Consciousness returned to Silas, alongside unbearable pain. He let out a low groan, his eyes opening slowly. His head was spinning, and he was being dragged along through the asphodel. “I am sorry about this, Mister Nash,” said Persephone, her voice soft, and a bit sorrowful. “I really am. You seem like a genuinely decent man. But the laws of Zeus are sacrosanct. The agents of the Horsemen are agents of the Titans themselves, seeking to overthrow the gods and to destroy mankind. The only appropriate way to deal with you is with Tartarus. I shall leave a plea with the judges that they show you mercy in whatever torment they decide you must undergo, Mister Nash. I only hope that you can find it in yourself to understand why this is necessary.”
He drifted. He was wrapped in thick chains of iron, and being dragged across the ground. The memories of what had happened to him returned. “Fall. Didn’t kill me?” His voice was rough, throat dry, lips cracked.
“Even if you are still alive, there is little that can kill in the underworld. Plenty that can hurt, though.” The woman sighed softly, shaking her head. “Personally speaking, I find it all a bit draconian, but I understand my husband. He does not choose to enforce the punishments. It is simply in his nature. I hope you can find it in you to forgive him.” She set him down on the ground. The man in the dragon mask, the man in the wolf mask, and the man in the bull mask loomed over him. They stared at him silently as he sat in front of them. “Do not try to fight them. You would not stand a chance against all three.”
“Did they make it out safely?” Persephone nodded, and he let out a sigh of relief. “Then I guess this is the way things were supposed to end up.” Hades had said that he needed to have faith. Perhaps this was what he had meant. Nash looked up at the three dour masked men. He took a deep breath, and stood up, slowly. It was difficult with his arms bound to his sides by the heavy chains, but he stood with his head high, his back straight. “I will hear what my crimes are, and what you believe to be an appropriate punishment.”
“Your crimes are many,” rumbled Minos. “Locked within your mind by the artifice of your mistress. Now, your soul ready to be sentenced, they become apparent to us. You have done violence to your betters. You have not honored your mother’s memory. You have forgotten the place of your mother’s bones. You have believed yourself the equal of gods. You have accepted the power of the Horsemen. You have spread chaos and horror. You have spilled the blood of those who are divine. You are an evil and dark thing, and your fate is clear. But do you have anything to say in your defense?”
He felt like his guts had been ripped out. Cassie had betrayed him. She’d thrown him in here. Could she be an agent of the Horsemen-? No. She was the one person who couldn’t be. She could have just refused to help, and he would’ve been helpless twice over. She was doing this for a reason. And a flash of red hair made Nash realize the reason.
Maybe this was the happy ending. Maybe he was meant to wind up in this place. He reached out with his senses, trying to feel Ariel, Heather, or Gene. There was no sign of them. They were gone. Instead, he felt someone else entirely. The fields of asphodel suddenly became grey, as a woman in a red dress walked out of them. With green eyes and a gunmetal smile, she stepped in front of him, her expression nostalgic. “Well, well, Nash. So this is how it ends, hmm? I really did think you would be more interesting than this.” She sighed softly, and shook her head. “It seems like you’re a failure, just like all of the others.”
He managed to muster defiance. He was so tired, but he had enough left in him to sneer. “You failed, Bella,” he said, not caring about the looks that the judges exchanged. He’d been talking to himself all his life. “Even if I am your thing. Even if I was doing your bidding. Dean was freed. He’s safe. They’re all safe. Nobody had to die, except maybe me. And I’m willing to offer myself up for the chance to see all your plans fail.” He grinned. “I finally won, you hateful bitch. Cassandra did the right thing.”
Then, she began to laugh wildly, her voice pitching up rapidly towards the manic, her teeth flashing in the light as she bent forward, slapping her knee. “What in the hell do you think is so funny?” he hissed, his eyes narrowed, a vein in his forehead beginning to throb.
“You think the game is over because one of my pieces is captured? Oh, Nash. Sweet Nash. You useless son of a bitch. You were never anything but a distraction. A big noisy bull to distract people from the subtle knife.” Bella lifted her hand nonchalantly. On her wrist was a rather nice Rolex. She clucked her tongue as she checked the watch. “If you’ll pardon me, my other servitor needs me. Enjoy Tartarus, my disappointing champion. You deserve it.” She laughed softly, as she vanished, disappearing into the ether. All that remained of her were the mocking echos.
