Asterius preferred Tartarus to the labyrinth.
The heat was unbearable. The slate-bricked walls of his cell were rough and uninteresting. The green flicker of light from the witchfire torches made it difficult to sleep. But it was better.
Much better, even. The walls did not stretch on endlessly. His stomach did not burn with insatiable hunger, and the light, though irritating, was still a welcome change to the murky darkness of the maze. Tartarus was another prison, to be sure, but Asterius much preferred his cell.
He preferred its warden, too. Oh, the Furies had tormented him in the beginning. A matter of procedure, he had come to understand. The great Megaera was nothing if not industrious. Asterius could not remember for how long the Furies tortured him at first, trapping him in the pitch-black darkness and binding him in snake-like iron chains that pricked at his skin. If he screamed, the boiling heat only rose. If he pled, Alecto only cackled and delighted in his torment. If he struggled, the chains only cut deeper.
He stopped struggling long ago. He let fear overtake him. He let the cold, unfeeling monotony wash over him. He took their torment, for he deserved it. In life, he had been blind to his depravity. He had killed. He had hunted. It was not until another shade had paled at his sentencing paperwork that Asterius truly knew the horror of his crimes in life. Only hunger and pain survived of his blurry memories of his life above. But to be ignorant now - that would have been a mercy, and he deserved nothing of the sort.
But it had been some time since the furies had seen fit to punish him. Perhaps he had atoned for his crimes. Perhaps they had more important monsters to discipline. Whatever the case, Asterius was grateful for it.
His afterlife was a quiet one now. In the mornings, he paced about his stone cage. In the afternoons, he trained his scarred husk of a body by lifting crumbling bricks from the floor (to what end, he did not know, but kind King Sisyphus had recommended it). In the evenings, he roamed the common halls of Tartarus, trading simple greetings and mostly hollow pleasantries with the other prisoners. They were not all so terrible, but years of torment had left many of the other shades blank-faced and timid. Yet, strangely enough, not too timid to talk to him. To see him as a brother in torment. In life, the humans had thought him an abomination. In death, he was no different than any other monster condemned to Tartarus. Asterius was grateful for that too.
King Sisyphus taught him Greek words sometimes, though his command of the language was still minimal. In life, it was Ariadne who had taught him his first words in whispered lessons snuck through the bars of his underground cell. It was she who had been his lifeline until he was condemned to the maze. His words rusted with time and eternal silence, just as his eyes grew used to the unending darkness. When the Athenians came into his maze, screaming and kicking... They were not much for conversation.
Even if they had, Asterius was not… He was not right then. With all its darkness and pain, the maze withered his sanity bit by bit. The hunger unmade him, leaving only a husk. A beast. A monster.
He was a murderer. A slayer of mere children, though it was no choice of his own. His blunted teeth had ripped into their decaying flesh. His hands and horns struck down the ones who dared fight him, even if he had never wanted to. Mad or not, the crimes were his alone to bear. So when the Furies came for him, Asterius accepted their torment, knowing that he deserved every lash.
Alecto had come for him first, in the time before he truly knew the depths of his crimes. She gave Asterius no explanation, only sneering derision and her molten whip. She reveled in his pain, and even more in his confusion and misery. Asterius did not like her. (Though Asterius supposed that very few ever liked their torturers). When Alecto left to torment others, Asterius had assumed that his next torturer would be even harsher. He was wrong. Tisiphone took over his sentence. Like her sister before her, Tisiphone punished him mercilessly, screeching of his murders all the while. Unlike her sister before her, Asterius found a sort of peace with Tisiphone. She was mad, not cruel. Hm.
In some ways, he appreciated the pain. It was viscerally unpleasant, of course, and Asterius was no masochist. (Though, some shades had become masochists in their time below.) But it broke the crushing monotony of Tartarus. It signaled the passage of time where no sun shone and no moon rose. Tartarus was much like the labyrinth in that way. His sessions of torment tethered him Hm. Perhaps his madness lingered.
