It was all darkness inside her mind.
She couldn't decipher if what was in front of her was real or if she was still stuck inside her head in a place of ominous imagination.
There was a dark room sealed off from the light, walls of black everywhere she looked, and the feel of soft sheets beneath her that couldn't possibly be real. And him. A creature, male, was leaning against one of the walls staring at her as if in utter disbelief.
Perhaps, he didn't quite believe she was real either.
She looked down at the extension of herself and saw a body that did not seem entirely connected to her other than the fact that she could feel its fragility. Her limbs were weak for they held no strength and had no pigment. A brief image flashed in her mind of legs once strong, curves once voluptuous and deeply tanned skin but the image faded quickly.
What had happened?
She didn't know. She didn't remember. A pressure erupted between her eyes when she tried to recall and she was overcome with immense exhaustion that made her want to collapse and never get up. She could barely remember the events of earlier that day…if it had even been that day when she had been driven mad with hunger and wandered around endless black halls until she found something to fill her stomach. But perhaps none of that had been real. It seemed like something she could have dreamt, now that she thought about it.
It was hard to tell when she felt such an absence inside of her. That thought sparked some deeper memory, something that had once been so important. It nagged at the back of her mind and she felt her shaking hand rise to touch the place beneath her collarbone. The skin there clung to bone like thin tissue and when she pressed she could feel a slight pulse on the tips of her fingers. Her heart was still beating inside her. She had long since thought that had ceased to exist.
The male in front of her took a step forward and her tired eyes went to him. Something else flickered in her mind.
He spoke and his voice was pleasant if not studded with incredulity. It seemed familiar, as did the word he said. A name. Her name? Yes, she thinks it was once her name.
It was a goddess's name but it no longer fully belonged to her.
It was the identity of a Goddess of Love but that was not what she was anymore. Somehow, this she knew for certain.
"How–" Her words were painful as they scratched the skin of her throat with every syllable. "How did I get here?"
The male was shrouded in darkness like the shadows of the room gravitated around him and she imagined that must be what she looked like too. Shaded from the light. He stepped forward and she felt like she should know him. Remember him. His face was all symmetrical lines, black eyes and full lips but it seemed foreign to her. Stunning? Yes. There was something alluring about him she supposed, but all she knew is that she felt less lonely when she met his eyes. It was like looking into a broken mirror but seeing the glimpse of your reflection.
"You don't remember?" He had drifted closer, but slowly like he was cautious. He scanned her face and that initial disbelief was still written across his features. "You really don't remember?"
She felt a glimmer of irritation from the abyss in her chest but it dimmed quickly and left her empty again.
The range of emotions that erupted across his face was confusing to her but she tried to decipher them all the same. Perhaps…despair, maybe shame? It was so hard for her to tell but she had the feeling she once would have known. Once, perhaps she would have plucked the emotions from his face as easily as reading words off papyrus. In the end his face collapsed in what was most possibly dismay. She wished she could conjure the curiosity to care why. She even considered asking him what was the matter but a wave of fatigue washed over her again and her lips remained sealed.
When she couldn't take him looking at her anymore she turned her head away. The feel of her hair sliding over her shoulders was foreign and she detested the way her arms shook as she readjusted herself in bed. Maybe if she closed her eyes she would wake up and realize this had been a terrible nightmare and had never been real. Or maybe she would not wake up at all.
The thought did not alarm her.
The name sounded wrong to her and grated on her ears.
"Something…horrible happened to you." His voice sounded strangled as he spoke and she wished he would stop talking. If he hoped she would comfort him then he would be disappointed. She was too tired to assure him that she was all right, especially since she was beginning to think that if this was real then something was very wrong with her indeed.
Why does he care?
The thought almost startled her for it seemed loud in her head. She tried to bat it aside and push it away.
"The world needs you."
The words were immediately a relief. She almost smiled. Because now she knew for certain that this could not possibly be reality. She was dreaming quite vividly for there was no way in any universe the person she was could be needed by anyone.
She closed her eyes.
Then she felt the brush of fingers against her arm and suddenly she was at the bottom of a pit. Her eyes flew open but she could no longer feel the bed around her and the dark walls melted away to reveal endless black surrounding her. She was lying in a circle of dim light and hundreds of hands were grabbing at her hair, scratching away at her skin and her own screams lived and died in her ears.
When the pressure between her eyes crested and peaked, she realized she actually was screaming and the male standing before her came slamming back into focus. He had recoiled his hand but she had somehow launched herself away from him. She was panting and shivers wracked her body. Her stomach clenched and roiled as she heaved and sweat suddenly broke out across her brow.
"I'm sorry." He breathed but she turned away. Dead faces still flashed before her eyes and she bit her tongue to keep from whimpering. It seemed like a memory from a past life, one she had carried over to this realm but it still felt so real.
