Hades sat on his throne and contemplated the scrying crystal before him. The crystal rose from the broken tiles of his throne room, suspended in a web of thick roots and creeper vines, and its milky facets shone with a cold light. He gestured, and the cloudiness of the facets cleared, revealing frenzied images.
He watched sombrely as Cerberus was caught up in a swirling vortex of water, and cast into the depths of the Styx. He watched as the armies of the dead were smashed aside by the invaders. The reverberations of that battle caused his throne room to shudder slightly, and he looked up.
Once, his throne room had been little more than emptiness and shadows. Now, the great pillars were wreathed in vines and creepers, and eerily shimmering blossoms grew among the ancient stones and fallen statues. Everywhere in the halls of the dead, there was life. A strange life to be sure, but life nonetheless.
Even his great seat of onyx and gold had been replaced with a humbler chair. And beside it on its dais of stone sat a similar chair – that of his queen. Another paroxysm gripped the chamber. They were getting closer. Olorun desired a confrontation – something public. Hades understood and sympathized, to some extent. In better times, he might have joined his might to that of the new king of Olympus. From what little he’d seen, Olorun was a worthier ruler than Zeus had ever been.
But these were not better times. And he did not have the luxury of choosing sides.
He dismissed the scrying crystal, and the roots contracted, drawing it back into the earth. He stood and extended his hand. The ground cracked and his staff rose on a gust of volcanic air. He caught it, and felt the hum of its power. Once, he’d thought to make himself a master of gods and men. He had been more foolish in those days, but his experiences taught him a valuable lesson – the gods were no more destined to rule than men, they simply had more power. And if Persephone succeeded, soon they would not even have that.
He stepped down from the dais, and started towards the door. Around him, the vines trembled slightly, their blossoms swaying and drooping in parody of bowing courtiers. They were Persephone’s creations, and unpredictable. He couldn’t have controlled them, even if he’d wanted to. Hopefully, Olorun would see sense. If not..
The creepers rustled softly, and it reminded him of a serpent’s hiss.
Olorun and the others followed a road of skulls to Hades’ throne room. The road was a wide processional, passing among a shadowed valley of jagged stones and thick swathes of wild greenery. Vines hung down like living curtains, and blossom-bedecked creepers coiled about every stone and fallen statue. Those yet to be judged waited here for their turn before the lord of the underworld, and their spirits broke apart and reformed like mist around the gods. They clutched at Olorun, murmuring, whispering, pleading. It was all he could do to forge on, and leave them to their fate.
Argus ranged ahead of the group, smashing aside any denizen of the underworld foolish enough to try and stop them, but his mistress hung back, keeping pace with Olorun. Hera looked wan and drawn – exhausted by her efforts, but her back was straight and her head held high. Tired or no, she was still the Queen of Olympus. She glanced at him. “He will not surrender her without a fight.”
“It is not her I am interested in,” Olorun replied. Though the injuries he’d sustained battling Cerberus had been healed by Yemoja’s magics, he still felt drained – as if the light of the heavens could not pierce the darkness of the underworld. He wondered if that had been Persephone’s plan all along. Had she thrown down her challenge knowing that this realm would leech his strength from him? If so, she was more dangerous than he’d thought.
“She will not surrender them without a fight,” Hera clarified. “She is stubborn, that one. Worse than her mother.”
“Speaks the pot in regards to the kettle,” Baron Samedi said, from behind them.
Hera glared at him. “I do not recall asking your opinion, Baron.”
“And yet I give it freely. For I am a generous god – and wise.” He leaned forward, his hat tilted rakishly. A cigar was caught fast between his teeth, the tip smouldering with cold fire. Of them all, the Baron seemed less affected by their surroundings. “Which is why I say again that going to the throne room might not be the best course of action.” He looked down and tapped a skull with his cane. “Especially by this path.”
