BAD HABITS

by E. K. Zoole

Author's Note - for the May writing contest on the Forum Labyrinth, the prompt being to pick a bad habit, and let your character get in trouble for it. Another in the Tante's Mythology series, this story takes place a few weeks after Death March.

Hecate arrived at the Gates of Hell on Midwinter's Eve.

"Pack it up, Fly Boy," she called from the courtyard, her dogs bounding ahead of her. "Second shift is here!"

At first, Hermes resisted with all the self-sacrificing splendor of new love.

"Dude, this isn't your realm," Hecate insisted. "Iris and Echo are tired of covering for you, and you look like shit. Persephone can handle it - trust her."

But the Underworld Queen was not so sure. Hecate intimidated the Hell out of her, and she had only just come to realize what good company Hermes could be, once he loosened up. It angered her, too, that he should put his other duties before her; so much so that she would not speak to him when he came to bid her farewell.

"She'll get over it," Hecate said. "By the time spring arrives, she'll be more than happy to see whoever comes to get her the Hell out of here."

"How kind of you to be so reassuring," Hermes muttered.

"Oh, don't get your panties in a twist. You have work to do - go on, now, scat!"

The next day seemed to stretch on without end. After a while even Hecate began to question the passage of time.

She sent her dogs ahead of her to clear a path, and looked out the great doors past the courtyard. The steady stream of marching dead stretched out across the plain towards the River Styx. She put two fingers to her lips and blew shrilly.

"Alright, listen up! Everybody cop a squat - that's right, you heard me, just sit down right where you are. No one's going anywhere for a few minutes, got it? Charon, you too, buddy, just park it! Persephone," she called from the doorway, "have you checked on Tartarus since you got here?"

"No," she replied, startled, "was I supposed to?"

"Uh - yeah - didn't your husband mention that at all?"

Persephone's mouth formed a tight little knot as she turned away. "Not exactly, no..."

"Hades, you asshole," Hecate muttered, kicking aside a squabbling horde of bloody, naked Thracians. "You might at least have given her a proper orientation..."

Behind the Deathless Throne were three carvings - giant, grotesque figures with fifty heads and a hundred hands each - below a great, round dial that Persephone at first took for a sun.

"Give me your keys." Hecate slid a crude iron one, older-looking than the rest, into one of the many eyes.

"Owwww," whined the head, as the dial above it clanked and ground, turning grudgingly. "You don't have to be so mean!"

"Apparently I do. Kottos, Gyes, Briareos," Hecate pointed to each figure in turn. "These are the meatheads who are supposed to be guarding the Pit."

"Pleased to meet you," said Persephone.

"Charmed, I'm sure..."

It was cold in Tartarus, one great, gray, dismal cavern stretching farther than the eye could see, deeper than the heavens were tall. Storms raged across the cavernous roof, and every surface dripped. Before them were iron stairs, hundred of them, leading off and down in different directions, rust-covered and damp. At the bottom of the nearest set, they could see a grey-haired figure darting through an opening in the rock.

"There he is - he must have gotten bored."

"Who is that?"

"Cronos. I doubt you've ever met your Grandfather," said Hecate. "But I think it's time you did. Let me warn you right now, Persephone, the god of Time has some pretty bad habits - stay alert."

It was a beautifully appointed little apartment, for a cave. A ragged figure spun in a circle, matted hair swirling wildly. Despite the gray of his head, his face was childlike.

"Hi! I'm Cronos!" The figure began spinning closer. "I like to eat! Do you like to eat?"

"Um, yes - " Persephone took a step back.

"I like to play! Do you like to play?"

"Well, I - "

"I like to sleep! Do you like to sleep?"

"I - "

"I like to fuck! Do you like to - "

Hecate caught one swinging arm. "Cronos! Back off!"

"She smells good! Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" the odd, filthy child-man shrieked.

"You reek," said Hecate harshly. "How long has it been since you bathed?"

