Chapter Two – LIBERATION

“Do not think I am unaware of how the others mock Hermes behind my back. They call him Fork-tongue and Serpent-friend. They imitate his lisp and wriggle their fingers at him like snakes. It is envy that drives them. They know how precious my son is to me. He is the conduit through which I exert my dominance over Tyrris. The only one who can carry my word from the summit of Olympus to the depths of Tartarus. And the messenger is just as important as the message.”

Zeus, First of the Ruined Gods

*

The screams echoed through the halls of Olympus, filling empty corridors and resonating across untended, overgrown courtyards. There was an ebb and flow to the wailing, a rhythmical melody of pain that swelled to a fever pitch before waning once more.

The few remaining Olympian servants did their best to ignore the sounds, scuttling along the dark passageways with their heads bowed and their hands covering their ears. They were the shades of the faithful: priestesses of Hera, zealots, and other true believers whose unswerving loyalty to the Queen of the Pantheon in life had been rewarded by an eternity of servitude in death.

None of them saw the snake.

It was roughly a foot long and mottled brown in colour, its dry scales enabling it to slither over the polished marble floors of the palace in near-silence. It passed through a circular andron and entered a long gallery lined with dozens of marble statues on rectangular pedestals. Friends of the Gods. Most had been defaced, turning what had once been works of art into a sinister cavalcade of missing limbs and cracked faces.

The snake squeezed under the door at the far end. The screams had stopped. It paused for a moment, its forked tongue darting from its mouth, tasting the air. Its coal-black pupils widened as it found the scent it was looking for.

It pushed on, deeper and deeper into the palace, where even the servants dared not go. To a place remembered by few. The place where everything had begun.

It had been a throne room once, long ago. A windowless, featureless chamber. A block of stone had been placed at its centre and was now split into two, each cracked half bearing part of a roughly-etched ‘zeta’. And manacled to the largest piece of rubble was the first of the Ruined Gods.

Zeus stirred as the snake approached, raising a hand to push back the silver-grey hair that hung over his face. The gesture revealed the damage his father had wrought. His nose had been broken in several places; each swollen lump larger than the last. His left cheek sported a bruise the size of an apple; the other had been torn open, the skin pulled so wide apart that his slug-like tongue could be seen through the gap. Gelatinous fluid dribbled down from a gaping empty eye-socket to dirty his unkempt beard.

“Tavli,” the God whispered. His cracked lips jerked into something resembling a smile.

The snake wound its way up one leg and encircled the length of chain that bound the prisoner to his throne. Zeus shook his head.

“You cannot free me, Son. Cronos has made sure of that. It doesn’t matter. We have more pressing issues. If my father finds Hephaistos, he will become unstoppable. You must get them out of Olympus.” He grimaced in pain. “We don’t have much time. He will return soon.”

The snake opened its mouth, and the voice of Hermes hissed from between its jaws.

“Tell me what I must do.”

*

Elena unwound the soggy, wine-soaked bandage from her shoulder and let it fall to the floor of her guest quarters with a wet thud. The four circular wounds beneath were dry and free of infection. In fact, they appeared to be almost healed.

She raised her arm slowly, bracing for the pain. There was none. Incredible. The power of a goddess. She laughed out loud at the lunacy of it all. So many things that had once seemed impossible were now commonplace. Kerberi. Harpuia. Makara, Lord of the Underworld. The thought only made her laugh more loudly.

Elena wiped the last of the wine from her skin, ignoring the way the rich, fruity aroma made her nostrils tingle, and pinned the dark blue fabric of her chiton back in place. A faint breeze made the drapes behind her rustle. She pulled them aside and stepped out onto the balcony that overlooked the gardens of Hades.

The Land of the Dead was not bound by the seasons. At least, not in any traditional sense. The only light came from an artificial globe fixed to the roof of the underground cavern, filled with Apollo’s luminescence. The miniature sun dimmed and flared of its own accord, giving some semblance of day and night. Cloud formations swirled, occasionally dousing the green slopes of Elysium with nourishing rain. There was no winter here. No autumn. A perpetual spring.

Elena let her gaze wander over the lines of gravel paths and marble benches. The gardens were immaculate. Every bush carefully sculpted. Every flowerbed meticulously aligned. It was too perfect, in a way, a mosaic of interlocking squares and rectangles that looked more like the result of a series of mathematical equations than a true work of art. There was no personality. No humanity. Only stark, repetitive order. Which was not surprising considering that the gardens had been redesigned by the least empathic person Elena had ever met; the goddess, Persephone.

Persephone. Elena knew that Makar had somehow managed to forgive her for what she had done to Graycea, but Elena most definitely could not. Whenever she was in the same room as that despicable traitress, all she wanted to do was slap the woman’s cold, condescending smile straight off her face.

She tightened her grip on the balustrade and inhaled a deep lungful of air to try and calm her steadily mounting anger. Lack of tolerance appeared to be another side-effect of sobriety. Another slow breath. Elena tasted ash on her tongue. She glanced up at the wall of bronze that loomed high overhead like a gleaming cliff face. Far in the distance, a signal fire burned atop its ramparts. The entrance to Erebos. The land of fire and brimstone. Of blasted earth and rock. Where the worst creatures to have ever lived now suffered an eternity of torture. Less than a mile from her chambers.

