The door groaned open and Hermes walked cautiously into the great hall. He dropped to one knee before he dared to look up at them. How much had Persephone told Hades about their encounter at the river?
"Rise," Aidoneus rumbled.
Hades and Persephone Chthonios, rulers of the Underworld, sat beside each other on their thrones. His was a solid mass of ebony, worn and polished by the aeons. Hers was of equal height to his, wrought from bright iron into a delicate pattern of twisting asphodel. There was no space between the thrones. Their fingers were intertwined and Hermes watched as Hades' thumb slowly brushed over his wife's. A silent wave of momentary distress crossed her face before she resumed a regal emotionless cold, echoing that of her dread husband.
A chill made its way up Hermes' spine. His position before the rulers of the Underworld and what he had been commanded to do came into sharp relief. Even Zeus kept Hera's throne on a lower dais than his own, and would never take an audience holding his wife's hand. He was well aware that they had consummated their union; that much had been etched in his mind forever, to their collective and eternal chagrin. But Demeter was wrong; they were all wrong. Persephone truly loved him; Aidoneus truly loved her. And Hermes' assignment was to part them forever.
Trying not to think about how these words might be his last before Hades threw him into Tartarus, he opened his satchel. The golden vellum scroll shook in his hands as he unrolled it. His mouth was bone dry. Like Tantalus, he thought darkly, cursing his own imagination.
What Aidoneus will do pales in comparison to what Zeus will do to you if you don't deliver this. He shivered again. Probably send me to Tartarus. His mind was made up. If he was to be damned either way, then so be it. Hermes stood tall once more. He was the Messenger: the voice of his father, the King of the Gods. Or so he kept trying to convince himself.
He took a deep breath as he unfurled the scroll. "B-by the holy order of Zeus Pater Aegiduchos Cronides, King of Olympus and of the Gods," he swallowed hard, "the marriage of Hades Aidoneus Chthonios, firstborn son of Cronus, Lord of the Underworld, and Persephone, daughter of Demeter, Maid— Lady of the Flowers is hereby annulled. The histories shall hereafter state that Persephone tempted the Lord of the Underworld by picking a flower sacred to his realm in order to draw him up from the depths. Hades then abducted Persephone from her garden in Nysa by force, committing rapine against her, and dragged her unwillingly to the Underworld to force her into unlawful marriage. Any titles bestowed upon Persephone by Hades are hereby rescinded and any issue from their union will be considered—"
The parchment burst into flames, swirling embers turning to ash between Hermes' singed hands and vanishing before Hades' outstretched curling fist. The Messenger gasped and stumbled backwards as the Lord of the Underworld closed on him. Hermes didn't see Hades' hands wrap around his throat; he only felt his voice, his breath, cutting off. The dark god stared down at him, gritting his teeth, his eyes lit with fires of murderous rage as his fingers tightened around the young god's neck. Hermes tugged and clawed fruitlessly at Hades' grip, his gold petasos clattering to the ground. His knees buckled underneath him, and his senses began to fail him. As if from a great distance, he heard Hades' wife call out.
Hades released Hermes and watched the Messenger crumple onto the marble floor at his feet. As Hermes coughed and sucked in rasping breaths, Aidoneus bellowed at him. "You dare to abduct my queen from the shores of Styx, you insult us both, and then you announce that the oldest oath your king ever made is now broken?!" Hades kicked the crumpled god's petasos clear onto the terrace outside. "That he plans to end my marriage and steal my wife?!"
Hermes held up his hand, trying to shield himself from Hades' wrath, his breathing still labored. "I'm only the Messenger…"
"You are a coward hiding behind Zeus' skirts!" He picked Hermes up by the front of his tunic, shaking his limp form. "Answer for what you have said to me in my own halls!"
"Please, Aidon…" Persephone said quietly, taking a step toward him. Hades looked over his shoulder at her and paused, collecting himself, then dropped Hermes and retreated a step back.
"You are no longer welcome here, Hermes Psychopompos," Aidoneus said with a growl as he turned back toward the dais. "Do not ever come to the shores of the Styx again."
"You need me now more than ever," he said as he coughed, slowly getting to his knees. "The dead are too numerous for Charon's boat. The unquiet souls will wander back into the world of the living and sap what's left of its vitality even faster. They must be returned here, and who else will do it but me?"
