First of all, the characters of Callisto, Xena, Gabrielle and any others from the TV shows Xena: Warrior Princess or Hercules: The Legendary Journeys are the property of Universal Pictures, Renaissance Pictures, and other affiliates. This work is intended purely for entertainment and nonprofit purposes, and no copy right infringement is intended.
The Legacy of Callisto Part Four
Round Perdition's Flames
'This misfortune you find is of your own manufacture.
Keep hold of what you have, it will harm no other,
for hatred comes home to the hand that chose it.'
The Death of King Arthur:
A New Verse Translation
'I see fire,
Prologue: Styx and Stones
Such was the stench of the river, one could smell it before one ever saw it. Even Zeus, King of the Gods and lord upon high of Mt Olympus itself, was forced to crinkle his nose as he proceeded carefully through the drifting banks of mist that surrounded him. Pausing for a moment, he hitched his brilliant scarlet and gold robes slightly, then continued to pick his way forward over the uneven, rocky ground, all the while treading carefully with his sandaled feet to avoid the various small pitfalls and ridges that could easily result in his most distinguished presence taking a most undistinguished spill.
All about him the mists curled, thick, featureless, and completely impenetrable to his gaze. The further he went, the more he could feel the changes taking place deep in the core of him, his guts lurching and churning in the same way they did for a man in freefall. But Zeus was not falling. He was transitioning, moving between worlds, and the feeling in his stomach was one of dimensions shifting and reality thinning as he drew ever closer to the barrier that separated the world of the living from the realms of the dead.
It would be all too easy for even a god to become lost in the miasma, doomed to wander for all eternity in the never ending twilight of this place where the power of one's will was the only real protection, and where even those strong in such could still lose themselves, their sense of self draining away, drip by precious drip, until it was lost entirely. It was a terrible fate to contemplate, especially for a creature of almost complete ego like an Olympian, but for Zeus, the smell of the river was enough to hold onto and to have guide him through the transfer.
Somewhere out in the mist, he spied darkness gathering. He paused once more, eyeing the mist suspiciously from beneath heavy silver brows. There were worse things than entropy lurking out there in the nothing, and where the barrier had once held them well at bay, trapped between worlds like worms crawling between rock and dirt, its recent weakening had emboldened them.
Energy crackled around Zeus' fingers, sparking and hissing as it leaped from one fingertip to the next in small, stinging arcs. The light of it pushed the gathering shadows back into the mist and Zeus gave a nod of satisfaction, the static nimbus all about him dying with a quiet sizzle before he turned and started on his way once more.
Normally he would not have risked himself this way, traveling between worlds in the manner of a common mortal when he could have just as easily willed himself from one to the other in the blink of an eye. To do such placed pressure on the barrier however, and considering how dire the situation in Hades' Underworld had grown of late, a little extra caution was worth the inconvenience.
Beneath him, he felt a rumble run through the ground causing the stone to groan under the strain. It was an all too familiar event this rumbling, albeit one he had not realised was already stretching out this far. The fact that it was actually reaching him even in this strange limbo space was more alarming than he cared to admit, so without any further delay, he hitched his robes still higher and quickened his pace. The ground began to curve upward in a shallow ridge line, and as he crested it, the mist fell away almost completely, as if it had never even been. Glancing back over his shoulder, Zeus had to suppress an involuntary shiver. The mist hung eerily behind him, cut off at the crest of the ridge in an unnatural sheer line, as if it were pressed up against some invisible force that prevented it from rolling down the slope. Within it he could spy the shadows once again, creeping and crawling as they feasted on the remnants of his passing and the echoes of sensation he had left behind.
Taking a deep breath and turning back, he was equally disturbed – if not even more so – by the sight in front of him. He was standing in a vast cavern, a dark ceiling of natural stone overhead barely visible in the gloom of the place, and up ahead it did actually disappear from sight, arcing up and up and up until it was lost in the darkness. The smell he had noted was all the more pungent here, and peering down the slope he could easily spy the source of it. At the bottom of the slope, and across a short plain of hardened volcanic rock, there was the wide and festering river Styx. So wide was it that it almost appeared to be an ocean rather than a river, with its opposite bank only just visible to the naked eye, and that was thanks mainly to a series of torches that had been lit on a distant dock.
That distant dock's twin was close at hand. A long pier – made of a hardwood that Zeus could never remember as not having appeared rotten – jutted out into the waters for a good fifty metres or more, and all around it stood the spirits of the dead. There were literally hundreds, if not even thousands of them hemming in on all sides of it, while scores more hovered in great milling crowds along the banks of the river. Zeus frowned. Why were there so many? He had made this trip before on occasion, the last time being when he had seen Callisto's spirit back to the world of the living several months before, and in on all those occasions, he could not remember there ever being more than a single trip's worth of the dead awaiting passage.
