The Huntress (Mound of Gaia Vol. 7)

Anne Stagg
10 mins read
Published over 1 year ago
Chapter 6

Subversion

"Was the drama necessary, Uncle?” Artemis asked, shaking the sand from her hair.

"Always. Isn't that right, Cerberus, my girl?" The dog wagged her tail and all three heads barked when Hades spoke. The Huntress fixed Hades with a baleful stare and he continued,  "Don't be dull, Artemis. You know I get bored down here alone. Speaking of..." Hades clapped, the sound echoing in the space, and a handful of servants came in bearing benches.

Vera studied the hall, surprised by its emptiness. She had not expected the grandeur of Zeus’ receiving room, dripping in gold and light. Her imagination had conjured images of a hall with stern-faced carvings staring out from the corners and a colossal throne perched on a stone dais. However, the room they had been brought to was barren. There were no plinths topped with statues or painted vases. The walls were bare, without a single hanging to break the expanse of grey stone. A curl of uneasiness climbed her spine like clinging ivy, and she shuddered.

After they were seated, Hades clapped again. Another wave of servants entered carrying shallow bowls of steaming water. The scent of mint and the sugary-citrus fragrance of asphodels flooded the room and Vera’s vision began to swim. She blinked and rubbed her eyes, but the fragrance intensified as the servants drew closer and her concern drifted away. 

“It’s like being underwater or back in the womb,” she murmured, possessed by a carelessness that numbed her discomfiture.

“You honor me with your presence, my lady,” Hades said. "Please, refresh yourself." Two round-faced children stood before her, one offering a bowl for her to wash and the other holding a goblet of wine.

The boy with the wine looked no older than twelve in years, but his eyes were ancient wells of loneliness and loss. A flicker of panic guttered like fire struggling to catch on wet timber. There was something she had to remember. A warning, she thought. 

“Is something amiss, my lady?” Hades crooned and the words in her mind were eclipsed by a pleasant vacuity.

“I…don’t….” Her voice trailed off into silence like her lips and tongue had forgotten their purpose. Turning back to the boys before her, she saw their expressions no longer reflected despair, but welcome. The wine shimmered in the torchlight and her mouth watered. 

Vera stepped forward to take the cup and stumbled on a loose stone. Catching herself, her hand fell to the hilt of her sword, cold iron and bone smooth beneath her palm. She remembered Artemis’ insistence that she go into the Underworld armed with more than her magic and her wit. The flame of awareness brightened, growing and chasing away the shadows obscuring her thoughts. 

My loves. Her mind stretched out to touch Sam’s and Evander’s, but it was like clutching at smoke. Shocked, she looked for Sam and Evander, fighting against the creeping numbness that threatened to wash away her thoughts.

They were beside her, their eyes devoid of emotion. Another glance confirmed that each member of their party, Zephyr and Artemis included, were slack-jawed and lifeless. Shielded by her will to survive and protect her lovers and those who had risked everything to bring Lethe to justice, she shed the last of the shade’s stupor. Vera made a silent plea to her Matron Goddess. Great Gaia, give me strength,I’llbe damned to Tartarus before I let our journey end here.

“Drink and find your-” Hades began, imbuing his voice with power.

"Se réveiller," she exclaimed, interrupting the God’s attempt to drag her back to senselessness. Her magic speared the fog of the soporific spell. Each of her companions awoke, shaking their heads like they were waking from a dream. "Don't take a thing from these shades unless you want to be stuck down here,” she called out.

“Hades,” Ossa growled, “you're not so poor a host that you’d to entrap your guests when we've just arrived."

"Silly of me to forget such simple rules."

A flick of his hand and the servants floated up from the floor, dissolving like steam rising from the surface of cauldron.

"Spare us your platitudes," Vera said, her anger driving her forward. 

Artemis stopped her with a touch to her elbow, a reminder that they needed to exercise diplomacy, regardless of their host's behavior.

Hades snapped and a throne appeared behind him. The design was simple, curved legs and a high back of pale wood sanded until it was as smooth as milk. He sat down and Cerberus settled on the floor beside him, resting her three slender snouts on her paws.

"You'd do well to keep your pets on a short lead," he said to Artemis as if Vera and Ossa were petulant children who had spoken out of turn.

"Uncle," Artemis began, "we're here on an important errand. One of your Daemons stole water from the River of Oblivion without your leave."

Hades knocked his head against the headrest. "Let me guess? Lethe?"

“Yes,” Artemis said. She used the water to wipe the mind of the High Votaress’ Guardian Consort."

"Interesting." He considered Evander, who returned his regard. The God slipped out of his chair and knelt beside Cerberus. He whispered in one of her ears and all three of the dog's heads yipped a happy reply. She trotted over to Sam and Evander, who stood side by side, and snuffled around their feet, wagging her whip-like tail. Barking once, she returned to her master's side and looked up at him.

"Is it?" Cerberus barked again, pawing at the floor like she was putting a fine point on her assertion. "I believe you," he added, approaching Evander with slow steps.

The Guardian stilled, bearing Hades' inspection like a seasoned soldier. It was difficult to stay relaxed and his hands clenched at his sides. Pressing his chest against Evander's back he buried his nose in the crook of his neck and inhaled like he was savoring the bouquet of a delectable wine.

Don't move, Sam cautioned. He wants to see if he can get a reaction from you.

Artemis gripped Vera's arm, who ground her teeth to keep quiet and flooded the connection she shared with her lovers with calm, though her own nerves were fraying.

When Hades pulled away, the genuine warmth in his gaze transformed him. The grandeur of his bearing softened, and he abandoned his careless affectation. "Time hasn't lessened the beauty of your soul, Achilles,” he looked to Sam with an appreciative eye, “Nor has it tempered the depth of your passion, Patroclus.”

