As someone who rarely sleeps, it’s been a pleasant surprise just how deeply I do so here. Some of it is the quiet, and some of it is the way Hades moves around me like water around stone. He flows about his day despite the sudden addition of me, never making me feel in the way, even though I’m sure he feels the disruption caused by my presence.
As I finish my coffee, I turn over the note he left for me and read it again.
I have business to attend to early, but when you are ready,
I would like for you to meet me at the Reception Office.
I have something to show you.
It’s not the first note he’s left for me, but it feels different. One more blurring of the line between us. I’ve spent the morning wondering what Hades has planned. He’s hard to read at the best of times, like a book in a half-forgotten language. If he doesn’t want you to know, the book doesn’t just shut—it disappears.
One of the kitchen staff asks me if I’d like more coffee and offers to take my cup when I decline. Their formal manners are never so stiff as to be uncomfortable, very much like Hades himself. I tuck the note into the back pocket of my black leather pants and head out the door for the Reception Office.
Hades could give you twenty reasons in two minutes for why he loves the Underworld. But the only argument he really needs are the gardens. The grounds have submitted themselves to the same precision as everything else around him. Though I only grow herbs, I can see that each plant has a purpose here: medicinal, aesthetic, magickal.
It’s Hades. Of course they do.
I’m nearly drunk on the scent of roses by the time the Reception Office comes into view. I follow the same path Thanatos led me down, watching my reflection in the windows. At least I’m better dressed this time. I’ve pinned my long hair up off my neck to show off the low-backed cut of my half-sheer blouse, and my heeled boots do nice things for my ass.
Remembering how Thanatos startled Alex last time, I make a deliberate effort to make noise. Her previous green locks are now a shocking shade of fuchsia. I think I prefer the green. She looks up with a smile, which I return.
“Good morning, Alex,” I say. Yes, definitely the green.
“You can go right in, Witch Queen,” she says, eyes sparkling like water in sunlight. “He’s expecting you.”
Knowing the way, I nod and head back to his office. The door is ajar, unusual in itself. I listen for a moment, then press it open. It swings silently on its hinges, affording me a moment or two to spy on a King. Hades is leaning over his desk, sleeves pushed up on his forearms, lost in a sheaf of paper.
He looks up and flashes a smile, setting work aside to greet me. “Good morning. Sleep well?”
“Quite. I could almost get used to it.”
His eyes roam over me for half a moment. I return the favor. Far less revealing than my shirt, the lines of his body beneath his black sweater are more than enough for my imagination. I manage to get my eyes back up to his face a second before he notices.
“I would hope you do. Even immortals must rest.” He slides the papers into a drawer, sealing it with a wave, before beckoning me to follow him out.
“You’re fine by yourself, Alex?”
She looks up from a notebook and smiles. “As always. Have fun!”
“Fun?” I ask, falling into step beside him. “How is it that she knows where I’m going, and I don’t?”
“She’s the one covering, not you.” He grins and flicks his wrist as we exit the building, a portal opening. “After you.”
I step through the rift he’s created, hairs standing up on the back of my neck as his magic brushes up hard against mine. We step out into an extremely bright field, and I’m blinded momentarily by shades of blue, white, and pink.
“Welcome to Makaron, the Isle of Heroes,” Hades says, a touch of pride in his voice. He waits a moment while my eyes adjust to the light, before turning down a white stone path.
“Is it always this bright here?” I shade my eyes with my hand. This far below, I know there’s no sun. It’s only an illusion, but a damn good one.
“Oh, yes. I keep the climate temperate, but most souls of legend prefer the sun. They spent far too long in dreary places while they were alive. I am happy to oblige them with these requests.”
Makaron is molded around towering trees of white and gold, interspaced with fields of pink. Mountains of crisp steel blue encircle dazzling bodies of water reflecting the skies above. I can see a few souls fishing nearby. They wave to us as we walk past. Hades, to my surprise, waves back.
“I created Makaron with the idea that legends could spend time away from the Fields, where all good souls roam,” he explains. “While technically there’s no real difference between them, I prefer giving those here a true hero’s space in which to mingle with one another. To hold their own traditions or celebrations, away from, say, the soul of a prince who was good to his people.”
I listen as Hades makes the fine cut between goodness and heroism. It’s easy to be a good man when you are one of the few with power and privilege. But the coin of heroism is both common and rare. Common because anyone may possess it. Rare because it only gains value when spent. That Hades recognizes—no, rewards—the difference makes me pause.
“So, everything here is a fulfillment of the desires of those who dwell here?”