"That is not my concern," he said quietly.
"The borders between the realms are collapsing! If you do nothing, every man, woman and child will die, Hades!"
"I said that's not my concern!" Aidoneus shouted. He sat back down on his throne, motioning for his wife to sit with him. He narrowed his eyes at the boyish god before him. "Strange that the rest of the immortals care so much for them now, when century after century it fell to me to clean up the messes you made with your petty wars, your pestilence, your famine and floods! Need I remind you how aeons ago your king left only two mortals alive when he flooded all of Hellas?"
"This is diff—"
"How?!" He slammed his fist on the arm of his throne. "How is this different?!"
"Because this isn't Attica or Crete or even just Hellas. Humans are dying everywhere."
"Mortals begin their slow march to my realm from the minute they draw their first breath! Some arrive faster than others."
"Please, Hades… You must return Persephone to Demeter—"
"I must do nothing!"
"Hades, I'm begging you. Our worlds are intertwined. Have you not noticed that souls are no longer drinking from the Lethe and leaving your realm to be reborn? That mortals are openly crossing back and forth as if no border existed? Don't think we haven't noticed that Sisyphus of Ephyra—"
"Sisyphus is mine to deal with, and I assure you my justice will be hard and swift," he growled.
"You'll never get the chance to exact it, Aidoneus!" Hermes said. "The world is ending. Because you insist on keeping her the world is ending!"
"Hasn't your king taken enough from me already?!" He leaned forward and gripped the arms of his throne, his knuckles turning white. "That scroll you delivered was a declaration of war!"
"Aidon, my beloved, no—" Persephone said, her voice low. She placed a hand on his. He turned to her and caught it in his grasp.
"What choice are they giving me?" he pleaded, wide eyed. "What choice do I have?! You heard what he said!"
"Reason with your husband, madam. The world cannot survive—"
"You will be silent, Hermes!" she said, her voice ringing through the hall. She turned back to Aidon and stroked his cheek. "My love, think about what you're saying."
"I have, sweet one," he rumbled. "I've thought about this from the moment Charon ferried me across the river all those thousands of years ago." He turned to address Hermes. "If it were not for me, if it were not for every moment I spent planning, fighting, killing in the Titanomachy, they would all be in Tartarus right now! I won that war for them and this is the thanks I get?! Is it not enough that I was forced to be the warden of Tartarus, night and day, for all eternity?!"
"If it were not for my own accursed suggestion to divide the lots, I would be sitting Olympus right now, ruling over all by birthright, instead of being discarded down here! I should have trusted my instincts and never left the rulership of the cosmos to that bloviating, philandering fool!"
She turned to him, shocked. "Aidon, what are you saying?"
"That I should have done this aeons ago, and now is the time to correct my mistake! They are weak. Look at them cower before us even now," Hades said, pointing dismissively at Hermes. "Every moment that Demeter starves the earth only enriches our kingdom and weakens theirs."
Persephone watched the rims of his irises begin to glow with the fires of the Phlegethon. She shook her head gently, considering her next words carefully, and spoke to him where Hermes could not hear them. I cannot support you in this. Aidoneus, please. Tartarus is reaching through you. Cronus—
This has nothing to do with my father! He turned away from her frightened gaze. He has no power over me.
But these are not your words, she said. They sound like his!
Can't you see what is happening?! His eyes returned to dark brown and grew wide, his panic palpable. They are separating us forever! Their oaths, their laws, now mean nothing and they are making you and I and every mortal on earth victims of their capriciousness! They care nothing for us, and nothing for them! He gripped her hand in his. "Allow me to put end their foolishness," he said aloud.
"These are not your words," she repeated.
"I am the eldest of my generation and you of yours. You and I are the rulers of the cosmos by birthright! It is time for us to embrace our fate, my love. Please; I need you." He knelt forward from his chair, and fell to his knees in front of her throne. Aidoneus took her hands in his.
She looked down at him, mapping the fear and desperation on his face, her heart beating out of her chest. Persephone considered acquiescing— considered telling him to unleash the Erinyes, the Keres, the Tribe of the Oneiroi, the Hundred Handed Ones, all their innumerable allies and go to war. Then she remembered what she had seen in Tartarus. The throne. The fall. The rising embers. Destruction. Rape. Death.