In the beginning, the pain was a constant thing, unending and quickly refreshed by his tormentors. But over time, his sentence must have lightened. Or perhaps the Furies simply realized that nothing left in Asterius remained whole enough to be broken. Even Tisiphone, eager as she once was to punish his murders, seemed to find little pleasure in tormenting him. His shade wardens no longer kept him confined to his cell, though every night he still returned to rest on his scavenged pile of hay. It was no woolen blanket (he was unused to such soft things besides - in the labyrinth, the simple bedding King Minos had allowed him had quickly worn out), but the straw softened the rough edges of the stone beneath him. In the depths of Hades, Asterius could hardly ask for any more luxury than that.
Asterius roamed the winding halls of Tartarus as often as he pleased. For as often as the rooms shifted, the ever-changing paths did not bother Asterius. They should have. Surely, they should have, as closely as they mimicked his prison in life. Yet, whenever Asterius wished to return to his cell, the halls easily wove a path for him to return. It was as though this realm served to welcome him rather than drive him mad.
No, Asterius knew better. Perhaps after all this time, he had simply gone unnoticed - passed over in favor of louder offenders. King Sisyphus had found no such relief from his torment, unfortunately. He was a kind man in death, if not in life. Asterius had never asked about his crimes, and Sisyphus had never offered to speak of them himself. Whatever they were, they could not be more depraved than Asterius’ own, but he understood the king’s reluctance all the same.
As he did often these days, Asterius found himself looking out over the barren halls of Tartarus, watching the River Styx below. He sighed to himself. Though the river was far and away the most interesting part of Tartarus, that said little of the spectral river and more of the empty hellscape itself. His days were mostly the same now. The slate stones, the gurgling river, and the distant screams of tortured souls…
Tisiphone joined him sometimes on his aimless walks. Tartarus. With all animosity between them gone, she was actually quite pleasant company. Not much for conversation, but they communicated in their own mute ways. He once showed her a place where Knuckleheads jumped out of the Styx (why did fish jump? Asterius hardly supposed they could ever reach anything…). Tisiphone in turn brought him a bundle of Elysian grass, which was quite tasty.
Today, though, he walked alone. He wandered to the riverside, hoping for a glimpse of a flopping fish, an interesting mural of some poor shade’s torture, or really anything to stave off the terrible nothingness. The air was still, and the river was silent.
Silent, at least, until a little rowboat sailed by - Charon’s ferry. Asterius had seen it a few times. There was nothing so unremarkable about the ferry save for its spectral passengers. The dark wood nearly sunk into the crimson waves of the Styx, eternally floating just above the waterline. Charon was silent. Always silent. Always mysterious. Still, his journey downriver was a welcome break from the mundane, empty landscape.
Asterius did not recognize the passenger wrapped in shade’s cloaks then, but he would learn soon enough.
When his summons from the House of Hades came, Tisiphone came to see him off. Asterius snorted, frustrated by the swimming glyphs on the paper. Ariadne had taught him to read Greek once, but that was long ago, and the light was always too dim. His eyes did not tolerate the little scribblings of ink, no matter how weighty their meaning.
But there was no mistaking the message. Sisyphus read the letter aloud to him: Asterius had been summoned to Elysium, where he could spend the rest of his days if he chose to do so. Summoned. Hm. Asterius had been confused at first. In truth, he was still confused.
The letter cited no heroic deeds of his (there were none to cite), no exceptional behavior, like the calm acceptance that had earned him favor among the Furies. It mentioned only that another heroic soul had vouched for him. Apparently, that was enough to overturn an eternity sentence of roaming in Tartarus. Sisyphus advised him not to question it. So he did not.
Asterius walked to the splintering Tartarus docks, accompanied by the half-mute Fury. Charon stared at him from the bow of the rowboat, wordlessly gazing through him with eyes full of burning violet smoke. A veiled shade sat in the rowboat too - his… summoner, perhaps? Was it even human? It must be, by its size…
Asterius could not tell much. In reality (or whatever passed for it in this realm), the shade was not bundled in cloaks, but until Asterius learned its true identity, he would not be able to know its face, its true height and form, or any distinct features. Until they had first spoken, Sisyphus was yet another misty, cloaked specter. But Asterius had never been veiled from the others. That was why Sisyphus had approached him to begin with. He was different. More monstrous, he supposed.
