The Warden of the Underworld dozed.
Cerberus lay in his usual spot overlooking the Styx, his trio of heads lowered across his massive paws. Occasionally, a triangular ear twitched as the great hound caught the slap of water against the hull of Charon’s boat or the whisper of a harpy’s wings overhead. One of his heads stirred as it caught the sound of footsteps, and loosed a low growl of warning.
“Only me, my friend.”
At the sound of his master’s voice, Cerberus ceased his growling and gave a low, interrogatory whine. The other two heads joined the first, and three pairs of lamp-like eyes fixed on the approaching figure of Hades. “Master?”
“Be at ease,” Hades intoned. His voice seemed to echo from beneath his hood.
“She is gone, then?” Cerberus rumbled.
Hades nodded solemnly. “Yes. What of our guests?”
Cerberus closed his eyes and sniffed the air. “They are near, but not yet at the river.” He gave a guttural chuckle. “They make good time, though. I wonder if they have brought enough coins to pay for their passage..”
“Or maybe a loaf of bread, laced with honey and herbs?”
Cerberus grunted sullenly. “That was only one time.”
Hades laughed softly. Hands behind his back, he went to the edge of the escarpment and looked out over the River Styx. “They invade my realm. Once, no one would have dared to attempt such a thing.”
“Except for Hercules,” Cerberus said, helpfully.
Hades sighed. “Except for Hercules. But Olorun is not so foolish as Hercules. And he has not come alone.” He glanced at Cerberus. “It will be down to us, soon. We must keep their eyes here. Persephone is counting on us. Do you understand?”
Cerberus heaved himself to his feet and growled in acknowledgement.
“They will not get past me, master.”
On the opposite shore of the Styx, Olorun thrust out his hand and released a beam of celestial light. It seared through the thick growth of thorny vines seeking to ensnare him, reducing them to motes of ash. “This way. Quickly – before they regrow!”
The tunnel descended at a shallow angle, curving away and down. The entirety of its length was full of twisting, thrashing vines. If there had been any other way, Olorun might have considered it. Persephone had obviously prepared for their coming.
Behind him, the others attempted to follow with all due haste. Horus, wielding his spear, chopped and thrust at the coiling vines that sought to entangle his wings. Beside him, Hera sheltered within the protecting shadow of her hulking bodyguard, Argus, who bellowed in fury as for every vine he ripped loose, a hundred more wrapped about his forearms and neck. Bringing up the rear, one hand on top of his hat, Baron Samedi. He moved quickly, almost dancing through the bulging greenery as it sprouted anew.
“I think we are not welcome here, my friends,” he said, cheerfully. He batted a questing vine aside with his cane and laughed. “Either that, or Persephone really ought to chastise her gardener.”
“You think this is a joke, Baron?” Hera said. “That witch has my husband – not to mention our other fellow gods – captive.” A tendril slipped past Argus and arrowed towards her. She caught it mere inches from her face and squeezed it to a pulp. It was not alone. She was forced to smash the other aside with her sceptre.
“Save your recriminations for when we have her in chains, Hera,” Horus said. He swept his spear out, slicing through a wriggling knot of tendrils. More surged forth from the walls and floor to replace them. “Until then, you would be wise to save your breath for fighting. These vines seek to bar our path with unnatural liveliness.”
“Not for long,” Olorun said. “Keep them off of me for a moment.” Horus and Hera moved to either side of him, hacking and stabbing the vines with spear and sceptre. Argus roared and tore whole masses of creepers from the walls of the tunnel, splattering the ground and his companions with foul-smelling sap. More vines sprouted, slithering along the walls, floor and ceiling, filling the tunnel with their charnel stink.
Olorun concentrated, seeking the light within himself, the light of the stars themselves, and the source of his might. But even as he found it, he felt the first questing vines creep up his legs. He heard Hera cry out, as her arms were pinned to her sides, and Horus’ screech of fury as his spear was wrenched from his grip. Argus’ muffled roars caused the tunnel to shudder, and even the Baron’s laughter had ceased.
