from here?"
Hades snorts, not looking at him. An anticipated reaction, really, but Zag knows something is off.
His father's parchments are arranged all too neatly on his desk, as if he'd taken the time to organize the papers more than once since Zagreus' last attempt. His quill is dropped in favor of acknowledging his presence which is the appropriate thing to do when conversing with someone of course, but since when has Hades ever cared about what was appropriate? Especially in regards to his escapist son?
Perhaps what tips him off the most is the way Cerberus is looking at his father. Teeth bared and eyes flashing with hostility, anger... and... had Hades actually leashed him this time around?
"Is," Zagreus begins hesitantly, "everything alright?"
Perhaps it's a foolish thing to do. His father's always met concern from him with a nasty retort and a look that just screams that he’d rather see Zagreus drown himself in the River Styx than have this conversation, but he is curious. And maybe a little worried. Unpleasant as he may be, Cerberus never took action against his father.
Hades is quiet. Watching his every move thoughtfully and, in the absence of shades, the silence is almost deafening.
Something is wrong.
"Nothing you need to concern yourself with, boy," his father finally says, picking up his quill, "if you can't even handle a scrap with the Bone Hydra, I doubt you're in the place to be offering your service for anything else."
The familiarity of his tone should comfort Zag, he knows, but, as he laughs, calls himself a fool for caring, and bids his father a passive farewell, he cannot help but focus on the unease settling in the pits of his stomach, a heavy and unsettling weight that needles at him.
This isn’t normal.
No matter, he thinks, remembering Hades' usual demeanor before nodding at Skelly and walking over to his window. Zag takes his place by the ledge, looking down at the pits, every detail nearly committed to memory.
Something is wrong, he knows.
Hopefully he'll be out of Underworld by the time it rears its ugly head.
He doesn't even make it past Tartarus this time.
"Has anyone ever told you that your sister may be a little... unhinged?" Zag says in lieu of a greeting as he plops down across the seat from Megaera, limbs utterly fatigued. She scoffs, signals another drink from the lounge staff before levelling him with a sardonic look.
"You'll have to be more specific," she drawls, "I have two sisters, both dealing with their own... personal problems."
Zag releases a tired laugh. Truly an understatement. "Alecto has some serious anger issues. Has she seen anyone about that?"
Meg arches an eyebrow. "Is there anyone to see in Tartarus?"
Another laugh. "Good point."
Moments like these are few and far between. Megaera is rarely ever so civil with him. Zagreus can count the number of times he's seen her genuinely smile at him since their break-up, much less are the times he's seen her smile at all since the beginning of his escape attempts. What the fury doesn't seem to understand is that no amount of hostility or duty is ever going to change how Zag will always see her as someone he can trust, a friend.
"She says you fight like a Numbskull by the way."
"I didn't know you two talked."
"We wouldn't if I had a say in it." Her voice takes a bitter edge. "But she found it appropriate to mock me when you fell by her hand. Said she couldn't believe I let myself get beaten by a buffoon."
Word travels fast, he thinks idly before releasing an amused breath. "She does remember that I've won against her too, right? Several times, in fact?"
"She likes to purge those encounters from her memories."
"Hard to believe the rage doesn't do that by itself."
Zagreus says this because Alecto's rage is a powerful thing. He's seen her go completely feral as it brimmed from every inch of her being more than a handful of times. He finds it hard to believe that there aren't any repercussions.
Meg's drink arrives and she takes a hearty sip before speaking, voice laced with disdain. "Hard to believe she can even control it in the first place."
“How does she do that by the way?” Zag cocks his head. “It’s like she has a meter or something, it’s quite unsettling how well she can time those supposed fits of rage.”
The fury scoffs again. "Is that what she calls it? What a liar. She coordinates those outbursts. She's always been a drama queen. Even more than you." Zagreus pouts. "If it's genuine fits of rage we're talking about, it's Tisiphone who's more prone to those, as you've seen."
He blinks. "Tisi... Tisiphone?"
For a split second, Zagreus' world is pushed off its axis.
...Who in Zeus' name is Tisiphone?
"My younger sister. Whom you've also defeated a handful of times. What are you playing at, Zag?"
Oh, he'd said that aloud.
"Yes, you did."
Zagreus flushes the slightest bit, covering it up with an awkward cough. Meg stares at him with narrowed eyes, gaze scrutinizing as she crosses her arms. She’s always had a way of piercing right through him, seeking his truths underneath it all.
Tisiphone, yes. The "murder" sister. Not one for many words, that one. Zag knows her. Zag's been killed by her. The odd fury sister with the brightest color scheme. Screamed more than she talked.