“I too sense something,” Horus called down as he swooped overhead. “It is as if the air itself is alive with anticipation.” The young prince sounded as ragged as Olorun felt, and did not fly with as much vigour as he might have.
“This realm is hungry,” Yemoja said. “It aches like a thing alive, yearning for something it cannot name.” She gestured and globules of water danced upon her palm. “Even the rivers here stink of its desperation.”
Olorun paused and looked at them. “If you wish to return to the surface, I will not stop you. I understand your unease, for I feel the weight of this ancient darkness as much as any of you. But I must go on. My course is set, for better or worse.”
“I am not leaving without my husband,” Hera said. She looked challengingly at the others. Horus and the Baron glanced at one another.
Horus struck the ground with the ferrule of his spear. “I worse an oath. I will not break it now.” Baron Samedi nodded.
“And I a looking forward to seeing how this turns out.”
Olorun looked at Yemoja. “And you, Yemoja?”
“You would only get yourself into trouble if I abandoned you now,” she said. Her eyes narrowed and she pointed. “Besides, I do not think that leaving is an option – look.”
Olorun saw the path behind them beginning to twist and squirm like a wounded serpent. It was as if something were pressing up from beneath the layer of skulls. Or perhaps pushing its way through.
Argus roared, and Olorun whirled around to see Hera’s bodyguard staggering back as coiling, fibrous shapes rose from within the skulls. Thorny vines, sweating iridescent pollen, lashed upwards. Large blossoms spread open like the hoods of cobras, revealing skull-like extremities. Thick clouds of pollen roiled through the air, and Olorun’s skin crawled at the sight of it – he could taste the poison, even from a distance. “Yemoja – the pollen. Wash it away, quickly!”
Yemoja stepped forward, raising her hands as she did so. She drew water from the air with a sinuous gesture and sent it flooding past Argus in a crashing riptide. But even as she drowned the plants ahead of them, the ones behind them uprooted themselves and began to scrabble towards the gods on thorn-like appendages. Horus and Baron Samedi moved to face them. Olorun felt the ground shift beneath his feet and grimaced.
Hera lifted her sceptre. “Another trap.”
“If so, we will not be caught like last time.” Light blazed from Olorun’s fists as he thrust them into the convulsing skulls. Solar heat thrummed through the soil, seeking out the predatory seedlings Persephone had planted and incinerating them even as they sprouted. Columns of coruscating flame erupted from the ground, consuming the skull-faced creepers as they advanced towards the gods.
Olorun rose, eyes blazing. “No more obstacles. No more delays. Where is Hades?”
Hera swept ash from the air and pointed. “The entrance to the throne room is up ahead, if I recall correctly.”
Olorun turned. The path rose steeply, terminating in a wide plateau. A set of great double doors, made from onyx and covered in strange carving, had been set into the rock.
As they watched, the doors swung slowly open, as if in invitation.
Hades awaited them in the throne room. Olorun blazed like the sun itself, and the lord of the underworld winced and turned away as the new king of Olympus entered, followed by Hera and the other gods. “Hades,” he said, in a voice like the rumble of distant thunder.
“Olorun.” Hades smiled thinly as Hera appeared. His sister looked as if she wanted nothing more than to rip his spine out and beat him to death with it. “Sister,” he greeted, as he drew back his hood and banished the shadow that normally masked his face.
“Where is my husband, Hades?” Hera said, her voice low and deceptively soft. “Where is your wife? She cannot hide from us, no matter how deep she secretes herself into the earth.” As she spoke, Persephone’s flowers rattled their thorns. They sensed her anger, and reacted accordingly.
“Softly, sister,” Hades said. “They will attack, if they think I am in danger.”
“It is not like you to hide behind plants,” Her said.
“It is not like you to bend knee to another.” Hades turned to Olorun. “If you wished to visit, you could simply have asked.”
“Where is she, Hades?” Olorun asked.
