Thanatos’ wings part around us, the darkness of his embrace giving way to rosy evening light. His arms linger at my waist to make sure my feet are sure on the flagstone path before letting go. I take my time pulling away, steeling myself before opening my eyes.
Like a picture coming into focus, what I see and what I remember converge. I notice the gazebo is still standing, silhouetted against a lilac sky. A gust of wind sends long leaves from the willow tree twirling down onto the lawn. The night air is heavy with the scent of jasmine and memories.
“Kate?” Than’s voice takes my mind by the hand, pulling me back into the present moment, saving me from myself.
“I’m ok. It’s just…been a while.”
“I forget not everyone is comfortable traveling my way.”
I let him think I meant the trip. He is kind enough to pretend he does.
“Come on, I’ll walk you in,” he says, heading down the path.
I follow Thanatos on a winding track through the garden. Before long, Hades’ office comes into sight, its long windows unmistakable. They shine like mirrors in the last light of day, elegantly framed in iron and stone. Thanatos is a rippling darkness in that mirror, me behind him in clinging jeans, black leather jacket and boots. As we pass, the windows hand off our reflection, one to the next, all the way down the length of the building.
It’s obvious I’m the one out of place here.
Some of that is my fault. Some of it isn’t.
Than takes the steps up to the entrance by twos and opens the door for me. As I pass through, I notice security cameras. Several, actually. Those are new.
We follow the corridor around to a reception desk. Thanatos stands there, waiting for Hades’ assistant to turn around. She finally does and jumps in her seat. Her honey-blonde hair is swept back in a low bun, as simple and elegant as the black dress she wears. I don’t recognize her. Thanatos does.
“Alex,” he says with a smile.
“You do that again, you’re dead,” she responds deadpan and holds out her hand. “You owe me.”
I can tell this is a ritual for them. So many things for Than are. The God of Death slips his hand in his pocket and pulls out a few black peppermints and puts them in her hand.
Instantly, her face breaks into a smile. That smile fades when she sees me, and she frantically starts checking her scheduling book.
“Shit, did you have an appointment?”
“No. But Hekate needs to see him. Is he in?”
Alex shakes her head. “He was here earlier. Let me see if I can find him. Than, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind you waiting in his office. Make yourself at home.”
Thanatos nods once and leads me past Alex’s desk and left down the hallway. I shouldn’t say lead — he’s merely in front of me. It’s a walk I’ve made a hundred thousand times, this hallway. How long it takes me to walk it always depends on the news I have to deliver to the one who rules here.
Hades and I. Now there’s a story.
If I were a romantic, I’d say we were like wine. Well-aged, complex profile. Long finish. Potent. Consistent. Elegant, yet bitter. And dry. So…fucking…dry.
But since I’m not, let’s simplify.
If I’m the unstoppable force, he’s the immovable object. And we’ve grown quite comfortable both having each other’s backs and staring each other down for thousands of years.
Thanatos pushes open the door to Hades’ office and motions me through. How long has it been since I was last here? Twenty years? Thirty? More? Chances are it was because some fool of a mortal got past my dogs and wandered into the Underworld without doing Hades the courtesy of removing his flesh first.
I get to the center of the room and stop.
The first thing that hits me is his scent, stronger for the warmth of the room. I don’t linger on it long enough to name its individual notes.
Next, the perfect order of the space. Chaos has no home here. I know if I were to walk around to the other side of the desk, to sit in his chair, I would see that everything was placed with an impeccable precision.
From the placement of the glasses on the bar to catch light from the windows, to the order of the books on the shelves, to the spartan luxury of the few items on the desk…everything in this room is positioned to reflect power and provide pleasure to the man at that desk.
This isn’t an office, I think. This is a lair.
As the lush carpet in the center of the room silences my steps, I hear the door latch behind me. I turn toward Thanatos to ask him a question when his watch goes off, summoning him for another collection.
“Go on, Than. I’ll be all right here.”
That’s one way Than and I are alike. Hades too, really. We are unwavering in doing what must be done. Thanatos gives me a long look and a succinct nod, then vanishes to do his job.
That’s when it occurs to me — I’ve never been here alone.
I make a slow turn, surveying the room.
No security cameras in here, I notice, smiling. Hades is no fool. All the cameras are on the outside, guarding against uninvited entry. Out there, you’re protected by the watchful eye of technology. In here? There are no witnesses.
Being the creature of habit I am and knowing that Hades would offer, I make my way to the bar. Hades’ selection of wine and liquor files down the typical criticism from my tongue. No bad decisions to be made here, I settle on a single-malt and pour three fingers worth.
Leaning back against the bar, I drink too fast for what’s in the glass. A flush of warmth hits my cheeks as the scotch slides down my throat, all silk and fire. I’ve been among mortals for too long. The definition of the good stuff changes when you’re a god. Doubly so when you’re a king and can have whatever you damn well please.
I consider adding more to my glass — it’s that good — but this is business. And here, down Below, he has the advantage. I can hold my own, but I don’t feel like making it any easier on him. Especially since I have a word or two for him about this all happening on his watch.