So the shade must be human. Of course, Asterius had only known so many human souls in life. His father, whom he very much doubted made it into Elysium Shrewd Lord Hades would surely deem his deeds ignoble. If Sisyphus had been condemned, then King Minos’ noble blood would not save him either. His mother would not have made it to the blessed fields either - she had been cursed, after all. He had killed almost every other human he had met… Ariadne, perhaps? She was kind and clever enough to deserve an eternity in Elysium, but Asterius knew not what became of her in life.
Best not to wonder too much. Asterius balled his hands into fists, gathering the nerve to step onto the dock, but... Asterius looked over to Tisiphone, unsure. Tartarus was unpleasant, but perhaps the next realm would be just as unpleasant in its own ways. Would the sunlight scorch his skin? Would the grass make his nose itch?
Worst of all, would the shades of Elysium openly despise his monstrosity? In Tartarus, he was among the least wretched of the creatures thrown to the depths. But in Elysium they would see Asterius for what he truly was - a murderous beast. Had they summoned him as some cruel joke? Or worse, a threat - an example of what happened to damned souls…
“Mmhhhrrrrrrr,” Tisiphone pulled him into a soft, knowing hug. They spoke no words then, but they needed none. Tiny hands and thin (but deceivingly strong) arms wrapped around his chest, holding him tight. Asterius returned the gesture as well as he could.
It was time.
A somber weight seemed to settle between them. Though they might miss each other’s silent, understanding company, Tisiphone would not dare to interfere with the House’s orders. Whatever fate lay ahead of him, Asterius would not dare either. Asterius gave her a final solemn nod, then stepped onto the docks. Whatever faced Asterius on the other side… It could be worse than Tartarus, but not worse than the labyrinth.
He approached the rowboat. Charon let out a strange, chattering hum. An invitation? Approval? Asterius did not know. He handed Charon the letter. His fare had been paid in advance, Sisyphus had told him. Charon quickly scanned the text, then slipped the letter into his sack of obol.
“Hhrrrrrrrraaagh,” the boatman said, gesturing to the small bench at the back of the ferry. There was enough room for him beside the faceless shade, if only barely. Asterius nodded, understanding his intent if not the strange Greek words he spoke (it was Greek, was it not?). The boat bobbed uneasily in the rolling tides of the Styx, but he would have to board eventually.
The mysterious, green-cloaked shade peered up at him, dramatically tossing aside its veil as it opened its mouth to speak.
“Come, sit, my rival!”
Asterius flinched as the shade’s cloak dissolved into the mist. He recognized this human, and it was not Ariadne. It was him. Bright golden locks tumbled down the shade’s shoulders, and his eyes shone with… With something Asterius could not name. Why had he...
“It has been far too long! Hah, but I suppose the fault is my own for that,” he said, speaking faster than Asterius could think, “My deepest apologies to you, Asterius, for keeping you waiting breathlessly until my grand but significantly delayed arrival!”
Gods… Asterius felt… unsteady. The one who had invited him to Elysium was… the little hero who killed him? It was him, Asterius could never mistake his presence. The shade was his killer and savior. He had freed Asterius from his depraved, tormented existence, and now, once again, he had come to Tartarus to… To what? Why had he come?
“Oh, foolish me,” he chattered on, taking Asterius’ frozen hand in his own. “I should have suspected you might be wholly unfamiliar with seacraft! But fear not, my bovine companion, the mighty ferryman Charon will keep us afloat!” A strange, pleasant warmth spread from the hero’s palm where it met the minotaur’s own. Asterius was shocked enough to let the human guide him down into the rowboat without much protest.
“Crrrrhhh,” Charon growled.