“Somewhere you will not find her.” Hades raised his staff. “And at any rate, you did not come for her.” He struck the ground with his staff. In moments, the floor swirled like a whirlpool of earth and stone. There came a great grinding sound, and a set of stone steps, curving downward, was revealed.
Hera took a step towards the steps, but Olorun stopped her. “You will not hinder us?” he asked. Hades shook his head.
“Not today. What you seek is below. Come. I will lead you.” He started down the steps. Olorun and the others follow, after only a moment’s hesitation.
“Why?” Olorun asked, as they descended. Hades did not look at him. Olorun’s light cast strange shadows on the roughhewn walls.
“Because she asked it of me.”
“She wished us to find this place?”
“That is not for me to say. She merely said that if you got this far, I was guide you to Zeus and the others.”
“Another trap,” Horus said.
“Possibly,” Olorun replied, frowning. “But what kind?”
Hades glanced at him. “If you fear a trap, why continue to seek them out?”
“Even if it means rescuing one who will not look kindly upon your choice of throne?”
“Be silent, brother,” Hera said. “Zeus will understand.”
Hades laughed. “You think death has changed him that much?”
“Except they are not dead, are they?” Baron Samedi spoke up. “Else how would Anubis have returned?”
“Perhaps,” Hades said. In truth, he wasn’t certain how Anubis’ soul had slipped from the underworld. Maybe gods of the dead were beholden to different rules. It didn’t matter, so long as the others were bound fast and unable to free themselves.
“What is death to a god?” Horus murmured.
“Ask Osiris,” Hades said, and laughed. Horus growled and started towards him, but Baron Samedi held him back.
“He’s baiting you, Prince Horus.”
“He’s baiting us all,” Olorun said. “Isn’t that right, Hades? You are trying to make us angry. Do you think we will make a mistake?”
“I think you made one the moment you descended uninvited into my realm.” Hades stopped and turned. He looked up at them. “So arrogant. So full of righteousness. She was right about you – about all of us. We do not think, we simply do. We never question our desires, we simply pursue them.” He turned away. “I am as guilty of that as any.”
“More, perhaps,” Hera said.
Hades ignored her. They’d reached the bottom of the steps, where a great cavern awaited. Humid air wafted up to greet them, and plants rustled softly. The cavern was larger than the throne room, and greener by far. It resembled a jungle full of plants and hanging vines. A garden left to grow wild. Skulls littered the floor, and hung from the vines above.
As they entered the chamber, the plants began to stir. Questing fronts stretched towards the gods, as creepers twisted line inquisitive serpents. Hades pressed forward, heedless of the plants that squirmed about him. They enfolded him gently, as the skulls began to sprout. Thorns clashed, and the air swum with toxic pollen.
“Hades – wait,” Olorun began.
“I cannot control Persephone’s creations,” Hades called out. “I’m afraid that you must deal with them yourself.”
Yemoja did not wait for Olorun to speak. She scraped water from the air and let it dance between her palms, shaping it into a perfect bubble. As the first of the skull-topped plants reached them, she cast the bubble towards it. The bubble enveloped it, but only for a moment. It erupted into a flurry of smaller bubbles that each exploded with the force of a raging river. Plants fell, torn asunder. But more pressed forward. Persephone had spent much time seeding this cavern. Their roots ran deep, and they were aggressive.
Yemoja felt some small sympathy for them, even as her waters uprooted them and cast them aside. They had not asked for this. They were doing only as the one who’d planted them had intended. They stunk of rot, and unnatural sustenance. The underworld was not a fit place to make life. It was a place of taking, rather than giving. Persephone should have known better. Maybe she had.
From what little she knew of the Queen of the Underworld, Yemoja thought that she saw the mortals not as servant or slaved or pets, but as blossoms to be tended. She sought to encourage their growth and tend their hurts. Yemoja was of a similar mind. But Persephone was going about it the wrong way. And she had to be stopped.