"My lord, you’ve mistaken us. I am Evander of Tharros, and this is Samson of the Kardia."

“Maybe in this life - "

"Uncle, we've urgent business to discuss," Artemis said.

“Mind your tongue and don’t rush me, child.” Hades glared at Artemis before continuing. He looked between Sam and Evander for moment. “Tell me what you know of the history of your souls?”

Vera stifled a groan. Hades’ attempt to ensnare all of them was infuriating. She held her tongue because they needed his help, but each moment lost to his antics left Lethe’s plotting unchecked. 

"They once belonged to Alexander and Hephaestion,” Sam said. “We understand that Lethe fell in love with Alexander’s soul and begged you to let him stay with her instead of reincarnating.”

Hades searched Sam’s face like he had expected him to continue, his eyes widening after a few seconds, “Oh this is delicious,” he said, looking toward Evander, and then around at the rest of the traveling companions, “None of you know whose souls these two men carry?” He asked.

Vera’s patience broke, “What does it matter? We’re here to put paid to the debt she owes for violating your laws. The more time we waste on history the longer she’s a threat.” 

Hades smirked at Vera, a tight expression that was equal parts annoyance and gloating, “It matters to Lethe, and so it should matter to you. How do you expect to understand your enemy if you know nothing of her desire?”

“Of course,” Vera bit out, conceding the point. 

“Lethe despises humans,” Hades held up a hand, asking for her patience instead of ordering it when Vera frowned. It was a rare concession from God to human that surprised Vera to silence. She offered him a curt nod in return. 

Hades continued, “Lethe thought Gaia's choice to allow a human woman to lead the Mound of Gaia was a betrayal. Do you really think Evander’s soul would have held her interest if he had just been an ambitious man in another life?”

“Are you saying Evander’s and Sam’s souls aren’t human? What else would they fucking be?” Vera demanded. 

“Your Samson’s soul is human,” Hades smiled at Evander, “But Evander’s soul was formed when Thetis, a goddess in her own right, coupled with a human King.” 

“Achilles,” Evander said, the revelation of his soul’s former lives beginning to make sense. 

“Yes. Your first life was that of Achilles and your soul is that of a demi-god,” Hades said.  

“But Achilles' soul was still half-human. Wouldn’t that have meant that have turned Lethe off?” Sam asked, struggling to understand.

“It would have, but there had been a slew of prophesies that popped up before Achilles was born.” Hades shrugged, “You know, greatest of warriors, fated to die in battle. Thetis was determined to confound every one of them and set out make Achilles invincible, which meant, among other things, relieving him of his humanity and mortality.”

“How? Vera asked.

“She slathered him in ambrosia and set him on fire to burn away his all his human vulnerabilities. Then she snuck him down here and dipped him in the River Styx just to be sure,” Hades said. 

Cerberus sat up and startled them all with a growl. Her master chuckled and scratched the ears nearest to his knee. “I know girl, but she fooled both of us. There’s no need to still be sore at her.” 

Cerberus grunted a deep woof that rumbled in her chest.

“I’m not trying to tell you how to feel,” Hades argued. “I’m just relaying a story to our guests.” 

The dog butted all three heads against Hades thigh and settled back down on the floor. “Over three thousand years ago and she’s still mad that Thetis got by her,” Hades said to the group. 

A moment of silence followed before Evander spoke, “Achilles died anyway.”

“Yup, Thetis failed. It wasn’t her fault, prophesy’s a bitch to get around. All that work made Achilles next to impossible to kill, but not immortal or inhuman.”

“So why is Lethe still pursuing him?” Vera asked.

“I suppose she thought that Thetis’ efforts made Achilles’ soul, tainted though it was, a worthy companion for one of Gaia's daughters."

"But she tried to kill me," Evander said.

“My boy, you’re past the Veil of death. Life is transient, souls are eternal. Perhaps she thought if she destroyed your memory before you died, your soul wouldn’t seek out Patroclus' when it reached the underworld.”

“So instead of choosing to reincarnate as human to be with Sam’s soul, I’d stay here with her,” Evander added.

But why? I can’t believe she’s held onto this plot for over 3,000 years because she has a crush. When was the first time she came to petition for Evander’s soul to remain in Hades.” Vera asked. 

“After Achilles' death, but before his and Patroclus’ souls decided to reincarnate together as human,” Hades answered. 

What’s the connection? Vera thought. Achilles, Alexander, Evander. All soldiers. Stunning tacticians. 

We’re missing something, Evander answered. 

Sam’s thoughts joined with Evander’s and Vera’s, What would’ve happened if she succeeded? Beside companionship what would she have to gain from having this one soul at her side?

The answer appeared like a ship materializing out of the fog. “Mother Goddess,” Vera gasped, “she wants to rule the Underworld and the Beyond.”

“Nonsense,” said Hades. “Overthrow me? She couldn’t amass enough power.”

"Maybe not by herself, but imagine what Lethe could accomplish with the soul that had fueled the most brilliant military minds in history fighting beside her. She'd be able to raise an army at a moment’s notice.” 

The silence in the hall was absolute. Lethe's ambition reached farther than any of them had imagined. It was an obscene plan meant to subvert the Fates. She risked the destruction of all to claim what she saw as her birthright.

Vera shuddered. "We need to find her. May we have your leave to search for her, end her ambitions for good?"

"Unthinkable. A minor Daemon usurping... What type of fool..." Hades stumbled over his words, anger, and frustration tying his tongue in knots, "Yes, of course. None of my subjects will interfere with you."

"Will you join us?" Vera offered him her hand and Hades took it, a feral smile blooming on his lips.