“We are situated, Charon, you may now set sail!” The hero must not have noticed the way Charon’s gaze turned frigid and sharp, or surely he would have paled. Sisyphus had told him that Charon did not take orders from gods - surely he would not take them from mere mortals. Nonetheless, of his own accord, the ferryman roughly pushed them away from the dock, sending them back into the currents of the Styx.
“You look well, Asterius,” the hero murmured, voice gentle and quiet. Too quiet for a mortal ferryman to hear - but Asterius supposed that not even the softest whisper would get by Charon. “Better than you did, at least.”
He probably did look better. He was no longer gaunt and starved, his fur no longer matted and crusted with blood. Tartarus did not provide many luxuries, but the mere absence of hunger was a great comfort. Asterius had not seen himself in the labyrinth. Even if he had been granted a mirror or a pool of water, his feral mind may not have even recognized itself.
The hero on the other hand… He was radiant. He looked every bit the powerful man he was when they fought in the labyrinth. Even in death, warmth kissed his bronze skin - though perhaps that was just a trick of Asterius’ imagination. In life, Asterius had only seen him in the glowing torchlight of the labyrinth, but Asterius would swear that he shone just as brilliantly in the ferry, as if the light bathed him still.
And here, up close, Asterius noticed all the things his monstrous mind had latched onto in the clutches of death. His eyes were bright and blue, like the sea itself - or what faint memories he had of it from his distant childhood windows. His hair resembled soft spun gold, like Ariadne’s favored thread. Instead of hatred and fear, his gaze held a deep curiosity.
He had asked Asterius’ name.
“You look the same,” Asterius snorted. The hero laughed at that, joyous and vibrant - perfectly out of place in the cold depths of Tartarus.
Sunlight. That was the odd shine to him, the strange warmth. Asterius only knew the sun from his tattered memories of the time before the maze, but... Asterius swore it felt like this.
Asterius settled into his seat in the rowboat, cautiously shifting his weight in fear of the little vessel tipping over. It would not - it probably would not, unless Charon willed it to. Still, he was careful regardless. The little human showed no such restraint.
“Truly, it is good to see you,” he said, flinging his arms around Asterius in a warm (if awkward) embrace.
Asterius flinched. The physical contact itched just below his skin. Was it urging him to flee? A base instinct left over from the maze? No, it felt stranger than that. Less fearful, but not calm either. If Asterius gave any indication of his discomfort, the human did not catch on. He chattered on in fast, fast Greek, something about his conquests in life - Asterius only caught every other word. His ears were unused to the pace of his speech and unfamiliar with the grand words he used, but clearly, the little hero was excited.
Asterius was… confused. As Charon paddled them up the river, the spectral waves turned to scorching flame simmering with noxious smoke. His thoughts did not become any clearer as the mists of Tartarus dissolved. No, his worries simply... looped around, tangling within each other like knotted silk thread. Asterius certainly looked forward to the change of scenery, though he did not know if the Elysium held any warmth for one such as himself. But he still could not fathom why the man who so bravely slew him in life would return and embrace him in death.
None of it made any sense. Asterius was aware of that. Too aware, even. Painfully so.
The hero’s chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm. His satin chiton brushed against his skin as he pulled away from their embrace. But not away from Asterius. The hero’s thin fingers gently traced along his collarbones, landing on the jagged scar at his sternum, and his rambling speech slowed to soft, serene words.
(Asterius did not think it odd then. He had no basis on which to think it odd. On later ponderance - Styx almighty, he should have realized something. But in the moment, he did not realize. Asterius did not understand the depth of his touch. He only knew that the hero’s light fingers felt immaculate over his skin and that he wished they would linger there.)
“I regretted it terribly, you know,” the hero whispered, “What a shame it was, that I was such a simple fool then, drunk on the very thought of glory. That it had to be at your detriment… What a waste.”
“You should not have any regrets,” Asterius said simply. The hero laughed at that, not as if it were preposterous, but simply… amusing. Hm. Asterius was not used to being amusing.