"Sorry, I think I'm... tired."
Meg's eyes widen. He isn't surprised. The word from his lips sounds foreign even to him.
Ha. He laughs. "No." Never. "There's a difference between that and rest, you know?"
After they part ways, Zagreus heads to his room slowly. Stares at the bed for a few seconds, deep in thought before ultimately deciding that hey, maybe a nap couldn't hurt. He could go for one of those right about now.
Tisiphone, he thinks as he lays on the mattress, Megaera's other sister. The "murder" sister, he repeats in his head as his eyes slide close.
How he'd ever forgotten the… charming fury is beyond him.
Despite the little boat still being a ways away from the island (if you could even call it that), Zagreus can make out the outline of Thanatos' frame and grins, giddy and excited.
"You know, you really should consider a more... fitting outfit when you decide to follow me here," he says as he steps off the boat, eying the death incarnate’s usual outfit. A stark contrast to the hellscape that is Asphodel. Surely the temperature bothers Thanatos to some degree.
His friend has always been dark colors and shadows. Nyx raised twins favoring opposite ends of the color spectrum what with Hypnos and all his brightness.
Thanatos snorts. "I don't follow you. I just so happened to have business here." He gestures at the shade hiding behind him. A lost one, it seems. Not hostile-looking either. "And I don't see why my outfit is any of your concern."
"It's scorching here, Than."
The death incarnate shrugs (in a dignified manner of course). "And if you let such a thing deter you from your goal, I have reason to believe that you may not make it out of here at all."
Zagreus pouts. "You're starting to sound like my father."
Thanatos lets a wry smile settle on his lips. Zag tries not to let the sight overwhelm him. "Perhaps it's the motivation you need."
Before Zagreus can say anything else, Thanatos turns and whispers something to the shade, doing some complicated hand gestures as he goes. The shade disappears in the next second and Zag is left staring at the spot where it once stood.
"Where were they supposed to be?"
"Elysium. I've no idea how they managed to get here, but I'm going to investigate soon enough."
Zagreus smirks, although it is more fond than it is malicious. "Soon enough, huh?" He readies his sword. On cue, Thanatos brandishes a Centaur Heart with a flourish, eyes flashing with a challenge.
"You know the drill."
All too well.
If Zagreus is being completely honest, watching Thanatos fight is a treat in itself. Than moves with a beautiful type of grace, swinging his scythe in perfect arcs and striking with terrifying accuracy. Every attack is measured and calculated, when he's not relying on what Zag likes to call his "death circles," he's able to fell foes in one hit.
Zagreus, on the other hand, has always been a bit of a reckless fighter. He'd charged through Tartarus like a raging bull the first few times he'd tried to escape only to meet death at the hands of an actual bull at Elysium. He could handle Asterius, sure, at least he was a humble winner, however Theseus was anything but. Made losing a lot more annoying than it should be.
After his 4th loss to them, he'd finally decided to implement strategies in battle. One for every chamber depending on its inhabitants, takes note of all their attack patterns, and where new foes spawned. He'd written them all down on a sheath of parchment tucked carefully into Codex and, by the time he'd had them all committed to memory, he’d all but forgotten the thing existed.
Muscle memory. Zag relies on that now more than ever these days (or nights.)
Muscle memory. It is what fails him in this encounter.
“What are you doing?” Thanatos all but yells over the din of inferno bombs going off around him.
Zagreus stands frozen in the middle of it all, rigid and, by the gods, why can’t he move?
Several Bloodless circle him slowly and Than’s voice is nothing but a distant hum as Zag clutches the Stygian Blade trying to watch them all at once, white-knuckled, sweating not only because of Asphodel’s heat. It’s suddenly… he’s suddenly made aware of exactly how searing it is here. Is this panic? Zagreus has never panicked in his life, much less has he ever actually felt genuine fear.
Yet standing frozen here, unsure of what to do, surrounded by magma and foes that are looking at him with bloodlust so potent he nearly feels it on his skin, he thinks he feels a semblance of it.
The Bloodless charge all at once.
Styx engulfs him.
He doesn’t know if he should be thankful about how Than doesn’t show up at the House after. He goes into his room, opens the Codex, places his cheat sheet at the forefront, and studies it for what seems like days.
(“Something’s wrong with Zagreus.” Thanatos’ tone betrays just how severe he thinks the matter really is.
“I was wondering when you’d notice,” Megaera answers.)
Zagreus does not know who gave him the Black Shawl.
"You ok there, boyo?" Skelly's voice is tinged with a rare drop of concern. Ever since word spread about how the prince had oh so stupidly met his end in Asphodel, the dummy has been regarding him with a kind of carefulness that Zag isn’t used to seeing on him. Almost as if he’d be willing to avoid the violence altogether if only to get him to give any indication of what could’ve caused Zag to meet death so swiftly.
