02. Lord of the Underworld

Act I. Dark Ascension

EREBUS

The three-headed watchdog let out a deafening roar, as the snakes on the tips of its snouts hissed at me with an intense ferocity. Its claws dug into the foul-smelling brimstone, crouching low, threatening to pounce. Its muscles rippled beneath its fur. There was no doubt in my mind that they kept him fed. But with what was a question that lingered in my mind.

“Out of the way, mutt,” I ordered, shoving him to the side as I walked past him. His display of domination was nothing to behold and was only seen as a waste of time.

I felt small pricks on my back as I craned my head just enough to see serpent fangs embedded in my upper back. Three pairs of eyes looked up at me in curiosity, waiting to see how I would react. Now and then, the serpents would dig their fangs deeper, thinking it would elicit some reaction out of me. The mutt had bitten me several times in the past, and although I was an immortal being, it was still painful.

“I don’t have time for this, Cerberus. You can either remove yourself or I will do it for you. Which will it be?”
After a few more moments, it removed its teeth from my back and lapped it a few times with its tongue apologetically.

I let out a low grunt of approval before gliding forward towards the silvery gate. I didn’t spare another glance despite its high-pitched whines, but made a mental note to ask Hades to send someone to spend some time with the mongrel.

The gates creaked open to reveal grass-covered hills with an array of flowers scattered throughout the thin blades. An artificial sun shone down on its inhabitants every day, only serving as a symbol of their peaceful afterlife, yet a painful reminder that they were dead because unlike the actual sun in the surface world, the Underworld’s inhabitants would not feel its soothing warmth.

A golden path adorned with hydrangea, carnations, and chrysanthemums of various bright colors snaked around the meadows, leading up to a dark, yet dreary palace that almost appeared to be out of place from the rather cheerful scene.

It astonished me that Hades’ palace moved to the Elysian Fields after he married Persephone. They built the castle with a firm foundation of stone, covered from top to bottom with shining onyx and sapphire stones. Walking up the glittering path, I scoffed at the pointed arches and front facing, wooden-trimmed gables. The palace’s Victorian style made me wonder if Hades had any hand in its construction. It lived and breathed the very principles of romanticism, something that was completely uncharacteristic for the Lord of the Underworld.

Just as I was about to enter, I paused, hearing my name being called by a young woman, “Erebus!” I turned my head to find that it was none other than the Goddess of Spring. Fighting back the urge to cringe, I bowed my head to the woman who claimed the Lord of the Death’s heart.

I avoided her like the plague out of respect to Hades. He protected Persephone like she was a delicate orchid, capable of wilting from anything, no matter if it was good. Knowing who I was and from what I was born, there was no way that we could be friends. She was the light, but I was absolute darkness, and darkness always had a way to snuff out the light.

She danced with the nymphs of the underworld, making every flower bloom under her gentle touch. Her green eyes sparkled as her braided golden-brown hair swayed with the wind’s silent melody. The aroma of the flowers swirled around in the air, smelling strongly of lavender and honeysuckle.

It wasn’t an unusual scene, but judging by the fact the lampades were here with Persephone instead of by the side of their patron deity, Hecate, I would have to guess that the Goddess of Witchcraft was tending to things in the mortal world. It wasn’t uncommon for Hecate to leave her thralls in the company of the Queen of the Underworld, but it certainly added to my discomfort.

When the music decrescendoed into silence, I could only silently pray to Gaia that she wouldn’t approach me whilst in the company of the flirtatious lampades. Though that prayer went unheard as she pranced over until she was standing in front of me. The nymphs gasped loudly and hid behind the shrubbery, watching me with newfound terror and trepidation.

“Lady Persephone,” I greeted with a polite bow of my head.

“It is good to see you, Erebus. How is the In-Between faring?” she asked with an energetic smile.

“Nothing has changed. Humans die and await judgment,” I answered with a forced smile before quickly adding, “I have an urgent matter to tend to with Hades. Has he returned from his discussions with the fire demons in Tartarus?”

Every day, tensions with the fire demons increased. They wanted more than what Hades was offering them and what morality would permit, destruction. Similarly to the flame that lived inside their hearts and fueled their power, they were hungry for more. It was difficult to satiate their desires, as it was impossible to extinguish their flame. Hades always found a way to satisfy them for periods of time. Today was just the expiration of their former deal.

“Yes, he returned just a few minutes ago. I cannot say for certain how it went. He never speaks with me about these things.” Disappointment was laced in her distant gaze, which made me tense up, knowing where the conversation was heading. She looked up at me, thinking I would reassure her.