He stared at the open air. The three judges were watching him with hands concealed in robes, the hard lines of weapons visible. The other person she was manipulating. But surely, with everyone in the morgue, they would be able to handle it. Dio had said that the most difficult thing that a person could do was to do nothing at all. There were many capable people on the surface to deal with whatever had happened. He wasn’t of any use to them anymore.
“I have nothing more to say in my defense,” He said, his head hanging low as he closed his eyes. There was nothing for it now. He would accept the punishment for trying to stand up. Someone else could worry about saving the day. He wasn’t the hero. He wasn’t even a champion. He was just an idiot.
“Very well. For the crimes that you have committed and abetted, your punishment will be a return to the darkness. Within the depths of Tartarus, you shall see your own life, time and again, trapped within the decisions that have brought you to this moment.” Minos said, his voice sonorous. The king produced a large steel mask. It depicted a screaming human face on the outside. Nash stared at it, eyes widening. The nightmares in Tartarus. Again, and again, and again. The king lifted it into the air. “Thus always to the servants of evil,” he rumbled, his voice low.
Nash moved explosively. He lunged forward, his skull colliding with Minos’ solar plexus His head rang with the force of the blow, but the man was clearly stunned. He couldn’t feel the power of the elements, but he still had his rage. He strained, pulling at the chains as hard as he could. Nash wasn’t ready to give up, here. They still needed him, even if they didn’t think they did. The chains refused to budge. He gritted his teeth. The spirits weren’t helping him. They had said that the gifts they gave him were for good. Was it a lie? Had they abandoned him here, now that they had no more use for him?
He watched as Minos drew a great axe out from his robe. “This will not kill you, human. But you will very much wish you were dead. You have raised your fist against the Kings of the Underworld. What happens to you now is on your head.” The great king raised his axe into the air. There was a distant rumble, and Minos frowned, looking around as Nash struggled fruitlessly with his bonds.
A great, spherical boulder rolled through the asphodel, plowing Minos down. Dozens of black-feathered arrows fell on the dragon-masked king like a murder of crows. The judge lifted his cloak into the air, catching the arrowheads in it, though one sank an inch into his mask. A figure, lean and rangy, rose out of the asphodel, carrying a single-bladed copper sword, which he sank into the chest of the wolf-masked judge.
“Nash!” shouted Sisyphus, racing up. He bent low over Nash, grabbing ahold of the chains. He had a chunk of diamond in one hand, and brought it down with his wiry, terrible strength on the liks. He raised the glittering chunk of gemstone for a second strike, when Minos lunged up from behind him. Sisyphus must have seen the look in Nash’s eyes, because he spun, and dodged out of the way of a tremendous axe blow. Nash hopped backwards and overbalanced, landing on his ass as the fight raged.
Sisyphus was dodging each blow from the bull-masked king, showing no apparent exhaustion, a grin on his face. There was no sign of Ixion, but the arrows continued to rain down on the dragon-masked king, forcing him on the defensive as he ran for the cover of one of the groves of dead trees. Tantalus’ opening blow had not apparently killed the wolf-masked king, who had drawn a gleaming bronze sword. Tantalus dodged around blows with surprising speed for someone who hadn’t eaten in millenia. He seemed to be trying to get his hands on the blade, to draw it out of the king’s chest. The wolf-masked king was not cooperating.
As Sisyphus dodged a blow, Nash managed to get to his feet. He threw himself forward into Minos, catching the king in the side. Temporarily off balance, Minos couldn’t avoid the chunk of diamond in Sisyphus’ hand when it smashed across his jaw, cracking the mask. A second blow came down, and the mask tore, revealing a skeletal jaw visible beneath the metal. At that moment, an arrow thudded into the ground by their feet
A quick look around showed the dragon-masked king wielding a massive horn bow, strung with sinews, crouched behind a tree covered in Ixion’s arrows. The open field was becoming increasingly dangerous. “Go for cover!” Nash shouted, and Sisyphus nodded, lifting the agent over one shoulder.