"I didn't have time. I didn't have time." He kept up his inexorable advance towards Persephone. "Have to eat, have to play, have to sleep, have to fuck, gimme, gimme, gimme..."

"Rhea! Where the Hell are you?"

Something moved beneath the furs on an enormous bier. "Hmmmm?"

"Rhea, get up! He's got too much time on his hands again."

"Oooh! Have to pee!" Cronos lifted his chiton, spraying the wall.

"Now, Rhea!"

A woman of ample yet buoyant figure, her flowing hair the red-brown of terra cotta, rose up on her knees before a great bronze dial on the wall above the bed, like the one on the doors to the Pit. Yawning, she grasped one edge and pulled down.

There was a great creaking grind, and then a whirring sound as gears engaged. The dial picked up speed until it was spinning on its own. The Bountiful One sank back down on the tumble of lion skins.

"Oh, I say..." the god of Time looked about him, abashed. "Got a little carried away, did I? Sorry, bad habit."

"Come up when you're presentable," said Hecate over one shoulder, ushering a stunned Persephone out the door. "We need to talk."

Persephone was feeling vaguely ill by the time the great bronze doors swung closed on the Pit of Tartarus. This time, as the doors joined, the dial began to turn.

"What is that thing?" The dial, now, was spinning so smoothly that it's motion could barely be seen. "Some sort of lock?"

Hecate barked a laugh. "You could call it that. It's a horologion - Cronos designed it himself. He became obsessed, you see, with controlling the very element he embodied. He invented a way to measure time, to divide it up into little, fragmentary pieces, all identical, and all meaningless, until applied to real objects or real functions. Interesting," she said, almost to herself, "he doesn't let time get away from him without a reason. I wonder why he's so interested in you?"

"I don't know, and I'm too tired to care."

"Exactly. Cronos deliberately let time drag to get your attention. That means there's either something he wants, or something he fears. Maybe both. I'll have to give that some thought."

Night had fallen at last in the Underworld - a slightly darker shade of gray suffused the air, and the dead waited, still as stones upon the road. Grave offerings were always plentiful, and the two Titans devoured the spread with appetites typical of the Elder gods. Persephone picked at her fruit bowl, listening in bewilderment.

"Oh, dear me, no - it's not as if I actually ate my children," Cronos said, a haunch of venison in one hand and an amphora in the other. "It's all metaphorical, of course, like most of what we do as gods, but time does, indeed, consume all things."

The former King of the Titans was dressed in stygian elegance now, perfumed silver hair framing a face of timeless beauty. "Your father was our youngest, you know, not our first-born. That was Hestia - the hearth, of course, being basic to any civilized society."

"Zeus underestimates her, if you ask me," added Hecate.

"Oh, absolutely," he agreed. "One of his few faults, really. Hades was a much better-looking boy, and Poseidon was far stronger, but your father, my dear," he said, refilling Persephone's glass, "was unique. When Rhea and I first conceived of the idea of Zeus, I knew he'd be the problem child. She hid him from me, you know, the moment he was fully realized - clever old bird, isn't she?" he said affectionately.

"Proof that time is subject to illusion, Persephone," said Hecate. "Keep that in mind."

Cronos broke a pomegranate in two, offering half to his daughter-in-law, continuing his story. "All he needed was the time, to develop from a mere elemental embodiment into one of the first truly political concepts of the Divine - and with quite a force of personality, too, I might add," he said with obvious pride. "My other children, you've probably noticed, are rather more one-dimensional. More baklava, Hecate?"

"Not for me." Hecate's dogs were beginning to whine restlessly as she tossed back one last sheaf of barley, washed down with a barrel of Egyptian beer. "Don't stay up too late, Persephone," she said with a pointed glance towards their guest. "Tomorrow's a school day. Come on, girls, let's go for a run..."

Hecuba, Gorgo and Mormo bounded off, their Mistress close behind.

