This is the next chapter of my book, Summoning Persephone.
The story so far: 18 year old Persephone holds a vendetta against Zeus, God of Thunder and the Heavens, for murdering her sisters for reasons as yet unknown to her. Zeus is also well known as a tyrant who enjoys killing people for blaspheming him, including people from Persephone's home. For these reasons, Persephone conspires to kill Zeus by offering a tribute at the Summoning Ceremony to Athena, the Goddess of War. Through this process, she hopes to gain the powers of Athena as her disciple so she's strong enough to end Zeus once and for all. But things go awry when Athena discovers her plan to wage war against another god, and she rejects Persephone at the Summoning Ceremony. On top of this, Persephone has angered Artemis, the Goddess of the Hunt, because she killed the winter stag, an animal that Artemis holds sacred, as a tribute to Athena. Now Artemis wants her dead for disrespecting her and the other gods.
At the time when Persephone killed the winter stag, she met Hades, who took an interest in her. He shows up at the Summoning Ceremony just to see how things play out with Persephone's motivations. After suffering the consequences of angering both Artemis and Athena, Hades intervenes by Summoning her. He mostly does this to save Persephone's life, but also because he sees her potential to be his disciple in the Underworld. Persephone agrees, and Hades takes her to his kingdom, where he reveals to her that he wants her to be his first Reformer - helping choose souls to bring out of Tartarus (Hell) to be reborn.
During her time in the Underworld, Persephone discovers that there is a weapon hidden away in Tartarus that can destroy both gods and titans. Now her mission is to retrieve the weapon so she can kill Zeus with it. Hades does not know about her motivations and he does not know which god she has a vendetta against.
In the previous chapters, Persephone has successfully stolen Hades' armor which was created to protect him from the fires of Tartarus. She has also stolen the keys. In this chapter, she arrives at the gate of Tartarus.
Sadi’s traveling stone only takes me as far as the thin stretch of land in the middle of Oceanus. I linger at the edge of the black water, next to the boat where Hades brought me before. Beyond, the river of fire burns brightly against the night.
So. I am here. I have the suit. I have the keys. And I have a dangerous weapon. Still, it takes me a moment to find the courage to move. Stiffly, I climb into the boat and take a seat. From there, it’s just a matter of sitting patiently as the vessel floats off the shore and into the dark waters, carrying me towards the eye of Tartarus.
Out of reflex, I keep my arms inside at all times, despite the armor. The flames of the Phlegethon crawl closer as the boat drifts further, and I can feel the overwhelming dry heat when it turns, carrying me directly into the river. I’m sweating into the suit, and I can’t tell if it's from trepidation or the flames.
Throughout the circular journey to the gate, I contemplate what I’m going to do once I’m inside. I have no plan whatsoever, despite having the tools I need. Now that I’m sitting still, I start to worry a little. I truly have no idea what I’m going to face down there. Apparently, I only made it so far inside with Hades before I blacked out. What if that happens to me again?
We draw nearer to the center of the curling fire-river, and as I mull over my thoughts, my body tenses as if ready to flee at the sight of the black gate rising from the ocean. I realize that I’m clutching the sides of the boat with an anxious grip, and I have to consciously peel my fingers away.
It will be all right. I breathe. It will be all right. Won’t it?
The boat makes its last sweep around the Phlegethon, and I can’t believe how quick the journey was as the vessel slows to a stop at the edge of the platform. I stare up at the raised metal steps. Am I really here already?
Again, it’s hard to find the will to move from the boat, but somehow, I do.
Rising, I take one step out and place my foot on the platform. Then the other. My movements are slow and mechanical as if someone else is controlling my body. The fact that I’m still invisible adds to the disorienting sensation.
I climb up the rest of the steps with no great rush, and the sounds of my feet hitting the ground are like claps of thunder.
I make it to the seal.
Standing there, I stare down at the doors beneath my feet. It dawns me as I assess the seal leading to literal hell the lengths I am willing to go for revenge. My entire body trembles slightly, once again, as if it knows something my mind refuses to remember. My sweat inside the gauntlets, and out of habit, I rub my fingers against my hands as if to wipe them. I ripple into sight again. Despite the nerves, being able to see my body makes me feel a bit more grounded.