“Tantalus! A strategic withdrawal!” The emaciated king nodded. With a quick roll, he darted inside of the wolf king’s range, his hand grabbing the hilt of the sword. There was a meaty thud as the lean prisoner’s foot slammed into the king’s robes, somewhere in his midsection. Nash could guess where from the low wheeze that drifted out of the mask. Sisyphus and Tantalus raced towards the vast spit of black marble that lead into the heart of Tartarus.
“We’ve got a plan to get you out, Nash! But we’re going to need to get rid of those Kings, first! Is there any chance that you’re going to be able to fight them off if I can get those chains off of you?” Sisyphus asked. Ixion stood at the mouth of the path into Tartarus, a bow in his hands. It was a crude thing, bone and gut, but it danced in his hands, arrows firing into the gloom.
“I- Maybe! But Sisyphus, what on earth brought you up here?” Nash could see the judges following. Minos and the wolf-masked king were in close pursuit, while the dragon-masked judge followed at a distance, firing arrows occasionally that the three sinners dodged along the way.
“Oh, hell if I know! Call it hope.” Sisyphus laughed wildly, as the boulder rumbled after them, like an dog chasing its master. Minos was forced to leap to the side as the boulder swept past him. Nash and the three sinners raced up the black marble, and down, into the depths of Tartarus.
“Nash.” The voice was terribly weak, but filled with fierce determination nonetheless. He lifted his head. Pearl was there. That is to say, Promethea was there. She was naked, her voice soft, but with the same determination that he had seen in her while she was locked in chains. “I’m here for you,” she whispered, her voice soft. Nash felt a sudden calm come over him, as her presence soothed him. Sisyphus dropped him roughly to the ground. Tantalus and Ixion took up flanking positions, their weapons ready, as the judges charged them.
As Ixion fired a hail of arrows at their foes, Sisyphus raised the diamond into the air, and brought it down. There was a loud, metallic clang as the chains began to bend. He lifted the stone again, and brought it down with all his strength. The chain broke.
The rage consumed him like a bonfire. Betrayed by those he trusted, discarded after he had been useful, dismissed as a mere pawn. The red haze of madness began to cover the world, and then suddenly he was in control again. The burning became cold, and his mind cleared. He let out a breath, his eyes snapping open as the three judges charged. The whole world seemed to be moving in slow motion. He reached out, snatching an arrow from the air as it bore down on Tantalus’ forehead. He turned away from the judges, tendons creaking under the force of his movement, haft of the arrow catching fire as he maintained its momentum, and then accelerated it. He threw the arrow back, pinning the wolf-masked king against an outcropping of diamond.
He charged forward as Minos and the dragon-masked judge bore down on him. The latter swung his bow in a broad arc. Nash plucked it out of the man’s hands, and held it in the path of the axe. There was a splintering crash as the bow was sheared into two equal lengths of horn, the sinew hanging off of them. Nash lashed out with one, the sinew wrapping around the dragon-masked judge’s wrist, providing a perfect leverage. With the other hand, he swept the other bowstring around Minos’s wrist. With a tremendous effort, he pulled the two men together, his arms aching with the sheer strain as their metal masks crunched together.
The two kings fell to the ground, and Nash felt the rage drain away. Instead of the usual shaky horror at what he’d just done, he felt perfect serenity with himself. He turned, and saw Promethea standing in front of him, her eyes blazing, a smile on her face. “You were the one who told Cassandra to leave me here. You spoke with her before we entered Tartarus. Why would you help me now?” he asked, frowning.
“I don’t know why precisely I will tell the girl to force you to stay behind here.” Promethea said, her voice soft, and gentle, as the three sinners picked over the unconcious, heavily injured kings. “But I would not sentence anyone to spend their lifetime here in Tartarus. If I did tell her to do this, it was not out of hate for you.” She stepped forward, and wrapped her arms around him. “They’re getting you out of here,” she whispered softly, squeezing him. “Trust them. At least for now.” With that, she vanished, leaving behind just the memory of her warm body pressed against his.
