(Note: Chapter 23 edited on 7/18/13 for continuity.)
Well, friends, this is it! I began work on this story when I was 15, and I'm about to turn 28 next month. Needless to say, I haven't been very consistent when it came to this story, but your lovely reviews prompted me to finish it at last. And honestly, the idea of it coming to an end made me sadder than I thought it would. I'm debating a sequel. Drop me a line and let me know what you think.
Thanks to everyone who has read and especially reviewed this story. You've made me feel like a real author!
Zeus stepped into the wane light of the torches, and three sets of eyes found him. It was Hades, a Shade, and the lovely Persephone. Hades said something inaudible, and the Shade scampered away, disappearing into the darkness of the palace.
"Hello, brother." He said.
Behind him, Demeter gasped.
"Persephone!" She cried.
The new Queen of the Underworld's mouth fell open. Demeter pushed past him and Persephone stepped forward. Demeter scooped her into an embrace, suddenly weeping and shaking visibly.
"Daughter, daughter!" She said, before Persephone pushed her away.
"Mother, stop!" She cried, her face flushed, eyes narrowed. For a moment, Zeus could see a little of his own wrath in her. He felt a flash of pride. When he'd last laid eyes on her, she'd been a wisp of a girl, a child, not concerned with much of anything. In a very short time, she'd managed to become a formidable woman.
"What are you thinking? How could you? Look at what you've done!" Persephone's arm shot out, and her finger pointed toward the heaving sea of Shades.
Demeter's face fell, and looked truly contrite for the first time. She followed her daughter's gaze, then turned back toward Hades. Her face hardened again.
"I didn't start this, Persephone. He did!"
Persephone's eyes widened in anger and she opened her mouth to object, but Hades put a hand on her arm.
"I understand your anger, Demeter." He said calmly, his tone patient and consolatory. "But you don't have a complete understanding of the situation."
"I understand all I have to, Rich One. Men are all the same. You saw a beautiful young girl and..."
"For pity's sake, Demeter, the Fates had decreed that Persephone would die." Zeus said, finally getting her attention. She turned to him, mouth agape.
"You heard me. She had no place in the pantheon, no niche. By marrying Hades, she assured her position amongst us."
Demeter's mouth opened and closed a few times, but no words emerged.
"She...she is my daughter! That is her niche."
"The Fates apparently didn't agree with that assessment. I agree that abducting Persephone was coarse, and a frightening experience for her, but I could see no other way. I pledge to you on my honor that that was the only ill treatment she's suffered in my realm."
Persephone spoke. "It's true, mother. Hades has been kind to me. I've come to love him."
Demeter looked lost.
"You married him, daughter? Truly?" She said.
Persephone held up her left hand. A long, thin scar crossed her palm.
"I'm sworn to him and his realm." She said, gently. Zeus could see pity on her young face, now. She was capable both of wrath and sympathy-good traits in a ruler.
"Do you wish to stay in the Underworld, or to return to the Upperworld with your mother, Persephone?" Zeus said, though he already knew what the answer would be.
Persephone sighed, looking pained.
"I love you, mother, and I always will. But this is my place, now. I want to stay with my husband."
There was a beat of silence.
"Well, there you have it. They're pledged to one another. Now say your goodbyes and put everything right in the Upperworld." Zeus said impatiently.
But Demeter wasn't finished. She turned back to him.
"Persephone is too young to know her own mind. And the rites of the Underworld are not our laws. We are Olympians."
Now Hades' eyes narrowed.
"I am also an Olympian, Demeter. And the Underworld is my realm."
Demeter did not flinch from the intensity of his stare. "You may be an Olympian, but you are still under Zeus' rule. And Zeus will have no followers soon if you do not relinquish Persephone."
There was another, longer moment of silence, until a small, unfamiliar voice called out from the shadows.
"No! Don't let them take her, Lord Hades!" The voice called out, and the little Shade girl he'd seen before dashed out from the shadows.
Zeus noted that the girl was shivering visibly, rigid with fear, coming out of the shadows to stand two steps behind Hades. Her eyes darted from his face, to Demeter's, then over Hermes'.
"This is ridiculous." Hermes intoned, rolling his eyes. The girl scowled at him.
"Who is this mortal who would interrupt a discussion between the gods?" Zeus said, but not unkindly. He was more amused than angry.
Abruptly, the girl seemed to have realized what she had done. She had no need for breath, obviously, but still she gasped. Persephone took her hand and pulled her forward.
"This is Danea- my handmaiden, and friend." Persephone said, turning to her. "Speak if you wish to, Danea, don't be afraid."
The girl took several shuddering breaths, then finally turned to Demeter.
"My lady, please believe me when I say that I know your pain. I have no daughter, but I am a daughter who has been separated from her mother for..." She swallowed, and Zeus saw spectral tears welling up in her eyes.
"...For so long. First by death, then by my own transgressions against the gods. I would do anything to see her again. But I beg you- don't take Persephone from us. The Underworld needs her."
"Do you enjoy making people miserable, Hades?" Demeter said. "Release both this girl and my Persephone and let's be done with this infernal debating."
"No. No! You don't understand!" Danea said before Hades could respond. "It is Zeus' law that the damned can never dwell in Elysium. Hades brought me here to spare me from Tartarus."
"Bending my rules, are you, brother?" He said wryly to Hades, who had put a hand on the frightened girl's shoulder.
"Yes, and I don't apologize for it. A just ruler understands compromise." Hades said quietly.
Zeus sighed. "Indeed he does."