Instead, I diverted my gaze and held my tongue. Nothing good could come from intervening in a god’s romantic relationship. So, I changed the subject. “I assume he’s in the throne room.”

“Yes.” She peered around, searching for someone. “Millie!” she called for her companion.

“Ah, that won’t be necessary! I appreciate the hospitality, your Highness,” I butted in with a flurry of words, storming into the church-like building before the spectral child appeared.

Mildred was another human that passed through the In-Between when she was nine years old because of a medical error. I didn’t know the details, nor did I ask. However, Persephone and Hades treated her like she was their daughter, and it was envy inducing. They were this perfect family, capable of doing everything their hearts desired. Whereas I had nothing and despite fathering many children with the Goddess of the Night, the mother of our children wanted little to do with me.

A small burst of heat rippled through my body, frustration building up. I reined it in, and let tranquility wash over me. I took brief notice of the building’s decor-less interior, focusing on what I would say to Hades. Every plausible scenario hit a dead end and concluded with an unfavorable outcome.

When I made it to the throne room, I found him sitting on his obsidian throne, peering at me. He knew I was coming.

“Who was it this time?” He asked with pursed lips, exhaustion laced in his tone.

“Another rapist. He was attempting to take another woman, but died before it began. It was an accident, it won’t happen again,” I explained, hoping that he would just leave it at that. However, this wasn’t Dionysus or Apollo, he wasn’t going to let it go or laugh it off like it had some witty punchline.

It was always hard to tell how he felt about certain topics, but it was even more so now because he wasn’t yelling at me or giving me an ultimatum this time.

“Hm.”

“Hades?” There was never a need for me to be informal with him. I was older. And having worked with one another closely, there was no reason to maintain formalities.

“Did he pay for the passage?”

“Yes.”

“Use it for the next person in line when you return. That should even out the imbalance.” He rose from his throne and stared at me in silence, though his mind seemed to be elsewhere. Surely that wasn’t the end of the conversation.

“I suppose I am to work through the night?” I prompted, hoping he would voice what had been occupying his thoughts ever since I arrived.

“No. You are needed elsewhere.”

“W-what?” I sputtered out, taken aback by his comment. I never left the In-Between space. What motivated him to change that so suddenly?

“Zeus has summoned me to Olympus.”

“And you want me to attend?”

“No, the Underworld needs somebody here and you are the only person I trust. You would continue with passing on judgment like you normally do but from this palace.”

I raised a brow. There was something else that he wasn’t sharing. As if he caught on to my suspicion, he added, “Persephone will be here. I would appreciate it if you could prevent her from leaving here.”

“So you expect her to play the dutiful role of a prisoner and I the warden?” My irritation rose, and my words spewed out unfiltered.

She could be in the Underworld for six months and she would spend the rest of the year with her mother to make sure the mortals would receive a bountiful harvest. I envied her. She got to see the blue skies, feel the cool wind caress her skin, and most importantly, she mattered. People remember the Goddess of Spring but I, on the other hand, was not memorable. Most mortals, if not all, didn’t even know I existed. After all, there wasn’t much of a story to tell and most feared darkness too much to want to be exposed to it.

Hades let out an exasperated sigh, his muscles tensed under the dark tunic that was wrapped tightly around his body. “We’ve been over this many times, Erebus. You know why you can’t leave.”

“I’m sure the dead can wait an hour or two before receiving their last judgment,” I replied, never breaking eye contact.

It made the fire from the lit candles that surrounded us roar to life and Hades looked every bit of the menacing god they made him out to be in the mortals’ stories. However, I was not a human, so his display of power looked nothing more than a child’s tantrum.

“You will not leave the Underworld. This is not a debate, Erebus. You know as well as I do that the dark magic that lurks within your soul can be contained here.”

“Chaos has not appeared in several millennia. It is highly unlikely that it will awaken again.”

“That does not make it impossible.”

“Perhaps your worries may subside if you throw me in with the Titans. Would that make you feel less threatened, Lord Hades?”

Within seconds, Hades was towering over me, with his hand wrapped around my neck. The flames from the candles crackled under the pressure of his power. “Enough! You will stay here and you will do what you’ve been told to do. If you have so much as a single thread of hair outside of the Underworld’s boundary lines, I will grant your wish. Am I understood?”

I clenched my teeth, feeling more angry than in pain under his grip. “Yes, your Majesty,” I spat out.