He looked down into the abyss, trying to figure out what he felt. Along the rim of the vast pit, stairs spiraled down into the ebon depths. Several coliseums could have fit within that opening, with room to spare. This was Tartarus, a place of darkness even in the underworld, which in itself was a place of depression and despair. The realm of Hades was where those who wished to die came to wait until they passed on to the next realm. Hades was not a land of the dead in truth, only in metaphor. Even Tartarus was not a place of death, since most of the exiles within were of immortal origin and could not die by normal means. Yet more often than not immortal life in Tartarus meant eternal agony, and many wished for death. The prisoners could waste away from hunger and dehydration forever and never die.
He wondered whether this place, out of all the others, would hold the meaning that he had searched the realm for. His journeys, to all the extravagant homes and lands of his fellow Olympians, had shown him nothing. Their lands, his lands, and all their divine lives together were empty, devoid of meaning to him. There were none more privileged than the twelve great Olympians who ruled the Realm of Immortals and all its wonder, yet he was discontent. He couldn't quite describe it, nor would he ever attempt to. It had begun as a wriggling in his gut, and had festered within him until he could bear it no longer. His life, life itself, was pointless and inane. But he knew that he must shake that feeling, and return to the bliss he had known. He had then wandered to the homesteads of the others and beyond that, from the Pleasure Isles of Aphrodite to the Hunting Glades of Artemis, from Athena's Isle of Atlantis to Apollo's Citadel of Light and Music.
The Pleasure Isles were full of nothing but shameless indulgence of the flesh, and, though once that might have delighted him, he found no excitement there now. In Artemis' Glade he tracked down and hunted all the various animals of the woods, and found that all the elaborate honor and glory the goddess attributed to it was nothing but empty pride. Hunting was but a bloodier game of cat and mouse to him, and he could not see any glory beyond bringing home a fresh meal in it. He traveled to Atlantis to study with Athena and her warrior-scholars, but found that he did not care about such things when as an exalted god he had every inconvenience seen to by someone else. Why should he try to invent or create something when he would be one of the first to own any new convenience or creation when someone else invented it? Even grim Athena was happier in her life than he was in his.
At last, he traveled for the Citadel of Apollo, full of bright, wonderful light and the most talented of musicians and singers. In his honor, Apollo arranged an elaborate feast with a light show performed by his most prodigal magicians, accompanied by musicians and himself on his lyre. To anyone else, the show would have been dazzling, and several spectators both mortal and immortal had broken down and wept at such beauty and emotion. Yet he had felt nothing at all. The lights were nothing but illusions, and the music nothing but pretty sounds arranged in a particular order. There was nothing for him at the Citadel, and so he moved on. He journeyed through ports and cities, to homesteads of gods major and minor, to the homes and hearths of mortals even, and yet still he could not find satisfaction.
He clenched his fingers into fists so hard that his finely manicured nails bit crescents into his palm, drawing his divine blood. Here, at Tartarus, was his last hope, his last chance to bring meaning to a life he could no longer bear. The cities and ports, forests and oceans, all the places of light and happiness were devoid of joy for him; so perhaps in this place of darkness he could find contentment and satisfaction. With one more glance downward, he strode over to the stairs and began to descend. When he could no longer see the rim of the great pit, and the surface of Hades beyond it, the first fluttering of uncertainty began to beat within his chest. The air was heavy and humid to the point of suffocating, and the darkness hung like a woolen cloth over his eyes. Prison cells were set into the walls along the stairs, where the damned were sent to suffer. This was only the first level of Misery, where those within would eventually be set free after their term was up.
He paused, on the verge of turning back. He was not ready for this. But then he remembered what he had left behind, those empty, lonely days in the pitiless sun, and he realized that he had nothing to go back to. True torture was having everything one could ever want, leaving nothing to be desired. What was the point of living after that? What could one work for; aspire towards, when he wanted for nothing?
Now, he had something to work for. He would walk these stairs and descend to the bottom of Tartarus, where not even the most abhorrent of creatures were sentenced. He would descend to where none living had ever been before. If he died, if he even could die that was, then he would die doing something. So he vowed, and then continued on with his mind made up.
With grim determination, he descended, spiraling farther and farther down. Rather than get narrower, the pit seemed to get wider, as if the point at which it met the surface was but a bottleneck. After awhile, his eyes grew used to the darkness, and he was able to see more than he wanted to. The food supply he had brought ran out after the first week, when he had reached the fourth level of Misery and the agony of the prisoners had grown in volume and desperation. Here, they longed for light, they longed for life. And he began to feel it as well, that longing for the surface. He wondered if he could now appreciate what he had once had. His stomach constantly growled, and when he came across a dead animal, some poor creature that had wandered or fallen, he ate it without hesitation. Yet still he grew thin and gaunt.
His water supply ran out around the sixth level of Misery, and from that point on he drank from stagnant puddles. Here the prisoners were neither fed nor watered, yet they were immortal and could not die of such maladies. Their starvation only grew and grew. As he passed, they rattled the bars of their cells at him, and snapped their jaws. Some had once been gods, and some had always been deformed monsters. Yet all would tear him to shreds with their teeth and drink his blood like water from a flask if they could get passed the bars. Some of them even gnawed at the iron bars, either for sustenance or a chance at freedom he did not know. They howled at him, and screamed, clawing furrows in the damp, stone walls of their cells as he walked by. Whatever they had been before, they were all monsters now.