Zag turns to him numbly.
"Been starin' at yer locker for a little too long. Just pick a keepsake already. Indecision ain't gonna get ya outta here."
Zag's eyes refocus on the shawl in his hands. It is soft, warm, and so very familiar, but he cannot by any means remember who it had come from.
"Skelly... have I... used this before?"
The words feel like boulders on his tongue and his chest feels inexplicably tight. Why doesn't he know? He's supposed to know. He feels like he’s just woken up from a dream he barely recalls.
The skeleton levels him a weird look. "Yeah, buncha times. Unsurprising considering Nyx herself gave it to ya."
Nyx. Nyx gave it to him. His foster mother. Nyx who has always been there for him, loving and caring for him in a manner that she never needed to what with all her other children and her duties to the Underworld, but had anyway. Nyx who used to sing him to sleep. Nyx who ironically continues being a ray of light in the House of Hades.
...What in Zeus' name is wrong with him?
Skelly makes a surprised noise when Zag suddenly runs out of the room, pulling out a bottle of a nectar as he goes. The shawl flutters to the ground and fiery imprints on the floor punctuate his departure.
The guilt he feels alleviates only slightly when Nyx looks down at him, accepting the generosity with a serene smile.
"I told you you've no need to bestow upon me such things, my child."
Zag shakes his head. “I insist, Nyx. I feel as though we haven’t seen much of each other as of late.”
It’s partly true. He’d rather say that than admit he’d forgotten about her precious gift to him somehow. He’d rather say that than admit he may have a serious problem in his hands (his head.)
Nyx releases an amused breath. “A repercussion when trying to escape the Underworld.”
Zag chuckles. “You could say that.”
She hums before eying him critically. “Are you sure nothing else ails you, my child? I see unrest in your eyes.” Nyx’s gaze has always been piercing, more so than Megaera’s, carrying some sort of intense profoundness that always has Zag sharing his truths far sooner than he’d been meaning to. What’s always been one of her greatest strengths has always been one of Zagreus’ weaknesses.
He debates telling her. Zag knows for sure that she’ll be able to help in some capacity, but something stops him.
Hadn’t he imposed on her enough? Reaching out to the Olympians, taking heat from Hades, heat from Thanatos for helping him. Nyx has done a great deal of favors for him already. Asking for any more seemed like... abuse at this point.
Especially after he’d been so callous as to forget about her shawl.
“I’m fine, Nyx,” he lies.
And Nyx may not look like she believes him but Zag’s convinced himself already.
He knows something is wrong.
It's in the way he blanks when battling brimstones, unsure of what to do until their lasers mercilessly bore into him. It's in the way he holds a pomegranate in his hands, wondering what it's for. The way he stumbles upon Sisyphus and asks him dumbly about how he'd gotten sentenced there in the first place. The way waking up from Styx feels more and more alien.
Zag knows something is wrong.
It may possibly be him.
("What have you done to him?" Nyx asks. She is never fooled, never blind.
"I haven't the faintest clue as to what you're talking about," Hades responds.)
He tries asking Achilles about it.
"'Fraid I can't help you, lad. Everything I know is recorded in the Codex and never have I encountered some sort of… memory disease." His mentor pauses, holding his chin in thought. "...Have you, perchance, indulged yourself with a gulp of water from the River Lethe?"
It takes an embarrassing amount of time for Zag to remember just what exactly the River Lethe is, but Achilles waits patiently, an encouraging stare reflected in his eyes.
Lethe. The river that ran through Elysium. The river of forgetfulness. Zag has indeed seen it, but he has never been so bold as to drink from it. Just standing near the water had Charon looking at him threateningly and after having failed to… borrow money from the boat man before, Zagreus would very much rather stay in his good graces for all eternity.
Achilles hums. "Have you met or perhaps angered Mnemosyne?"
A lightbulb goes off in his head. Thankfully. The goddess of memory. Zag knows this too. "I don't think so, no. None of the gods I've encountered have ever mentioned it,” he says, “and I’m positively certain they’d talk to me about it.”
Achilles releases an amused chuckle. “Gossips, are they?”
“Of the most blatant kind,” Zag confirms, thinking about the time Poseidon had made an off-hand comment about throwing him a party by the sea to celebrate his arrival and Aphrodite and Dionysus promptly appearing to “coordinate details.”
A memory he’s never thought he’d be thankful to recall.
“Maybe they know what’s plaguing you,” Achilles suggests. “I admit I lack expertise in the matter… which is unusual in itself, but I believe the gods are better suited to answering you," he concedes.
