The Huntress (Mound of Gaia Vol. 7)

Anne Stagg
10 mins read
Published almost 2 years ago
Chapter 7


A fine mist blanketed Acheron River. The current was slow, pulling the wide-bottomed barge along at a steady pace. Water lapped at the bow, a gentle sound, small and comforting amidst the unforgiving landscape.

Chewing her thumb, Vera stared at the big-bellied clouds that sagged above them like swags of dirty cloth. The plan Hades had proposed would work. It was simple but there was no room for mistakes. One misstep would bring it all to ruin.

She growled, frustrated by the Underworld’s incessant gloom. It’s like being smothered in a filthy bed, she thought. It was summer in the Beyond, where the meadows were bright, the forests dappled with light. But past the Veil, here in the land of death, it was impossible to tell if it was day or night.

Persephone must be starved for sunlight by the time spring rolls around, Vera thought.

"She carries her own light. The palace, at least, is a much different place when she's here," Hades answered her as if she had spoken aloud.

"It's rude to listen in on someone's thoughts without permission.”

He shrugged, unapologetic. Remaining by Vera’s side, Hades clapped and Cerberus trotted over, leaving her lookout on the prow. She sat on her hindquarters, leaning against his leg, and the two watched the landscape pass in silence. The ground sloped upward from the riverbank into rolling plains. It was a wasteland, without a single tree or shrub to encumber his view.

One of his hands dropped to rest on the nearest head and Vera wondered at the bond between the two. Hades' reputation was that of a ruthless and pitiless ruler. It was unexpected to see him evince camaraderie and humor, even love. 

He might prove to be an ally, yet, Vera mused.

The rest of their party was scattered along the deck of the barge. Evander and Sam were huddled with Balanis, Hylon, and Niva talking of strategy. Zephyr, Dar, and Artemis listened like an elder war council, adding observations born from lifetimes of experience.

Ossa had scowled and fussed about the soundness of Charon's craft when she first stepped aboard. Rolling her cloak into a pillow, she had curled up on the bench beside Vera and dozed. Vera thought it was an odd choice, for her to sleep so far from her master, Zephyr, but she was glad for the opportunity to keep a close watch. Ossa was a powerful Daemon in her own right, even if she had been reduced to the role of Messenger after the rule of the Olympians ended. Crafting rumors was both an art and occupation to Ossa and Vera refused to allow her to foment chaos for her own amusement.

Charon, the ferryman, stood at the aft, one hand on the rudder. He was an apple-cheeked, round fellow, quick on his feet and affable. She wondered how many souls he had lured into paying before they reached the opposite shore by being pleasant.

Hades noticed her eyeing the Ferryman and broke the silence. "Don't worry about him, my lady. He won't ask for payment or try to catch any of you out, not with me here."

"Pardon me if I don't faint with relief from your reassurances," Vera said, laughing when thunder rolled across Hades' brow. "Don't look so affronted, you welcomed us to your kingdom by trying to trap us here."

"Would you believe that was just a force of habit?"

"If you're ever wondering why no one visits you, take a look at your hospitality. Ensnarement and eternal servitude is a bit of a turn-off."

"I've got a reputation to maintain."

Vera plucked a small stone from the deck. She rolled it in her palm until it warmed to the temperature of her skin and then dropped it over the side. The hollow plunk of it hitting the water rose up from beneath the mist, followed by a rattling that sounded like coins shaken in a cup.

“What is that?” she asked.

“The chains of those who handed their money over to Charon before they reached the shore?” Vera took a quick step backward, grimacing. “I know it seems cruel, but we must maintain order,” he added.

She considered the mist and what lay beneath it. “So we’re sailing over the souls of people who were cheated out of their eternal rest."

“Why do you think I named it the River of Pain?” Hades’ expression was open, like naming a river for the pain it caused was as artless and common as pouring a cup of coffee. Cerberus barked and he cocked an eyebrow, “My companion doesn’t like the name either,” He winked at Vera and the dog’s chins jerked up with a gentle woof as if she were agreeing with him. 

The honesty was a surprise, as was his willingness to talk. Vera didn’t want to waste the chance to learn more about the enigmatic God of the Underworld,  "It's unimaginable, losing yourself for the sake of a coin. Why let it continue, if the souls lost aren’t bound for imprisonment in Tartarus?”

“Because consequences don’t end when someone passes into my realm. Alive or dead. Those who are bound for brighter shores have to prove they’ve earned their rest.”

Vera gaped at him. “It’s a cheat.” 

Hades' laughter boomed out over the water and Cerberus panted and huffed, the wide jaws of her mouths stretched in a toothy smile. “It’s nothing of the sort. Those who fall here, make that choice knowing full well the consequence of their actions."

"What happens to those wise enough to hold on to their payment until the end of the trip? Do they get a say in where they rest?"