Thorny creepers sought to snare her, and she heard Horus cry out as he was nearly dragged from the air. Nearby, Argus roared as he uprooted plants by the fistful, as creepers sought to envelop him. Hera bulled forward, her mystic shield flickering with every impact from a lashing root or branch. Olorun and Baron Samedi followed, solar light and cold fire blazing a path through the cavern-jungle. But for every step they took, the plants surged back, closing in around them.
Under better circumstances, Olorun might have been able to dispatch them. But he was exhausted. They all were. As Yemoja watched, creeper vines slithered about his forearms and neck. He roared in fury, but as quickly as he managed to free an arm, it was ensnared once more. Clouds of poisonous pollen hung thick on the air, and Yemoja could taste it burning at the back of her throat. The underworld only took, it could not give. And soon it might take them, unless something was done.
A creeper snared her throat, and she staggered. As she tried to tear it loose, Horus’ spear flashed down, severing the tendril. “Can you not summon another flood to cleanse this cavern, my lady?” he asked, helping her to her feet.
She shook her head. “We are too far from the river. But there are other ways. Stand back.” She flung her hand up, and her soul went with it, riding upwards at the speed of thought. Past the rocky roof of the underworld, past the soil and grass, past the tree tops, into the sky above. The sun had set, and the moon hung against the black canvas of the night sky. The sun was Olorun’s, and the stars as well, for what were stars but distant suns?
But the moon belonged to Yemoja. And it answered her call without hesitation.
The roof of the cavern cracked and split, as streams of pure moonlight poured through merging into silver torrent that cascaded down into the centre of the cavern and spilled outwards. Plants writhed and shriveled in the gleaming light. Those not destroyed shrunk back, seeking refuge from the painful radiance.
As the moonlight faded, what the plants had been protecting was revealed. Five stone pillars, wreathed in sickly black creepers and swollen blossoms the colour of blood. From amid these creepers, the withered faced of five dead gods stared blankly at their surroundings. Zeus hung at the centre, with Chaac, Anhur, Mercury and Ao Kuang hanging to either side of him. Yemoja could feel their pain from where she stood – caught between life and death, unable to return to one or pass to the other.
“What has she done to them?” Hera said, her voice echoing in the sudden silence. Hades, standing beneath Zeus’ pillar, looked at her.
“What she thought best. The black vines feed on them, draining them of vitality. They will not die, and so the vines will never loosen their hold. And the red flowers will bloom forever, at the heart of Persephone’s garden.”
“Damn the flowers and damn her!” Hera snarled. “Argus – free my husband!” At her command, Argus lurched forward, reaching for Zeus. Horus swept forward to join him, spear flashing to slice through the vines holding the other gods.
Yemoja.. please,” Hera said, as Argus lowered Zeus’ shrunken, withered form to the ground. Yemoja nodded.
“I will do what I can. Bring the others.”
One by one, the imprisoned gods were freed and laid on the ground before her. She could feel the spark of life still flickering in each. Gods did not die easy. She placed her hands upon the ground, seeking the water. Great rivers thundered forgotten through the depths of the underworld. They responded to her thoughts like skittish horses, uncertain and untamed. “Come to me,” she murmured. “Come.”
For long moments, there was only silence. Then, the cavern shuddered. Water spouted from the cracks in the floor, spurting upwards. They coiled about her, following her gestures. With a sharp motion, she sent them washing across the fallen gods. As their forms were inundated, they began to swell with new life. Muscles filled with strength, eyes fluttered. One by one, each god took a deep breath.
Yemoja sat back on her heels, panting slightly from her efforts. Olorun set a hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him. “They will live.”
“Good.” He looked at Hades. “Where is she, Hades? Your wife must answer for her crime. I promise you, she will be judged fairly.”
Hades shook his head. “I thought you would have realized by now.. she is not here. She departed not long after you arrived.”
Olorun frowned. “Departed – where?”
Hades smiled sadly.
“You will see soon enough, I fear.”