"...I suppose you're right."
"Or perhaps it's merely something we're unfamiliar with here in Tartarus," Achilles adds after a moment. "Try asking… Patroclus the next time you're in Elysium, he might know something about it."
Zag keeps his expression carefully controlled in the face of the sad smile his mentor graces him with, bids him farewell in a mechanical way before walking off just as uncomfortably. Had he stayed any longer, he'd most certainly ask why it seemed like the name had been so hard to say. As if just thinking about the person, pained Achilles in some way.
Zagreus doesn't know who Patroclus is.
"A memory disease, you say?" Demeter inquires.
"Memory loss to be more specific."
The goddess hums thoughtfully, arching an eyebrow. The heat of Asphodel barely fazes Zag in her sphere of cold. A reason why he almost always insisted on choosing her boons over others. (Although, he does take a moment to deliberate when he’s made to choose between her and Artemis. Artemis was always surprisingly petty about it. Then again, all the gods were.)
Demeter is the eldest of the Olympians, as wise as she is unapproachable. If there is anyone up on that mountain that could be knowledgeable about Zag’s condition, he’s certain it’s her.
“Barring Lethe’s afflictions and Mnemosyne’s influence, I’ve never heard of such an ailment springing forth from nowhere,” the goddess says contemplatively. Zag deflates. “You’re certain you’ve never interacted with either?”
It’s one of the things he’s still positively sure of despite his worsening condition. He’s started taking note of things again, tucking all of them into the Codex. They’re mighty useful when he doesn’t end up forgetting about them.
By now even Hypnos has commented on his sloppiness as of late. Dying in Asphodel over and over again, barely making it to Elysium and dying within the first few chambers when he did. Absolutely pitiful.
Zag is slipping. Horribly. And everyone is starting to notice. He’s lost count of the number of times Meg has tried to corner him into a conversation, presence all but expected in the lounge at this point. Lost count of how many times he’s had to lie to Nyx about being perfectly fine, to Achilles about knowing who this Patroclus character is, walking past Orpheus and hearing a song he just knows he’s heard before, but cannot remember the lyrics to. When he hums it in Asphodel, a nymph is kind enough to sing the song for him and make him porridge, calling him a joker when he leaves asking for her name.
He even stops running into Thanatos. But he knows he’s being followed. The din of the bell is muted but still very much there, the tinge of green bursting onto the scene for only a split second before fading. Than is here, he knows, he just can’t look Zag in the eyes without anything complicated flickering in them. He doesn’t know if he should be thankful or not that the death incarnate has not spoken to him.
The Pierced Butterfly is a heavy weight on his person despite its lightness.
“A memory loss disease not originating from the only two that could potentially cause it,” Demeter says slowly, each word carrying weight, “I’m afraid even I remain in the dark about such a thing, Zagreus.”
Zag deflates, tries not to let too much of the disappointment show in his face.
“Do you think Lord Zeus or-”
Demeter cuts him off with a scoff. “Child, if I do not know what it is, rest assured no one else does.”
Zag’s gaze on the floor hardens.
“I see.” The words are heavy on his tongue. “Apologies if I’ve offended you. It wasn’t my intention.”
The silence that stretches after lasts a little too long. Long enough for Zag to worry and return his gaze to meet the goddess’ eyes. Demeter is regarding him with a quiet, calculating look. Zagreus tries not to laugh. It seems like he’s being dissected everywhere he goes these days. Underworld denizens trying to make sense of what ailed the bull-headed prince. He wishes he could tell them.
“Would it be correct for me to assume that it is you who’s been cursed with such an affliction?” The goddess' voice is uncharacteristically soft.
Zag sighs. “Yes.”
He’s not going to be able to hide this for any longer. Not when he can’t even make it to Hades anymore.
A chill engulfs his shoulder. Demeter’s hand.
“Do not let yourself be deterred by this.” She pauses, hesitant. “I… you are family and we’ve all proven to be quite capable. Mount Olympus is ready for your arrival.” The ice around him shimmers, as if agreeing with the words.
Zag may be experiencing some twisted form of amnesia, suffering from it greatly, and beyond frustrated with the circumstances, but he hasn’t quite lost his common sense.
“Lady Demeter… are you comforting me?”
The hand is retracted. Demeter looks at it mournfully.
“I had a daughter, you know. I never quite knew how to be of comfort to her when she was upset.” She releases a mirthless laugh. “I hadn’t realized it then, but merely being in my presence had seemed to trigger it.”
