While Hypnos went to find Nyx, Aidoneus and Persephone hurried down the staircases to the entrance of the palace. Without saying a word, he pulled her close against him and enveloped them both in dark smoke. They emerged from the ether at the farthest ends of the Fields of Asphodel, the darkness dissipating around them. Aidon grasped her hand and walked quickly toward the River of Lamentation, his long strides forcing her to walk briskly. The gray earth and flowering stalks became scattered and shorter as they went, then disappeared entirely, replaced by jagged rock.
Along the silent River Cocytus, black hooded shades stared into the waters, weeping despondently. The stench of the water made bile churn in Persephone's throat, bringing her back to the day she and her mother returned to Eleusis. Long ago, when Attica had gone to war and the fields of wheat were razed, Demeter had shielded her from the sight of crows picking apart the remains of horses and hoplite soldiers. But her mother couldn't conceal the acrid smell of blood and decay. It was as if the Cocytus had washed through those fields, and preserved all the foulness within its stagnant depths.
Wailing and cursing interrupted her morbid reverie. Just ahead, Thanatos writhed in pain, his wings beating incessantly against the ground like an injured bird.
Persephone picked up her skirts and quickened her pace, feeling sharp rocks abrade her ankles. She winced at the first scrape, then set her jaw against the pain. Aidoneus jogged next to her in long, heavy strides, his staff held at his side like a spear. She cried out in the direction of the judges. "Minos! What happened?"
The judge joined her, following as she ran to where the Minister of Death lay. "My queen," he said, out of breath, "we don't know!"
"What's wrong with Thanatos?"
"The Ephyrean was here one moment," Minos shuddered, "then the next, the chains…"
Persephone blanched as Thanatos turned toward her. A master of sleight of hand…
The manacles that once held Sisyphus's wrists were now on Thanatos's arms. The links of iron chain laced through flesh and bone, grotesquely exiting his skin on the other side. There was no blood, no other sign of injury; he was a god. But, there was pain. Against all instinct, she forced herself not to be sick, and bile that had been welling in her throat since she reached the shores of the Cocytus abated, replaced with empathy. The sight of her husband's friend, her friend, in such agony superseded the ghastly sight of the chains impaling his arms. "Thanatos! Stay still."
"My queen, you do not need to see this!" he yelled out, turning away from her.
Aidoneus walked to him, his heavy staff thumping on the ground with each step. Persephone ran over to Thanatos and knelt down to cradle his head, narrowly avoiding a thrashing wing.
"Please," he said through gritted teeth, "Don't… This was my fault—"
"No. This wasn't," she said, wiping beads of sweat off his forehead with the cloth of her mantle.
"Sisyphus planned it all along," Hades snarled, speaking to Thanatos. "He spent the entire judgment distracting us. Throwing us off guard. I should have read his thoughts… I should have been reading them the whole time. I let this happen." He knelt next to Thanatos and placed a hand on his shoulder. "I'm so sorry, my friend. This is going to hurt more than you can imagine."
"It already fucking hurts!" he screamed.
"What are you going to do?" Persephone said, looking up at her husband.
"Break the chains, pull them out," Aidon said quietly. He inspected the chains. "Most of them are missing…"
"Just do it already!" Thanatos gritted his teeth.
"You may want to look away—"
"No," Persephone said. She remembered from her youth when one of the Naiads had tended to another, removing a forgotten fish hook stuck deep in her heel. Persephone took the edge of her chiton and tore a strip of it away, wadding it up in her fist.
"What are you doing?" Thanatos said dizzily, the pain making him nauseous.
"Making sure you don't crack your teeth," she muttered, twisting it into a bit.
Aidoneus kept his voice calm and motions steady. "You will heal. But the pain—"
"Of course I'll heal! I'm a fucking god, aren't I?!" He forced a smile around the pain.
Persephone twisted the wool again and put it between Thanatos's teeth. He looked up into her eyes. The mask of anger, his feigned mastery of the pain, melted into fear. His eyes widened in panic, a vulnerability he only allowed her to see for a moment. She stroked his forehead. "Just be still, Thanatos."
She held him and watched as Aidoneus rolled a small boulder over to where he lay.
"I thought nothing could break the Chains of Tartarus."
"Everything has a weakness," her husband said quietly, raising the raven standard. "Hold him steady!" he called out to Minos and Rhadamanthys.
Aidoneus draped the center of the chain over the boulder, stretching out Thanatos's arms. The judges gripped him at the elbows and held his wings while Persephone leaned his head in her lap. "It will be all right," she whispered to him.
