Image: Eris – Goddess of Chaos by Emily Balivet (check out her terrific mythological goddess art website and her Etsy store where you can purchase prints).
To see all other parts of the story of two simple sailors who happen to have accidentally killed and eaten Zeus, please click here.
The Goddess of Discord stepped off the mountain and onto a riverbank, the water flowing sluggishly behind her, rippling and bubbling with venomous hatred. The bright sunshine of Olympus had been replaced by an uneven twilight that slowly shifted with the oozing mists that rolled across the bleak chthonic landscape. She smiled, glad to be back. Things could get so distant up on Olympus, gods and attendant magical creatures pottering back and forth with no connection to reality. Oh, there were some minor japes with mortals but most Olympians never truly understood the impact they could have. Down here, however, the evidence of the pain and anguish caused by immortal interference was visceral. Which was why Eris kept a small room near the entrance to Hades, with a commanding view over the River Styx. She had spent many a happy hour watching Charon ferrying the dead to the underworld; the distraught, the resigned, the heroic and, most entertaining of all, those who were in total denial, claiming that it must be some kind of mistake and asking if the ferryman could check with someone in charge. All human emotion poured out in that short journey across that dark, bitter river.
She scratched behind the ears of one of Cerberus’s heads, patted the top of another and left the third to carry on sleeping, jaws still clenched around a human thigh bone. It must have belonged to some misguided adventurer, thought Eris as she strode up to the Gates of Hades. A few mortals had tried to gain access to the Underworld whilst still breathing but almost all of them soon found that a properly functioning body was not a key requirement in this environment, which was just as well as they didn’t possess it for long. Cerberus, for instance, was nominally employed to keep the dead in, rather than the living out but he was clearly a multi-purpose Hell Hound.
Eris negotiated the various shuffling creatures milling around the entrance and nodded to the three Judges who were tasked with assigning final destinations to the recently deceased. Stepping through the black metal gates she glanced at the small stone building that Ares occupied when he was visiting Hades. No light shone from the window and she knew that it would be empty. She was increasingly concerned about where he was and what he was doing; she hoped the major war she had initiated would bring him back to her. A glistening black path lay ahead of her that wound gently up into the grey mist that swirled around most of the Underworld. She set off along it.
A few minutes later she entered the palatial hall of Hades himself. Whereas the gods of Olympus preferred white rock and marble for their domain in the clouds, the God of the Dead was drawn to the darker end of the palette. Grey granite and various volcanic black minerals dominated, some catching the dim light from torches and sparkling like a night sky littered with glittering stars. Atop a raised dais stood a bulky throne made of blood red marble and sitting in the throne was Hades. His face as impassive as ever, he watched as she drew nearer. Once she reached the foot of the dais she bowed her head slightly.
The Lord of the Underworld rumbled an acknowledgement. “Eris. Good to see you again.”
“My mother sends her best wishes to her eldest brother.”
Hades grunted. “She sends but never comes.”
Eris tilted her head and gave a wry smile. “Much like yourself, uncle.”
He grunted again. “I have a domain to oversee. And why should I go chasing off to the land of the living? Everything, eventually, comes to me. It’s just a matter of waiting. I’m good at waiting.”
“But you could visit every now and then. Get you out and about.”
“Visit that garish ediface populated by vacuous idiots? No offence to you of course, my dear. You and your brother are frequent residents of my realm and I don’t really think of you in the same light as the others. How is your brother, by the way?”
The smile on Eris’s face slipped and she looked down at the glistening black steps of the dais. “I hope he is well. He has been away for some time, probably caught in a minor skirmish in some far off land. He may be with Father.”
“Zeus? Is he away also?”
“No doubt seducing beautiful women that my brother is busy turning into widows.”
For the first time since Eris stepped into his presence, Hades moved. He leaned forward and rested his silver-bearded chin on his fist. His dark eyes sparkled in the torchlight. “Hera sits on the throne of Olympus?”
Eris nodded. “When she isn’t giving me jobs.”
“So you’re not here on a social visit.”
“You are, as ever, most perceptive, uncle.”
“I like to think I’m a good judge of character. I am, afterall, the ultimate arbiter of how one spends eternity.”
“Yes, indeed. And my visit is connected to one of your subjects.”
Eris climbed the steps until her head was level with her uncle’s, his throne within touching distance. “My mother saw something… unusual.”
Hades remained as stony-faced as ever. “In what way?”
“She has been unusually interested in a couple of mortals that had been shipwrecked on my father’s personal island.” She raised her eyebrows to query her uncle’s knowledge.
He nodded. “I am aware of it. Go on.”
“They were escaping in a mystical boat. She was in the process of apprehending them when a creature of some sort intervened.”
“She described it as ‘skeletal’. Human skeletal.”
She could tell that Hades was digesting this information by the way his jaw muscles clenched imperceptibly. Although he was the most inscrutable of all the gods, she knew that the thought of one of the dead escaping his rule was intolerable to him. He might try to be as emotionless as stone but he couldn’t prevent the truth of his feelings seeping out in some small way. “Of course,” she continued, “it might be nothing. But Hera is rarely mistaken. The implication, though, is that somewhere out there,” she gestured behind and above her, “in the land of the living, there is someone that should be down here.”
“No-one has left the Underworld,” he stated.