Elena suppressed a shudder. Makar had significantly reinforced the defences since the return of the Lapiths but, even so, the fact that the enemy were so close was not a comforting thought. At least she had the tranquillity of the gardens to calm her mi—

“Shut your slobbering jowls, you useless, hairy ball of fur!”

“I will not have you talk to me in this manner, Tisiphone. I am Primus—”

“Primus my arse!”

Two figures were walking straight across one of the flowerbeds below, spoiling its perfect symmetry. They could not have been more different. The larger of the two had the body of a man and the head of a dog; a massive compact block of muscle and hair, his bulging torso constrained by a close-fitting linothorax. The weapon slung across his back was a sword, in the loosest possible definition of the word; a flat chunk of iron topped by a thick cross guard and pommel. His triangular ears were twitching violently as he fought to contain his annoyance. Kyon. Primus of the kerberi.

Next to him limped a tall, willow-thin woman with chiselled cheek-bones and hard eyes. She wore her long hair in a braid that hung down one side of her face and neck, partially covering a shiny patch of burnt skin that stretched from eyebrow to fingertips. Tisiphone, an Erinys, one of the guardians of the wall of bronze.

“It is not for you to decide,” Kyon continued in a tight voice. “I’m sure our Lord will see reason in what I have to say.”

“Of course, he will. You’re his favourite pet. A role you seem keen to maintain by the way you continue to fawn over him like a … well, like a puppy.”

“It’s called respect, Tisiphone. Although I’m not surprised you’ve never heard of it.”

“No, it’s called obedience. You can respect someone without praising their every word.” She cleared her throat and gave a canine growl “Oh, Master, your defence of the wall was magnificent. You are, without a doubt, the true Lord of the Underworld. Now rub my belly.”

Elena could no longer contain herself and burst out laughing. Tisiphone’s head shot up in surprise.

“Flesh-sack!” she called up. “Have you always spied on people or only since you became a goddess?”

“I’ve always been a goddess,” Elena shouted back. “And no.”

The Erinys made a noise somewhere between a snort and a chuckle. “We’ve been summoned by that lanky ephebe of yours. Come join us. It’ll be fun. You can watch him scratch Kyon behind the ears.”

The kerberos flashed a feral grin.

And pushed Tisiphone into a bed of roses.

*

Elena met the others in a small andron where Makar now spent most of his waking hours. Four couches embroidered in black and gold surrounded a low table covered in maps and half-finished plates of food. The walls were bare save for a beautifully crafted lute that hung over the proceedings, its circular rosette and sound hole watching over them like a baleful eye.

The Lord of the Underworld was studying the largest map, his gaze sharp and piercing. He was wearing a simple dark chiton and a crimson chlamys that had been pulled down to cover the stump of his right arm. A circlet of silver adorned his brow. He looked up as Elena entered, favouring her with a tired smile.

“Sophistes.”

“Ephebe.”

He reached out and gave her hand a squeeze, his movements controlled and precise. Makar had always been tall, but he had hidden it with an unconscious slouch, curving his back and dropping his shoulders. Now, he stood ramrod straight, his head almost level with Kyon’s muzzle.

“I found these two arguing in the garden,” Elena said, jerking a thumb at her companions, who had the good grace to look embarrassed.

“Most unfortunate,” Makar mused, rubbing at the smattering of stubble on his pale chin with his remaining hand. “If my closest advisors cannot get along, perhaps I should replace them. I heard that Alectra was showing some interest—”

“That will not be necessary,” Tisiphone interrupted hurriedly. “We are simply … antagonising each other for our own amusement, isn’t that right, Kyon?”

The kerberos’s muzzle twitched. “Of course.”

“Very well,” the Lord of the Underworld replied with a surreptitious glance at Elena. “I have much to learn still about the denizens of Tartarus, it seems. Primus. Report.”

Kyon sniffed and tapped a spot on the map with a clawed finger, tearing a small hole in the parchment. “We entered the Pits here and completed a thorough sweep of the top ten levels. I’m sorry to tell you that the kerberi guarding Ixion have been killed, Lord, but all the other prisoners were accounted for.”

“Sisyphus?”

“Still shackled to his boulder. We believe Hermes didn’t have time to release him. We didn’t run into any snakes either, but there are uncountable unexplored caves and crevices down there. Plenty of places to hide.”

Elena frowned. “What about the rest?”

“What do you mean, Flesh-sack?”

“Don’t call me that. You said you cleared the top ten levels. How many levels are there in total?”

“Thirteen,” Tisiphone said. “But we no longer have access to the last three.”

“Why—”

“By Hera, you’re inquisitive today! Because the way is blocked. An enormous door of iron and gold spans the entire width of the tunnel. Hades had the only key. Persephone made us try and knock it down or dig around … nothing worked. As if the rock itself had been reinforced somehow.”

“And the key?”

“Hades took it with him when he was banished. He used to keep it in a jewellery box.”