"On three," Aidoneus said. Thanatos started breathing hard around the twisted wool, bracing himself. Persephone nodded. "One, two…"
The staff landed with a resounding crack, and Persephone flinched away from the noise, feeling the ground lurch and shake. Death bit down hard and screamed through his clenched jaw, his arms flailing, flinging Minos to the earth while Rhadamanthys desperately maintained his grip. The boulder beneath the chains was broken into rubble. She tried to calm Thanatos, and saw Minos grasp his free arm to still him. The chain lacing through his wrists burned red hot from where it had been struck. Persephone smelled seared flesh and tried to push it from her mind so she wouldn't retch. She focused on Thanatos's face again, wiping away a tear that trailed down from his right eye. "Thanatos. Please! Be still… I'm sorry. I'm so sorry…"
A female hand appeared from behind her and rested on Thanatos's forehead. Persephone saw a beautiful, pale face framed in weightless black hair come into view beside her. The woman whispered to Thanatos. "Shhh…"
His head slumped to the side and his eyes shut. Thanatos stopped moving his wings and lay still, his breathing light. The strange goddess gently pulled the twisted wool from between his teeth. She hovered above Persephone, then moved as though she were swimming through the air to face the young goddess.
"You did nothing for which you should ever apologize, Aristi Chthonia," she said softly. "No matter what anyone tells you."
Aristi Chthonia. The name the House of Nyx and the Hundred Handed Ones called her. There was only one being this could be. Persephone kept Thanatos's head in her lap and bowed her head to the last of the Protogenoi. "Lady Nyx."
The elder goddess smiled and lightly lifted Persephone's chin until the Queen's blue gray eyes met her silver rimmed ones once more. "You never need bow before me, Queen of the Underworld," she said, smiling. Her face grew solemn again as she stroked Thanatos's unconscious forehead. "Especially not after showing such kindness to my son."
Hypnos alighted on the ground behind them. "Mother—"
"He'll be fine," she said, and caressed Thanatos's sleeping forehead again. "My poor, sweet boy…"
The Goddess of Night grasped Death's right arm in one hand before closing her eyes. The alabaster flesh on it disappeared for a moment and released a chain, the links falling neatly between the bones and onto the rocks below. She opened her eyes and his arm was made whole but for deep pits on his skin, the edges darkened where the broken chains had burned him.
The bone of his left arm was squeezed within a link of chain. Aidoneus knelt down and stared at Persephone, his jaw set tight. Just this once, my love, look away… his eyes seemed to say to her. She kept her gaze trained on his face as he focused once more on his task. Hades yanked the link out, snapping the bone in two as he did so. The sound made her stomach turn. Her husband winced as he pulled the metal away. Though he was unconscious, Thanatos jerked to the side, then stilled, his head held steady in Persephone's lap. Nyx patiently waited until the bone healed, knitting itself back together, before she released his arm. His scarred flesh appeared over it once more.
"We are all healing more slowly these days," she said, then looked to Hades. "Where is the rest of the chain?"
He sighed, frustrated. "Sisyphus stole it. I almost wonder now, Lady Nyx, if he allowed himself to be captured. The things he said at trial… If I had read his thoughts, none of this would have—"
"This is not your fault, Liberator," Nyx said, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Nor yours, Persephone."
She gathered Thanatos's limp form in her arms, the fringes of the darkness that surrounded her rushing in around him. They gingerly touched Thanatos, the wavering tendrils drifting softly over his limbs as if to comfort him.
"You'll know what to do," she said to Aidon, pointedly.
"What do you mean?"
"That you'll know what to do," she repeated. Nyx looked back to Persephone. "The tidings Hecate brought to me were ill, indeed. We must hold strong together, now more than ever. They will look to you, Aristi Chthonia, for guidance." Nyx rose upward toward Erebus, carrying her son, until she disappeared into the mists that hung above the riverlands and the darkness beyond. Hypnos nodded quietly to Hades and Persephone, worry etched across his face, then followed his mother and brother into the fog.
Persephone turned to the others, her heart sinking under the weight of Nyx's words, and saw her husband staring at the ground, his brow furrowed, his mouth set in a thin line. She walked over to him and laid her head against his chest. He brought an arm around her shoulders.
She looked up at him. "Has this—"
"No; never before."
"How did this happen?"
"I don't know," he said under his breath, looking out across the Cocytus and the shades weeping at its shores.
Persephone leaned into him. The pathways leading toward the palace from the marshlands of Acheron teemed with shades waiting to be judged. The emaciated, spectral forms desperately tore the asphodel roots from the gray earth and bit into them, heedless of the fact that whatever hunger they still felt was an illusion— a shadow of the manner in which they died. Their bellies were distended by starvation. Another boatload disembarked with Charon's guidance and walked solemnly toward the Trivium. She remembered what Kronos told her in the Pit and shuddered. Again, his terrible prophecy played out in her mind in all its vivid detail. Destruction, violation, rape, the end of all things…
Rules that bound the cosmos were bending, twisting, and disintegrating. The world above was breaking apart— and with it, she realized as ice poured down her back, the world below.
Author's Note: Destroyer of Light will debut in paperback on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace, and in ebook through Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and Smashwords on March 20, 2016. Please visit kata-chthonia dot com to order the last half of RoM as you read it here, but having gone through another round of editing and the addition of many new scenes that you didn't read in the original.
Thank you so much, everyone! And a special thanks to my Kickstarter supporters who made the paperback and gorgeous covers possible.
~ Rachel Alexander, aka Kata Chthonia