Raising his gaze back to the Styx, he could just make out a single boat, manned by a lone figure, hunched and hooded, and poling his way in toward the dock. Charon. Right on schedule too. The crotchety boatman whose job it was to carry the dead from one side of the Styx to the other was so dependable you could have told time by him, had time itself not been a meaningless concept within Hades' domain. If that were truly so however, then why was it that that the irascible boatman seemed so overworked today? Zeus had a feeling he knew the answer, but it would not hurt find out from the horse's mouth.
Starting down the slope, the crowd seemed to instinctively part for him as he approached. Zeus paid them little mind as he passed, other than to note that toward the rear of the crowd, most appeared confused, not yet truly comprehending the reality of their situation, while the closer to the river he came, the more that sense of dawning realisation and horror began to creep over them. By the time he reached the dock itself, and with Charon's boat now in full view, those closest to the water's edge were becoming more and more agitated. Not a one of them would set foot out onto the pier.
There were only two people out on the dock, both of them with their backs' turned as Zeus approached. One was tall, clad all in black with a sword at his hip and thick, dark hair that hung to his shoulders. His jaw was the shape of an anvil and he had shoulders that would make a herd of bison envious. Beside him, the other individual was smaller in stature, but still solidly muscled. A woman, she was dressed in golden leather armour with a sectioned skirt, a flared full glove on one hand, and a three fingered archers glove on the other. Despite her archer's gear, there was no sign of a bow anywhere about her. Her hair was tied in a loose ponytail, and held out of her face by a leather band around her forehead dyed the same shade of gold as her armour.
Neither of the two had turned to face him, but Zeus could feel that they were aware of him regardless.
"You're late," the dark man said.
"Or you're early," Zeus replied, stepping up beside them as Charon's boat made its final approach to the dock. "Which one is true? Who's really to say?"
Ares just grunted in response. He had been particularly sour of late.
"I think what Ares is trying to say is that we've been waiting for quite some time," the woman standing between them said.
Zeus gave her sideways look. Artemis was one of the most even tempered of his children, which was to say she did not immediately resort to patricide or backstabbing when another member of the pantheon offended her.
"Good," he said, looking back to Ares. "He could stand to learn a little patience. We all could. Eternity is on our side after all."
Ares turned and fixed him with a baleful glare and was opening his mouth to speak when a wet and gurgling cough echoed up politely from the water's edge.
"'Scuse me," Charon said as all eyes turned to him, "but am I interruptin' somethin'?"
The creaky old boatman was standing at the prow of his ferry, the pole he used for pushing his boat across the Styx upright in the water with him propped up nonchalantly against it.
"Not at all," Zeus said, shooting Ares a sideways glance. "We were just discussing the exact nature of punctuality."
Charon cocked an eyebrow at them, then straightened before stepping up onto the dock with a tired grunt.
"And the judgment was?" he prompted, settling his moldering black robes about himself.
"That time is a fluid thing," Artemis said lightly, ever the peacemaker as she stepped between Ares and Zeus. "And that its passage is a matter of perspective. Isn't that right father?"
Zeus gave her a half smile.
"It is indeed," he said.
Charon eyed them both then gave an impatient grunt.
"Well, I perceive that my time's bein' wasted then," he said. "In case you hadn't noticed, I've got quite the back log to get through milling about over there, and there ain't nothin' I hate worse than a late finish to a long day."
Ares gave the ferryman a disdainful look.
"There are no days down here," he said.
Charon fixed him with long suffering stare.
"Try pullin' double duty across this river after one of those little spats you enjoy starting so much leaves the bodies piled high, War God, and then try tellin' me there's no such thing as hard day's work down here."
Ares groaned, not wanting to get drawn into a grouching match with the crotchety old boatman.
"Can we just get this over with?" he said, turning back to Zeus. "Did Hades send him to fetch us or not?"
"He did indeed," Charon answered before Zeus could speak. "Told me to take time out of my busy schedule to ferry a couple of Olympians across to him. Was hardly expectin' the great God of War himself to come slummin' it this way though. If I'd know I'd have brought out my special boat. The one with the velvet cushions and chilled wine straight from the barrel."
His voice practically oozed sarcasm, as he flashed Ares a sly, yellow toothed grin. Ares just rolled his eyes in response.
"Orders is orders though," Charon continued, "and Hades wants you all brought before him toot sweet. So if you could just hurry along and hop aboard; the sooner I've got you across, the sooner I can get back to my real business."
He nodded again, this time in the direction of the crowds of people milling at the edge of the dock as Zeus, Ares and Artemis stepped past him onto the boat.
"You folks just wait right there!" the boatman called out to the crowd. "I'll be back for some of you in two shakes of Cerberus' tale. And don't go wanderin' off now, y'hear! You wouldn't want to be getting' youselves lost on this side o'the river. Not if you value your immortal souls that is..."
At that last part, the crowd of the dead huddled closer together, their eyes darting left and right warily, as if something were about to reach out of the ever present gloom and snatch them away.
"Was it really necessary to scare them all like that?" Artemis asked as Charon joined them on the boat, hefting his pole again and starting them out over the river.
"Maybe not," he said. "But there's an inventory and checklist that needs followin'. Can't be havin' them wanderin' off and gettin' 'emselves lost now can we. Them's that do that won't get themselves an afterlife after all."