Olorun caught the light, and let it go. It burst from him in a shimmering tide, filling the corridor from end to end with a sound like the tolling of some great bell. The twisting, tangling vines that threatened to envelope he and the other were reduced to clouds of ash in mere moments. He sank to one knee, the world swimming about him. To expend his light in such a manner invariably tired him.
Past the drifting ash, he spied an immense, iron-banded gateway at the far end of the corridor. His light had washed across it with no more effect than a splash of water. “Hera,” he panted. “The gate is yours.”
“Argus,” Hera said. Her massive bodyguard thundered forward with a roar, trampling the already growing vines beneath his feet. He slammed a full-tilt into the gateway, tearing it from its hinges with a squeal of ruptured iron.
“Here, brother, drink this,” Baron Samedi said, handing Olorun a dingy glass bottle as he helped the new King of Olympus to stand. “My own personal brew. It’ll put a bit of pep in your step, as they say.”
Olorun took a swig and grimaced. What it was, it burned going down. But he felt better – not fully recovered, but that would come with him. He handed the bottle back to the Baron and nodded in thanks. Baron Samedi tipped his hat. “Think nothing of it. Can’t have the new King of Olympus faltering this close to finding the old, can we? Imagine what our fellow gods would say.”
Olorun frowned. “I do not have to imagine. I can read their hearts as easily you might read a mortal’s soul.” He recalled the looks on the faces of the other gods as he revealed what he knew about the location of Zeus and the other missing deities – and how they had reacted when he had made his intentions to rescue them known. Few gods would dare to invade the underworld, and for good reason. “They doubt me. Doubt my purpose.”
“Not for long, I imagine,” Baron Samedi said, as Olorun pushed past him. Argus stood outside the corridor, clutching the broken remnants of the doors. Hera and Horus waited beside him.
“We’re here,” Hera said, softly.
Olorun paused at the mouth of the corridor. Before him, a rocky slope fell away into the banks of a silent, black river. He could feel the chill of those waters, even from where he stood. The far shore was hidden by a pall of mist. “The Styx,” he said. “How do we cross?”
“By boat. Come.” Hera started down the slope, Argus trailing after her. Horus glanced at Olorun, and then followed. The young prince was still uncertain, though he hit it well.
“And not a word of thanks for saving us,” Baron Samedi whistled softly, an eerie tune. “Determined sorts, these Greek goddesses. And no end of trouble.”
Olorun looked at him. “I know why she came. And Horus as well. But why did you volunteer to accompany me?”
The Baron shrugged. “One of us had to. A god of the dead, I mean. To see if you can do as you promise.” He smiled. “And to prove our loyalty to you, if you turn out to be all that you claim.”
“Loyalty is something every god will have to decide for themselves.” Olorun started down the slope after the others.
“And that is why I am here,” Baron Samedi called out, hurrying after him.
The shore below was crowded with dead souls. Wispy things, barely formed, lacking in identity or personality. Olorun could feel the pall of their grief as the gods passed through them. “There are so many of them,” he said.
“Look at all these sad souls.” Baron Samedi shook his head mournfully. “How can Hades leave them like this?”
“It is not up to him,” Hera said. “If they cannot procure passage, they must wait. That is the law of the underworld, older even than Olympus itself.”
“It is much the same in Anubis’ realm,” Horus said. “Paradise must be earned.”
“Or bought, apparently,” Baron Samedi said. Horus shot him a glare, and the Baron tipped his hat. “Now me, I’ve never seen the point of turning away any dead fellow. All are welcome to my lands, when their time comes.”
“How egalitarian,” Hera said. “But we are not in your lands at the moment. We are in Hades’ realm – or we will be, once we cross the river.” She extended her sceptre. “There. Charon comes.”
A low boat nosed through the mists that blanketed the waters. A lean, hooded figure stood atop it, poling his vessel towards the shore. As they spied him, the dead began to gather, murmuring in pleading tones. They stretched ghostly hands towards the boat, as if begging for passage.
The boatman ceased his labours, just short of the shore. He glared at the gods in silence, but made no move to draw closer. “What is he waiting for?” Baron Samedi asked.