"Where am I?" She was afraid to close her eyes for she knew the vengeful spirits would be waiting for her when she did. When the male spoke again, she already knew his answer.
Hades. It was an alternate name for the Underworld and the God that ran it.
She looked up at him through the veil of black hair hanging around her face and it was like she was seeing him through different eyes.
Something horrible happened to you.
And now she thought perhaps that horrible thing had been him.
"Get out." Her words were shaky and her breaths ragged. She was scared but not of him. She was scared of the memories, of the faces in her mind, of the screams she could hear echoing constantly through her head. The only thing she knew for certain is that at one time, yesterday or a million years ago, she had stared into the void and in her weakest moment she had embraced it to survive. But it created a chasm inside of her and she could feel the demon lurking beneath the surface hidden in her memories. Now, the only thing she had left was to forget. She wouldn't survive remembering. The world would not survive.
She did not know what she would do if she had to ask him a third time.
The god before her breathed and it seemed to pain him to speak. "I can't. Aphrodite, we need you. The humans and gods alike."
"Do not." Her voice was a whisper but she spoke the language of death. "How dare you ask anything of me? How dare you expect such things after what you…." The words faded and she squeezed her eyes shut as if trying to block such unwanted thoughts. But Hades remembered what was coming for them all, the danger rising from Tartarus, and knew it was up to him to make her understand.
"You have every right to hate me –"
A small breath huffed through her nose in disbelief.
"Every right?" She interrupted him. "I have nothing."
"You are Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, one of the Twelve Olympians."
Her lip curled and pure hatred flashed across her face as she looked up at Hades before her eyes dulled once again and her features relaxed.
"Do I look like the Goddess of Love?" Disregard washed her words of inflection. Hades felt the last of his hope begin to shred as he looked upon the mockery of what had once been a force of nature. Aphrodite had been among the most powerful of the gods and now she lay crumpled between sheets, almost too thin to hold up her own body weight. The world would need every ounce of power if they were to face Chaos and Hades was beginning to think he had removed one of the biggest pieces in the game.
But he thought of his son and knew he would not leave this world without seeing Deo's face one last time. No matter if Hades had to face down both Aphrodite and Erebus alone, he would hold Deo one last time before Chaos broke the universe.
"Please Aphrodite, I am begging you. "
She tilted her head to the side like she was listening to a melody that had long been forgotten and her lips parted in recognition.
"You are begging me?" Her collarbone jutted out grotesquely as she struggled to pull herself up so she could look at Hades in the eyes. "That sounds like a song that has already been sung. Tell me, Hades, if my memory serves for sometimes it is hard for me to tell anymore." Now, her ash coloured eyes met the onyx of his gaze and she felt a jolt of familiarity as she looked into the obsidian. But she pushed it aside viciously.
"Tell me, if I had once stood on the banks of this hell realm and begged you for mercy. Tell me if I had once urged you to understand. Now, recall what you had said then and what you had done and never ask of me anything ever again."
He dipped his head to look at the ground with such sadness and regret that she felt something squeeze where her heart beat frail. It surprised her.
The pressure in her chest released and she eased back against the pillows as emptiness hardened her once more.
"It is fair for you to hate me and I understand your desire to punish my actions as I have wrongfully punished yours in the past. But this is much bigger than you and I. Erebus, the God of Chaos, is rising from Tartarus and the Earth will fall under his wrath –"
"Good." Aphrodite glowered at him with eyes like icicles and bore her teeth in a vicious sneer that made Hades break-off in astonishment. "I hope the world perishes and my only wish is that I live long enough to watch you burn."
The words were so similar to what Erebus had relayed in his message sent by the Empusa that a shiver crawled down Hades' back. He stood frozen under the intensity of Aphrodite's hatred for a heartbeat but he was saved from responding as the door opened and Lorelei swept into the room.
Aphrodite's eyes went to her but she felt no sign of emotion or recognition. The female that had just entered the chambers was as dangerous looking as she was beautiful. Her snowy hair was tied in a braid that fell down her back and blue eyes shone against the dark hue of her skin but what shone brighter were the polished blades strapped to her body. Her fingers ended in clawed nails that looked gifted at bloodletting but where an alarm should have sounded in Aphrodite's mind warning her of danger, there was only silence.
But a pounding started pulsing between Aphrodite's temples when Hades turned to look at the stranger as she spoke.
"The Empusa has been disposed of and your brother has left for Mount Olympus."
The name was like a warm summer breeze brushing against her mind but in the dark of the Underworld, she wasn't able to grasp the brief comfort Mount Olympus had brought her. But a single word suddenly occupied her thoughts.
"Has he taken the twins?" Hades cleared his throat and addressed the winged female.
Another person entered the room, passing quietly through the door despite his massive size. He had to adjust his shimmering wings as he stepped up behind the female.