Starving and dehydrated, he still descended, now barely a skeleton with flesh. Yet he could not die of starvation or dehydration; he could only die of violence, and only by the hand of another with divine blood. As he reached the eighth level of Misery, he could walk no longer, and began to crawl along the stairs. Now, he did truly wish for the surface, and the light. Now, he appreciated the life he had once had. He wished for the Glades of Artemis, with the shadows and the sunlight and the prey, flitting through the forest. His mouth watered at the prospect. He wished for the palace of Apollo, that glorious Citadel with the music and the light shows, the beams of illumination reaching up through the night sky to touch the stars. He wished for the island of Atlantis, where Athena and her grim faced scholars studied their arts in the warm sea breeze. He wanted the Pleasure Isles of Aphrodite, and all the comforting female companionship that it offered. All the ports and cities, from the most elaborate halls to the grimiest allies, he wanted nothing more than to be on the surface, walking or riding or swimming or jumping…his skeletal frame was wracked with shudders as he curled up on the rough hewn stairs and sobbed for that which he had given up.
But when he rose to his knees to continue, he went down and not up. He had started this, and he would finish it. Amidst the jeers of the shadowy, bizarre figures that now occupied the cells around him, he continued to crawl downward. As he continued on into the ninth level of Misery, the prisoners became less and less vocal; they had long past the point of no return and many had bitten off their own tongues and begun to eat their own flesh. He saw one hollow creature tearing off pieces of his own leg.
One face peered out at him and regarded him silently. He trembled and let out a thin scream as he saw that there was no flesh on his face, he had clawed it off long ago in order to ease the pain. As he watched, the creature cracked off one of its fingers and began to gnaw feebly at the flesh, and lapped at the thin blood that coursed through the veins. He backed away from the creature's cell and crawled ever quicker down the stairs. Faster, he pawed at the stone, speeding his descent. The damned stared out at him as he flew past them, and finally he passed below to the tenth level of Misery.
There he lost his grip on one of the damp steps and fell. His skeletal body bounced and slid down the stairs, and he was too weak to stop his descent as the fall jarred and broke his body. Mercifully, he saw little of the tenth level of Misery, but what he did see as he fell strained his sanity even further. Pale, hairless faces peered out at him, often with blind eyes that had atrophied from the constant darkness. Often they were just shadows behind the bars, huddled in the corner. He was glad that he did not see much more. Then he lost consciousness as he fell from the stairs into the greater darkness, away from the stairs and into the pit of Tartarus. He was now too weak to cry out, all he could do was fall silently into the darkness.
He awoke to dim light and strange surroundings. He saw off to the right side where the stairs reached the floor, and he had not fallen too far from them. The ground was what looked like black marble, slick and shiny in the source-less light. This was the bottom of Tartarus, beyond all the levels of Misery. He pushed himself up on stick-thin arms, divine blood running from his skeletal face and the broken ends of several of his protruding ribs coming out of his torso. Yet he was not dead, and he could not die yet, not here.
To his left, where the true pit of Tartarus extended up and up, past the levels of Misery to his beloved surface, he saw yet another pit. He crawled over to the rim to look at this new marvel. He fell flat several times, wincing as his broken ribs shifted in his midsection. The marble was slippery and his hands were weak. Eventually he just pulled himself along on his bruised, empty stomach. When he reached the rim of the opening in the black marble, he gasped with his weak breath.
Unlike Tartarus, the darkness of this pit was alive. It shone and glimmered with a strange brilliance; light that was not truly light but anti-light. It moved and swirled, clashed and flowed, like an ethereal river that would put Styx to shame. Here was darkness and chaos made one, and what water was left in his body leaked through his eyes as he wept at the beauty. It had been worth it to see this, to experience what none had seen. This place was his and his alone.
He reached out a trembling hand to touch the substance, and in that instant he changed. New energy flowed through him, and he hauled himself up to a sitting position. He cupped his hands, and dipped them down into this reservoir of darkness. He brought his trembling hands up to his cracked, dry lips and drank of the substance that flowed within the pit. He put his head down to the edge and greedily lapped at the substance like an animal, feeling it wash over his face and hollow, sunken cheeks. He filled his shrunken, groaning stomach with it, and then crawled off, away from the rim to finally rest.
When he awoke, he felt the substance coursing through his veins instead of the blood that had progressively leaked from his body during his journey here. But the transformation was not complete. He felt his body healing, and growing back. His sticklike arms were growing their muscle tissue back, and his ribs had re-knitted together. For the first time since his food had run out, he did not feel hungry. His hair, which had been falling out before, was growing back thick and healthy. Energy had replaced his weakness. Yet there was one more thing that he must do.
He carefully stripped off his ragged clothes, and left them in a pile by the stairs. He walked over to the rim, feeling only a slight nagging doubt. But he must, he knew that he must, or this journey would mean nothing. He grasped the stone edge with strengthened fingers, and lowered himself into the pit, to bathe in the substance that had restored him. He immersed himself in that gleaming, ebony pool.