He rubs his jaw, thinking. “Yes and no. Sometimes I give what is owed to them, though they may not be aware of what it is they are owed. Sometimes they have a want or need, and I provide it. If it is a touch more than I am willing to grant, they may either debate with me or move on.”
“You balance the scales that death leaves tipped, in other words.” I smile at him. He returns it, easy, warm.
“To a point. Death isn’t usually an ending here. Just another beginning.”
Knowing journeys never end at the crossroads, I have to tease him. “Careful, Hades. You’re going to put a girl out of business.”
His laugh is like honey left in the sun. We walk in silence for a while, until a large marble and golden hall comes into view up ahead. “This is Naós Thrylos. A place for the Legends to partake in games, food, entertainment of their taste, and so on.”
“The OG Valhalla, eh? Never took the All-Father for a copycat,” I say with a wry smile. “May we go in, or do I have to be one of the heroic dead first?”
He grins. “Yes, you may go inside. I am sure they would be delighted to meet you. I understand there may be some who followed you in their mortal lives.”
Hades makes a silent gesture toward the door. I step in front of him and enter the hall with more than a little hesitation. Heroism isn’t really my thing. Others have called me brave, but I’ve never seen anything heroic about doing my job.
We enter to find the hall teeming with laughter and music. Braziers lit by blue flames sit in the four corners, a long table stretched out on the right side. On the left are musicians of all kinds, playing in time with one another. Dancers sing and trip their way through their steps, some of them holding a goblet of their preferred drink. As we walk in, several pairs of eyes turn towards us.
“Hear me now, gentlefolk, Lord Hades is in our presence!” A short and rotund warrior marches over, looking fiercely pleased. Glancing at Hades, he bows low to me. “And to whom am I speaking, lovely mistress?”
It has been a long time since I’ve observed the formality of court. Not since I was young. When Olympus was young. I’ve accumulated titles since then, a litany of things safer to speak than my name, none of which matter here.
“I have been called many things, but you may simply call me Hekate, for I am at your King’s command.”
“The greatest pleasure, Hekate. Welcome to our home, I am Alesandro. Please allow me.”
Alesandro motions to one of the servants, who brings a tray with wine and cups. The warrior pours for me himself instead of waiting for the cupbearer to do so. The simple gesture of service is noble, befitting this place. As he fills and hands a second cup to Hades, I sip what he has offered me. Pomegranates and cinnamon, sweet orange and clove anoint my tongue.
Smiling, Alesandro turns and heads towards the musicians, Hades and I following close behind. The intricate designs carved into the columns and walls display hunts, monster slayings, and other heroic deeds. The hall unfolds like a storybook, making me wonder if the heroes around us were the authors of the stories written in wood and stone.
“I created this space with the intent to house loyalty. There are honors in these walls, but also their tales. They seem to enjoy it.” His eyes searched the room, looking for something, before pointing at an elven archer. “Ah. There. Do you see it?”
I follow his gesture with my eyes and see, etched into their armor, the sharp curve of a waning crescent moon cradling a flame. It makes me smile to see that some of mine have earned a place here.
“They are your people but may cross here as they please if they have earned it. Do not worry,” he glances at me with a half-smile. “I am not poaching from your kingdom.”
“Of all the things I worry about with you, Hades, that isn’t one of them.” I realize I’ve left myself open for a question I don’t want to answer and change the subject. “There’s so much in the Underworld I’ve not seen. This place makes me regret not coming here sooner.”
Hades tilts his head to the side for a moment, studying my face. It’s a level of scrutiny I am unused to—few would dare. It doesn’t bother me with him. If anything, I have to force my eyes away.
“Time is no worry, Hekate. We have an eternity to tour the Underworld together.”
There is an undercurrent of meaning in his words, sweeping my eyes back up to his, stealing my breath. My wordless response makes him smile.
“We’re not quite done for the day.” He leads us back outside, the music fading as the doors shut behind us. With a flick of his wrist, another portal opens wide for us, and he gestures me through. “After you.”
Again, I feel the same rush as I pass through the field of his power. We step out onto a storm-etched shoreline. After the sudden brightness of Makaron, the overcast skies here feel like a half-hearted darkness. There is nothing but the endless thundering of waves and a constant wind that tugs my hair free to lash at my face. Turning inland, the slopes of a tall mountain draw my eyes upward. It stands alone, adding to the solitary aura of this place.
As the portal winks out, I turn to Hades. As he looks around, I notice a wildness in his darkened eyes, the kingdom reflected in its king. “Where are we?”
“Titiarial. It was a sanctum.” His voice carries something heavier with it. He starts up the rocky beach, heading towards the mountain. I follow cautiously behind, picking my way over the rocks.