Zag doesn’t know what to do with the information. He can count on one hand the number of times the goddess has ever mentioned her daughter to him unprompted. Demeter spares him from thinking by continuing.
“The look on her face then… you mirror it. Frighteningly so. I failed her then. Perhaps I could make it up to her through you.”
Before Zag can say anything in response, she finally vanishes, a flurry of ice in her wake. The fading cold being the only evidence she’d ever been there. Zag still feels her hand on his shoulder.
Demeter’s boons are stronger from that moment forward. It remains unspoken between them, but Zagreus is always down a bottle of nectar after encountering her. The confrontation hadn’t helped, but somehow Zag thinks it should’ve happened anyway.
Of all the things he’s beginning to forget, he hopes the quiet moment is left remembered.
(“Asterius, we haven’t seen that hellspawn in a while, have we?” Theseus asks.
“Not for a while, king,” the bull confirms, knowing exactly who Theseus is referring to immediately.
“Well!” A triumphant huff. “It seems he’s finally learned his lesson!”)
Zagreus is more tired now.
The toll of taking so many deaths in succession had never stopped him before, yet this is different. In a sense that he’s not making progress anymore, he’s losing ground. Dying to weaker foes, earlier chambers, foolish mistakes. Bearing a greater brunt of frustration than he’s ever harbored before for his incompetence.
The Stygian Blade feels alien in his grip, a heavy weight he does not quite know what to do with anymore. He’d sparred with Achilles a few times to test himself. He’d lost all matches, either freezing in confusion or simply being too dull-witted to remember the most basic tactics Achilles has drilled into him since he was young. The concern and utter confusion reflected in his mentor’s eyes is enough for him to throw in the towel more often than not. Disappointing himself, he's learned to handle. Disappointing Achilles though? He’d rather not make it a habit.
With fatigue slowly but steadily becoming his body’s best friend, sleep has ingrained itself in his routine.
Hypnos encouraged it, continues to with airy words and half-lidded eyes. (He hadn’t changed. Why had Zag?) And, after being thrown a blanket everytime he emerged from Styx, Zagreus had eventually acquiesced.
His sleep is peaceful most nights. Thankfully.
Dreams are frequent, but they’re always pleasant. Memories of simpler times. Watching Thanatos suddenly disappear in Nyx’s arms as she held him. Trying to stop Hypnos from sleepwalking into Styx. His first outing with Meg. Achilles waking him from his desk in the administrative chamber. Bidding Than good luck on his first job. The elation he’d felt the first time he’d gotten Than to laugh. Than doi-
… Let it never be said that amnesia could get in the way of his pining.
(The Pierced Butterfly is now a vigil at his bedside.)
Tonight is not a memory though.
Tonight Zag dreams of a cottage at the top of a hill.
There is a garden, fruits that aren’t just pomegranates strewn about the greenery, flowers, an assortment of colors he’s never seen before. It is bright, beautiful, and everything is covered in light. Light Zag can just tell is warm.
There is a figure in the middle of it all, basket in hand as she starts walking into the cottage. Her robes seem to glow as she moves, back turned towards him, leaving a trail of leaves as she goes.
He does not know this woman, but Zag is struck by the sudden and desperate urge to call out to her. To tell her to turn around. Look at him. Help him. Please.
Why is this so important to him?
His voice never comes, thus the woman does not turn around. Zag watches her enter the little house taking all the brightness and life with her before he wakes up in his bed shaking.
“Feeling alright, boy?”
Hypnos didn’t tell him sleeping more would cause hallucinations.
“I asked you a question.”
“I heard you the first time,” Zag snaps before adopting a more appropriate tone, “Forgive me, father, but I simply had a hard time believing you were capable of feeling any sort of concern for me.”
Hades barks out a laugh. Zag’s grip on his blade tightens. From the corner of his eye, he can tell the exact moment Hypnos poofs away and how Cerberus’ whines quiet in the face of the brewing argument.
“I am concerned about the state of the realm I’ve been tasked to oversee. The same realm you’ve made it your business to ransack everytime you step foot outside of this house.”
“So that’s it then?” Zag sneers. “Concerned I haven’t been wrecking it as much as usual? Don’t worry, I’ll be back to having the champions at my feet in no time, father. Asterius and Heracles on their kne-”
Zag stops. “What?”
Hades stares at him unblinkingly.
“The Champions I send to stop you are Theseus and Asterius.”
Something inside Zag breaks.
“Theseus,” the prince repeats quietly to himself. “Asterius and… Theseus.”
The silence that hangs over the father and son is many things. Expected, charged, miserable. Zagreus’ gaze is glued to the floor, but they are not downcast. They are wide in alarm as the boy begins to mutter to himself quickly, frantically. Hades pretends not to hear. Pretends not to watch Zagreus go, not even bothering to say goodbye to his father. Pretends not to feel the weight of Nyx’s and Achilles’ gazes.