Artemis frowned and glanced back over her shoulder as the boat drifted away from the dock.
"Why are there so many of them anyway?" she asked. "I admit I don't come this way that often, but I don't ever remember it being quite so crowded before."
Zeus listened intently. He already knew the answer of course, but he was interested to hear what Charon made of it all. Most of the other gods dismissed the haggard boatman, thinking him uncouth, unkempt, and not terribly bright. Zeus knew otherwise however. Charon was much sharper than most gave him credit for.
"It's crowded for the same reason that you're ridin' in this boat with me," Charon said, glancing at her slyly. "Too much pressure on the barrier from your side these days. It's weakenin' 'cause of it, 'n things you'd all rather not let loose on this side are pushin' back too. 'S the reason that the river here's so shallow."
Both Ares and Artemis glanced over the side of the boat, studying the Styx intently for the first time. Charon was right of course. His pole did not even sink up to a third of its length into the turgid sludge that passed for the river. If one had been of a mind to, and could abide the stench of it, they would have quite easily been able to wade across.
"Been a lot of death in the world recently," Charon continued, "A lot of souls tryin' to cross over. Can't let 'em all do it at once. Not 'n keep the barrier standing, so me and Hades came up with a plan. Decided it was best to ship 'em over piecemeal, a bit at a time."
"But that can't last," Ares said, nodding back toward the bank. "The bank's too narrow. Sooner or later, they'll be forced into the river on foot to cross it, and then the barrier will fall."
Charon just shrugged as he continued his poling.
"I never said it was a good plan," he said. "But then I leave that kind of thinkin' to greater minds than mine."
He gave Zeus a pointed look that the King of the Gods pretended not to notice.
For a while there was silence, the only sound the wet splish-splosh of Charon's pole rising and falling as the boat slid across the surface of the Styx. When they were only a hundred metres or so from the opposite shore, Ares straightened, stepping up behind Charon at the boat's prow and peering out into the darkness toward the horizon. A warm glow had appeared there.
"Is that..." he began, and Charon nodded.
"Tartarus," he said, his voice low and hushed. "The fissures are spreadin' out further every day. They'll be at the river soon."
"And what happens when they reach it?" Artemis asked.
"You'd all know better 'n me," Charon replied. "It's your grandpappy causin' it after all."
By the time they reached the opposite shore, not only had warm orange glow grown and deepened, but thick pillars of acrid black smoke had also become visible against the darkness, billowing up out of the fissures of Tartarus and disappearing into gloom overhead. The boat glided quietly in alongside a second dock, this one made of slightly sturdier wood than the one they had just come from. Charon hopped up onto the dock with surprising agility for one so seemingly decrepit. In a single movement, he laid his pole to one side, and began to tie the boat off to a pair of mooring cleats mounted along the dock.
"Well, this is your stop," he said as the gods stepped up out of the ferry. "I hate to run, but you saw what I'm up to my neck in today, and quite frankly haulin' you folks over was the one thing I'd rather not have had to waste time on, so if you'll excuse me..."
Ares just ignored the boatman, but both Zeus and Artemis gave him a polite nod. Charon gave a final grunt in return before stepping back down, untying the moorings, and pushing his way back out onto the Styx again. It did not take long before his own efforts and the river's current had carried him well clear of the dock, humming a gruff and tuneless melody as he left the gods standing alone at the gateway to the Underworld.
"So now what?" Ares demanded irritably. "We just sit here while the world to comes crashing down around us?"
"We wait," he replied as patiently as he could manage. "Your uncle is far too experienced a host to leave us unattended for long. There's no need for haste."
"Is that supposed to be a joke?" Ares snarled as he turned back to glare at Zeus. He waved his hand in the direction of the pillars of smoke rising from various points across the horizon. "You think we have time to waste? Look how far this has gone! Cronus is almost free, and still you're ordering us to sit and do nothing!?"
"Not nothing," Zeus replied with a shake of his head. "We're here after all aren't we? Ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with Hades, and face to face with my dear father should the worst come to the worst."
Ares threw up his hands in frustration.
"I give up!" he groaned and shot Artemis a look. "You talk to him. He might see sense if it's coming from you."
Artemis glanced between the two of them as if trying to judge who she should side with, before finally turning her gaze to Zeus.
"Please father," she said in that diplomatic way she had. "You have to admit that this has now gone further than even you ever suspected it would."
Zeus turned his attention back to Artemis.
"Am I really that transparent?" he said. "How do you know that all that has happened so far hasn't been part of my plan from the beginning?"
"Because you're here with us, and not safe up on Olympus," Artemis reasoned. "If you had nothing to fear, why even entertain our concerns? You never have before."
Zeus gave her a warm paternal smile.
"You see Ares," he said without looking at his son. "Look how far a little empathy and insight can take you. You're quite right, Artemis my dear. This has gone further than I thought it would. But at this late stage, I fail to see what else we can do but stay the course."