“No,” the finality in Hades’ voice was absolute.  “Their destination depends on the life they led. Some go to fields of Asphodel or Elysium, or one of the lands reserved for those who have wasted their life in some way. Some are fated or choose to reincarnate. Those who have earned punishment go to Tartarus.”

The name of the eternal prison dropped between them like a stone. All the living knew of that dreadful realm was that it was a place of torment. Vera shivered, “And you decide, for every soul?” 

“Just the ones born in our little corner of the Beyond.” Cerberus stomped her front feet and yipped, “Yes, of course you help. I wouldn’t have it any other way.” His attention returned to Vera, “My girl has a nose for greed and treachery.” 

Vera considered the weight of such a mantle. It was a crushing responsibility, even for a God, and it had consumed Hades since the world was new. She wondered how he hadn’t gone mad.  “Do the ones who return to the world know they’re going back before they drink from the River of Oblivion and forget?"

"Yes, of course, they do. Most of the time those who live again do so by choice. Very few are like your men. The Fates wove their threads together so that they might never be separated. They’ll reincarnate with one another until the end of time.”

Vera's eyes drifted back to Evander and Sam. Their heads were bent together, focused on a map they had spread out on the deck of the barge. The tenderness she felt poured from her, enveloping them both. Sam’s and Evander’s gazes raised at the same moment, searching her out. Closing her eyes, Vera savored the swell of affection that washed over her. 

"I can see why you are so eager to find Lethe," Hades said, interrupting the silent exchange. "If someone threatened Persephone, I would burn the worlds to keep her safe."

"I'm hoping it doesn't get that far."

Evander was lost. 

Not more than a minute ago he had been standing on the fine white sands that bordered the Elysium Fields. Kronos bellowed a greeting and Evander had whispered to Sam, He’s shorter than I imagined, why's that always the case?

Then a wretched blackness swallowed him. The world spun like he was at the center of a gale. He clamped his eyes shut and the swirling sensation abated within moments. When he forced himself to open his eyes he was alone.

Elysium had vanished.  His companions were gone.

The air was chilled and heavy with moisture. It clung to his skin and beaded in his hair. He heard the roar of water, but everything out of arms reach was concealed by darkness.

"Vera? Sam?" he called out.

"It looks like there is a bauble in my net."

Evander felt warm breath on his ear. He tried to spin around to face whoever was behind him, grasp the sword at his hip. The impulse to defend himself was there, his muscles strained to comply, but the air around him was the consistency of tar. Years of training his body to respond to threat with definitive speed became useless.

"I won't hurt you." 

He recognized the same disembodied malice that had teased him as he stood in the Pronoe River, his memory washing away in the current.

"Show yourself.” Evander’s lips and tongue were slowed by the same constraining spell and his words dissolved into a nonsensical moan.

A woman moved into his line of sight. Her wide eyes were set into a care-worn face, her skin wrinkled as an old mariner's map.  Age had not diminished her appearance. She was lovely, but the bitter twist of her sneer belied the rancor that lurked beneath her weathered beauty.

"I caught my prize in a single cast," she laughed. It was like listening to the scratch of nails against a stone. Evander's neck prickled with alarm. "Should I tell you where you are?"

The helplessness of Evander’s predicament was infuriating and he tried to howl but he could not force his mouth to obey his mind. His captor moved closer, sliding an arm around his waist. She was just tall enough to rest her head on his shoulder and he felt the cool, sweetness of her breath tickled his neck. 

She pointed a gnarled finger and the darkness receded. They were perched on an arrowhead of land where two rivers met. The land surrounding them was bare except for tufts of browned grass, rock, and broken wine casks.

"That's the Acheron,” She said pointing to a churning band of water. “And over there is my namesake, the Lethe.” Her waterway was a shallow, rocky tributary that fed into the Acheron. 

Evander worked his mouth, desperate for control of something, even if it was only his voice to demand his freedom. Lethe noticed his effort and drew her over his face. The spell that was inhibiting his movement eased around his jaw, and his speech cleared.

"Let me go."

"No. You're mine now."

She gripped his chin, turning his head first one way and then other like a horse trader inspecting a purchase. “You stink like a human.” 

“If you release me, I’ll ask Hades to be merciful."

"Hades will fall to his knees before me, they all will. You’re going to put the sword to everyone that kept you from me. Your soul is mine. It has been since you first appeared on the banks of my river.”

“I won’t.” Evander steeled his will. “You’re going to have to destroy my soul to bend it to your purpose and then you’ll have nothing.” 

Lethe snarled, baring her teeth, “Do you think you have a choice? I’m going to have you start with your pretty little witch and her mutt. ”

Lethe pulled a poplar branch out of her cloak. She shook it once and it sprung to life, the tear-drop shaped leaves shining emerald on one side and white as bone on the other. A second shake and it dripped like she had pulled it out of the river.

"Please don't do this." Evander's eyes went wide, his voice rough as he pleaded, "Don't take them from me, again.”

She held the branch above his head, the water from the River of Oblivion raining down until his begging ceased.