The mountain appears split, cleaved from peak to heart. We make the walk to the center in complete darkness. The press of stone around us is like a temple, sanctified by something too ancient to name. It summons a reverence in the hard rhythm of our steps, softened only by the fading hush of the waves on the shore behind us.
The rock walls curve up and outwards as we reach the center, the scant light from the dark sky above revealing an enormous cavern of smooth stone. Suspended in the center is a sphere, unmoving, and, for all intents and purposes, just a sphere. Hades moves right, lost in thought. I leave him to it and circle left, afraid to disturb the stillness of the space by asking why he’s brought me here. He answers my unspoken question anyway.
“I failed here.”
He accepts the echo of his admission without flinching until it fades. Whatever judgment he has laid on himself, it is as hard as the stone around us. Whatever peace he is due still hangs suspended like the sphere, perhaps forever.
“What do you mean you failed?”
He stares hard at the stone beneath the sphere. “My father brought Nyx here, along with my nephews and the Fates. He murdered the Primordial beneath this.” He gestured upwards at the sphere, never looking at it. “I failed to ensure my realm was safe against the likes of Kronos, and in doing so, I caused great harm to my own and theirs.”
He looks up at me, his face a shade paler. “I failed. I cannot allow that to happen once more.”
He wanes out of, waxes into my sight as I complete the circuit around the sphere and come to stand at his side. I keep my eyes on the sphere, tendering a soft mercy in such a hard place.
“I understand the weight of accountability. Anyone who rules, who has charge of others, knows there’s a reason there are sharp points to a crown. What happened was unforeseeable.” I lower my voice. “My absolution, however, will mean nothing as long as you are committed to the notion that you have sinned, so to speak.”
“It is acceptance and regret. The Underworld is meant to hold the wicked and the damned. Most especially the Titans. I am…” he pauses to search for the right word, hands in his pockets now, “remorseful, that I could not come to their aid. I have since rectified my precautions and security, but it came with a cost that should not have been so, to begin with.”
Hades looks to me, then up at the sphere, then back to me. “I have sinned, as you say. But that does not mean I cannot learn from it. No one is without sin. And perhaps, I will make it up to them for my lackadaisicalness.”
His choice of words challenges me not to smile. “I don’t do sin, Hades. I find that guilt is more than enough on its own. Balancing the books goes a long way to help with that. And time is kind enough to handle the rest.”
I feel a stab of guilt remembering that day in his office, before I went to face Ostasus, how I’d planned on giving him the rough side of my tongue for letting the Titans escape on his watch. I’m relieved that conversation never occurred. He’s doing to himself all I could have done, and then some.
I step forward but resist the urge to touch the sphere. “So, what is this?”
Hades gives me a look and answers, “I can only guess at the sphere. It wasn’t here before that night.”
“When Nyx died?”
Hades nods. “Dinlas later described it that she fell into a darkness, seemingly folding in on herself as she was swept back into the Void, and they pulled her out of it. I believe when they did that, the remaining Void, well, walled itself off. Like when the body forms an abscess around a wound to protect itself. I think this is a part of the Void Realm that didn’t return properly, for lack of a better description.”
“So that thing is hollow?”
“That thing, I believe, is a gateway or portal to the Void. I have no desire to crack it open and certainly no desire to enter it. So, now I will protect it here, since I was unable to protect them. Not even Nyx knows it is here. You are the first person who has seen it other than I, Hekate.”
I step back, suddenly glad I didn’t touch the sphere. I turn to face him. “So, why bring me here? Of all the things you could show me, why this?”
“To show you that, however you may see me, however the mortal and immortal realms choose to see me, I am only a man. I make mistakes, sometimes fatally so. Perhaps I live a longer time than mortals; it just means I have more room to correct my mistakes for the future.” His eyes search my face for something before turning to look back at the sphere. “Gods would not be gods without mankind.”
My eyes slip to the shadow pooled like night beneath the sphere, a remnant of she who died here. “I’ve always said, Hades, that mortals have it wrong. They don’t serve us. We serve them. It would seem, on that, we agree.”
“Yes, that we do, Hekate.” He nods once, before turning and offering me a smile. “Shall we head back for the day? I imagine you are hungry. The gardens are far more delightful to eat in than this place.”
“I think some time in the sun would do us both some good,” I say, feeling the mood lift. “And yes, I’m ravenous.”
Hades summons yet another portal to his home, nodding for me to go ahead of him. With a last cursory glance, he follows me, leaving the dark weight of Titiarial behind.