"The course that you set us on!" Ares bit back sharply. "I warned you father. I told you-"
"Told me what?" Zeus interrupted, turning a hard glare back at Ares, his eyes suddenly grey like an ocean storm. "That I was wrong? Mistaken in judgment perhaps? Forgive me if I chose not to listen. After all, there's seldom a day that goes by where I'm not questioned in some form or other by each and every one of the pantheon. I've learned to make my peace with it. What I cannot abide however, is meddling."
"Not this again!" Ares folded his huge arms tightly across his chest. "I've had no contact with Callisto since your last scolding. Everything that's happened since then has been entirely of her own doing."
"Has it really?" Zeus said, shifting his gaze back to Artemis once more.
It took Ares only a moment to realise what his father was driving at.
"Are you saying..."
"... That I wasn't talking about you?" Zeus said, not taking his eyes from Artemis. "Quite so."
For her part, Artemis did not bow or scrape under their combined attention. Instead, she simply crossed her own arms and stared back at them both defiantly. In that moment, the brother-sister resemblance between she and Ares was almost uncanny.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she said firmly.
"Oh, I think that you do," Zeus replied, his voice hardening. "If I recall correctly, I ordered no interference, so perhaps you could explain to me my dear, how it is a lowly handmaiden of Delphi has been having visions of possible futures involving a certain blonde warrior woman?"
"How should I know?" Artemis said, her voice as flat and hard as Zeus had ever heard it. Even as one of the more sensitive of his children, she could still show her steel when the moment required it. "Delphi is Apollo's city. It is no concern of mine. Perhaps you should try asking him."
"Daughter," Zeus sighed tiredly, "I love you dearly, but subterfuge was never your strong suit. If it were Apollo sending the visions then it would be his chosen Oracle receiving them."
"And even if it were true," Artemis answered, "and I was sending messages to this handmaiden you're talking about, what of it? I wouldn't be showing her anything that wasn't true."
"But perhaps only a version of that truth," Zeus replied with a groan, scrubbing his hand across his face in exhausted vexation. "You know that, despite what the Fates like to claim, the future is not always certain."
"They deserve a warning-" Artemis began to protest.
"But not one that will drive a wedge between them!" Zeus snapped, his voice suddenly fierce. "What you have shown the girl will only sew discord and strife between Callisto and those around her. You could not have botched this more if you'd tried, and the less said about your deplorable sense of timing the better!"
"I was just trying-" Artemis tried again to speak.
"Well stop!" Zeus barked. "Both of you! Your feeble attempts at aid have done nothing but the opposite! Were Callisto any less resilient, she would have been dead a dozen times over already, and I did not go to the trouble of returning her soul, kicking and screaming, to the world of the living, only to watch you both turn around and chuck her back on the funeral pyre before she's even taken two steps!"
For a moment, both Ares and Artemis stood silently, exchanging looks while Zeus fumed between them. Finally it was Ares who spoke first.
"Is that what this is about?" he said.
"What what is about?" Zeus sneered.
"Her," Ares hissed. "Callisto."
Zeus gave a derisive snort.
"Don't be ridiculous."
"He's not being ridiculous though is he?" Artemis cut in. "You may fashion yourself the imperious, hard hearted King of all Olympus father, but the truth is you have a sentimental streak a mile wide. Hercules alone is proof of that."
"You're saying that you think I've lost perspective?"
"I'm saying you seem a little preoccupied with Callisto's fate, yes."
"She is our champion-" Zeus began, but this time it was Ares' turn to cut in.
"She's one woman," he said. "The fate of the world is worth more than her salvation. Or even her life."
"Would you be saying the same if it was Xena's head I'd placed on the chopping block?" Zeus retorted.
Ares did not reply.
"I thought so," Zeus sneered derisively. "Callisto may be expendable, but that is not the same as disposable, and she is not finished yet. When I deem that she is, I will be the one to toss her into Tartarus myself, and neither of you are to even think about doing so in the meantime, understood?"
Artemis and Ares glanced at one another, then nodded.
"Good!" Zeus barked. "And now that that's settled-"
"Excuse me," came a tremulous voice behind him.
Zeus frowned. There were few on Olympus who would dare to interrupt him when he was in one of his rages. The fact that someone down here of all places had worked up the courage to do so made him more curious than angry.
Brows still knotted together, he turned to see a young woman clad in a simple white chiton that hung down to the ground. Her hands were clasped together nervously in front of her, and her head was likewise bowed toward the ground. She had strawberry blonde hair, verging on red, and her build was slim but solid.
"Yes?" Zeus said. "What do you want?"
"My apologies for interrupting o' mighty Zeus," the young woman replied. "My name is Eve, and my Lord Hades bid me bring you all to him."
"He can't even be bothered to come and meet us himself?" Ares sneered. "Uncle's hospitality certainly has hit the skids recently."
Zeus shot Ares a warning glance.
"And we would be happy to accept his most gracious invitation," he said as politely as he could manage, turning back to face the nervous young woman. "Please, show us the way."