Makar let out a despondent sigh. “Then, it is lost. My father was carrying that box when Zeus murdered him in front of his workshop in Thena. Its entire contents were reduced to slag along with his body. What’s it protecting?”

Tisiphone shook her head, making her braid sway. “None was allowed through save for Hades himself. Not even Persephone knows what’s inside.”

Elena thought for a moment. “Who made the door?”

“No idea. Hephaistos, probably. Why?”

“Maybe the lock can be opened by the person who designed it.”

Kyon scratched at the hair on his face. “It’s a possibility, although I would advise leaving the lower levels alone for now. As long as no one can get in, no one can get out.”

Makar stared at the black blots of ink on the map. “So, the Pits are secure.”

The primus shrugged. “As secure as they’ll ever be. I’ll double the patrols. The problem, Lord, is that Hermes and Zeus are still running around Tyrris unimpeded. What’s to stop the Messenger from sending more of his snakes? We can’t just stand around and do nothing.”

Tisiphone gave a loud tutting noise.

“This is what you were arguing about,” Makar realised.

Discussing, Lord. Yes. The only way to be sure that Tartarus is no longer in danger is to stop the Ruined Gods.”

“I’m one of the Ruined, Primus.”

“No. Your father was. You are something else. Your place is here. But your rule will be a tenuous one if Tartarus is under constant threat from the prisoners of Erebos.”

“Then, what do you suggest?”

“That we leave a skeleton force of kerberi and harpuia here to defend the wall of bronze while you lead the rest of our troops above ground to assist Hera in quashing Zeus’s petty uprising.”

Tisiphone tutted even louder.

“Something to add, Erinys?”

“Yes, actually. Kyon has an abnormal lust for violence. You must have seen how his tongue lolls out of his mouth every time he detects even the faintest whiff of blood.”

“Tisiphone …”

“It’s true! I’ve known him for centuries, and he always, always counsels the most aggressive solution. Have you already forgotten that Cronos escaped Elysium before the barrier was restored? We have no idea what’s going on outside the confines of Tartarus. What if he’s allied himself with Zeus? Or worse, what if he’s conquered the entire Pantheon? We should stay here. Reinforce our defences. Take stock of our supplies. Perhaps send a small scouting party to ascertain what’s really going on.”

Makar clicked his teeth together as he mulled it over. “What makes you think we’ll be safer here?”

“The barrier. The manacles on Cronos’s wrists don’t just limit his power. They stop him from traversing it. Obviously. Otherwise, he would have left Tartarus years ago. He can’t touch us here.”

“Until he manages to remove them,” Kyon growled.

“He can’t do that either. Hephaistos made sure of it.”

Elena saw the indecision in Makar’s eyes. It was at times like this that the young ephebe he once was peeked through the gaps in his new persona, undermining his confidence.

“And the people of Tyrris?” she asked softly. “What of Thena? Lendes? Should we not help them?”

“The kerberi and harpuia are your people now, Lord,” Tisiphone countered. “You owe the humans nothing.”

Makar didn’t answer. His gaze moved from the detailed map of the Underworld to another lying next to it representing the poleis of Tyrris. Back and forth between the two realms, like two sparring hoplites locked in combat.

The silence was broken by a loud twanging sound. Elena gave out an involuntary shriek of surprise.

“Gods!”

One of the lute’s strings had broken.

“Perhaps this is an omen,” Makar suggested wryly.

Another string broke. Something moved deep in the lute’s sound hole. A rasping of dry skin. A tiny green serpentine head emerged from the darkness.

“Hermes!” Kyon shouted, reaching up over his shoulder to draw his massive two-handed sword.

The snake slithered from its lair, dropping from the wall to land on the table between the two maps.

“Hadesssss,” it whispered, its jaw contorting to mimic human speech. “Lisssssten.”

“Vile creature,” Kyon spat, raising his blade. “There is nothing you can say that is of interest to us. Begone!”

“Wait, Primus,” Makar ordered.

“I cannot. I must protect you!” The chunk of iron fell through the air like a log. Elena felt her hair move as it passed in front of her face.

Makar caught the blade with a grunt of effort, pinching the metal between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand.

“I … do … not … need … protecting,” he said through clenched teeth, before pushing the sword away.

“Lord … I …”

“And do not disobey me again, Primus. Or there will be consequences.”

There he is! Elena thought as Kyon lowered his weapon and averted his eyes. There is the Lord of the Underworld! There is nothing of his father left in him. The authority in his voice. The fire in his gaze. It is all him, and him alone.

“Apologies, Lord,” the kerberos said, contrite. “Perhaps Tisiphone is not entirely wrong. There are times when I can be somewhat hasty in my decisions.”

“We will not speak of it again.” Makar crouched down so that he was level with the snake, which appeared to be watching the proceedings with interest. “Speak, serpent. We will listen. Know that it is Makar, son of Hades, that stands before you. The essence of my father no longer inhabits this shell.”

“I bring a message,” it hissed.

“From Hermes?”

“No. From Zeus. He wishes for a truce. He wishes for peace.”

“As do we all. Although I imagine he wants something from us in return?”

“Yes. A simple thing.”

The snake cocked its diagonal head and spread its jaws wide.

“Liberation.”