His name seemed to slam into her consciousness at the same time that it felt like a hundred needles were suddenly piercing her mind. The air became thick in her lungs and oxygen melted like shards of glass in her throat.
"Stop." She groaned loudly and three sets of eyes fell upon her. The two immortals that had entered the room stilled immediately upon hearing her speak and turned to Hades with wide eyes. The pressure in her head seemed to be increasing by the second.
She shot out a hand towards Thanatos and groaned as stars appeared behind her eyes.
"Leave." Her voice was raised in a cry of hysteria as desperation flooded her body. But the three imbecile gods stood before her gaping as they watched her clutch her head in agony.
Hades suddenly whipped his head to look at Thanatos.
"It's you, she's reacting to you." The God of Death pointed to his second in command and Thanatos's eyes widened as colour flooded his cheeks. Lorelei seemed solidified to the ground, unable to move as Aphrodite grit her teeth and shook her head back and forth.
"Get out, Thanatos!" Hades roared but it was too late. The pain in Aphrodite's head reached a climax and torment wrestled all rational thought from her as she snarled and launched herself wildly off the bed. Nails raking through the air, she lashed out trying to claw at the Personification of Death but Thanatos made no move to defend himself. Instead, he seemed to take a step closer…. Toward where the winged-female was standing next to him, like he was going to defend her. But Lorelei seemed to have the same idea, for the Ker moved to block him too.
Lorelei grabbed Aphrodite by the arm and in two heartbeats she had the goddess secured with a blade pressed to her neck but Aphrodite writhed in agony as she screamed out in pain. It was as if Lorelei's touch was burning her and her fingertips were molten lava.
"STOP." Hades hollered and slammed his hands together like a thunderclap. Darkness erupted in the room and Lorelei released her grip.
Hades moved to stand in front of Aphrodite and pointed toward the door, barely concealed anger radiating off of him. "Both of you out now."
His two commanders only paused for a breath before turning and obeying their master. Every step they took away, Aphrodite could feel the pain easing in her head. She collapsed on the bed and glared accusingly at Hades as she swept the raven hair out of her face.
"What in the gods name was that? Are you trying tormenting me?" Her voice broke from sheer animosity. Hades looked startled for a second like Aphrodite had just shaken him from deep thought and he turned to face her from where he had watched his Commanders leave the room. "Just leave me alone." She snapped. "Let me die or fade without having to endure the horror of your company or the abomination of your realm."
But Hades set his jaw and allowed the stubbornness of thousands of years rise to the surface. "I will not let you doom this world for my mistakes."
"Mistakes?" Aphrodite hissed and then laughed a humourless giggle that did not entirely suggest sanity. "It was not me who doomed this world, Hades. I am not what I once was before I encountered your demolition."
And then Aphrodite let some of the void sealed inside her ascend to the surface. She would let Hades see what he had created and from who he was seeking redemption.
Shadow rose from her bones and emanated from the crevices of her body until her skin looked shaded in a dark mist. Aphrodite knew that once upon a time the Goddess of Love had had an aura that shone like rays of sun. But now pitch black surrounded her like a cold embrace. She let this display of her soul radiate around her as Hades' face slackened and he blinked like each flutter of his eyes would deliver him from the truth before him.
"What are you?" He breathed, seeming to finally believe that what she once was had been stripped from her. Over and over and over again, it had been stripped from her.
"I am nothing." She responded and suddenly she was overcome with lethargy. Exhaustion once more crippled her and she allowed her aura to absorb back into her body.
"Now, get out before I kill you."
Hades backed up a step as Aphrodite turned away from him and he could see the sharp vertebrae of her spine protruding from beneath the thin slip of dress she was wearing.
Aphrodite felt nothing as Hades left the room but camaraderie with the shadows and a place among the silence.
"What in Tartarus's name was that?"
Lorelei was waiting for Hades outside Aphrodite's antechambers but he shouldn't have expected any differently from the Leader of the Keres.
"Don't speak of Tartarus in such dark times." Hades snapped and pushed past his third in command as thoughts blockaded his mind. He almost ran into Thanatos where the god was standing half-concealed in the hallway, an ever-silent presence hovering around Lorelei. That particular thought gave Hades pause and he looked at the Personification of Death out of the corner of his eye as he strode past.
"Stay away from Aphrodite." Hades decided. "Your presence is enough to provoke her."
"Is she so far lost?" Lorelei sneered in disbelief but Hades whirled around and fixed her with a blank stare.
"Yes." He deadpanned.
The Ker blinked but Hades spoke again before she could open her mouth.
"As a matter of fact, the same rule applies to you. Stay away from the goddess."
Lorelei flashed her canines at what she must have considered an insult. "Me? Why?"