The girl gulped and nodded, setting off up the trail and motioning for them to follow her. The ground sloped upward beneath them, leading them away from the river and up onto the stone plateau that formed the base of vast cavern that formed Hades' Underwold. The cavern itself was so massive, Zeus was not even sure it had an ending. It stretched out in every direction, seemingly forever, and he supposed that on any given day it may do just that if that was what Hades wished of it. This was his brother's domain when all was said and done after all.
As they emerged onto the plateau proper however, it became increasingly apparent that Hades' control over his realm was no longer as absolute as it once might have been. The many fissures in the ground that glowed hotly with the fires of Tartarus had once been so distant from the Styx that you would have had to travel for many hours on foot to reach them. Now they were less than a mile from its banks, crisscrossing this way and that as they belched smoke and flame into the darkness.
Zeus stopped when he realised Artemis was no longer with them. Turning, he saw her standing several yards back down the trail they were following, her eyes wide as she stared out over the desolation before her.
"I didn't realise..." she began as Zeus approached her. "I didn't know..." She turned to look at him, and for the first time he saw true fear in her eyes as the reality of what was happening began to sink in. "How did it come to this? How did we let it get this far?"
"Naval gazing," Zeus said flatly. "Pure and simple. We were so wrapped up in our own petty squabbles, we forgot one of our greatest responsibilities. We may say that it was Callisto who started this when she killed Strife, but how did we ever allow her to even be in a position to do so? It was our own hubris led us to this point, and so here we find ourselves, ironically having to trust in out little scapegoat to be the one to fix it."
"And you really believe she's capable of that?"
"What other choice do we have?" Zeus said. "Our own carelessness and complacency has tied our hands. We cannot interfere for fear of undoing ourselves in the process."
Artemis sighed and started walking again, Zeus falling into step alongside her.
"Do you know the most frustrating part?" she said.
Zeus shook his head.
"It's that I'm supposed to be a God," Artemis said. "Creation itself is supposed to bow to my every whim. Yet here I stand, completely powerless in the face of something that, for the first time, seems so far beyond me."
A carriage was waiting for them a short distance ahead, a door in its side already standing open, as Eve stood beside it. Ares was already inside, waiting less than patiently and shooting them irritated glances as he did so.
Zeus gave Artemis a small smile.
"Humility is the proper response," he said. "Would that all my children were capable of it, but then, I suppose you all have too much of myself and my father in you. Still, you are not completely powerless. That is why we are here after all. To lend Hades what help we may, and to buy more time for those we've charged with our defence."
"I just wish I could have the same faith in Callisto that you do," Artemis said as she reached the carriage and began to climb aboard.
"Better that you don't," Zeus replied, waiting as she boarded the carriage and then following her up. "A trust betrayed can be a very difficult thing to live with after all."
The journey to Hades' fortress was passed mostly in silence with the three of them gazing out of the windows of the carriage at the spreading fissures of Tartarus. They were like fingers in a flood, Zeus thought, grasping and clawing for purchase on something that would keep them afloat. The Styx was that purchase he realised, and the worlds of the living and the dead would tremble when they found it.
Before long, Hades' fortress loomed out of the darkness, It's massive walls and ramparts spreading up one of the cavern's walls like a series of great tiered steps used by giants. It was a monument to the character of its lord, grim, stark, and austere.
The carriage pulled up at its base, Eve – who had ridden up front beside another of Hades' honoured dead attendants – hopped down first, opening the door for them and showing them inside. The Fortress itself was almost as grim and gloomy inside as it was out, and Zeus found himself more than a little alarmed. Severe though he was, Hades took great pride in being a considerate and respectful host to those deserving of it, tending carefully to his home and making sure that it was always kept in the best of repair. His standards had let slide recently however. There was a chill in the air, and corridors normally well lit by smokeless torches now stood dark and foreboding, shadows haunting them in a manner that reminded Zeus of the those he had encountered across the Styx. These were mere shades, with none of the malevolence or intent of those others, but the association was still disconcerting to him.
Up and up they went, winding their way through innumerable corridors, junctions and antechambers, climbing winding stair cases and occasionally crossing ramparts until eventually they stood outside a pair of great stone doors. They were plain and undecorated, great slabs of grey granite that would have taken five men apiece to haul open. Now, one of them stood ajar, and it was here that Eve left them.
"My Lord awaits your pleasure," she said, gesturing to gap, wide enough for them to pass through in single file.
"You've done him credit," Zeus said, nodding to her as he stepped past and through the doors into the room beyond. Behind him followed Ares, paying the girl no mind at all while behind him, Artemis gave the girl a warm maternal smile. She was an unfortunate soul to have perished so young, and despite Hades' generosity in taking her into his home, Zeus still pitied her all that she had lost.
He had no more time to concern himself with her however. He was standing now in a great circular pit of solid obsidian. At the edges of the pit above, he could see a series of stone benches circling high and sheer into the darkness, an infinite number of them seemingly crammed into a finite space in such a way that for a mortal to look upon them would induce vertigo. This was Hades' audience chamber, where the spirits of the dead could stand before him and address whatever issues they wished. Zeus himself had been here many times, and though its layout was simple, the scale of the place never ceased to impress. He had to hand it to his brother; no one did it monolithic better.