A million voices whispered, screamed, shouted, howled, spoke, and conversed within his mind. In that pit beneath the pit, far, far below the surface in the shrine devoted to darkness and chaos, he screamed to the air, his voice echoing hollowly up the ten levels of Misery. His breathing became rapid and shallow, and his heart began to beat irregularly. Sweat gleamed on his divine brow as he fought to suppress the voices and retain his sanity. He felt like lightning was coursing through his mind and body, as if the substance now coursing through his veins had turned to both ice and fire at the same time and now strained the membranes of his body. He felt about to implode and explode at the same time. And then it was over, and he hung limply along the edge of the pit, his fingers only barely grasping the rim and keeping him in place. The substance, light against his skin as a cool breeze, swirled around him. He heard the voices still, but they were subdued, and only a few now spoke in his mind.
He trembled with excitement, tinged only slightly by fear. He felt different now, like he had evolved past what he had been. He hesitated, and then thought a question to the voices. They stopped talking for a moment, and in that instant he realized that what he had heard before was not actually in his mind, but that by immersing himself in the substance he had inadvertently tapped into something tremendous, something beyond his comprehension. But his mind had adapted and filtered out the unnecessary voices, leaving only a manageable amount within his range of conversing. The voices were just as surprised to hear from him, as he had been to hear them.
They answered him back, and he smiled weakly. They asked him a question, and he answered, questioning them again. He didn't know how long he spent conversing with the intangible creatures in that pit, submerged within the substance that was both liquid and not liquid; that was both more and less than physical. Time made no mark upon that forgotten place far beneath Tartarus. He listened and nodded to what was said to him, and responded with his own words. The exchange was entirely psychological; he spoke not a word aloud.
When he did finally haul himself out of the pit of the ebon substance, he was ready. On the outside, he did not look much different than he had before he had begun the journey into Tartarus. His wounds had healed, his body had filled out again, and his hair had grown back. All that remained to tell of his experience was a haunted look in his eyes. The trials he went through were burned into his mind and behind his eyes; he could never forget his agony and revelations.
But on the inside he was changed, remade. He was not the god he had been; he was a new, enlightened god. He would wrest the world from the hands of the children that controlled it, and called themselves gods. He would show them what a true god was, as he was the God of the Primal Nature, darkness and chaos entwined, made as one. He was Dark Chaos, and he would bring meaning to the world above.
He donned his ragged clothing by the stairs with a majesty and sureness of motion that he had not had before, and grabbed up his empty water flasks. Smiling slightly, he walked back over to the pit, and filled his flasks with the substance. He would bring meaning to the creatures below the surface as well. He walked over to the stairs and began to ascend. He walked past where he had fallen in a graceless heap down the stairs, his painful path marked in bloodstains. He chuckled deep in his throat, and climbed on, up to the tenth level of Misery. There he stopped at the first occupied cell and peered in through the darkness.
The creature was huddled in a corner, weakly clawing at the rough, stone wall with one raised hand. Its face was hidden in the shadow. He touched the lock on the cell, although it had rusted to oblivion long ago. Those in the tenth level of Misery were too far-gone to be able to escape. The door swung open at his touch. He walked in, and the creature stopped clawing at the wall. It was spindly and inhuman, it face but a narrow triangle of gray, pebbly flesh. Its one eye shone with an unearthly luminance, and he assumed that it had clawed the other out itself in order to feed its empty stomach. In eternal darkness what use were eyes? It had abstained from the other one, though; perhaps it still had enough of a consciousness to not want to condemn itself to total blindness. It's teeth were yellow, gnarled things in grey, rotting gums. It's fingers and nails were a bloody mess, after years of clawing furrows in the walls.
As it pulled itself unsteadily to its feet, it hissed and snarled at him through its yellow fangs, he got a shock to see that it was female. He wondered who she had been before Tartarus. Had she been a nymph once, and been condemned for stealing the husband of a powerful goddess? Had she been a mortal, she would have been dead long before now, unless the ones who had thrown her down here had granted her immortality so that her agony would be eternal. It did not matter who she had been, he realized. What he saw before him was she as she was now. Her feet could not support her, and she resorted to moving along on her hands and feet like a feral animal. She moved quickly toward him and launched herself at what she saw as a hot meal after years of starvation.
But she did not complete that leap. She stopped a few feet away from where he was standing. She sensed his power, he knew. With one hand he held out one of his flasks. Hesitantly, she reached for it and shakily opened it. She tilted her wasted head back and drank. He grabbed it back after she had finished, and he closed it as she began to writhe on the floor, howling wordlessly. He realized that she had long ago eaten her own tongue. Then it was over, and she lay still. She did not look as terrible as she had before, but neither was she completely human. Her teeth were no longer fangs and her gums were healthy and pink. Her body was no longer starved and spindly, and her skin was not tinged with gray any longer. But she still had only one eye, and no tongue. Her face still had that wild, ravaged look, and her hair was a tangled, matted mess. There were scars on her body from where she had feasted on her own flesh that even the substance could not heal. She had been down her far longer than he had, and she could never be completely repaired. As he watched, she began to pull herself up.