Hades squinted at his third in command. "I don't know, Lorelei. Why did Aphrodite scream when you touched her? This is the second time it has happened. What about you repelled her so much?"
The Leader of the Keres recoiled like Hades had just struck her across the face. Her blue eyes were wide in what he would have thought was alarm, if Lorelei ever felt such emotion. Or perhaps, the Ker felt more than Hades had ever thought she did. Maybe, he didn't know his Commanders at all.
"I don't know." Lorelei tilted her chin up and Hades took a step closer until the Ker was backed up against the wall. They were face to face and he stared her down. The black feathers of her wings ruffled and fluttered as she watched him. Her nostrils flared slightly as she drew in a breath.
"Or maybe it's not personal and has nothing to do with what you did to repel her." Hades hypothesized. "Maybe, it has more to do with how you feel."
It was not a question.
And despite already knowing deep down why Aphrodite had reacted to Lorelei's touch, it still surprised Hades when his most merciless warrior turned her face away in shame. The most wicked and corrupt of his Death Spirits…was in love.
Hades scoffed in her face and turned away. What was happening? The world was unbalanced, out of order. The Goddess of Love had forgotten whom – what – she was and repelled the very thing that empowered her, while his closest advisors and the most feared immortals outside of Tartarus had fallen prey to the whims of love.
It was pathetic.
But even more it made Hades feel pathetic for his solitude. But he had loved once, deeper than most and he was still struggling to survive that love being stolen away. He was not sure he could do it again.
Without sparing Lorelei another glance, Hades strode down the hall dismissing the Ker. Lorelei in love, it was a ridiculous thought. When he finally made it back to his chambers he swung the door closed aggressively, but never heard it slam shut.
He turned to see Thanatos standing in the doorway.
"What?" Hades snapped.
"I need to know." Thanatos's voice was soft and Hades had never heard him sound so resigned before. Despite being the Personification of Death's master, Hades was closer to Thanatos than he was to his actual kin. Seeing him so clearly agonised made Hades pause.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Thanatos looked up and met Hades eyes. "I need to know what is going on between you two."
"What?" Now, Hades was utterly lost in this conversation. "Thanatos, it has been a very long day and I need to figure out how I'm going to try and save the world tomorrow–"
"You and Lorelei. Please just tell me. I need to know so that I can move on… or forget…"
For a few heartbeats, Hades considered this male who had been his companion for hundreds of human lifespans. Usually, he understood all of Thanatos's jokes when he made them. They had a silent communication where they understood each other's thoughts without a second guess but tonight was different.
"What do you mean? Nothing is going on between me and Lorelei." Hades said it slowly, like any second he would suddenly catch on. Thanatos stood rooted in the doorway and ran a tense hand roughly through his hair.
"I mean, I know that you don't love Lorelei back since you were able to be in the same room as Aphrodite without triggering her but then there are other ways that you and Lorelei could have been…together over the centuries. I know it's none of my business but…"
Thanatos faded off when he saw Hades grow still as his words settled around the Lord of Death. Hades' gaze grew distant and he swallowed.
"What do you mean, I don't love Lorelei back?"
Thanatos's eyebrows cinched together in the middle of his forehead before his expression cleared and he sucked in a breath. The two immortal males stood watching each other as complicated strands began to unwind between them.
"You love her." Hades stated for the first time out loud.
Thanatos blinked his confirmation, not needing to put it to words quite yet. "And she loves you."
Hades ran a hand down his face and suddenly thought back to so many instances that suddenly made sense in a different light. So many times he had never questioned Lorelei's undying loyalty and explained it as fierce devotion but nothing more. Never had he been so blind.
Never had he been so wrong.
Honestly, he had assumed the Ker was in love with Thanatos too or one of her beautiful warriors. Why would she ever love him?
And to think of the way he had just scoffed in her face after pressing her to confront the fact that she felt an emotion as weak as love. His stomach churned with regret. Before this moment, Hades hadn't thought it possible to hate himself more. He sat on the edge of the bed and Thanatos leaned against the wall.
"Nothing has ever happened between the two of us you can take comfort in that." Hades said quietly.
His second in command remained silent and Hades knew he would not. It wouldn't matter as long as Thanatos thought that Lorelei's heart belonged to Hades, even though the God of Death couldn't understand how.
Thanatos blew out a long-suffering breath. "She'll kill me if she knows I told you."
The sliver of a smile touched the corners of Hades lips as he imagined Lorelei disembowelling Thanatos all the while screeching about his fat mouth.
"Does this change anything for you?"
Hades slowly shook his head and felt the burden of truth.
"No." He rasped. "But if one day you two ever…"
Thanatos shifted and looked away restlessly but Hades felt the need to make something right tonight.
"I would be happy for you." He finished.
And the two of them fell into a comfortable silence, neither quite yet willing to part from the other's presence as they both sunk deep into their thoughts.