When Zagreus leaps from his window, Hades feels it in his bones.
(I’m sorry, he does not say.)
(The wind whistles on a mountaintop in Greece.
A woman turns to examine the surroundings of her cottage, curious as to what had caused the chill to run down her spine. She puts her basket on the ground delicately and walks to the arch separating her garden and the rest of the landform.
Something is amiss, she thinks.
...She doesn’t think she can do anything about it.)
He dies in the first chamber he chooses within the Temple of Styx, fatigued after blazing through the atrocities of the Underworld in desperation. He dies, poisoned, surrounded by vermin, and to the sound of Cerberus’ miserable whining.
The next time he wakes, he’s forgotten how to play the lyre in his room.
He dies by… Hera- Theseus’ hand. Or, more accurately, Artemis’ and tries not to let himself drown in bitterness at how cruel the gods are with their countless favorites. Theseus’ triumphant laughter echoes in the arena and Asterius stares down at Zag’s fading body with muted pity. Zag does not like being the subject of that look, so, just as Styx engulfs him, he makes sure to face his only fan in the stands. He gives the only shade clutching a banner with his name a bright smile before dying. As if to say he’ll see them again soon (as if to say he won’t.)
The next time he wakes, he walks past Dusa not knowing who she is and wondering who permitted Orpheus back into the House.
He meets his end just before he’s due to face… the Bone Hydra. (He’d given it a name, he thinks. Bernie? Lenny?) He dies thanks to an Inferno Bomb to the face and as he fades he wonders where he went wrong. (He’d left the damn Codex.)
The next time he wakes, he greets his father with a small genuine smile. Cruel as he can be, Hades at least is always blunt with him, telling Zag all that he thinks truthfully. No matter how nasty the comments are. When Hades tells him he’s surprised he didn’t die sooner, Zag shrugs it off, even throwing in a laugh to lighten the mood.
He walks past his mother and Thanatos conversing quietly, the latter seeming to freeze at the sight of him before disappearing in an instant. Classic Than. Zag will catch up with him later. Right now, he is far too tired. He nods at his mother, oblivious to the despair in her eyes and Meg’s deadly stare from the lounge.
He makes a note to cheer up Nyx when he wakes next. Mellow as she may be, he never did like sadness on her.
A last ditch effort, although that’s not what it was supposed to be.
Zagreus finds himself stumbling near a circle emitting an ominous inky darkness. Dangerous, one would think it, and would most likely back away from the portal wisely. The circle paints an odd portrait, colored with hues that simply do not match. Everything about it gives off a sense of foreboding.
Just before going to fight Meg (or… one of the other two), Zagreus steps on the shape carefully, cautious as he points the Stygian Blade down onto it before he suddenly feels a sharp, searing pain bursting through his body and he’s being dragged down, down, down.
In the middle of some twisted space where there was apparently nothing but more limitless darkness and the crumbled down remains of olden architecture, a boon glows enticingly. A shade darker than Dionysus’ boons, but emanating far more power.
Zag only hesitates for a split second before he accepts it.
When an entity manifests before him, to say he is taken off-guard is an understatement. He does not recognize this god.
He readies his blade just in case.
The being eyes him carefully, seeming to deliberate quietly. Zagreus feels out of place here. He doubts anything but the entity has ever stepped foot (well the god was floating technically) onto such a space of… quiet discord.
“Hades has crossed a line.”
Without any warning, the being suddenly thrusts its hand forward, finger outstretched and, before Zag can so much as draw in a breath, he feels the tip of it graze his forehead.
And everything comes crashing back.
He screams into the void, clutching at his head as memories start flooding his mind all at once. All that he’s forgotten, all that he knew, rushing back and overwhelming him. And it hurts, it hurts. He’s actually crying. Laying here on the floor before Chaos, writhing and shaking and hurting.
He remembers. He remembers.
“Lord- Lord Chaos, I-”
“I am sorry, son of Hades.”
“This moment of clarity is something you can only experience here, within my realm,” Chaos says. Zagreus hangs onto every word. “Your father holds jurisdiction over all that happens in the Underworld. When you leave this place, my powers will no longer sustain you. I have no boon capable of undermining such authority. To go against the Fates so boldly…. I cannot help you break this curse any more than I already have.”
Zag feels as though he’s just been told to drink magma.
