The quietness of her household should have unnerved her, but it didn’t. So engrossed in plotting her revenge, she didn’t even notice. The odd whispers caught her ear, but she ignored them. She had more important things to worry about. Whatever her servants were up to could wait.
An army was what mattered now. An army of untapped potential with unknown numbers. Soldiers who couldn’t be killed or overcome by normal methods. Even she didn’t know if anything short of a command by Hades could send them back to the Underworld. If they proved to be as successful as she hoped, she may even expand her borders past Elpis and into the world beyond. A whole world awaited and it could all be hers. Patience was the key and she had plenty of that.
What she needed now was a way into the Realm of the Undead. Every year, Hades invited all of Olympus to join him in welcoming Persephone into his home. None ever ventured down there who didn’t already belong to the dead. It wasn’t a very happy, cheery place and most of the gods and demi-gods preferred real celebration in the sunshine to a pretend homecoming in the gloom. Wasn’t it bad enough they suffered through fall and winter because of Hades’ selfishness without having him inflict further gloom on them?
Snow tended to fall earlier on Mount Olympus, heralding Demeter’s upcoming time of mourning. Judging from the change of leaves in the surrounding countryside, the homecoming celebration had come and gone several weeks ago. But, did the exact date really matter? Wouldn’t Hades be glad of any company he could get? A chance to show off his bride? Certainly he would welcome a visit from his sister without question.
An excuse would be better. Even if he was surprised by her sudden appearance, he would want to know why she was there. Eventually she would tell him the truth. But first, she needed to know where he stood. Was he loyal to Zeus or another family member? Would he be willing to give his loyalty to her?
Perhaps it would be best to pretend she was on a mission to check on Persephone. Either Zeus or Demeter asked to make sure she was being taken care of while in his domain. Zeus would be the better story. Then she could complain about how overbearing their brother was and how he hated to share his glory. Wouldn’t it be nice if just once they got a little more recognition?
Hades always craved more power. The short end of the stick had been his lot while Zeus and Poseidon got everything. This should be the easiest manipulation Hera ever pulled. At the other end of the string would be a whole army for her to control. Zeus, Elpis and the rest of the pathetic world wouldn’t know what crawled out of its grave until it was too late. For that matter, neither would Hades.
There hadn’t been time to seek out the Sister Fates before Hera appeared on Death’s doorstep. Unannounced and uninvited, she strode into Hades’ throne room, her nose wrinkling at the abysmalness of it all. On his throne, Hades coughed, drawing her attention. She quickly put her hand in front of her face, trying to hide her disgust. If she mocked her brother and his realm now, he would never hear her out. Once his army was hers to command, she could taunt him at her leisure.
“Brother! How nice it is to see you. It has been far too long since we’ve talked.”
“Hera. What an unexpected surprise. What brings you down here?”
“Zeus asked that I check on his precious princess. He worries about her when she’s down here.” Hades sat straighter in his throne. From where she stood in the middle of the room, Hera could feel the animosity radiating off the King of the Dead.
“Does he? First of all, when she is down here she is no princess. Persephone is Queen of the Underworld and all its inhabitants. Perhaps it would do well for those of you who dwell on the surface and in the clouds to remember that. Second, if my brother were so concerned, why did he not visit me himself?” This was the opening Hera was waiting for.
“You know how Zeus is as well as I. He’s always too busy to take care of things for himself, so he sends the rest of us off to do his bidding.”
“What was so much more important than taking a few minutes to visit with me and his daughter?”
“Who knows?” Hera shrugged, a smirk threatening the edges of her lips. “Most likely chasing off after some young nymph. Maybe there’s a human girl he’s taken a fancy to. In the thousands of years he’s ruled, he never has managed to keep his hands to himself.”
“I would think his infidelities would upset you, but they appear to amuse you instead.”
“Why shouldn’t they? I spent many years bitter towards his conquests, exacting my revenge on the females he chased. Nothing I did made much of a difference to him. If I turned his current one into a tree, he would chase after another. It got to be tiresome. I learned long ago to let him have his fun and I could have mine. He doesn’t know what I’m doing if his attention is diverted elsewhere.” Hera winked, a show of bringing Hades into her confidences.
“And what have you been doing while he’s been distracted?” Hera turned away, keeping her face hidden from her brother. She didn’t want him to see any lies that might be written on it.
“Not much of anything. Sadly, I’m still an errand girl for him, as you can see by my presence here.” She gestured around at the darkness.