There was nothing menacing in her nature now as she walked over to stand before him. Her movements were shaky, but also the slightest bit graceful as well, and as she stood, she bowed her head in respect to him. For the first time since he began his journey, he spoke aloud. His voice was thick and hoarse after so much time of silence. "Do you now know the meaning, the primal elements of the world now?" She nodded silently, her one eye looking up at him with awe. He smiled privately. When he spoke again, his voice was stronger and surer.
"Will you help to bring this meaning with me to the surface? Will you join my cause and overthrow the frivolous gods?" In answer, she went to her knees in subservience. "Rise, my acolyte." He walked out of the cell, and she followed quietly. They went on to the next cell, and Dark Chaos opened that one as well. That prisoner was male, and he needed a bit more persuasion before he would be peaceful. But he did drink of the substance, and Dark Chaos inducted him into his following and cause as well. As Dark Chaos rose through the levels of Misery, his following grew, until he had the beginnings of an army at his back. Almost a full year after he had begun his descent, Dark Chaos climbed the last stair with his loyal acolytes at his back, ready to bring meaning to the world.
High in the westernmost tower of the Academy of the Skies, Nocturne gazed sadly at the dagger that held the imprisoned soul of Artemis, his brow furrowed in concentration, his forehead pale in the light of the setting sun. Soon he would have to light a torch in order to continue his work, but for now his mind was too lost in the depths of the slightly rusty, dented knife sitting in the center of his study table.
It was getting late, but Nocturne neither noticed nor cared; all that existed for him at the moment was the dagger. Without moving his eyes, the teacher reached out with his right hand, grabbed the stylus he knew would be there, dipped it in the pot of ink without spilling a drop, and wrote some words on the half-filled page. Despite the fact that he was writing blindly, his words were not the least bit crooked. I'm going to free you, Artemis. Then you, me, and Sonia can go somewhere far away. Artemis had been attacked and imprisoned in the knife, Apollo and Orion were dead, Athena had flown away in her island city, and now Jove thought that Nocturne and Sonia, who had shown nothing but loyalty to him, were conspiring with the rebels and their strange god against him. The world was falling apart, this world that he had loved so much, this world that he had forsaken all others for. He and Sonia could have sailed the stars with Athena on her flying island city, but they refused to abandon the world that had been more of a home to them than the mortal world had ever been. They had refused because they believed in Jove. But now Jove's mind grew ever more fragile, as the strains of eternal life and rule began to take their toll. For a minute, Nocturne pitied the god. He had once been noble and just, a true king of gods worthy of worship, but now…it didn't bear thinking about.
Outside the Academy tower laid a city that would put Athens, one of the greatest cities of the mortal world, to shame in an instant. Elaborate statues graced the entrance to the Academy, and beyond that laid the endless districts of the City of Thunder. High domed, ivory buildings lay scattered throughout the city, with carvings and sculptures so fine mortals had been known to mistake them for actual deities. Poseidon raised his trident in front of the city's main harbor, commanding respect from the traders and sailors. Handsome, arrogant Ares stared down scornfully at the coliseum where warriors battled in his honor. Beautiful, yet also severe Athena guarded the library, making certain that the knowledge contained within was learned and honored. Brave, wild Artemis guarded the forest at the northern gate, looking down on the hunters both entering and exiting the city, blessing the noble hunters that killed for their nourishment and the nourishment of others, and condemning those that killed for glory or profit. Apollo reigned at the Zenith of Noon, an assembly area where the various politicians, both mortal and divine, debated issues and fought for the favor of the gods and citizens.
The Zenith of Noon was also a place where great concerts were held, when the population of the entire city crowded into the plaza and backed into the streets beyond in order to hear. Humble Hephaestus cast a benevolent eye over the street of smiths, blessing the mighty forges and granting strength to the arms of those who worked them. At the southern end of the city, Hera reigned over the baths were the wives went to relax and gossip. Her statue looked over the women and struck adulterous thought from the minds of their husbands. Dionysus raised a cup of wine over the Streets of Merriment, a place where both gods and mortals could share wine, talk, and laugh together. Even the most hated enemies could share wine and laughter under Dionysus' gaze. The Street of Merriment was also, notably, right next to the Street of Brothels. But even the Street of Brothels was a work of art, and was made even more magnificent so by the statue of Aphrodite that guided her women and shared in their pleasures. Men had been known to blind themselves after seeing her statue, knowing that they could never see any woman more beautiful than the Goddess of Love, and wished for her image to be the last things they saw. Aphrodite herself stayed for the most part on her Isle of Pleasures across the sea, teaching her chosen pupils in her arts.
There was a statue for every deity, but upon entering the city from any gate, day or night, all eyes were drawn immediately to the titanic statue of Jove at the precise center of the city. In the daytime, the sun shone upon the flawless marble features and gleaming, ornate bronze armor, and in the nighttime the statue was illuminated with torches all the way to the top, perched on balconies that had been built in to and around the statue. Behind Jove lay the Court of Olympus, and inside ruled the council that spoke with his voice and uttered his decrees. From the point of view of one who had just arrived to this world and viewing this wondrous city, it might seem like all was well. In reality, though, nothing could be further from the truth.