“Charon will not take us across without payment,” Hera said. She looked at the others. “Coins are traditional.”
“And me without my money pouch,” Baron Samedi said, making a show of checking his pockets. Horus flapped his wings.
“I do not require a boat.”
“Neither do I,” Olorun said. He raised his hands. Celestial light flared, and the dark waters of the Styx began to bubble and froth. As he stepped into the river, the water turned to steam. He started towards the far shore, Charon staring after him in silent befuddlement.
“Come,” Olorun said. “We have wasted enough time.” The others followed him after only a moment’s hesitation. The walk was not a short one, or a gentle one. The ground seemed to heave and shudder with every step he took, as if trying to slow him down. But he pressed on, letting his light swell brighter and brighter, driving back the darkness of the underworld – if only for a few moments.
Cerberus was waiting for them when they reached the other side of the river. The gigantic hound paced back and forth, heads lowered, fangs bared. Olorun stopped a respectful distance away and studied the creature. The beast was not a god, but it was powerful nonetheless. “Step aside,” he said. “I have no wish to harm you.”
“Turn back,” Cerberus growled. “You shall no pass.”
Hera levelled her sceptre at the hound. “By whose authority do you deny us entrance?” she demanded, her voice harsh.
“By the command of your brother and my master,” Cerberus said. His heads swung in opposite directions, so that they could keep all of the gods in sight. “You are not welcome here. Go, or I will devour you, body and soul.”
“Hades has gone mad if he thinks you alone are a match for us,” Hera said. “I will have my husband back, hound. Run and tell your master and mistress that the Queen of the Gods is in no mood for games.”
As Hera spoke, Olorun sensed a sudden displacement of air. His hand shot forward, intercepting a barbed shaft before it could strike Hera in the throat. Startled, Hera turned. Olorun snapped the shaft in two and cast it aside. “The hound is not alone,” he said, as he rose into the air.
Argus lunge to meet the beast and they slammed together with a thunderous boom. Stalactites fell from the roof of the cavern above, crashing down onto the shore like a lethal rain. More arrows emerged from the darkness on all sides. Horus swept his spear out, deflecting part of the volley. Samedi did the same with his cane. Hera had surrounded herself with a glowing field of divine energy, and the arrows that reached her shattered against it.
The dead emerged then. Shriveled things, clad in rotting raiment and bearing the sigil of Hades upon their brows, and covered in roots and vines. Some bore bows crafted from bone and sinew, others were armed only with shriveled talons. A dozen at first, and then twice that in as many moments. An army of dead men, defending the gates of the underworld. Olorun heard the slap of water against bone and turned. More corpses rose from the Styx, and shambled onto the shore.
“It appears we are surrounded,” Horus said, raising his spear.
“You have a keen eye, Prince Horus,” Baron Samedi said, looking around. “Any suggestions as to how we get out of this?”
“Fight,” Olorun said, grimly. He’s miscalculated – assumed Hades and Persephone would see sense, and give in once he arrived at their threshold. And now he’d inadvertently led his allies into an ambush. He hand only one recourse.
“Agemo – awaken,” he whispered. “Awaken, my messenger.” He raised his hand, and one of his bracers shimmered as something heretofore invisible became visible – the tiny form of a golden chameleon. It blinked its bulbous eyes at him, awaiting his command.
“Go Agemo – find Yemoja,” Olorun murmured, as the dead pressed close about him. “Tell the goddess of the rivers that I require her aid.” The chameleon blinked and was gone a moment later. The dead closed in. He spun, light flaring from his fists, reducing the closest of corpses to ash.
Argus flew past him to crash into the Styx. Olorun turned to see Cerberus loping towards him, jaws agape. He flung his hands out, catching the jaws of the central head before they could close about him. He braced himself, but Cerberus’ momentum drove him back.
“You are not the first god to storm the gates of the underworld,” Cerberus snarled, forcing Olorun towards the water. “You will fare no better than they did!”
“Cease this madness,” Olorun said. “You cannot stand against us.”