Aidoneus squeezed her hands, drawing her attention back from those frightful visions. "The Olympians have never taken responsibility the way that you and I would— look how they wantonly destroy the very threads of existence itself! You know in your heart that we can rule more justly than they ever did. Say the word, Persephone, and we will cast down these oath breakers. I will exalt you as queen of heaven, the earth and the seas, of everything above and below. You and I will reign over the cosmos and restore order and honor and justice."
Persephone shook her head in horror. "Absolute power drove your father to madness, Aidoneus. Just as it did to your grandfather. It will do the same to you— and to me. And to any immortal. We are the rulers beneath the earth, and only there. And the earth above is dying! Chthonia's borders are weakened, and we must tend to our own realm."
"They're not as weak as you think," he muttered, out of earshot of Hermes. "And neither are we."
"You saw what happened when they tried to take Sisyphus to the Pit. Nothing is safe anymore, my love. You know what he showed us! Cronus and the rest of the Titans will break free if this disaster continues. They will kill everything. Destroy everything; destroy us! He is influencing you even now—"
"Please, Persephone," he supplicated. "My wife, my queen, I am begging you to join me! They'll take you away from me forever if you don't!"
He was right. She would never see him again. He would never hold her, they would never wake up in the grove as they had this morning, and he would never be able to whisper to her again that he loved her. But if she supported him, they would witness the end of all things. The unthinkable would happen. They, the deathless ones, would die.
"Aidon," she said, and squeezed his hand. "Husband. You once told me that you've loved me forever; that you would love me until the stars were shaken out of the sky."
He squeezed his eyes shut to keep the welling tears from streaming down his face. Persephone brushed her hand along his cheek, and he shivered. "Persephone… please," he whispered.
"Are you ready for that? Do you really want that so soon?"
"No!" He looked up at her again. "No, sweet one, we have time. We can cast them down; you and I can save this world together—" he said, his eyes watering as his voice choked.
"Everything will end, my beloved. The heavens, the earth, you and I, everything," she said, watching Aidoneus' shoulders slump involuntarily, knowing in his heart that she was right. She ran her hand along his face, tracing his cheek as she spoke, her palm now wet with his tears. "But before it does, if you do this, Tartarus will be unleashed—"
"—and every threat Cronus made against you and me will come to pass—"
"Persephone, don't!" His voice cracked over a whisper. "Please don't…"
"No, my lord husband. You asked for my counsel. But before you ask me again to join you in declaring war on Olympus, hear this," she shuddered, then composed herself. "You and I already know the outcome. We were there; we saw it. The last thing you will see before the end of all things, the very last time we will look into each other's eyes, will be as Cronus devours my violated body."
He stared up at her. Aidoneus was motionless, his eyes staring through her, fixed and dark and distant.
"Is that what you want?"
Silence filled the room. Then Hades Aidoneus, Lord of the Underworld, crumpled forward, his forehead falling into his wife's lap. His entire body wrenched and shook, and he wrapped his arms around the small of her back. A long, tortured wail echoed through the hall, a sound she'd never heard before from him. Persephone ran her hands through his hair and huddled over him, shaking, tears pouring down. Aidoneus gasped in air around each sob. Hermes held his breath and took several steps back, the scene before him terrifying and unsettling. Hades shuddered quietly, going silent.
"I was finally happy," he whispered, his words muffled as his hands balled into fists in the skirts of her peplos. She sucked in deep breaths, trying to steady her voice and calm her heartbeat. She needed to be strong for him. Tears spilled out anyway. Persephone stroked her husband's back and hunched forward to kiss him on the back of his head. He whispered it again. "I was finally happy. Fates, for the first time in my life…"
"I will come back to you. I will find a way back to you; I promise…" she whispered against his neck. "They cannot keep us apart. I'll find a way… I love you, Aidoneus! I'll find a way, I love you… I love you…"
Hermes turned away as bile crawled up his throat, sickened at himself and his orders. He'd listened to Apollo singing about love, he'd used the word enough times to lay with nymphs and mortal women, and had even bedded the goddess of love herself. This was different.