The group walked through the dark shadows of Tartarus, underneath the artillery-shell thumping of the heart. “You three really came back to save me?” Nash asked, unable to keep the disbelief out of his voice. “I’ll be honest, I thought you were pretty focused on your- Well, your torments. Sisyphus, this is time you could be chipping away at the top of your mountain. Ixion, you must have given up your chance to ride the wheel to do this. And Tantalus-”
“With any luck, when we get back, some fruit will have fallen,” Tantalus said. “That’s how you’re getting back to the surface. It’s the best chance we have of getting you out.”
“Why?” It was a simple question, and he seemed to take the three men by surprise with it. They exchanged looks, eyebrows raised.
“Why, lad?” Sisyphus asked, and snorted. “Because damned be the gods. You showed compassion and thought, and now they’re tossing you down here. Whatever reason they might cite for that, they’re wrong.”
“But, I mean… Are you going to stop trying to get revenge or prove the gods wrong? Are you hoping that you’ll be freed for good behavior?”
“Hades with that, Nash. We’re not going to stop trying to escape. But just because we’re obsessed doesn’t mean we’re compulsive. Now come on.” They were approaching the great stone bridge, with its long moat of fire. Nash stopped.
“There’s something we have to do, first. It’ll only take a minute.” Nash moved towards the stone where Promethea still lay. She opened her eyes as he approached. He reached down, and snapped the bonds holding down her wrists and her ankles, the strength of earth flowing back into him. She stared at him, surprised, as he ripped the chains open. “You don’t get a happy ending unless you make it happen.” He bent forward, and pecked her forehead quickly after she sat up.
Then, the five of them made their way across the bridge together. Promethea stood tall, the fire bending backwards away from them, as though recoiling in fear from her. They walked past the great hill, and its cupped top. They entered the great lake of water, and Tantalus stepped forward. “Wait a second-” Nash started, as Tantalus reached up. The fruit did not recoil from the skeletal hand, as he pulled one of the plums down. Tantalus turned, smiling a bit.
“The fruit was never for me to eat, I suppose.” He looked down at it, his head tilted. “I suppose that whatever my escape from this place is, it is not through the tests that Hades has set for me. I will escape, have no fear of that. But I suppose that I must do it on my own terms. I must become a different man than I was when I came to this dark land.” He placed the plum in Nash’s hand. “And you are the man you need to be, to venture into the light again.”
He stared down at the fruit. And the uncertainty filled him. “Promethea. I can feel War inside of me. She gave me a gift, when I was very young, and I think that it was to make me do something horrible today. What if…” He took a deep breath. “Maybe I’m supposed to be here. Maybe this really is what I’m meant to do.”
Promethea took hold of his hands, squeezing them. “Nash. When you were asked to choose a cause to fight for, to dedicate your life to, you chose to give people happy endings. Even betrayed, you are willing to stay in Tartarus for the sake of the people you care about.” She held his hands between hers, and pulled them against her chest. “I can feel War in you. She burns with madness, and she drives you to rage, and pain. But my gift is stronger. You have the focus you need so that your rage is never your master.” She looked up at him. “Passion, belief, emotion, these are the things that make you a human. They are beautiful things, not to be feared. You will always have control with me in your heart.”
She stood up on her toes. Her lips met his, warm as a furnace. The kiss held for several long seconds, before she finally released it, her eyes wet. “You still have to live. You haven’t given everyone a happy ending yet. Remember that.” She looked up into his eyes. Tears were dripping down her cheeks. “I won’t have a happy ending without you, Nash.” She lifted the plum from his hands, and held it gently to his lips.
He bit into it. It was the most deliciously sweet thing he had ever tasted. The sweet juices dripped down his cheeks, as he chewed and swallowed. His stomach rumbled loudly, in protest. It felt like it had been a long time since he’d last had the chance to stop and eat something real. It would have been… the feast.
Warm summer days, and bright light, and things worth living for. If he stayed here, he’d never be with them again. He’d never get a chance to enjoy the company of the people he cared about. And for the first time, perhaps, he realized that he loved them, and the little town, and that nothing would ever be able to make him hurt the people of Zion. There was a moment of utter peace and serenity that ran through him. And then, he was gone, leaving behind the four solitary figures in the pulsing glow of the heart of Tartarus.