Cerberus’ reply was a billowing cone of noxious breath. Olorun gagged as the miasma enveloped him. Through tear-stung eyes, he saw Cerberus’ serpent-headed tail rise up over the hound’s back, and undulate towards him, tongue flickering. Olorun was forced to release Cerberus’ jaws in order to avoid its strike.
The snake darted towards him again, and he caught it by the head. “I do not wish to harm you, hound,” Olorun said. “But I will if I must.”
The snake spread its jaws and spat poison. Olorun roared as the stinging venom spattered over his head and shoulders. The pain was unlike anything he’d ever encountered. He flung the tail away, and Cerberus punced, slamming him into the ground. Bllinded, choking, Olorun loosed a blast of light, driving the beast back. He tried to get to his feet as the hound retreated, head spinning.
As if sensing his momentary weakness, the dead pounced. They tore at him with fingers and teeth, trying to pull him down. He brought his hands together with a crash, releasing a burst of light that sent the corpses flying.
He slumped. His strength was waning. He needed a moment to recover, but he doubted Cerberus would give him that opportunity. Hades and Persephone had planned their ambush well. Through the haze of poison, he saw that the others were faring a little better. Horus, one wing broken, and his frame streaked with blood, stood back-to-back with Baron Samedi, who’d lost his hat somewhere.
As he watched, Baron Samedi swung his cane in a wide arc, decapitating two corpses. As the bodies collapsed, he scooped up their skulls and tosses them into the air, where they became enveloped in a strange, warm radiance. A moment later, beams of coruscating light erupted from their eye sockets and scythed across the ranks of the dead. But even as the first rank fell, more pressed forward.
He turned. A heaving pile of corpses marked where Hera made her stand, as the dead tried to overwhelm her divine shield. Argus was still floundering somewhere in the Styx. No help there. Olorun looked up as a shadow fell over him. Cerberus glared down at him.
Three sets of jaws struck, and only Olorun’s speed saved him. He hurled himself aside, but Cerberus recovered quickly. The hound leapt on him, pinning him to the shore with one great paw. “I gave you a chance..” Cerberus growled, leaning close. He spread his jaws, but paused, a look of confusion on his faces.
Something had changed. He heard the sound of water and smiled. A moment later, the Styx overflowed its banks. The dark watered crashed onto the shore, washing over the dead, but leaving Olorun and the other gods untouched. Cerberus howled as he too was caught in the cascade. The Styx spiraled up in a water spout that contained both the struggling hound and the dead. It spun faster and faster, until each struggling form seemed to blend into the next.
As it did so, a tall woman, clad in blue, stepped from the waters. Agemo crouched on her shoulder. She raised her hand and gestured. The Styx crashed back down between its banks with thunderous force. Of Cerberus and the dead, there was no sign.
“Yemoja,” Olorun said. He tried to push himself to his feet, but couldn’t find the strength. Yemoja caught him, as he stumbled and felt new strength flood his battered frame. The others looked as if they felt better as well. She smiled at Olorun and shook her head.
“Hello Olorun. You’ve looked better.”
Persephone breathed in the chill air of the great river. Behind her, thorny tendrils pulled down the tunnel upon themselves, hiding her route of egress from the underworld. There were many roads out of the darkness, and some known only to the king and queen of the underworld. She paused, and glanced back. Dust billowed, and for a moment it seemed to take the shape of her husband’s countenance. She felt a twinge of regret, but pushed it aside.
Hades knew this was the only way. He had been willing to keep Olorun and the others occupied, chasing shadows, while she undertook the next phase of her plan. The raucous cry of birds drew her attentions back to the water.
The river was one of two that supposedly girded the world. She knelt in the icy surf and thrust her hand beneath the water. She felt the souls of the drowned dead stir at her call, and heard the crunch of ancient oars and the sound of water flowing about a cracked hull. A moment later, the water-logged hulk of a long-sunken boat breached the waters, its dragon prow shrouded in weeds and barnacles.
It thudded onto the shore, driven to answer her call by fish-picked bones of its crew. Dead men, clad in rusty hauberks, their eyes empty of all life, clambered down to the rocky shore and knelt before her. She studied them for a moment, and then looked past them, towards the horizon where the underworld gave way to the other worlds, other realms.