He turned to Demeter. "Your daughter is pledged to Hades and he wishes her stay by his side. But she is your daughter, and you wish her to return with you. Persephone will spend half the year as Queen of the Underworld, and the other half with her mother, on Earth. Will that satisfy your wrath, Demeter?"
To his surprise, tears welled up in Demeter's eyes.
"I will remove my wrath from the Earth while she is with me, but without her...When she goes, I will make no promises."
Zeus considered. "Mortals are adaptable. In time they will learn to predict the coming of cold weather, and prepare for it. And when Persephone is above-ground, the Earth will bloom again."
"How can you be a part of this, brother?" Hades said quietly, taking one confrontational step forward, a dangerous gleam in his eyes. For a moment Zeus remembered the old Hades- the one who had once fought Cronus and the Hundred-Handed. "How can you betray me? I've never interfered in your affairs with women. Why separate me from my Queen?"
"I'm sorry, brother. It is not within my power to call off Demeter's curse. Remember that she, too, is an Olympian."
Hades turned away for a moment, looking pensively into the endless sea of Shades advancing across Asphodel.
"Please end it, Demeter." He said finally, sounding tired.
"Not until my daughter is gone from this place." She said, quietly.
Persephone didn't speak, but Zeus could see her chest rising and falling rapidly. He noted pridefully that she kept her face carefully impassive. She knew his word was law and would not stoop to undignified displays of unhappiness.
"In that case, I will have no need of a handmaiden. Send Danea back to her own mother in Elysium while I am with mine. She dwells here in Asphodel, but that doesn't mean she can't visit another realm."
Zeus laughed. "So crafty, my daughter! Another thing you inherited from me! Fine, so it's settled."
The Shade girl was silent, but tears were streaming down her face. Hades had his arms crossed over his chest. His face was expressionless, but Zeus could see tension in his jaw, the set of his shoulders.
"Give us a moment, brother." Hades said quietly.
Zeus nodded. He was not, whatever others thought, without compassion.
"We'll meet you at Charon's pier." He said.
Persephone bid a tearful goodbye to Danea, then went back to her quarters- she'd never even had time to move her belongings into her bedchambers. Hades accompanied, of course, and when they were finally alone in her rooms, swept her up into his arms.
"But I promised that I would never leave you." She said into his chest, allowing her tears to fall at last.
"You won't. My heart goes with you."
"I can't understand how my mother could be so callous." She said, putting her hand on his cold cheek.
"She wants you by her side. I can't say I blame her." He said, taking her hand in his. She felt something cold and hard in her palm.
It was a key, iron, ornate, adorned with a single piece of red amber. Though not particularly versed in the ways of the arcane arts, Persephone could feel the magic running off of it. It almost seemed to shiver in her hand.
"What is this?" She said.
"I made it for you. Last night, after-" He smiled sadly. "-after you were asleep. It's a key to any entrance or realm of the Underworld. If you need me or the powers of the Underworld, just find a gate."
Persephone kissed him fiercely, trying to seal every detail of the moment inside her memory, like the ants frozen in her amber necklace-his cool lips, the stubble on his cheeks, faint scent of sandalwood and cyprus in his hair.
"I don't want..." She was weeping, but she didn't care. "I don't want to go. I can't. I've only just..."
He put a finger over her lips, and when she looked up she saw that there were tears in his eyes.
"See the sun for me, my love. Run in the forest in summertime and think of me. Lay in the meadow on warm nights and remember. Nothing would make me happier than to know that you are experiencing the joy of the Upperworld...for both of us."
"I will." She said, her cheek against his chest, her tears wetting his tunic. "I swear it."
They emerged from her chambers at last. Persephone had washed her face and combed her hair, determined to leave the Underworld with the comportment of a Queen. She walked on Hades' arm back to the banks of the Styx, where the other gods were waiting.
"I'll come for you when the moon cycles six times and is full again." Hades said.
"I'll be waiting." She said.
Charon had arrived, his boat silently gliding to a halt on the shore behind them.
"May we barter passage, boatman?" Zeus said.
Danea walked down the tunnel at first, weaving her way between the slower moving Shades, but when she saw the entrance- a bright spot in the distance, barely visible, she began to run.
She ran and ran, the wan glow in the distance becoming a bright summer day, seeming to hang suspended in darkness. Tears coursed down her face as she ran. The King and Queen had saved her, freed her. She hated to see Persephone go, but knew that they would meet again. She could be with her friend again in six months' time.
She felt a fierce joy like she'd never felt, and it kept her legs pumping, her eyes on the gateway.
Then, suddenly, she was running through the grass, wind whipping past her face, the smell of saltwater in the air. The sun warmed her skin, the sound of the waves on the shore and wheeling seagulls overhead sounded like a blessing. She looked behind her- back toward the Underworld- but she saw only the green-grey sea, stretching out forever.
In time the Underworld returned to normal. The flow of Shades tapered off until it was merely a trickle. Hades sat upon his black throne and judged the deeds and misdeeds of the dead. After the day's work was done he sat alone in his bedchambers, by the fire. He had started two new scrolls, one for Persephone, daughter of Demeter and Zeus, Queen of the Underworld- and another for them both.
He wrote of his abduction of her, their wedding, her defiant foray into Tartarus, their reunion, and finally, her departure. He deliberately left the scroll half empty- after all, their story was far from over.
He climbed into an empty bed, but her dressing gown still hung from the arm of his chair by the fire. Her comb was on the table. Her scent was still in the bed-linens.
He extinguished the candle, looking up into the darkness above, alone. But when he slept, he dreamt of a warm, still night in the meadow, under the stars.