Theseus does not realize something is amiss until he’s been left standing at the gates to Elysium Stadium alone.
When they are not bound by the duty of reducing the monster endlessly attempting to escape their halls to blood and gristle, it is often the case that Asterius will bide his time in his own quarters or wander the halls of Elysium on his own, ever the watchful guardian; however, rare is it so that Asterius does not meet him at the gates of the stadium once they have received word that the daemon is making his way towards them.
Today—though there are no days, nor nights in fair Elysium—Asterius has not shown himself. Theseus at first does not take it upon himself to grow concerned over his dear friend’s lateness, but as the hour passes, his impatience grows.
Eventually, a messenger shade informs him that the daemon is entering Elysium once again, and Asterius still has not shown.
“You there,” he says, addressing a messenger shade before she can return to her post. “Have you seen Ast— the Minotaur? He has yet to meet me at our assigned post here to face that terrible daemon. Surely you have seen him while delivering your messages?”
The shade hesitates, her eyes flicking off to one side before returning back to Theseus. She shakes her head and apologizes profusely until Theseus dismisses her with a wave of his hand.
“Stay on guard for any sign of him,” he tells her evenly. Theseus does not allow his concern to show. For the shades of Elysium, he is their King, and he must never show weakness.
And how many times have I bested you again? a traitorous voice echoes in the cavern of his mind.
Theseus grinds his teeth together, fists clenching and unclenching at the thought of him. Since being recruited by Lord Hades, Theseus has spent an inordinate amount of time in his presence—far more than he would prefer. Theseus had never expected that his time in eternal paradise would become tainted by the constant clashing with this particularly egregious foe.
He would much rather continue to spar the heroes and champions he is well accustomed to, but he continues with his approach, no matter how often they dispatch of him.
Oh, I think we are long past you dispatching me. I can’t remember the last time I died to your spear.
You wretch! he thinks, imagining a conversation held with him, as he often does. What he wouldn’t give to impale him on his spear one final time—were that he not an immortal, a god—
Theseus stills his thoughts before they can go further. It doesn’t matter what he says, he is no god in his eyes. Compared to the real gods, he is puny. His voice is unbearably grating in every possible way. Elysium is a wondrous and enchanting resting place for those deserving of it, yet that stain continues to enter its impermissible halls, tainting the very ground under their feet with his daemonic presence.
Theseus steels himself with a breath and turns to look for Asterius. He will find him himself, and then they will have a rousing discussion about just how inadequate a foe the daemon is.
Theseus begins to feel concern when, after scouring all of Asterius’ favored resting places, he still cannot find him. He even goes so far as entering into his chambers to see if perhaps somehow he has become ill, despite the impossibility. No other reason would explain his sudden absence when just the night before, they had been discussing battle strategies to increase their chances against the daemon.
With Asterius still not found, Theseus is forced to return to Elysium Stadium to face the daemon himself. He does not vie for the prospect, but he will have to make do.
He is the former king of Athens and the current champion and King of Elysium. He will not fail!
It is the first thing out of the daemon’s mouth when he approaches Theseus at the center of the stadium. He is looking around, shifting from foot to foot, eyes on the lookout for Theseus’ comrade in arms. Despite having said nothing else, just that single word is enough to ignite the flames of fury from within Theseus.
“You!” he spits, with more vehemence than he usually reserves for their battles. “You dare step foot in Elysium once again? I shall drive you away once more; as many times as necessary until you learn your lesson, foul wretch.”
The daemon appears unconcerned by his very real threat. He cast his gaze about the stadium, turning his back to Theseus briefly while he looks in all directions.
“Is it just us today?” He sounds disappointed, a delicate frown on his sof--horrible features. “Where’s Asterius? Did he finally get tired of being beat by me?”
His humor is lost on Theseus. He slams his spear into the ground and braces his shield as if he is about to charge like Asterius would do during one of their fights.
“Do not invoke his name! You have no right to dare speak it! I will defeat you here and now!”
“Okay,” the daemon drawls, raising one hand in placation. “Fine, have it your way. He’s the one that makes these fights difficult, anyway. After I wipe the floor with you, please do send him my regards.”
“The only thing that will be sent today is your body to the depths of Tartarus, with my blessed spear buried within your midsection!”
The daemon nods, having expected no less, and he shifts back, sliding his horrid flaming foot back and sizzling the grassy plain under their feet while he braces his hands in front of him. He is wearing the Twin Fist of Malphon this time around. Theseus recalls the feeling of it pummeling his lower back until it gave way, but he does not waver.