Despite the size of the chamber in which they found themselves, it was the relatively small throne at the centre of the pit that now held their attention.
Or more specifically, the figure occupying it.
Hades was slumped upon the throne. He looked the worst Zeus thought he had ever seen him. His eyes were closed, his breathing shallow. His already pale skin looked clammy and stretched and his whole appearance was overall gaunt and malnourished. The sight of him in such a state was alarming even to Zeus.
Artemis had to stifle a gasp when she saw him, and was across the chamber in an instant, kneeling at his side and placing a comforting hand on his wrist, while pressing the other to his forehead. Zeus and Ares followed more cautiously, Ares in particular hanging back slightly as if he expected some terrible enemy to spring fully formed from his uncle's chest. Considering the reason for Hades' current state, the war god's wariness might not be entirely unwarranted.
"Uncle?" Artemis said gently. "Uncle, can you hear me?"
Hades' eyes fluttered weakly open as Artemis knelt beside him. For a moment he seemed confused, as if he were not sure where he was, then he caught sight of Zeus approaching, and his eyes slid sideways to find Artemis alongside him.
"Your concern is touching," he said with a long suffering groan, "but do please stop your ministrations. They will do little to no good at this stage."
Suddenly his breath seized in his chest and his brow furrowed as the chamber trembled beneath their feet. After a moment, the trembling passed and Hades' expression became slightly less pained.
"Sorry about that," he said as his eyes regained their focus. "My concentration slipped. It's been a while since I had visitors, and attempting to hold the Underworld together can be quite taxing."
"How bad has it gotten?" Ares said from behind Zeus.
"Bad," Hades replied, staring accusingly at Zeus and barely even furnishing Ares with a glance. "Cronus is growing stronger with every passing day. He pushes and I push back, but each time I am forced to give a little more ground; to retreat that little bit more."
"Maybe we still have time," Artemis interjected. "There are the others to call upon. We could go to them father; tell them what is happening. Cronus might be strong, but he is only one Titan. United we could surely overpower him before he can break through the barrier."
Zeus was about to answer, but Hades beat him to it.
"It's to late for that now," he said. "The barrier is so threadbare now I can barely hold it together as is. In it's weakened state, the power needed by us to hold back Cronus would rip the barrier asunder just as easily as he himself will given time. And that's without even beginning to think about his cult of Followers or that crazed Spartan army he has doing his bidding back in the world of the living. It won't be long now before the pressure on both sides is too much. The barrier being breached and him escaping is, I'm sorry to say, all but inevitable at this point."
Ares and Artemis exchanged worried glances and Zeus sighed.
"It's almost a relief to that at least your pessimism is as healthy and vibrant as ever," he said. Hades just shrugged in response.
"I'm merely being honest," he said. "There's little point in lying at this juncture."
A dark sneer crept across Ares' face.
"You're saying we should just give up then? Accept defeat?"
Zeus shook his head.
"Absolutely not," he said. "There's still hope, slim though it may be."
At that, Hades took Artemis' hand from his forehead and brushed aside the hand holding his wrist before straightening in his seat. Even such little effort seemed to consume almost all his strength, and for a moment Zeus almost thought he might actually collapse back into the seat again. His brother was more resilient than that however, and once the moment's weakness had passed, a little of that ice cold fire returned to his Hades' gaze.
"You're talking about that little blonde champion of yours aren't you?" he sneered sourly. "Don't think I don't know what's been going in on the world of the living brother. I'm not so preoccupied down here that I can't keep one eye on that viper you set loose. I see she's recovered now by the way."
"Indeed she has," he said, "and surely that is an encouraging sign, no?"
Hades snorted in disgust.
"Hardly," he said. "She and those with her are drawing this Spartan army after them. Delphi will come under attack soon, and when it does..."
"We're all well aware of the consequences should that happen," Zeus jumped in before Hades could continue his usual doomsaying.
"Are you?" Hades hissed, arching an eyebrow at the King of the Gods. "Are you really? Because it appears to me that for all your talk, you're still sitting on your hands with your eyes and ears closed, hoping against hope that everything will all turn out well!"
He turned his attention to Artemis.
"Delphi is your brother's city isn't it?" he said, and Artemis nodded. "Then he's spoken to you about why it's such a special place?"
Artemis nodded again.
"The Naval of Gaia," she said. "Delphi is built right atop the focal point for all creation."
"And also the point where the barrier between worlds is at its thinnest," Hades added. "If your dear grandfather is to return, it will be there that he does so." He turned his attention back to Zeus.
"You know the stakes here," he said, more seriously now. "Cronus is growing too strong. I don't know how much longer I can hold him, but it would be safe to measure it in days rather than weeks at this point. We cannot place all our hope on Callisto. A battle at Delphi-"
Hades was suddenly cut short when another tremor rumbled through the fortress beneath them. Zeus watched with narrowed eyes as his brother's knuckles whitened on the arms of his seat, the thin line of his mouth drawing even thinner as he strained in invisible contest against some unseen force.