Nocturne grasped at the enchanted dagger with his mind, probing at the spell that bound the goddess. He had not yet touched the dagger physically since he had received it from the mages who had recovered it from the scene of the attack, nor had the mages. The mages, or at least the intelligent ones, never made physical contact with an item possessing an aura, and Nocturne had sensed that touching it would affect the spell in some yet undetermined way. He could sense a shape to the spell, and with every attempt he formed a better image of it. "Shape" wasn't exactly the right word, since there were so many other aspects of it as well. A spell, especially one as complex as this, was almost a living being in it's own right. It reflected the emotions and intentions of its caster, and some of Nocturne's tests had shown that it was capable of intelligent response. The spell thought, and the spell had a personality. Nocturne had to outwit it in order to break it.
Nocturne was one of the few able to "see" spells, and he was one of two able to comprehend and break the spells that were malevolent. His wife Sonia was the other, who wielded an even more powerful sorcery than he, yet hers was far more wild and unpredictable.
Nocturne thought of spells as just another type of being. Some of them, the ones that the mages conjured every day, were small, simple things, not capable of much thought or power. Perhaps with time, they might grow and become more complex, just as an infant grew to become a sentient human, but the spell could not exist in the world for long. They stayed for the length of time determined at the casting; the longer the amount of time the mage wanted the spell for, the more energy he or she had to fuel into it. This spell that bound Artemis, though, it was utterly unheard of. From what Nocturne could determine, the caster had channeled enough energy into it for it to be able to last for millennia. That alone was beyond impressive, but there was also the fact that it bound a goddess, a being previously thought too powerful to be affected by sorcery. It was all that Nocturne could to form a counter for it, and he wasn't entirely sure that it would work.
He wrote down a few more words, pieces for his own spell that would break the curse. The spell he was creating would be the perfect foil for the curse that imprisoned Artemis. Once again, he wondered who it was that had attacked Artemis. She had been a goddess, and a powerful one at that. It must have been someone she knew, someone who betrayed her and took her by surprise. If he could free her, she could tell him.
Sonia sighed as her student attempted once more to complete the equation on the abacus. "No, Homer, that's not right. I know you sleep in class, but tell me, are you awake for any of it?" This was the third week in a row that she had had to keep him after class. Homer stared at his tablet, chastened. Sonia sighed again. He might have been terrible when it came to working with the abacus, but he was a brilliant storyteller. He might be asleep when it came to other classes, but his eyes would brighten whenever they were studying poetry or epic stories. He would, in the span of half a class, produce the beginnings of a work that would rival even the greatest epics that Sonia's class studied. The headmasters themselves even took an interest in Homer's writing, and yet he was still young enough to be eagerly awaiting his first beard stubble. If he slept during his other classes, it was because he was dreaming up heroes and battles to write about, and one day he would be famous for it. But in the meantime, he still couldn't work an abacus to save his life. Sonia wondered how much it actually mattered, in Homer's case. He was a mortal, from the mortal world. The abacus didn't even exist in that world yet; the closest they had were painted boards and stones. Athena had been petitioning Jove to allow her to introduce it to the mortals, but Jove told her that they would figure it out on their own. He seemed to deny the mortals more and more these days, angry with them for some real or imagined slight. Athena, frustrated with Jove and frightened of the rising opposition to his rule, had finally left on her island for some other world, soon after the incident with Artemis. She had offered to take Sonia and her husband Nocturne, but they had decided to stay, and try to make things better. So far, they hadn't been able to.
"No, Homer, that's still not right. Those beads represent tens, not ones. And this should have one more than that…" She trailed off as a tall, arrogant, young-looking man walked in. His black beard only partially hid his cocky smile, and he flexed his arm muscles as he moved, as if the sleeveless tunic didn't show them off enough. He strode over to the table, and put his arm down on it. He looked at Homer.
"Get lost, runt," the man growled at him. Homer began to get up from his seat.
"Stay, Homer. Ares, what do you want?" He scowled suddenly, his face contracting with rage. His thick arm lashed out and grabbed her by the throat.
"How many times do I have to tell you? You are a mortal, and I am a god. You do not refer to me by my first name. You are below me, wench. You will do as I say, and give me what I—"
"I seem to remember us having this same conversation, you satyr's ass." She gripped the arm at her throat and dug her fingernails into it, drawing his immortal blood. She wrenched his arm off of her neck, and then shoved him backward with her free hand. He stumbled and fell violently into the table. When angry, Sonia was a force to be reckoned with. Even without her sorcery, she was half Ares' size and had just thrown him to the ground. Of course now that he was getting up, she would need her sorcery, which would easily send him away. Homer's abacus fell from the table and broke, the beads scattering over the hardwood floor as Ares levered himself off the table. Sonia's hand was crackling with energy. Ares lunged at her, faster than she expected. She retaliated by casting a spell which should have stopped him cold (and hung him upside down from the ceiling), but Ares barreled into her unimpeded, and pinned her easily to the floor.
"He did. Jove thought you might put up a struggle, so he gave me these." He kept her pinned to the ground with one hand, and with the other, he reached into his tunic and pulled out a string with several medallions attached. "They will negate every one of your little spells. All you have is your physical strength, and while you may possess a freakish amount of it for your size, you're nothing compared to me." The medallions were suddenly gone from Ares' grip. Homer danced away from him, holding the medallions in front of him and taunting Ares. Ares leapt off of Sonia and followed, his face darkening with fury.