Since I’m waiting, I might as well look around.
“Know thine enemy” has always been good advice. And you can learn a great deal from someone’s personal space. I consider Hades a strategic ally, not an enemy, but the concept is the same. Knowledge is power. And whether that be power over, beside, or behind all comes down to location, location, location.
I’m not surprised to find so many books, all grouped by discipline and type. It’s not the number of books that impresses me — we’re immortal, that’s a lot of time to read for those of us that do. It’s the range of subject matter.
Reference books, autobiographies, books on herbs and plants, histories of times and places that no longer exist but that gods remember. I trail my fingertips over the spines, noting titles, recognizing many.
“What the hell…?”
I reach up and pull a book of magical theory and alchemy from the shelf, the last copy of which was believed to have been destroyed over 900 years ago. I flip through the book, marveling at the condition of the pages, the binding. There’s a touch of residual power here, protecting the book, slowing its inevitable decay. My eyes leap back to the shelf, and there are more, several of which I’ve never seen before.
“You’ve been holding out on me, Hades,” I mutter. A wicked smile crosses my face, and I put the book back on the shelf upside down, remembering there are no cameras. “Let’s see how your OCD ass likes that.”
I pick my drink up again and continue my slow lap of the room, committing things to memory.
The sheer number of living plants thriving in this space. A globe, no longer accurate but made entirely of obsidian and bone. A long splinter of greyed driftwood mounted in a case. A moth, long extinct, splayed and pinned to display crimson, iridescent wings. A section of personal journals I’m tempted to touch, and a violin that begs me not to.
A pot holding a large bonsai tree dominates a small table on one side of the room. Its twisted trunk bends in a perpetual wind I can’t feel, its branches lush and green and pruned into deliberate beauty.
I walk behind Hades’ desk, pulling out the leather chair. Heavy, red pillar candles anchor the desk on either side. At the foot of one rests sealing wax, a handled crucible, and a heavy seal. With a wave of my hand, the candles light and I pick up the seal, tracing the design, setting it back down. A small statue of Cerberus sits on the corner of the desk, each head seeming to watch an entrance or exit, every muscle commissioned in stone.
I throw back the rest of my drink and sit down in his chair, crossing my legs, oddly relaxed, and crediting the scotch. Surveying the room from here, for a moment, the pieces come together into some nuanced understanding of the God I’ve known since before the Realms were divided among the Brothers.
The one Persephone and I used to try and stalk through the palace halls on Olympus.
The one who, if he ever saw us, never let on and let us have our fun.
The one who married—
My hands clench the arms of the chair as I realize there are no photos of Persephone in the room. I do another quick check to be sure. None.
I don’t know what I expected to feel at that. The fact I feel nothing surprises me. I smile until I realize that the fact that I feel nothing doesn’t surprise me either.
Because I’m that bitch.
I’m lost in thought when one of my hounds shadow-shifts through the wall and walks in from outside. She pads over to me and bumps my chin with the top of her head, waiting for the nuzzles she knows are coming.
I bow my head to hers and open myself to the unbroken flow of information, relayed in scents tracked and trails followed. As Skía shows me what I need to know, the hunger for retribution sets back in, like it was never gone, and then, stops cold.
They’ve found Ostasus.
And he is waiting for me.
I motion with my head for Skía to wait outside. She lopes off and through the glass into the darkness. I’m out of time.
I open the central desk drawer and pull out a piece of heavyweight linen stationery. I select a malachite fountain pen from the tray in the drawer, open it and post the cap. There’s a piece of scrap paper next to the pens, covered in the decisive lettering of Hades’ own hand. I add my mark to the page to get the ink flowing and shut the drawer.
I don’t have time to explain everything.
Find Thanatos. He has information you need
about the Tartarus breach and the Titan, Ostasus.
Don’t worry if you can’t remember.
We were, all of us, blind.
I regret our paths did not cross one last time.
~ H ~
I stow away the fountain pen and wait for the ink to dry. My thumb traces the letter H embossed at the top of the page — two vertical lines and a third to bar the way.
More than the initial we share.
More than the Gates we were tasked to guard, separate yet together.
The tracks of parallel lives, held apart by Fate.
As I fold up the letter, the eyes in the Cerberus figurine flash red, then blink. I don’t have to touch it to know it’s enchanted.
I shake my head and smile, looking back over my shoulder at the upside-down book, knowing I’ve been watched the entire time. I get up to go set it right — and can’t bring myself to do it.
I know the statue is watching this, too. That Hades, at some point, will be. There’s a high probability I’ll be dead before dawn. The last thing I’m going to do is give the King of the Underworld the satisfaction of making me flinch, here at the end.
I lean on the desk and give the little stone Cerberus my most stunning smile.
“Fix it your own damn self.”
The last thing I do before heading to the surface — to Ostasus and what may come — is tuck the note in the branches of the bonsai tree.
Not because I know he’ll see it.
But so he’ll know I saw him, too.