Taking a deep breath, Zeus reached out with his senses, touching gingerly at the very fabric of the reality that surrounded them. It felt ancient and primordial, of a manufacture both older than they and at the same time, utterly beyond them. Over the top he could feel Hades' own twists to the fabric, each one knitting it into the Underworld that lay outside the fortress.
Reaching beyond, he brushed gently against the barrier that lay at the very edges of existence. It was thin and threadbare here, stretched taught as Hades worked furiously to try and keep it from ripping open. Something was pushing at it from their side. It was invisible to him, and yet he knew it was there all the same, straining to pierce the barrier and escape to the other side; the realms of the living.
For a moment he did not engage, instead choosing to observe as it worked against Hades' efforts to contain it. Slowly it seemed to weaken, and Zeus felt Hades begin to withdraw, leaving the barrier untended for a moment. Then, unexpectedly, the force hurled itself forward, hammering into the barrier with such fury, Zeus was not sure it would withstand the assault. He was dimly aware of the fortress shaking around him, but paid it little mind as Hades' own consciousness threw itself back into the fray. Zeus wasted no more time, reaching out with his own strength, ready to match it against their enemy from the other side. He reached out and tried to cast the attacking power back with a disdainful wave of his hand.
It was like trying to flick a mountainside.
Gritting his teeth and pushing with all his might, he could barely hold the counter force in check, and back at his side he could feel Hades beginning to flag. The barrier bulged, threatening and obscene, and a voice sounded clear and loud inside his mind. It spoke with the rumbling presence of one who had strode the world when it was young and untamed, before mountains and oceans and when all had been fire and fury.
"My son," it announced, seething with bile and hatred. "How very long it has been."
"Father," Zeus answered, doing his best to hide the strain in his voice. "I would agree that it has been a long time, only I don't think its been near enough."
The unseen force, Cronus, laughed darkly at him from across the barrier.
"How droll," the ancient Titan said, its voice carrying no amusement whatsoever. "At the very least your wits remain sharp. Age it would seem, has dulled everything else. You have become slow and fat my son, too secure and indolent in your supremacy. If the same is true of the rest of this vile spawn that dare to call themselves gods, I am ashamed to even think of them as my kin. I will take great pleasure in crushing each and every one of them come the day of my Return."
"That day will never come," Zeus hissed at him. "We have defeated you before. We will do so again."
Cronus heaved against the barrier once more and Zeus could feel Hades struggling to contain him.
"You think you can stop me?" Cronus sneered sarcastically. "Your barrier weakens 'King of the Gods', and we both know what my freedom would mean for all the vaunted strength of the Olympians."
"This is pointless father," Zeus said. "You were destroyed, utterly and completely. What remains of your corpse is petrified, now nothing more than stones on a hillside. Even if you break free, there is nowhere for you to go, no way to focus your spirit. You would come apart as surely as dust on the wind..."
Cronus' ugly laughter cut him short.
"I still have my will, my son, and where there is a will there is also a way, so ready yourself; you and all your kind. You think yourself the undisputed lords of eternity? That crown was mine once, and soon it will be so again..." As he spoke, the Titan's voice began to fade, drifting back into the depths of the Underworld, and Zeus began to breathe a sigh of relief.
Suddenly Cronus surged back as he had before, battering against the barrier with all his might. Hades and Zeus together strained and struggled, but even with their combined might, they could not push him back.
"YOUR POWER IS DONE!" Cronus's voice was a roar so loud it shook the earth. "YOUR PRISON CANNOT HOLD ME, AND BARRIER CANNOT STOP ME! COME THE DAY OF MY RETURN, YOU WILL ALL DIE, AND AFTER THAT, THESE LONG CENTURIES OF SUFFERING I HAVE BEEN FORCED TO ENDURE WILL BE AS NOTHING COMPARED TO THE TORTURES I WILL PREPARE FOR YOU AND ALL YOUR WRETCHED SPAWN!"
Zeus did not have the energy to reply. He and Hades both were at their limit as Cronus heaved at the barrier and he was dimly aware that his corporeal form had begun to sweat profusely. Then suddenly, it was no longer just he and Hades. Two more presences joined the contest of wills, one dark and filled with an insatiable hunger for the dark side of human nature. The other was still more primal, reveling in the thrill of the hunt and the pure, unmatched adrenaline of the chase. He recognised them both immediately. Ares and Artemis had joined the struggle.
As they lent their strength to the fight, Cronus' own grip began to relent, and slowly but surely he was driven back. Then, finally, as he began to retreat, Artemis' essence surged forward as if to try and land some kind of finishing strike. The dead Titan's counter stroke was terrible to behold. It struck Artemis dead centre, a focused torrent of pure malice that flung her back as if she were a ragdoll. In the corporeal realm, Zeus was dimly aware of Artemis' body being sent hurtling backward to crash heavily into one of the walls of the pit. For a moment he felt a rush of concern at the edges of his consciousness as she slumped limply to the ground, but he could not afford the lapse in concentration it would cause him to entertain it. Cronus was finally surrendering to them, his presence disappearing back into the realm of Tartarus from which it had risen.