“Yes, yes,” he said, “I should be abundantly thankful for the fame and power your death afforded me. And yet… Well, think nothing of my hesitation. Our duel was legendary, you know. Many of the shades in Elysium know of you from that alone!” He smiled, eyes distant and clouded with memories, “But as long as I lived, I never met a man as strong as you. You were my only equal - more than my equal, I am sure, had you been in a shape fit to fight.”
“Hm.” Asterius snorted. If their duel was such a legend, then surely the shades of Elysium would despise him just as he thought. And their hatred would be justified. It was their children he had slain.
“You deserve as much glory as I, my dear rival - and you shall have it in Elysium, I swear it to you,” he beamed. “I would have you stand by my side, if you wish to.”
“Hm. Glory…” he snorted.
Asterius studied the hero in earnest. His features were softer now than they had been in the labyrinth. Brave still. Honest still. But unmarred by weariness and pain. His light blue chiton rippled with each movement, and its gold trim caught the light of the scorching river.
Asterius longed to touch him again - to embrace him, to soothe the flyaway hairs at his brow, to simply feel his warmth again... Asterius could not make sense of this strange instinct. A base urge left by the monster, perhaps. But he did not want to devour the hero.
Asterius had never wanted to devour anyone at all - not the hero, not the tributes, not even the chickens the people of Crete had tried to sacrifice to him long before, mistaking his lack of appetite for a demand of virginal sacrifices (how they had made the leap, Asterius never understood). No, this unnamed desire ran deeper. It coursed through his veins, inexplicably itching as Asterius locked his twitching fingers together in balled fists.
“Hey, come now - what troubles you?” the hero asked, beaming in blissful ignorance of the beast’s dark urges. “You seem tense. Is the river? Boats can make even the mightiest of champions seasick, pay it no mind.”
“Your…” Asterius made a stiff gesture to the shoulder bearing the strap of his airy chiton - the shoulder Asterius had gored in their ‘legendary’ fight. “Your wound. Has it healed?”
The hero grinned and slid his sleeve off his shoulder, exposing his chest. Bronze, well-muscled skin glittered in the light of the flaming river. Asterius’ eyes lingered over his skin. His chest felt oddly tight. Hm. A starburst of silvery scar tissue marred his shoulder. Asterius’ hand moved before he could think.
The hero’s muscles were just as firm as the day they had grappled, littered with scars old and new. He brushed his fingers over the uneven, scarred skin. The little one shivered. It must have hurt, then. Asterius began to pull away, but the hero’s palm settled atop his, tethering him there.
“My shoulder would always ache just before a storm. Some of the men who sailed with me claimed that it must be Poseidon’s blessing…” he chuckled quietly, “I couldn’t bear to tell them it must have been yours instead. It was your mark, not the sea god’s. And it was a magnificent strike, was it not?! I was lucky to dodge as many of your charges as I did… Of course, were we in an open field, I might have bested you easier, but, well, I suppose we have plenty of time to see about a rematch, if you are willing to humor me.”
“You wish to challenge me again?” Asterius snorted, amused, “Is that why you have summoned me to Elysium?”
“Oh, but we simply must! Ahem, if you are willing, of course. You were not at your full strength before - it was hardly a fair fight, and still, you nearly bested me with your power!” he said, “Though, that is not why I’ve summoned you.”
“Then… Why have you?”
“You belong there. Come now, it’s obvious, isn’t it?” he said, puzzled by Asterius’ very puzzlement. “You do! Your strength, it is unrivaled! If Elysium is to be a land of all the champions, then your absence is utterly ridiculous! And I told Lord Hades as much - reasonable god that he is, he agreed!”
Asterius snorted in disbelief. He… He did not know what to say. To any of it, really. To hear the little one praise him so highly… Asterius still could not make sense of it.
“Truly, it is preposterous that it took my saying so to bring you to Elysium, though. But no matter, everything is set now.” He leaned in, whispering conspiratorially, “You are far stronger than half the ‘champions’ there, you know. Perhaps they thought you might make the others feel lesser.”
“You speak too highly of me. You yourself defeated me, did you not?”