"The great god Ares is so brave, he needs these amulets to protect himself from Teacher." He smiled as he danced around the infuriated god, thinking up another stinging insult. The boy was young, but he had a dirty mind. "Too bad Jove refused to give you a performance charm, you might be happier. Then maybe you wouldn't be the laughingstock of the Street of Broth—" and then Homer slipped on one of the abacus beads, and fell hard to the floor. Ares grabbed the string of medallions and quickly fastened them around his neck, before Sonia had time to get up off of the floor. The he hauled Homer off of the floor with one hand and slammed him down on the table. Homer choked and gasped for breath under Ares' huge forearm. With his other arm, he grabbed a hot poker from the fireplace next to the table, and held it over the boy's face. He twisted the boy's head toward the window, and the setting sun.
"I shall not stand to be mocked by a weak child such as yourself. You, a filthy mortal and student so stupid that you need extra lessons, do not dare to mock a god! You are not fit to look upon my face, or the face of any divine being! You see the sky and the sun, you little brat? Savor it. That's the last thing you'll ever see." Sonia gasped at his words as she struggled to rise.
"No! You leave him alone!" She came at him, but Ares calmly swatted her away and laughed. His fury was sated for the moment, replaced by his sadism. He raised the poker over Homer's head, the end glowing red as the pits of Hades. His screams rent the air, and tore at Sonia's soul. Ares finally released Homer and turned to Sonia. Homer fell to the floor, trying to feel his way to the exit of the classroom. Tears and blood ran down his face and stained the floor as he went. Ares laughed, and kicked him, hard. Sonia heard a cracking noise as several ribs broke. Homer's screams were used up; instead he uttered a hoarse gasping noise, and fell to the floor motionless. Sonia glared at Ares; her loathing for this creature had reached a new height.
"Jove will hear of this."
"Jove sent me. I did tell you that he gave me the charms, didn't I?"
"So now Jove orders you to beat women and blind little boys?"
"No, Jove simply ordered me to bring you to him. You were the one who made an issue of it." He smiled his cruel, white smile. "But no longer. You will come, or I will knock you out and carry you to Jove."
"Carry me…Jove is here? In the City?"
"Yeah, he's waiting in the Court."
"Jove sent for Nocturne too, didn't he?" Her voice had gotten low.
"He gave you charms to protect you from me, and he's here now. So he's finally decided. That bastard, he deserves to be overthrown." Without another word, Sonia walked forward, sending her shoulder hard into Ares as she walked past him. He grabbed her arm to make sure that she went where she was supposed to go. Jove was waiting.
Nocturne wrote the last few words to his counter curse in the book. It had taken a few hours and the sky outside was pitch black. At some point he must have gotten up and lit a torch, but he could not remember doing so. He checked over his words, and re-checked. It was ready, he could break Artemis' curse right now. The book trembled in his hand, and he clutched it with his other as well to steady it. He stared directly at the dagger, and cleared his throat and his mind. This would be his most impressive undertaking to date, if he succeeded.
The door to his study burst open, and a young man stumbled in, breathing heavily.
"Jove…is here. He…sent for Sonia…and you." The man gasped out. Nocturne recognized the messenger as Hermes, a younger god, yet still older than Nocturne due to his immortality. However, he was still a child at heart, and just as mischievous now as he had been as a child. He could be mature when necessary, but he generally preferred to live a child's carefree life. Now, however, his face and manner were dead serious. He knew what was going on. Nocturne had been dreading this.
"Jove is here, you say. Has Sonia been taken to him?"
"Yes." He paused. "Ares…came for her."
Nocturne swore vehemently. "Damn him. I will go."
"I wasn't sent by Jove, Nocturne, I came here to warn you. Ares brought Sonia to Jove under restraint. He sent half of the Olympian Guard to get you, but they didn't know where you were. Nocturne…Jove gave them charms."
"I figured. How else could that cowardly ass Ares overpower my wife? So Jove has decided that we're traitors, then?"
"He accuses you of conspiring with his enemies. There are mutterings of a new rebel god, and his general, a man in a bone-white mask. No one knows the identity of them, but there is no doubt that the leader at least is a god, probably Olympian. It would explain why he and his general hide their identities. Jove accuses you and Sonia of aiding him secretly, and of teaching the students to join him."
"I know of this rebel group, but I have never been in contact with them. I wonder if Jove even believes what he says. I thought he just feared our powers initially, but now…I don't know what he believes any more. Do you know anything of the Paladins?"
"They are neutral, as far as I know. They have no love for Jove since Apollo died; they hold him responsible for the death of their god. But they do not like this new leader either, and they express a loathing for the one in the mask."
Nocturne thought for a moment. This would be the end of a peaceful era, and the start of the most violent war the realm had ever seen. Yet Nocturne knew that Jove would fall, if not willingly. His mind was cracking, and both his allies and his subjects were losing faith in him. It had been something Nocturne and Sonia had tried to prevent, but for their efforts Jove had turned on them. The mortals in the other world had already begun to turn from him and the other Olympians. Things truly were falling apart. He sighed.
He only hoped that the rebels who took over for Jove were better than the one they overthrew. Nocturne didn't like the things he heard about this strange god and his masked, mystery general, but he hoped for the sakes of everyone in both worlds that they were wiser and kinder than Jove had become. He hoped so, because he and his wife wouldn't be around to stop them. He expected that he and Sonia would be dead by morning.
