My novel, Summoning Persephone, continued. Thank you to @BlueAfrica for reviewing and everyone else who has been reading along.
The story so far:
8 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 previous chapters, Persephone got what she needed to get into the prison (Hades armor, keys to Tartarus, and a mysterious flaming weapon), and fought off some harpies with the help of the Suicides. They've taken her underground.
Creatures of the Dark
My saviors seem to know exactly where they are going despite the lack of light. They are familiar with the darkness, unafraid of it, if not at home with it. I try to walk straight and stick to the path, but I keep straying, bumping into trees and the others. Someone sighs, then grabs my elbow to guide me back onto the trail.
“Newcomers,” someone else - a boy - mutters under his breath.
I’m too weak and hurt to feel insulted or patronized. I’m just grateful that I’m not all alone in the wood, that they’re helping me. And maybe they’ll know where I can find Soul Chord. I wonder at the probability of that as we move.
After some time, everyone comes to a halt. There’s movement and the sound of wood and rock being pushed aside. A second later, someone lights a torch. I blink at the suddenness of the light. A young man is holding the flame, the light of which is contained because he’s inside an alcove in a large tree. The opening forms a tall, deep bower. The young man with the torch heads further inside, the light following him as he descends underground. The others go after him one by one, and I follow suit, the girl with the blond hair walking after me.
Once everyone goes in, the girl rolls back a large, plate-like stone to cover the entryway. A tall, brown-haired by lingers back, waiting for her.
As the others walk ahead, they watch me with a mix of curiosity and suspicion, their eyes hovering over my armor.
“Where did you get that?” The boy asks, looking the suit up and down. He is wearing rags, like the others.
“It’s mine,” I tell him conservatively.
The boy and girl share a loaded look. The girl looks at me oddly.
“You’re not one of us, are you?”
I let a long moment pass, deliberating, and then decide to tell them. After all, they did save my life, and I will need their help finding Soul Chord.
I shake my head. “No.”
They look at each other again, their expressions perplexed and suspicious.
“How did you come here?” The girl asks.
“I used the key.” The minute I say it, I wonder if this is information I should be sharing. If the key is something they would want. Something they would try to take from me. My hand hovers protectively over my pocket.
But neither of them appear to be interested in the key. Surprise colors the brown-haired boy’s face.
“Don’t the keys belong to the Judges?”
“I borrowed them.”
“And who are you, exactly?” the blonde girl demands.
“My name is Persephone,” I tell them. “I’m looking for something. A weapon. It’s hidden here.”
I wait for knowledge to flash across their faces, but it’s clear that they have no idea what I’m talking about.
The torch light starts to fade away as the group progresses ahead of us. The boy touches the girl lightly on the shoulder.
“Walk first, ask questions later?” he says.
The blonde girl’s dark brown eyes stay on me, still reserved and cautious. But she nods in agreement. With a last, wary glance in my direction, she walks off silently.
The boy turns to me. His eyes are a muted, warm green, his face youthful and kind.
“Better follow along then,” he says. “You don’t want to get lost in the Underpass.”
He holds an arm out, motioning for me to proceed. Assuming it’s now safe enough for light, I drop the cover from Sadi’s lantern. The violet glow falls over the earthen hall, and I follow the others with the boy walking behind me.
The tunnel is clearly made by human hands, wide enough to allow several people to walk through. The smell of something decaying, like decomposing flesh, and the dank earth, is more concentrated here than on the surface. I can almost taste it on my tongue. It makes me want to gag, and it only gets worse the deeper we descend.
Every so often, she and some of the others glance back at me with guarded expressions. Concealed as I am in Hades’ suit, I must look somewhat dangerous to them. Yet I doubt the impression I give off is that threatening, considering I was nearly ripped apart by the harpies and the fact that they had to rescue me. The blonde girl in particular doesn’t seem afraid of me. For her, it’s more as if I’m an intruder, rather than a threat.
“Where are we going?” I ask the boy. We are now walking side by side, with the girl just a few feet ahead of us.
He tells me, curtly, “To the Haunt,” and moves on ahead of me.
The descent is long and strenuous, as expected, and the air shifts from cold to warm to definitively hot the lower we go. I can hear gears churning and vibrating through the earthen walls, a reminder that we are contained inside the torture machine. From below, I think I can hear the faint sound of human screams, but I can’t be sure. Regardless, it makes goosebumps rise on my skin.