He slams his spear into the ground again and then points it at the daemon.
The crowd of shades that have been waiting for this moment abrupt cheers. Theseus feels their spirits embolden him, but just as he is about to lift his spear and aim it, the air shifts.
A familiar presence settles over them. Theseus can feel its oppressive nature almost immediately.
He balks. Since being recruited, Lord Hades has not made himself known more than a scant few times. And never once during one of their great matches, when all of Elysium gathers to watch.
“Father?” Theseus hears the daemon say. He hardly gives it another thought, because in the next moment the Lord Hades words threaten to knock Theseus right off his feet.
“Ahh. I see you’ve made it to the exit gates of Elysium once more. How many times is it now? How many times you failed to defeat him, Theseus, king of Athens?“
His voice booms all around them. Several shades shrink back, while others look up in awe. Theseus feels his grip on his spear loosen.
“Lord—Lord Hades,” he responds. “I…cannot say for certain that I have counted. Rest assured that this time I will—"
“Enough,” he booms. “You have failed me one time too many. It was by my hand that the Minotaur joined you in Elysium, and it is by my hand that he will leave it. Perhaps if you can manage to do your job, I may consider returning him to you.”
The words barely sink into Theseus before Lord Hades’ presence is gone. He stands there for several long seconds, the stadium deathly quiet.
Then the daemon says something to him, approaching on those hellspawn feet of his, but Theseus doesn’t hear it. All he can think about is Asterius.
Asterius. His comrade; his partner. He vouched for Asterius when he came to Elysium so he could have him there. They have been with each other now for so long. To have him torn from him like this is—it is—
He is broken from his reverie by him. The daemon. It is always him.
“I’m…sorry about Asterius. I know he was your friend.” Then, lower, to a register Theseus can barely hear, “Maybe despite his better judgment.”
The fists lower, and that hideous, terrible glowing, daemonic eye is cast upon him. Fury course through his veins like divine nectar.
Asterius. Asterius. By the gods, what torture must he be under? A punishment by Lord Hades is to be feared. He could be anywhere in the realm. He could be in Asphodel, or even Tartarus…
“My father will do anything to stop me, but I have to do it. I have to reach the surface again.” The daemon’s face is cast in the shadow of sorrow. His features soften further, shoulders drooping before he raises them and lifts his chin. “My mother—"
“You!” Theseus roars. “This is your fault! You miserable—” he burst into motion, tossing his spear in a single fluid and powerful move. It goes sailing forward, but the daemon shifts out of way “—horrible, forgotten monster. On this day, your death is assured.”
“Forgotten? That’s harsh,” he quips, sailing once again out of Theseus’ way. He has yet to strike a blow, but Theseus is prepared for anything he may try. “Look, Theseus—“
“Speak my name so flagrantly no more! While once I would have encouraged your admiration of me, the sight of you fills me only with disgust! Because of you, Asterius has been removed from my side, and I shall make you pay for it!”
“I think the point was more that the both of you couldn’t beat me,” the blackguard points out.
“Because of you—” Theseus continues, undeterred. He is humiliated to find there are angry tears in his eyes. It is no shame for a warrior to offer his tears to his comrades, but this is no warrior. To show any weakness in front of him makes his blood boil even hotter.
He swipes angrily at his eyes with his forearm, clearing his vision quickly before he can be overtaken. But when he blinks, the daemon has not moved, still staring at him with an expression Theseus dare not name.
“I’m…I didn’t know he meant that much to you. You always seem, well.”
The insinuation stings. “Your fiendish attempts to insult me won’t work here! I shall” he sends his spear flying, but the daemon dodges “vanquish you here and now!”
This pattern continues for a time. Theseus attacks, but the daemon, for some reason, does not. He weaves in and out from around the pillars of the stadium and occasionally delivers onto him a glancing blow, but he does not attack with his full vigor. It is almost worse than the times when they are beaten within minutes of the fight starting.
At least in those instances, he is a worthy opponent.
Eventually, Theseus loses steam. His arm begins to tremble and ache, and his grip on his shield is less fortifying the longer that it weighs him down. He has gone on longer before, but with the fresh wound of Asterius being torn from him, he feels weakened.
His anger, instead of fueling him, feels as though it drains him. The daemon does not react to his rage other than to shoot him looks of pity, and the shades watching them aren’t cheering as loudly without the two of them there fighting him together, and with Theseus making no headway.
Eventually, the daemon stops in the center of the stadium and addresses him directly.
“Theseus, I…I think I can help you.”