He heard footsteps on the stairwell outside his study. They were coming for him. Nocturne closed the book in his hands, and looked at it longingly. He turned to Hermes. "Take this to the Paladins, and tell them that it was mine. They don't know me well in person, but they know that I was a friend to Apollo and Artemis, and that Sonia and I served Athena both in the mortal world and in this world after our deaths. Tell them that in this war, there may be no lesser of two evils. I fear both the tyrant and the rebellion leader are equally as treacherous." A tear glistened at his right eye. "Sonia and I should have gone with Athena. She was right, Jove couldn't be saved." The footsteps were louder now, metal-soled boots on cold, raw stone. He handed his book to Hermes. "Hide it. There is no way for you to leave without them seeing you, so stay, and whatever they do, don't react or draw attention to yourself. You're just a student that needed help with a lesson, understand? If they don't look to closely, they won't realize that you're a god. Just wait for them to leave, and then go."
The door slammed open once more, this time admitting a far less welcome visitor, and his cronies as well. A string of medallions jingled on the tunic of the Captain of the Olympian Guard. "I am in the middle of a lesson right now, Erius, what do you want?"
Erius grinned at him, and did not look twice at Hermes who stood in a corner with his face lowered. "You know why we came. You and your traitorous wife are to be judged by the King of Gods." Nocturne noticed idly that one of Erius' teeth was rotting. He had never like the man, and even less so after he pledged his allegiance to Ares, who he revered as a glorious war god. Ares, who talked of nothing but bravery, courage, and strength, yet would always find an excuse not to back up his claims. Ares, who had once tried to rape Nocturne's wife, and afterward claimed that it was his right as a divine being.
Erius walked over to Nocturne's study table. "I'll never understand you magicians. What in Hades are you doing with that knife? Looks like its fit for the scrapheap." He moved to pick it up.
"No! Don't touch it!"
Erius glanced up sharply. "Why? Is this a secret weapon you intend to use against the King of Gods? Not that it could ever work against him, but I will find out what it is and tell him." He reached down again.
"It's cursed! Don't--" he shouted, but it was too late. Erius grabbed the dagger and trembled as if a bolt of Jove's lightning had struck him. The spell was completed now, and would be much harder to remove. He leapt up from his chair and grabbed Erius by the front of his tunic. "Damn you! I told you not to touch it!" He realized that tears were running down his face, and that Erius had stopped shaking and was staring blankly at him. "Now Artemis can't…can't be released…" Erius shoved him away, where he stumbled to the floor, weak and defeated.
"Seize him," Erius commanded the other guards. All wore the same charms that Erius did, Nocturne saw to his dismay. There was a strange look in Erius' eyes, as if he was not entirely in the room but distracted by something only he could see or hear. Erius grabbed the dagger's sheath from the table, and strapped it to his belt. A new recruit might have asked why the Captain of the Olympian Guard decided to wear a plain, rusty knife in terrible condition, but these guards had served him for years, and knew not to question him.
Nocturne felt a small stab of hope. He didn't know what would happen if someone touched the dagger, and so he hadn't touched it. But he had observed certain possibilities within the spell's structure. Maybe, just maybe, if the spell bound the dagger to the owner in a certain way, then Artemis's consciousness could affect him. With time, perhaps she could compel him to find a way to set her free. Even without him, Artemis might one day be free. It was a thought to brighten his last moments in his study as the guards dragged him to the ground floor of the tower and through the streets.
They could have taken a cart, but Jove apparently wanted the citizens to see the traitor in all his disgrace. Some of them did send hateful glares his way, but for the most part, the people seemed sympathetic to him, and cast hateful glances at the Court and it's guardian statue rather than at Nocturne. Jove had lost the love of the people, and it was only a matter of time before he fell. Nocturne hung his head as they dragged him past the statue of Jove standing with lightning bolt in hand before the Court of Olympus. When had it come to this? At what point did the glorious King of Gods become a mad tyrant?
It was with a sad, pitying expression that he looked upon Jove as the guards dropped him down beside his wife, in the bright Court of Olympus. Torches lined the great hall. The council chairs were empty, since Jove himself was here. He sat in an elaborate chair in front of the judge's box, regarding them with feverish eyes. His once handsome face was lined with strain. His eyes, far more watery then they had once been, flicked constantly around the room. Gods were not supposed to age past their prime, yet Jove looked twice the age he had been when he had defeated Cronus and broke his scythe across his knee. Nocturne thought he could see gray hairs scattered throughout Jove's golden mane.
His arms were still as muscled as they always had been, but his hands shook constantly, and his fingers moved in patterns only he understood. His feet tapped continuously against the marble floor, and his face shone slick with sweat in the torchlight. He raised a trembling arm, and the council filed in to fill the chairs behind him, the group looking as if they wanted to be anywhere but here. Apparently, Jove wanted there to be an official declaration by both him and the council that Nocturne and Sonia were traitors. They, too, looked at the pair of teachers with sympathy. The council had no choice but to condemn them, otherwise Jove would declare them traitors as well.