“You-” he begins, desperation seeping from his tone, “You- Can’t Nyx-”
“The goddess Nyx can do no more than I, I’m afraid,” Chaos cuts him off, monotone, “Only the one who is responsible for inflicting such a curse may take it away-”
“Is there no alternative cure? Anything else that could aid me? I have the blessings of gods on Olympus, can’t they help me to some extent?” Zag speaks in a frantic, messy rush. “Perhaps there’s a way to trick my father into undoing it? Lord Chaos please. I… I have to get to my mother,” he pleads. “I can’t do that when I’ve basically been brainwashed to forget her.”
When the only response Zag gets is silence, he knows it’s a lost cause.
Chaos releases a breath. “You have my apologies, son of Hades. It should have never come to this.”
It really shouldn’t’ve, Zag thinks as he feels tears threaten to spill from his eyes once more. It really shouldn't've, Zag thinks as he curses his father, curses his cruelty, his selfishness. He banishes the hurt that rises from knowing that his father had gone to such lengths to hurt him (to alter him) and replaces it with unadulterated rage, with pure spite.
It really shouldn't’ve come to this, he thinks, as he grabs a small, jagged piece of debris from the rubble around him to carve something into the hilt of the Stygian Blade, forceful strokes ruining the beautiful craftsmanship.
Zag thanks Chaos for the temporary clarity before resigning himself to returning to Tartarus and hoping, foolishly hoping, that he will remember, for even just a moment.
He does not.
(He loses to Megaera. It's a quiet match. The fury seems to be in no mood to banter with him. Or to even look at him directly. He knows she takes notice of his tear-streaked face, however, but offers no comment. Rightfully so, since Zag himself doesn’t remember getting doused by any sort of liquid.
He thinks he sees her flinch right before she brings down her whip to deliver the finishing blow.
When he emerges from Styx, he notices an odd inscription inscribed onto his blade.
‘Cursed to forget.’
He does not know what it means.)
Nyx, for the first time in a long time, takes him into her arms.
“I’ve failed you, my child,” she whispers into his hair, “I’m so sorry.” And it’s the saddest he’s ever heard her. Nyx was mellow, Nyx was calm, Nyx was not sad. Even her melancholy sounded better than this.
Zagreus stares up at her, startled.
“Sorry for what Nyx?”
The call startles him even further.
Nyx lets go of him reluctantly, gaze becoming stony as they turn to Hades at the same time.
“Toil any longer and you’ll be late for your shift,” he booms, “what have I told you about wasting time?”
“Not to do it,” Zag answers light-heartedly, throwing in a little chuckle if only to get Nyx to cheer up from whatever that’s upset her. It doesn’t seem to work. If her icy glare is any indication. Zagreus wonders what his father could have done to warrant such a look this time.
“Well, I can’t keep him waiting, Nyx,” he says trying to sound chipper, “I’m the life of the party at the administrative chamber, can’t have the shades growing bored whilst doing their jobs.”
“They’re far better off bored than entertained by your antics,” Hades cuts in, eyes never leaving his parchments. To avoid Nyx’s scowl or simply because he is too engrossed, Zag can’t pinpoint the exact reason.
He rolls his eyes. “Whatever you say, father.” He turns to Nyx. “I'll catch up with you later, Nyx, oh, and,” he tries for a reassuring smile, “you’ve not wronged me in any way so you really needn’t apologize.”
Something complicated flashes in the goddess’ eyes then, but she eventually nods, quiet and solemn as she watches him go.
(“You’ve nothing to say?” Hades asks quietly.
“If this is what the Fates have decided, I am in no place to object.” Nyx turns to him, gaze sharp.
Hades takes a breath.
I’m sorry, he thinks.
“No,” he says.)
To say he is surprised by Thanatos’ appearance in his bedroom is inaccurate. To be perfectly honest, Zagreus is giddy. Nervous. Happy. The tiniest bit curious. A whole bunch of other things. A side effect whenever he was in Than’s presence at all.
Childhood infatuation had morphed into something deeper over the years, more mature, more meaningful. Zag had tried to stop it, of course he did, Than rejecting his feelings could mean the deterioration of their entire relationship. Zag had never wanted to risk that, not after everything they’d been through.
Yet falling for Thanatos had been the easiest thing in the (under)world. And once he’d fallen, Zagreus couldn’t stop it if he wanted to. (Getting involved with Megaera had been a foolish scheme.) Feeling warm whenever he elicited a laugh from Than’s lips, feeling bold whenever he’d gotten him to smile.
Thanatos isn’t smiling now though. Far from it.
“Are you… alright?” Zag asks hesitantly.
Thanatos nods stiffly. “Fine.” He turns away from him then and, seemingly deliberating something, finally deigns to prop his scythe against Zag’s bed and taking a seat, careful not to disturb the sheets as much.