“Yes, yes, but that is all in the past! They will love you in Elysium, my rival! Or perhaps they will be overcome with jealousy once you best them all in duels,” he laughed.
“I fear I may not be as strong as you think,” Asterius said, “My body has slowed since we fought, and I…” he hesitated, “I have not been able to test my strength as of late.” Lifting rocks hardly counted as a substitute for sparring.
“No matter, no matter,” he waved a hand with great flamboyance, “In Elysium, you will have access to the best training grounds the underworld has to offer! And I will help! Erm, if you wouldn’t object to sparring with me, of course?”
The hero smiled at him, so genuine and hopeful. Asterius was not good at reading people - but he recognized malice well, and in the hero, he saw nothing of the sort. How could Asterius possibly decline?
“I will spar with you, if that is what you ask.”
“Excellent! I will not disappoint you, Asterius!” he cheered, hugging Asterius once more. Golden hair fell over his shoulder, brushing against Asterius’ wrists. It was so… soft. Softer than Asterius’ ragged fur had been in many years, softer than he had even imagined as he gazed so longingly at it. The feel of it quieted his strange urges, in a way. Was this what the beast wanted? To touch? To know?
The hero’s fingers laced between his own, guiding his hand to comb through the locks. “You were curious about it, weren’t you?” he whispered, “Back then, I mean.”
Asterius did remember their battle well, but… He may have been curious. Startled, certainly. The hero was nothing at all like the others sent to his dungeon.
“Well, you may touch all you like now,” the hero murmured. He pulled Asterius’ other palm up to rest on his jaw. His skin was soft, too. Softer here than on his scarred shoulder. He closed his eyes, humming happily under Asterius’ hands. The hero looked so peaceful… So blissfully happy, and not at all afraid of his monstrosity. Could he not see what the other shades did? Did he somehow see Asterius only through a veil of mist concealing his wretchedness?
“Grrrraaaaaaaaaaahh,” Charon groaned, startling the two of them out of whatever strange, blissful demiplane they had lapsed into. Asterius quickly pulled his hands away.
An endless field of blue-green grass stretched out in front of them, dotted with shining amphorae and distant cottages. Strange, vibrant things fluttered about on the air, catching Asterius’ eye. The air smelled… Sweet? Asterius could not place the scent.
“Ah, here we are!” the hero coughed awkwardly. Charon leered at the human, conveying in no uncertain terms that their time on the ferry was well and truly up. The two quickly stepped onto the Elysian docks. A good thing, too, based on the irate, strangely-heightened speed at which Charon sailed away.
“Well, welcome to Elysium!” the human said, gesturing to the verdant glades around them. The strange air between the two of them on the ferry had vanished entirely, and the hero was overtaken by enthusiasm. He vowed to show Asterius each and every blessed thing Elysium had to offer. But…
“What are you called, hero? You did not tell me your name in the labyrinth,” Asterius snorted.
“I-” the hero flustered, “Really?! Well, no matter! I shall rectify my foolhardy mistake immediately. I am Theseus, King of Athens. Ah, though, I was not a king when we fought, mind you.”
“I see.” Asterius knelt. “King Theseus, it is an honor.”
“No, no!” King Theseus waved his hands about frantically, then tugged at Asterius’ arms, pulling him back up. “None of that. Not from you, Asterius.”
“...King?” Asterius cocked his head to the side. He had met three kings in his time. King Minos, the terrible; King Sisyphus, the kind; and now, King Theseus. Proper etiquette was to kneel, was it not?
“You do not kneel to me, my friend.” King Theseus blushed. “We are equals here, you see?”
Asterius did not see. He and King Theseus, equals? No, it was impossible. King Theseus was made of sunlight, and Asterius was nothing more than a murderous beast. So he did not see at all. But if King Theseus wished it, then he would not kneel.
“Good!” he smiled, taking Asterius’ hand in his own. “Now, I have much to show you before we spar. I suppose they don’t have any nectar in Tartarus, do they? Then we shall start there!”