"Your Cousin, there," Cronos said, nodding in Hecate's direction, "could have done the same, you know. You could, too."

"Do what?" Persephone felt an infuriating sense of vulnerability, left alone with the Elder Titan.

"Evolve." He said the word as if it were wine. "You've already taken the first steps. Marrying Hades was a stroke of genius. And then ensuring you didn't actually have to live with him? That you weren't bound to one realm alone? Brilliant."

"I don't understand you," Persephone blurted. "I don't understand any of this!"

"Perhaps you don't." Cronos contemplated the new-crowned Queen of Hell with a sly, assessing look. "And then again, perhaps you do."

He swung his legs over the edge of the kline, leaning forward. "How many other elemental embodiments do you know who have managed to take over a realm? Hm? Do you think Amphitrite rules the sea for Poseidon half the year? Do you ever see Hera on Zeus's throne? And Metis - " he snorted, "most people don't even know Zeus was married before! He got rid of her the moment he saw her as a threat. But you, Kore of Spring, have risen to become Despoina of Death, Queen of the Underworld, and Mistress of Tartarus."

He moved closer, his breath warm on her neck. "Now, tell me," he whispered, "are you very, very clever, or is my son very, very foolish?"

Persephone swallowed hard. Time was a seductive thing to a season that comes and goes so quickly. She could smell the promise he exuded, the richness of fertile earth, the days that lengthened with agonizing slowness. "What do you think?" she whispered.

His lips brushed her earlobe. "I think you know what I can do for you, Persephone. I think you know that I can make your time down here pass in a heartbeat," he offered, kissing the pulse that quickened in her throat.

"You - can - ?" she whispered, tingling from her golden curls to her delicate, painted toes.

"That, and more. With Time at your side, imagine what you could become. Free me," he said, oozing across the space that separated them, "and together we will rule over a world of warm, wet, growing, mating, power - an Eternal Spring..."

"I - I - I'd - like - that..."

"I knew you would," he purred, one satiny hand gliding from her rosy knee up her perfect thigh. "Of all my descendants, Persephone Thermasia, Warmth-Bringer, Child of Spring, you and I are the most alike. I understand you," the Timeless One said, lifting his chiton, "and you understand me..."

Persephone shrieked as the kline tipped, tumbling them both to the marble floor.

"Well, that didn't take long."

Hecate righted the dining couch with one booted foot and pulled Persephone to her feet. "Cronos, put that thing back in your perizoma or so help me I will let Gorgo bite it off."

"Well, you can't blame me for trying," he said good-naturedly, adjusting his clothing.

"It would only have been temporary, Cronos. It's all temporary, you know that."

"Who better than I?" he sighed, leaping to his feet. "And once again I've monopolized the entire evening with my little stories - a bad habit, I know. Ladies, it's been lovely, but I'm sure you both need a little down time. Toodles."

Cronos took his granddaughter's hand and kissed it in a decidedly un-grandfatherly manner. "Do come down for a visit, when you have a minute or two to spare."

"Go ahead and say it," Persephone said when the doors to Tartarus clanged shut. "I'm a complete idiot."

"No, not an idiot," said Hecate. "We all have to learn to take our time over the important things in life. Trust isn't foolish, Persephone, but it does have its costs. Accepting an offer before you've weighed all your options is a bad habit to get into. Letting Hades fool you was one thing," she said, noting that the Springtime Goddess already looked a little older, and a little wiser, "bargaining with Cronos is something else. "

"You left me alone with him on purpose." The thought brought her up short. "You knew."

"Time is persistent, but it's also predictable and measurable. And what you measure, you manage."

Hecate started the horologion spinning again, locking Time into its place. "You saw him for exactly what he really is down in the Pit, without the dress-up act he put on for you tonight, Persephone. Time will eat you. It will play with you. It will lull you to inaction, and it will screw you, if you don't keep track of it. Now," she said, blowing out the lamps, "get some sleep. Even elemental embodiments need their rest."