“Sit with me?”
Zagreus tries not to nod too dumbly.
“Is everything okay?” he inquires as he settles next to him, shoulders a hairsbreadth away. (On such a big bed, Zag needn’t sit so close to him and yet.)
Thanatos releases a breath. “I was about to ask you that actually.”
Zagreus cocks his head. “Oh?”
“How are you adjusting to your duties?”
He raises an eyebrow. “They’re the same as they’ve always been, Than.”
“Do you still hate them?”
Zag pauses to think. “Not as much, I suppose. I think I’ve finally found a rhythm of some sort. Surprising is it not?” He flashes Thanatos a small smile. “Can’t imagine what else I could do anyway. It’s all I’ve ever known.”
He can pinpoint the exact moment the death incarnate stiffens next to him.
“Right,” Thanatos says after a tense beat. “Right.”
Zag studies him. “You never answered my question.”
Thanatos turns to him questioningly. An uncommon expression on his face, but one Zag nevertheless enjoys. “What question?”
“Are you alright?”
Thanatos blinks. Then sighs. “Oh. That. It’s… a loaded question.”
(Something is wrong.)
“You can tell me anything, you know that?”
“I know. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.”
Zagreus arches an eyebrow once more. “Changed from what?”
Another tense beat that furthers Zag's worries.
(Something is wrong.)
“Are you tired?” Thanatos says it more as a statement rather than a question. A weird one at that considering the fact he looks far more exhausted than Zagreus feels.
Unsure of what else to do at this point, he decides to play along. Thanatos has been nothing but shifty and uneasy his entire time here, yet it seems he remains adamant not to disclose why that could be to Zagreus. He’ll play along, he settles. Because Zag always gives Thanatos the benefit of the doubt. Than will tell him on his own time.
“I guess I wouldn’t be opposed to a nap,” he finally tells death, “but now is hardly the time. You’re still he-”
“I don’t mind.”
Zag blinks. “What?”
“I wouldn’t mind if you took a nap now.”
“Than, I couldn’t, it’s rude- ”
“What if I joined you?”
If Zag was alive, he’d say this was the moment his heart stopped.
Thanatos refuses to look at him, instead eying his bed as if it’s the most interesting piece of furniture he’d ever seen. Despite his mind ceasing most of its higher functions, Zagreus takes note of the blush that stains his cheeks, barely noticeable with his complexion. He doesn’t need to look at the mirror across the room to guess he’s colored the same.
“For old time’s sake,” Thanatos simply says.
Trying to recall all the times they’ve ever done such a thing, Zag is inclined to protest. “Than-”
“Please, Zag. No questions.”
Zagreus closes his mouth in the face of the grief that shines on his companion’s face.
(Something is terribly wrong.)
Without another word, Thanatos climbs underneath the sheets. A beat passes before Zagreus follows, heart in his throat and feeling warm all over. They face each other quietly as they get comfortable, as if daring the other to speak first. Zagreus isn’t particularly motivated to. He may be horribly confused, but one thing clear to him is that it isn’t his turn. The ball is in Than’s court, just like it always is when he’s playing against Zag.
It’s not until his eyes start to droop close that he realizes Thanatos has already won.
“I asked him to make you drowsy. Let me speak.”
Finding himself suddenly too tired to argue and floored by how authoritative Thanatos could sound with a tone so deceptively quiet, he nods weakly. (He could get used to falling asleep like this, with Than, just the two of t-)
“You want to leave this place.”
Zag goes rigid.
“Your mother is somewhere on the surface, Zagreus,” Thanatos tells him in an urgent manner, far too emotional for this to be rea-
“Zag, listen to me-”
So this has all been a dream.
“-Nyx isn’t your mother-”
Of course it is.
“-ur father’s cursed you to forge-”
It always is.
“-banned us all from speaking of it ev-”
Than would never be so bold as to lay with him like this. No matter how much Zag wanted him to. This is a dream. Albeit an unusual one.
“Than?” he finally manages to ask, far too drowsy for the conversation.
“You want to leave, Zag.”
“D’you want me to?” His words are muffled against his pillow.
Zag will be completely lost to the deep throes of sleep soon. He will wake and Thanatos will be gone and he will not remember this. A dream. Unusual, yet pleasant. Zag hopes he will get more of the latter soon. Perhaps he should ask Hypnos to ensure that, bribe him with nectar he’s seen the Wretched B-
“No,” Thanatos breathes.
“Then why would I ever want to leave?”
Whatever Thanatos says in response is unheard.
(Yes, why would he ever want to leave? When everyone he’s ever cared for is already here? When he is happy?)