I hold my hands up and look at my covered palms. My fingers. Trying to find the strength to do what I need to do. This is the way my father prays, with his hands cupped to the sky. This brings me comfort. If I have nothing else, I have my father’s hands. Hands that can build and rebuild. Hands that killed a winter stag.
I clench them into fists and take a deep breath. Yes. I can do this.
I let my hands fall to my sides, finding renewed hope. I look at the door again, my gaze tracing the intricate carving of the battle with the Titans. Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon triumph over a group of giants in a haze of thunder and waves and darkness. My eyes lock with the depiction of the God of Thunder and Skies, and for a moment, anger overrides any fear that I have.
For Serena. For Callista. I will find that weapon and kill Zeus with it.
I hold the words to heart like a keepsake. Then I reach into my pocket and fish out the keys.
I don’t know which will open the door, but they are all the same size, about the length of my finger. Kneeling down over the eyelet at the center of the seal, I start randomly sticking in different keys until I feel the lock click.
The ground shakes beneath me, followed by the sound of groaning cogs turning. Standing, I quickly step away from the parting doors. The seal yawns all the way open, and I’m looking down into the cavernous black throat.
This is the last thing I remember before Hades took me down there.
I have to swallow back my fear, find my will to move again. And then, I do. I take the first step onto that winding staircase leading to hell. Then another. Another. Sinking further into the abyss, I embrace the darkness, don’t look back as I hear the doors coming to a close above me, effectively shutting out all light and sound from the outside.
The glow of Sadi’s lantern forms a purple halo around me. The only source of light for me now. I just keep moving, letting my feet guide me further and further down into the pit. My fingers trace the stone wall, keeping me balanced as I put one step in front of the other. The further I get, the danker the air becomes. The smell of something distinctly old festers in the cool air, like mold and dust and dirt.
The stairs become craggier and more perilous with every step I take. My eyes are locked on every square of crumbling stone, my hand braced tensely against the wall to keep me from tripping. If I lose my balance, I don’t know where that fall will end.
I keep moving. I’m walking for so long that I lose track of the time. Minutes and minutes pass, and eventually, I start to wonder if there is even an end to this tunnel. Impatient and more than a little apprehensive, I barely contain myself from sprinting down the rest of the way.
Wary of the unstable slabs of rock under me, I increase my pace, keeping my feet steady and my hand against the wall at all times.
Finally, I reach a stretch of solid, flat ground at what appears to be - mercifully - the end of the staircase. In front of me is a hallway leading up to a round door.
Wary, I walk slowly through the corridor. Holding up the lantern, I let the light fall over the seal on the door. I don’t know what to make of the disturbing images carved into the stone. The renderings are a maze of winged, vicious beasts with human-like faces and sharp claws, ugly, mangled trees, and human limbs twisting out from the roots. The number “one” is carved into center surrounding the keyhole.
Level one. This must lead to the Wood of the Suicides.
In the heavy darkness, the only sound I can hear is that of my controlled breaths as I try again to find my courage. Not quite ready to unlock the door, I raise a hand and press it flat against the surface.
I can’t know or measure the danger I’m about to face. This is serious. I was reckless before, but I can’t be now. If I can’t find this weapon, this Soul Chord...if my life is threatened by whatever is in here, then I need to leave. Even if that means abandoning my mission.
Hades told me to call his name if I ever needed him. I’m not sure exactly how that works, but I find reassurance in the idea that he’s given me access to communicate with him if I need to. Hades is my lifeline, but only as a last resort. I’ve pissed off too many gods already, and I’ve done more than enough to anger the God of the Underworld.
Silent, I take my hand off the door. There’s a sensation like a boulder has dropped into the pit of my stomach, but I ignore it. I reach into my pocket and draw out the ring of keys. Test each one in the lock hole.
When I find the right one, the outer ring surrounding the lock begins to spin. I step back and watch the seal come open like a disc severed by lightning at the center.
The door opens fully, and I’m peering into a black chasm.
This darkness is different somehow. I can feel it. Endless and pervasive, an entity in and of itself. I stand there, facing that darkness with a brave facade, knowing that crossing this threshold will be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
I swallow back my fear, for all that it helps, and step into the void.