“Not long ago I received some very interesting souls. Minotaurs and centaurs among others. It’s been a long time since any of their kind passed through my gates. I thought they died out long ago, when the world changed and our family ceased to rule among the mortals.”
“That is very interesting news, my brother. I shall have to ask about it when I return to Mount Olympus. Perhaps someone there will have answers to your mystery.”
“Perhaps, though I heard whispers that the hand that brought them into being was your own, Sister.” Hades spit out the last words, making the esses hiss.
“Where would such a rumor have come?” Blast Thanatos.
“Does it matter? It is true. I can tell by the way your shoulders pulled back. I’ve become very good at detecting liars. Also murders, thieves and various other moral blemishes. After nearly five thousand years presiding over souls, you learn things. It makes sorting them out easier.”
“Five thousand years? But we have only returned to human consciousness in the last two thousand. Before that, our rule only lasted a thousand. How is it that you claim so many more?” Hera spun around, facing Hades and no longer worried about concealing her face. True shock and surprise overtook her act of coyness. Now it was Hades’ turn to smile.
“Perhaps for you, my sweet sister, and those who rule above. Down here, things have continued on as they always have and always will. Just because mortals push you from their minds doesn’t mean their souls can forget where they must go when the body no longer wishes to continue.” Hera shivered involuntarily. Thanatos said similar words to her when they last met.
“Your realm carried on while the rest of us sat doing nothing? Until a time when the mortals would remember us and our greatness?”
“So it would seem.”
“Did nothing change for you during those years? The souls of the dead found no reprieve elsewhere?”
“The mortals changed my name, calling me by many other titles, but they all amounted to the same. My realm cannot be forgotten, no matter how the mortals may wish it to be. They may call me Satan or devil, though I am neither. Thanatos may be reimagined by them as the Grim Reaper, but he carries no scythe. Mortals cannot see us until it is their time and then there is no way for them to communicate with the living. The living believe what they want, but the dead know the truth.”
Hera felt her face heating. How could her brother keep such a thing from them? While they sat idle on top of their mountain, their power diminished and slipping further away with each passing year, Hades went on as if nothing was wrong. All this time she pretended to pity him when he was the one who held more power than any of their family. Ruling over the dead held much more power than she ever dreamed. Even if Elpis changed once more and forgot them again in favor of some other deities, death would always be a constant.
The Underworld would belong to her. Too much was at stake for her to lose it now. An army was only the teaser to the power that lay beneath the feet of mortals and gods. To never be forgotten ever again. To rule forever. These were the real treasures.
“Do you still harbor jealousy for our brothers? That they get to walk in sunlight and chose any women they want while you stay down here, a single bride by your side for only six months at a time?”
“I did for many years, but I have learned contentment. I am only forgotten by my family, but not by those who serve us. I may have only one bride, but what more could I ask for? Certainly it would please me if she were allowed to stay with me at all times, but the sun does wonders for her, bringing back a healthy glow to her cheeks that she loses during her time with me.”
“Ah, so Persephone is unhappy when she is here? I suppose I should report that to Zeus when I return.”
“You’ll do no such thing.” Persephone stepped from the shadows where she had been listening.
“Lovely Persephone. Your time down here has taught you some very unbecoming habits.”
“No more than what I learn when I walk above.”
“You have taken to your queenship well, I see. I beg you to remember when your time down here is done, so is your rule.”
“It would serve you well to remember while you visit down here, you are a guest of my husband’s, not his queen,” Persephone shot back. Hera played with a golden ring on her finger, twisting it around while Persephone took her seat next to Hades. It would end her plans if she lost her temper now. There would be time enough later to put the brat in her place.
When Persephone was seated, Hera curtseyed, inclining her head towards the girl.
“My apologies, my queen. You are quite right in your assertion. It would be the sign of a weak ruler to allow themselves to be pushed about.”
“Please rise, Sister. We have had enough of the family squabbling to last another five thousand years. It was one of the nice things about being down here. While it can be lonely, at least there was no competition.”
“A slight perk in your otherwise dull kingdom?” Hera asked, the smirk taking full control of her lips this time.
“You might say that. But this has been home for so long that it no longer seems dull.”
“And there’s nothing that would make you want what our brothers have?”
“No. Our brothers may have all the things you mentioned before, but they lack something to make them truly happy. Without having to work for what they desire, they don’t appreciate what they have. When there is nothing to compare the beauty all around them to, they take that beauty for granted.”