“Do you think he has a chance?” Tantalus asked, frowning.
“Fighting one of the Horsemen? He’ll be back among us before you know it.” Ixion shook his head. “I can’t believe I agreed to this plan. What could have possessed you, Sisyphus?”
“Mmm. Maybe I just wanted a chance to play the hero, for once. Being a trickster is all well and good, but there’s something satisfying about being direct.” Sisyphus opened and closed his hand. “And you know what? That felt good.” He grinned. “Another one over that bastard Zeus.”
“And if it means that the Horsemen succeed?”
“Pfah. They’re things of men. They cannot exist without humans to give them meaning. Nothing that old is suicidal.”
Ixion shook his head, as the four of them watched the ceiling. Then, Promethea spoke. “He will succeed. A man like that could succeed at anything he puts his mind to.” She looked down at her wrists, flexing her hands slowly, and smiled. “How would you gentlemen like to help me kill an eagle?”
The earth poured down Nash’s throat. He was buried in slimy, wet mud. He reached up, his arms straining through the mud. There was no air for him. He dragged at the slick mud, trying to propel himself upwards, searching for some handhold. His fingers reached out, scrabbling, and closed on something stone. He could remember nightmares he’d had about drowning, and nightmares about being buried alive. This was the worst of both worlds. He tried to cough out the earth, but that just left his lungs burning for oxygen.
He scrambled at the stone, pulling his other hand free of the cloying mud. Then slowly, painfully, he pulled himself free. He felt cold air on his face, as he broke the surface. He spat up a large wad of earth, panting, as the fresh air filled his lungs and pushed the darkness away. There was a gentle rain falling as he climbed free of the muddy earth, pulling himself up onto the stone slab.
Nash rubbed the mud out of his eyes, feeling tears run down his cheeks. The rain helped, clearing the earth as he blinked owlishly. He was standing in the middle of the graveyard. His suit was ruined. His heart was thumping in his ears, the rush of oxygen feeding his starving brain. He looked around. He was miles from the police station, and he didn’t have a car. He began walking, up towards the woods, and the hotel.
His body was aching, and his throat was raw. He could still taste the bitter mud as he walked slowly through the woods, struggling his way through branches and across slippery undergrowth. The bright grey of pre-dawn filled the sky through the clouds. He walked for what felt like far too long, stumbling on the muddy path between the trees. Could it have been less than a day since he walked the trail for the Eleusinian mysteries? At least this time, he reflected, it wasn’t while he was tripping his balls off on tainted Greek wine. You had to find your victories where you could.
It was the dawn of his fifth day, he realized. He had been so caught up in the chaos of this place that he hadn’t had a chance to check in regularly with the field office in Buffalo. There was going to be hell to pay for that. The idea was strangely comforting. After all, if the worst that he had to worry about was an angry assistant director, then he was doing fairly well. He smiled, and even managed a chipper little laugh, as he stumbled up a steep slope covered in dead leaves from the previous year. The little joys and pains of life. Maybe by the time he got to the others, the other minion of War would be defeated. Maybe he would arrive there and they could all have a happy meal together. He could treat everyone to dinner at Ariel’s. That sounded just perfect to him.
He reached the top of the ridge, and a gap in the trees gave him a good view of the town. The sun was peeking over the edge of the horizon, glittering brightly. There were a few isolated places were smoke was rising from the city, but from here, it looked unharmed. The dome was gone from over the Japanese suburb. And near the lake, hanging over the police station, a massive eye hung in the sky, about a mile up.
It had to be a few hundred feet across at least, and it darted and twirled madly. A colossal white orb, it stared into his soul, brilliant golden iris surrounding a black slitted pupil. It stared at him. He felt the world lurch around him, and then he dropped unconsciously into a stance. The eye darted away, breaking its glare as though frightened, scanning across the valley’s bottom. He felt calm return to him, his shoulders shaking slightly. He could feel the cold brilliance of Promethea’s power inside of him, holding the madness back. He looked down at the valley, as the consequences of what had just happened dawned on him.