“Can one ever be entirely certain of that?”
“I can. I would know.”
“Then what can it be? Surely no living thing. Which means it must be dead. Which means,” she paused and looked him straight in the eye, “it’s one of your subjects. At large, amongst the living.”
Hades said nothing. His nostrils flared slightly.
She shrugged. “Mother thought you ought to be made aware. If you are not interested in retrieving the creature then arrangements will be made.”
“Who said I’m not interested? This clearly falls into my remit.”
“Of course. Your remit, but not your domain. You said yourself that you prefer not to leave. I’m sure we can find some minion to track the creature down, eventually.”
“No. I shall see to it.”
Eris nodded. “Whatever it is, it must be extraordinarily cunning, surviving in the world. Maybe it is an escapee, maybe it isn’t. I bet news of such a creature will cause quite the hubbub down here.”
“There will be no hubbub.”
“Are you sure? Even your best men may let slip the secret. Unless…” she paused, a thoughtful look on her face.
“Unless you go yourself. I’m sure that would be the most secure way of resolving the issue. And the quickest.”
Hades grunted again.
“And if you went in disguise, no-one would ever know. Its last known location was here.” She flicked a wrist and a crude map shimmered in the air above her shoulder. “Given the expanse of sea I would suggest an albatross or dolphin would be an appropriate form.”
“Leave it with me, child.” He stood and placed a cold, pale hand on her shoulder. “Thank you for delivering your messages. Tell Hera that I will take care of this. Personally.”
After Eris had left, Hades stared straight ahead. “So, what did you make of that?” he asked aloud.
A shadow moved from behind a granite column and a young goddess appeared, robed in black and gold. “It seems that some unusual events are happening above us,” said Persephone.
“Yes. My brother absent, Ares missing and an apparently dead creature still with the living. Hmmm…”
Persephone moved to his side but also continued to stare at the doorway to the hall. “What are you thinking, husband?”
Hades remained silent for a while. His young wife was used to this and waited patiently for a response. “What,” he eventually said, “do you make of Eris?”
A faint smile appeared on Persephone’s face. “You know I always try to see the best in everyone; and she is my half-sister.”
“I wouldn’t trust her as far as I could spit her.”
“Do you think it’s a ploy by her or by her mother?”
“It’s a powerful mixture, the Goddess of Discord bringing a message on behalf of the Queen of Olympus who, it is said, has ambition and wile.”
Another silence stretched out and curled around the dark hall.
The Goddess of the Underworld finally looked down at Hades. “You said that you would deal with the matter ‘personally’.”
“But you won’t.”
“Of course not. I merely wished her to leave with that impression.”
“But the matter still needs investigating.”
“It all needs investigating. Zeus, Ares, Hera – and this ‘creature’.”
“Eris mentioned some mortals and an enchanted boat. Do they need investigating as well?”
“They probably do. If Hera wants them then I want to know why. Perhaps we will find them when we find the creature.”
“Who will you send?”
Hades breathed in deeply and let out a long sigh. “I have someone in mind.”
“The Furies?” suggested Persephone.
“They lack tact. And they’re easily distracted by their pet obsessions.”
“Thanatos or Macaria? If the creature is truly dead then one of them should reap its soul.”
“Granted. But I doubt they will be capable of the guile I require when it comes to the Olympians. I will, nonetheless, have them prepared for a trip once we know more.”
“How about Erebus or Nyx?”
“I do not think that the ancient powers of the night will help shed light on the situation. No, we require someone with the ability to loosen tongues.”
“Tartarus?” said Persephone with some surprise.
“No dearest. Not a torturer. We need someone who is a friend and companion to all, someone who gains the confidence of everyone yet belongs nowhere.”
Persephone smiled. “Ah. Him.”
The sun was sitting low in the sky and Xanthius was examining his toes. He had spent a relaxing day alternating between basking in the warm sunshine and sheltering from its fiercest heat by collapsing into a shady corner. He vaguely wondered what the others were up to but was content in the knowledge that they could probably cope with most things a small island could throw at them. He wiggled his toes. He had never really observed them when he was alive. Toes were just the stubby finger-like things on his feet: he’d only really looked at them if they gave him grief, such as having a barrel dropped on them or getting salt water sores. Perhaps it was the fact that without skin to hide the mechanics of movement he could marvel at the individual intricate bones that made up each toe, each foot.
He wiggled them again. A small strip of pliable grey gristle came adrift of its moorings and fell off. Xanthius wasn’t sure what it was but it didn’t seem to make any difference to his ability to move his toes. He peered closer. There were definitely some bones that had no tangible connection to any other part of him, yet they maintained their natural position and continued to move at his will. He stared hard at the tip of his big toe on his right foot. After a few seconds it detached and moved upwards. With his jaw clenched tight, he concentrated and sent the toe bone on a journey around the deck of the Sun Barge, wobbling and bobbing as if controlled by an invisible puppeteer. It completed its circumnavigation and resumed its position on his foot.
“Ha!” exclaimed the dead sailor, delighted with his experiment. “And now, for the best party trick ever!” He stood on the deck and looked up to the sky. With a gentle click his skull ascended upwards to the height of three men and then slowly rotated, grinning manically.
As his eyeless face swung round to view the open sea, he saw the sail of a small boat approaching the island.