Aidoneus wasn't his king, but he'd always deeply respected him. Having seen all that the gods did to mankind and to each other, even what he himself had done, he doubted he could say the same for many of the other immortals. Even his own father. Hermes walked out to the terrace and bent down to retrieve his hat. Hades was willing to tear down Olympus and end the world to keep her. Could he have ever said that of a woman, except when he was in the middle of seducing one? Who among the others loved their mate enough to not only stay true to them, but to wager their immortality to stay with them? Hermes looked out at the swarms of souls crowding the far shore of the Styx. He could do it, the Messenger thought with a shiver. Not easily, but he has no idea how weak we truly are right now...
He toyed in his mind with the idea of 'we' a bit longer than he should have. Hermes knew his history. Prometheus and Epimetheus, the Titan sons of Iapetos, along with Helios and Selene, Hyperion's twins, had sided with the Children of Cronus during the Titanomachy. Turning against his kin and king wasn't outside the realm of possibility. He paused, grinding his teeth, trying to picture a cosmos ruled by the austere masters of this realm. It doesn't matter, he thought. If it came to war, there would be nothing left to rule over.
"Messenger," a low voice rasped from inside the throne room, breaking him out of his grim musings. Hermes felt every hair stand on end as he turned to walk back inside. Had she relented? Had they changed their minds?
His stomach dropped, wondering what was about to be asked of him… or done to him. Charon's veiled threats on the River Styx were still fresh in Hermes' mind. He nauseously recalled his encounter with beautiful and terrifying Tisiphone, when she had wielded her scorpion-tipped scourge against a man who'd viciously murdered his own mother. He tried in vain to drown the memory of the condemned mortal's screams, and the sounds of ripping flesh that accompanied them. He had ducked quietly behind a tree to empty the contents of his stomach, the buzzing in his ears not enough to drown out Tisiphone's sultry laughter. Words like flay and burn and geld played on the edges of his mind no matter how he tried to will them away. Somehow, his knees still worked enough to take him back inside the great chamber.
Hades and Persephone Chthonios, rulers of the Underworld, sat on their thrones once more, their hands clasped tightly between them. They were as somber as they had been before Hermes delivered his message, except for the redness swelling around their eyes.
"Y-yes, Lord Hades?"
"My wife and I have made our decision," Hades said, his voice grinding hard against the lump in his throat. "Persephone is to be escorted by both you and Hecate through the passageways of the Underworld until you find your way to Eleusis. There, she will be returned to Demeter."
Hermes sighed, his shoulders dropping in relief.
Persephone looked to Aidoneus and caught his gaze, tilting her head toward him with a pregnant pause. Hermes fidgeted, wondering what her eyes were telling her husband. The Lord of the Underworld pursed his lips and turned back to him. "I also want to express my regrets for how I reacted. You are only Zeus' messenger, Hermes Psychopompos. I take back what I said earlier. You are still welcome here, and you are right— you are needed now more than ever to escort lost souls back to the Styx."
He bowed low to the ground. "I thank you for your wisdom, Good Counselor. You are a just king."
"How long?" Persephone choked out, fighting back a sob as Hermes stood up. "How long do we have?"
Hermes pinched his fingers around the bridge of his nose to rub his eyes and looked down. "Demeter demanded your immediate return. But Zeus in his enduring wisdom, thought it might… take time to persuade your husband, if I didn't find you alone— if I had to go before both of you."
Persephone looked back to her husband in distress.
"Your Excellencies," Hermes said, addressing them both, "the world will not end tonight. I must take Persephone back before first light on the Styx— sunset in the world above. That is the time all-seeing Zeus gave me to retrieve her."
"Thank you, Hermes," Aidon said quietly. "Now if you don't mind, I wish to conclude this audience so I can say goodbye to my wife in private."
"Of course, my lord. All I ask for is a place to rest."
"You are welcome here as our guest. Hecate will arrive shortly. She will show you to your quarters for the evening." Aidon was guessing at that. The departure of Persephone toward the world above would not go unnoticed by the Goddess of the Crossroads. In hindsight, her crushed demeanor this morning likely meant that she knew this would happen. Aidon didn't begrudge her silence. It would have changed nothing, and revealing her foresight would have likely made everything worse.
Aidoneus and Persephone rose. They nodded to the Messenger, who bowed low before them as they left the throne room.