I’ve fallen a little ways behind the others, but the sounds I’m hearing make me rush to catch up. The boy with the kind eyes has faltered back a little, looking back to make sure I haven’t strayed. He waits for me as I run back to the group.
“That screaming,” I start. “Is that here?”
The boy shakes his head. “Those are the poor sods in the Torture Forges. That’s two levels below.”
My mind recoils at the name, at the faded screams. A wave of distress crawls up my skin like a million little spiders. The Torture Forges. That was as far as I got before I passed out.
I stare at the boy. My voice comes out in a strained whisper. “Is it always like that?”
He looks me dead in the eye. “Always.”
Something hot and suffocating wraps itself around my heart as that settles in. Hades’ solemn words from days ago come rushing back to me.
Yes. Always in excruciating pain.
The boy touches my arm, pulling me back to the present.
“What’s your name?” I ask him, if only just to distract myself. Regardless, I want to know the names of my saviors.
“Carles,” he tells me.
“Carles. Thank you.”
He shrugs. “Best not to dally around.”
I accompany him back to the flock, which has gotten a small distance away from us. The blonde girl has dropped behind to wait for him. He puts a reassuring arm around her shoulder when he catches up.
I walk after them in a daze, in pain, and the heat is sweltering. By the time we reach the end of the tunnel, I’m sweating into my suit. The group heads through the end of the tunnel, and we emerge into a cavernous dugout.
We are moving along a packed dirt walkway along the edge of the wall, with sconces lighting our way. A makeshift railing constructed from the branches of fleshy-limbed trees lines the edge of our path. There are openings in the walls covered with doors made from whatever could be found here; twigs and branches tied together with stringy tree roots, large pieces of old cloth, and large boulders. Below us, I can make out several more levels and more walkways forming bridges across the cavern. The darkness is interrupted by small bursts of light coming from torches and little bonfires.
There are a few hundred people lounging around in small groups or sitting by themselves, doing nothing in particular. Upon a closer observation with the torchlight illuminating the way, I can see that everyone is bone-thin and sickly looking, skin stretched taught over skeletal frames. They are slightly frightening to look at; if they were in the living world, I’d have thought they were all on the verge of dying.
The hunger is there in their faces, too, in their eyes, sucked into the black pits of their sockets. They barely look up or acknowledge us as we pass by, completely disinterested. Consumed either in pain or hunger - I can’t tell. I’ve never seen a people so miserable in my entire life.
Uncomfortable, I try not to stare at them for too long, looking away as they turn their heads in my direction. Clearly I am the odd one out.
When we reach the end of the walkway, a few from the group disperse across the cavern. Only a three remain - Carles, the blond girl, and a young man with dark hair and woody-brown skin. The young man glances at me without any emotion and looks to Carles.
“Someone will have to escort her out,” he says, jerking his chin towards me.
“No,” the blonde girl says fiercely, grasping Carles’ arm. Carles looks down at her indulgently, then turns back to the young man.
“I’ll take her to Hind. Maybe she can assign someone to do it,” he says.
“I’m not leaving,” I cut in. I didn’t go through everything I’ve gone through just to be sent away, Soul Chord-less. They all stare at me like I’m insane.
“I’ll take her to Hind, regardless,” Carles says reluctantly to the other boy.
The young man, seemingly glad to be rid of that responsibility, leaves. It’s just me and Carles and the girl. She is watching me, her expression less than welcoming.
By now, the heat is sweltering, and I can’t bear wearing Hades’ helmet any longer. Reaching up, I pull it off my head with a heavy huff. It doesn’t do much to help with the heat, but it feels good not having that weight on my head.
Carles and the girl stare at my face now that I’ve revealed it. I can’t imagine what I must look like. Bad, probably. Better than them, for certain.
Surprising me, Carles says, “Guess you need a minute to rest, don’t you?”
The blonde girl gives him a sharp look. He pats her shoulder.
“It’s fine,” I mutter. “I can stay out here.”
“It’s not safe even here.” Carles glances over the railing at the souls below.
I squint at the dark, and I see now that some of them are locked in cages. Sitting against the walls, they are unnaturally still, staring right at me. The blank, almost animalistic look in their eyes disturbs me. Somehow, they look more starved than the others.
Carles turns to the girl - his partner, I assume; I see that they’re wearing matching wooden bands around their fingers. He gives her an imploring look. Like he’s asking permission, it seems. She sighs heavily.
“You can come with us,” she finally says. She takes Carles by the hand and they head down the walkway steps.
Feeling the eyes of the other Suicides on me, I swiftly go after them.