“But you wouldn’t. Why don’t you want a piece of that? Beauty instead of this gloom?”
“Because then I would no longer appreciate it. I have all the beauty I need here beside me. She is what makes me happy and I treasure every moment I’m allowed with her. Without the contrast and constant fear of loss, I would turn into our brothers.”
“Why would that be bad? Don’t you idolize them?”
“Once. Then my adoration found someone much worthier.”
“Then you wouldn’t consider joining with me?” Hera asked, throwing all her carefully crafted arguments out. Hades smiled and shook his head.
“No, Sister. I no longer desire what lies above me when it will eventually all come down here to me. I wish you well in your endeavors, but I will not walk beside you.”
“Very well. I shall take my leave.”
“Please don’t leave filled with anger. Stay a bit and join us for dinner. You have traveled down here, the least we can do is offer our table to you.” Hera’s eyes darted back and forth between the rulers of the dead. Was this a trick? Were they trying to keep her down here forever?
“Don’t look so alarmed, Hera. Eat only what I eat and no ill will befall you. Zeus provides us with food grown on the surface for the months I reside here. Dinner will be perfectly safe if you wish to join us.”
“Yes. I think that might be nice.”
“Wonderful. Until then, why don’t I have someone show you around. There are many things to see that you may never have the chance to see again.”
“I would like that.” Hera grinned. A chance to see what she was about to inherit from her dear brother.
“Good. Macaria, would you please escort Hera? Show her the sights of our kingdom.” A young woman materialized from the shadows. The clothing she wore was so dark she blended into the gloom, making it difficult to see her properly. When she reached Hera, the young woman pushed back the hood covering her features and Hera drew in a sharp breath. Pale and lovely, she was a younger Persephone.
“Have you had the pleasure of meeting our daughter before? Hera, this is Macaria. She assists Thanatos, bringing a peaceful end to suffering.” The girl bowed her head during her mother’s introduction.
“Pleased to meet you. I had no idea the two of you had a daughter.” This would complicate things for her. Even if she waited for Persephone to return to Demeter and got rid of Hades, there was still another claimant to the Throne of the Dead.
“Amazing the things you learn when you take the time to visit.” Persephone smiled, but Hera sensed the sarcasm behind it. Smile while you can. Soon you won’t have anything left to smile about.
“Hera will be joining us for dinner, dear one. When you have shown her everything, bring her back here and we will all eat together.”
“Yes, Father.” The girl bowed her head before walking off across the room. She stopped at the far end, turning to address Hera. “Come. Walk with me and I will show you our kingdom.”
“I look forward to the sights you have to show me. Almost as much as I anticipate our dinner together afterwards.” Hera tilted her head to each ruler and headed off after Macaria. When they were far off, Persephone voiced her concerns.
“I don’t trust her. She gave up far too easily when you turned down her offer.”
“That makes two of us who are wary. I’ve known my sister for far too long to know she’d never back down. Why she thinks I would make a good ally is a mystery. We have no army at our command.”
“She thinks she can use the dead.”
“We’ve discussed this, my love. The dead will not fight. Why should they? They are content enough.”
“Don’t let your guard down. We may not think they would make good soldiers, but I’m certain Hera thinks they would be perfect. That’s not the only thing she’s after, either. Did you notice her eyes when you informed her of your unbroken rule? Unbreakable power. She would do anything to possess such a thing.”
“Do not worry. There is nothing she can do. I made my decision regarding her offer of joining her in exchange for my brothers’ kingdoms. I meant what I said. I know you can’t be happy down here all of the time, but the time you are down here makes me very happy.”
“While I need the sun on my face to survive, I also treasure my time with you. You were right. Appreciation comes from not having. When I’m with Mother, the fresh air and sun are the most wonderful things because I don’t have them when I’m with you. Down here, you are all I need because I lack the kind of love you give me when we’re apart.”
“May we never know any different.” Hades leaned over the arm of his throne and kissed his bride.
“We have lasted for five thousand years. Our love mastered the test of time,” Persephone replied when they parted. Hades stroked her cheek and pulled her back to him, his lips pressing hard against hers. Five thousand years of this. Kissing the same woman over and over again and stroking the same soft cheek. Yet, no matter how many times he performed the same acts, they never grew old. How could they when you never knew if she would return the next time the seasons changed or if Zeus would have a sudden change of heart and allow her to stay on the surface forever?