A few hours later, as the sun had almost entirely slid behind the horizon, six hooded figures arrived in my room, pulling me from my spot and back downstairs. Robes were infinitely overused, so these were either crackpots or a legitimate cult. They led me into the courtyard, steering me away from the gazebo towards what I would have assumed was a maintenance shed. The front-most robed individual led us through the one-man wide doorway, and we headed down winding stairs single file, the air growing chiller the further down we went. The stairs emptied into a junction chamber, with three entrances spread before us. On the walls, banners of crimson red and portraying enormous owl heads hung, barely moving. I was pushed through the middle tunnel, following it down to another chamber. Within, a stone altar sat at the center of the cylindrical room. The ripples of old life and new blood that I had felt before were powerful now that I was standing in it. Sorrow and rage, tempered with cruelty and anguish – this place should not exist in this realm, and yet here it was.
My captors pushed me towards the altar, where a woman stood before it, long robes and a black mask mimicking an owl’s face covered her own. Her hands were folded behind her as I looked towards the exits on either side.
“You will not leave this room alive, Lord Hades.”
Her voice was the same as the woman who had grabbed my shirt. I kept my face blank as I spoke.
“It is not very often that I am told by a mortal who will live and die.” I glanced at the enormous stone owl behind her and nodded towards it. “With whom do I have the unfortunate pleasure of speaking with?”
“The Brotherhood would not want their centuries of work undone because one of their own misspoke, Lord Hades. I am sure you can appreciate this.” She nodded to the people beside me, who wrenched me backward and over the altar. Cold stone pressed through my shirt, and I wished, for a brief moment, that I had not come alone. Only for a moment.
Two of the brawnier henchmen dug their elbows into the soft points of my shoulders, in the hopes that I would not sit up during whatever it was they had in mind. The woman came down from her dais, pulling a long knife from beneath her robes. It hung by her side, glinting in the low light. Was this mortal honestly expecting to come for the King of the Underworld with nothing but a knife?
She stopped beside me, and the composure she had harbored before was temporarily lost as she looked down at me. Utter hatred and malice filled her expression, and the room filled with a palpable manifestation of those emotions. Raising the knife over me, she began to chant in a low undertone, her words obscured by the loud humming the rest of them had started.
The knife began to glow softly, and whispers filled the room that I knew were not a part of this ceremony. No, those sounds could only be made by the dead, and the room was filled with anguished souls. What alarmed me, however, was not the dead that were appearing. It was the fact that they were immortal souls. Tearing at the veil that held them in check in this place, they sobbed, screamed, raged, or sat despondently around us, seemingly invisible to the attendees. All but myself.
“You see them,” the woman said, bringing me back to the present. It was not a question but a statement. “I knew you would. Do you know who they are?”
She was going to tell me anyway, so I said nothing. Her eyes flashed to the outer sections where the tormented souls lay. “They are all the gods we have killed. All the ones who thought themselves better than us mortals. And this blade,” she held the long knife over me, eyes longingly caressing it, “this will allow you to join them.”
Pain is a part of anything living. It is a fact and a burden. This, I knew. I was expecting it, and thus redirected most of it when it came to me. What I did not foresee was the energy drain. The blade cut through my leg as easily as a warm knife does to butter, but it did not heal as it should have. I felt ichor running down my thigh, and then my calf, then my ankle. She was going to draw it out of me – my own life. This would not stand.
Pushing passed the pain creeping through my body, I dug deep into myself to draw what was remaining of my power, ready to break through this deathbed. But it was halted, cold stopped. I couldn’t bring it to the surface, to anything passed its own barrier. Feeling far more rushed, I assessed the situation more closely, tuning out the woman as best I could. There were six surrounding me, two behind me, two flanking the woman, and two at my feet. I ruled the souls out as harmless. My energy was fading faster than I liked. I had to move. Now.
I pulled my legs up to my chest and kicked outward hard, the blade scraping down my skin as I did so. The two at the end were caught unawares and were sent sprawling. Planting my feet on the stone below me, I propelled myself backwards, forcing the two men behind me to go careening into the souls, who started pulling and groping the living. By now, the woman had moved away, her flankers trying to restrain me as she worked to get a good aim for the kill. I rolled to my side, spinning their hands over me, and twisted back the other way just as quick, hitting the floor a lot harder than I had anticipated. I staggered to my feet, my leg reminded me that I was properly injured. I lurched into the wall as the flankers came for me. I ducked beneath the first, aiming a kick to the back of his knee and sending him down. The second rushed me, throwing me against the wall and knocking the wind from me. His knee connected with my abdomen twice before I smashed my head into his, followed by a sharp kick to his groin. More of them began to come for me, with the woman leading them, her knife held up menacingly.
“You are not leaving here alive, demon,” she hissed, taking swipes at me. She caught me once over my chest. I flinched slightly and backed into the tunnel.
“I do believe I will be. And I think…” She came for me again, just as I held out my wrists. The chain broke, the blade rendering them useless, and I could feel my powers rushing back to my fingertips. “…you will be assisting me.”
I raised a thick wall of stone between her and her henchfolk, leaving just the two of us squared off in the antechamber. She leered at me while I kept my face passive and conjured my sword. We circled one another, the banners moving as we passed by them, the silence thick. She broke it first, lunging towards me and aiming for my chest once more. I glanced her blade off mine, pushing her backwards and following through with a stab. It caught her ribs, and she staggered, holding her side. This was not going to be a difficult fight, but she was determined to see it through. So be it.
She rushed me again. I parried. Again. Parried. It was clear she was not used to a short weapon and was treating it like a sword, leaving herself wide open to my moves. I moved around her easily, until she was leaning against the wall, covered in slashes and her own blood. The only thing that did not change about her was the murderous intent in her eyes. I had to wonder what kind of grudge a soul had to carry, for it to still be considered when they were dying.
“You…you may have, bested me…” she panted, struggling to stay standing and failing, “but you will find…our people, to be…ruthless. You, you will die, Hades.”
I limped towards her, our eyes locked as I slid my sword into her gut. Bubbling gasps of air escaped her throat.
“Then I will see you in Hell, madam.”
The rock wall I had constructed in the tunnel was crumbling from the force of the people behind it trying to break through, so I cleaned my sword and vanished it, slung the woman over my shoulder, and stumbled my way out of that accursed place. I made it to the front doors of the hotel and saw my bike not far from me, just as a thunderous crash echoed from the courtyard. I chanced a look behind me and saw people flooding to the topside, looking around for me. It only took a moment for them to spot me and began charging towards me. Time’s up.
I made my way to my bike, waving my helmet back onto my head as I draped the body across my lap and started the engine of the Triumph up with a roar. My leg was burning now, but I needed to leave, or I would have more troubles than an injured leg. I pulled out of the parking lot, flicking the high beams towards the highway. A portal opened as the doors to the California Hotel burst open, I didn’t bother to check my destination and instead, just drove. I sped through the opening and hit the brakes almost immediately after. I was at the museum.
“So be it,” I muttered, hefting the dead body over my shoulder and heading inside.
Clio’s museum was, in and of itself, a work of art. Modern yet ancient, highly prized pieces cordoned off from greedy mortal hands. She had asked me for some of my work to showcase, but I had yet to offer her anything.
I staggered inside, thankful the stairs to her office were close by, and made my way up to the second floor. I heard voices within, and I was relieved for a moment. I was not alone. Pushing my way inside, I saw Clio and Eros discussing something. Their eyes now turned to me.
I spoke no words but dumped the body onto her desk before sitting down hard in one of the chairs.
“Hello, niece. Nephew.”