"You, Sonia Dream-weaver and Nocturne Word-weaver, are accused of treason, conspiracy, and murder of a divine being." Jove declared, glaring warily at them. The last accusation was unexpected.
"Murder…murder of a divine being? What do you mean, Lord Jove?" Nocturne kept his tone polite, but he had a sinking feeling he knew where this was going.
"Artemis. You and Sonia ambushed her, and trapped her in that dagger with your damned spells. Why else are you so determined to look as if you're trying to free her? She refused to betray me, and in turn you decided that she couldn't be allowed to live." Sonia sputtered.
"Never! Never would we do such a thing!"
"Who else could have done it, then? You damned magicians may not be as powerful as gods, but you are cunning and ruthless, things that as divine beings we cannot defend against without becoming afflicted by them ourselves. You are nothing but power-hungry, treacherous tricksters."
"Lord Jove, I had the counter to her curse ready right before you sent for me. I could have released her tonight!" Jove was taken aback for a moment.
"Can you do it now, then?" He spoke the words softly, his face unreadable.
"No. Your Captain of the Olympian Guard ruined my spell by making physical contact with the knife."
"You dare blame my loyal retainers for your blunders? Confess to your crimes, and I may be merciful. You will spend years in Tartarus, but I will let you live, if you confess."
Sonia spoke viciously, her patience with this now-false god run out. "I would rather die with the truth on my lips than live with the stain of a falsehood upon my face. If you are so convinced, then kill us and get it over with. End this farce, since we all know how it will end."
"No. You will have your trial, and the council will decide your innocence or guilt. My opinion will not factor into it. They and they alone will decide whether or not you have allied yourself with that mad god who calls himself Dark Chaos and hungers for my throne. They will decide based on the evidence presented by them." Nocturne highly doubted that, but he kept his mouth shut. It was no use; they were as good as dead.
The trial went on for several hours. Jove further convinced the council that Nocturne and Sonia were responsible for Artemis' curse, uprisings in some of the cities across the sea, and also claimed that some of the spells used by the rebel leader and his masked general bore a striking resemblance to ones Nocturne had been working on. He claimed that Sonia was teaching treasonous lessons to her students, and the council had no choice but to agree. One of the members, younger and more naïve, made a single argument in defense of the captive teachers. Jove only used that to claim that they had wove a spell upon the council member, and that if he could not be purged of it then he might have to be tried for treason himself. No one else spoke up in their defense, and neither Nocturne nor Sonia blamed them. Jove would claim the entire council corrupt if he had to. After all, they were there to speak his word.
It was near the exact middle of the night when the false trial finished. The vote was unanimously against them, as they knew it would be. Even the one who spoke up earlier had voted them guilty, although he did so with an apologetic look on his face. Jove stood then, and for a moment he looked just as impressive as he had once been. He drew his great sword, flashing with a brilliant gleam in the flickering torchlight. It was jagged, fashioned in the shape of a lightning bolt, and its edges were sharp and cruel.
"I, Jove, King among Gods and Men, in agreement with my appointed Council of Mortals, have heard your testimony and come to a verdict. You are found guilty of treason, conspiracy, and murder of a goddess. I hereby condemn you to die." He paused, and stared directly at them. "If it were not for your years of devoted service to Athena, your punishment would be worse. I would have you tortured in Tartarus until you were too mad with starvation to know each other's names, and then put to death. Consider this a mercy."
He walked over to Nocturne and Sonia, and past them. The guards dragged the pair after him. He stood before the wall to the left of the entrance, called the Wall of Traitors. Those accused of treason were killed upon this wall, pierced through the heart by the blade of the executioner, as decreed by Jove or his council.
"Strap them to the wall." When they were secured, Jove raised his sword one-handed, and pointed at Nocturne's chest. "I pierce your heart, as you have pierced mine with your betrayal to Gods, Mortals, and the Realm. Your treason has been a stab through my heart, far harsher than the one I deliver unto you. May you find absolution in Hades." With the formalities spoken, Jove thrust the sword through Nocturne's chest. Blood ran down his face as he tried to speak, but failed. One tear glistened at Sonia's right eye, but she blinked it back and glared at Jove.
Jove stepped in front of her, and raised his lightning sword. "I pierce your heart, as you have pierced mine," he intoned, with his eyes closed.
Sonia spat at him. "Your heart is black as the depths of Tartarus, and twice as cold."
Jove was unperturbed. "I am sorry you feel that way, Sonia. Perhaps in Hades you will realize the error of your ways."
"You are such a coward, Zeus." She emphasized the last word deliberately. Jove's face contorted in rage, and Sonia smiled at this last victory.
"Don't ever call me by that name!" He thrust his jagged blade through Sonia's heart. A stream of blood trickled down her face, but she died slower than her husband. She had always been stronger, and fiercer than her husband. "You will be overthrown, Jove. The rebels will defeat you, and you will fall." As the light began to fade from her eyes, it seemed that the sky outside grew darker. The torches in the hall dimmed, as if the night sky outside desired to smother any and all light.
After Jove dismissed the council, he stood at the largest window of his court, waiting for the sun to rise. Hours passed, but only the moon kept him company. His hands shook and his feet tapped unconsciously upon the marble floor. Finally he turned away, realizing that even the sun had betrayed him.