"Soon my son," his voice sounded, now little more than a whisper once again. "Very very soon."
Zeus and Ares both sagged where they stood as there senses returned their focus to the material realm once more. Hades was slumped in his chair, his head lolling sideways in unconsciousness, his chest barely moving.
"Check on him," Zeus pointed. Ares did not so much as shoot him a poisonous look. Instead he simply nodded and turned to hurry to his uncle's side. They both knew that the time for arguments had passed.
Hades dealt with, Zeus turned and made his way quickly to Artemis' side. She was lying in a crumpled heap on the ground, eyes closed and completely motionless. As he reached her, he hitched his robes and dropped to one knee, suddenly feeling the age that each millennium of life had awarded him. Reaching out, he placed a hand tenderly on her shoulder and rolled her onto her back, focusing what little of his strength he could spare to drag her back from the brink. For a while there was nothing, and Zeus felt a pang in his stomach. Then Artemis groaned and the pang dissipated in an instant to be replaced by a rushing tidal wave of relief. The goddess' eyes fluttered weakly open, taking a moment to focus on Zeus' relieved smile.
"We beat him then?" she croaked weakly, and Zeus nodded.
"He's been driven back..." he said, the relief he was feeling slowly being consumed by a mounting sense of foreboding. "...for now at least."
Artemis had to swallow before she could speak again.
"He was..." she began, as a pained expression began to pass across her face. "...Oh father... I didn't know... He was so much more than I had expected. It was like... like staring into the depths of creation itself."
"My father was only one generation removed from that moment," he said. "And among all the Titans, his wrath was the most feared. He may not have been the strongest of them, but he had the most guile and cunning."
"Then how did you manage to defeat him?" Artemis asked, her strength returning fast enough that she could now push herself to be seated upright.
Zeus sighed and brushed off his knees, then straightened and offered her his hand.
"Not with the ease the stories make out," he said.
Artemis took his outstretched hand gratefully, heaving herself up to standing, only to have to balance herself against him when her knees trembled beneath her.
"It was a long, hard fought war that one, even with the likes of Prometheus on our side," Zeus continued as they made their way back across the chamber, Artemis' every step slow and pained. "In the end though, we were young and hungry, and they were old and tired, and so it was that Cronus was defeated, his material form shattered and petrified, and his spirit consigned to the deepest depths of Tartarus that Hades could conjure."
"And now it's the other way around isn't it?" Artemis said at his side. "Now we're the one's who're old and tired, and he's had centuries to plan his revenge."
"And hasn't he just done a bang up job of it too?" Ares sneered sarcastically at them as they approached, his usual temperament beginning to reassert itself now that their immediate crisis was dealt with.
Finally having the chance to look his son over, Zeus was surprised to see him looking so much the worse for wear. There were dark circles beneath the war god's eyes and his skin had taken on a slightly sallow tint while his hair hung limp and sweat soaked about his shoulders. Like his father, he had obviously attempted to pass some of his strength to Hades in an attempt to stir his uncle back to consciousness. Unlike Artemis though, Hades remained insensate.
"Is he alright?" Zeus asked, ignoring Ares' sarcasm.
"Does he look alright?" Ares replied, glancing down at the god of the Underworld. A small shudder ran through him. "Is this the fate that's waiting for the rest of us too?"
Hades' dried lips cracked open and he let out a parched groan, causing Zeus and Artemis both to hurry to his side as best they could manage.
"Hades?" Zeus asked leaning in close. "Hades my brother. Can you hear me?"
Hades' nod was barely perceptible. Ares let out a sigh of relief.
"So now what?" he said. "Are we really just going to sit here and hope Callisto of all people will be the one to save us?"
"Ares, my boy," Zeus said. "For a god, you show remarkably little faith. You've never trusted in me before, so I don't expect you to start now, but believe me when I say, Callisto will not fail. Of this I have absolutely no doubt.
Ares only rolled his eyes, while between them Hades opened his mouth and croaked something unintelligible.
"I'm sorry?" Zeus said, his brow knotted with concern as he leaned in closer. "Say that again. I couldn't catch it."
Hades groaned again and finally succeeded in cracking one eye open to regard Zeus balefully.
"I said..." he managed to murmur, "...that you and your blonde fetish will be the death of me."
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I'm baaaaaack! This is it. The kick off to the big finale for the main Cronus stories that began with Part 2. Like all of these stories so far, I imagine that this one is going to take quite a bit of time, and run very long indeed, but I've come too far with these things to stop now. This one's just my now tradtional 'Zeus-and-his-conspirators-foreshadow-the-plot' prologue for now, but hopefully I'll be back before too long with more updates and chapters containing everyone's favourite psycho barbie. Anyway, hope you all enjoy it, and I look forward to seeing if I can really pull this all together and make a finale worthy of the attention of you guys.
Have fun and see you all again soon!