“You?” Theseus laughs, loud and boisterous although his strength flags. “What a weak attempt to sway the battle in your favor. You cannot help me! Now kindly stand still so I may aim my spear at you!”
“I’m serious,” the daemon says. “I want to help you. Well, I want to help Asterius, but you’ve been looking so pathetic over there I can’t help but feel bad for you, too—”
“Silence!” Theseus shouts. His cheeks flush more than from the heat of battle. The nerve. “Raise your foul weapons and fight me!”
“Why do I even bother?” he hears him say. A sigh, and then the daemon lowers his weapon fully to his side. “Theseus, I know where Asterius is.”
At that, Theseus—in the middle of prepping another toss of his spear—freezes.
“Speak those words again.”
“Well, I don’t know exactly where he is, but I’ve been everywhere throughout my father’s realm, so I have an idea where he might be being held.”
“So you lie!” Theseus cries, aghast.
“Will you be quiet and listen to me for one second?” the daemon snaps. The embers on his feet flare up, sparks flying. “My father, Lord Hades, has been doing what he did to you to everyone that I fight. He’ll take them away to punish them so that they fight harder the next time. I don’t think it’s very effective, but until now…” He shakes his head, sending a few stray petals floating down. Theseus has only just now noticed the crimson laurels adorning his hair. “The point is, I like Asterius. He doesn’t deserve to be punished for doing his job. Besides, I’m sure none of you here are well used to torture like those down below.”
At the mention of torture, Theseus stills.
He is no stranger to what man is capable of, but in Elysium, death is impermanent. And even in combat, their pain is dulled, easily remedied by taking a bath in the river Lethe. If Asterius is in Asphodel or Tartarus, he is certainly being subject to torture of some kind or another.
Theseus drops to one knee. In a single second, his breath has left him, even though he no longer breathes.
“Let me help you find him.”
Theseus lifts his head, lips curled into a snarl. “You are the reason he was taken, monster!” He stands again, abandoning his weapons and approaching the daemon with a single-minded focus. He takes him by the shoulders and shakes him, once, giving no second thoughts to the warm, soft skin resting under his fingertips. “You are the reason all of this has happened! Have you no shame?!”
The daemon stares at him, stonefaced. He says nothing at first.
Then: “I’m doing what I have to do. I’ve already disobeyed my father by embarking on this quest. I can disobey him some more and help you find Asterius.”
His expression shifts then. He looks away, and when his eyes return to Theseus they pierce him even deeper than before.
“But I can’t do it alone. A part of what makes this work is that I can avoid most of the realms if I work fast. I don’t usually go poking around too long, lest my father find ways to reroute me.”
Theseus steps back, the words finally registering. “You ask me to leave Elysium. Blackguard,” he spits, “I will not be tricked!”
“No trick,” he replies. “Trust me, the last thing I want to do is drag you around my father’s realm while everything tries to kill me. I have my own mission.” His shoulders dip slightly, still held in Theseus’ firm grasp. “But you’re right: it is my fault. So I’m going to do what I can to make it right.”
Theseus stares at his foe, attempting to truly consider what he is saying. Assuming there are no lies coming from his wretched mouth, he can find Asterius. He can save him.
But he would have to leave Elysium. Anyone would be a fool to want to leave absolute paradise, and furthermore, it is strictly forbidden by Lord Hades, a god that could smite him on the spot if he so chose.
It would only be temporary, says a voice. That same, familiar voice, the owner of which is standing in front of him.
“You have been enjoying yourself,” Asterius told him once, long before the daemon had begun to beat them consistently. He had heaved his axe from the pillar it had been lodged in and used it to rest his arms upon, peering down at Theseus with a certain glint in his eye. “The short one has given us quite the challenge.”
“Ha! Hardly a challenge,” Theseus replied, wiping beads of sweat from his brow. He would need to reapply with a fresh layer of oils after a bath. “We dispatched of him with haste, and the next with even more!”
Asterius chuckled, a low, deep sound that worked its way into Theseus and sat there, warm. “You are enjoying yourself,” he repeated. “We have not fought this hard in some time.”
“Perhaps, my friend.” Theseus grinned. He clapped Asterius on the shoulder, taking a moment to feel the size of his biceps. “What do you say we make to the bathhouse and discuss our strategy?”
Asterius had nodded, Theseus’ excitement bleeding into him. They had never felt so alive together in many years.
Theseus looks at the daemon now and feels his resolve begin to waiver.
Without Asterius, the paradise of Elysium is a weak and pallid place. Asterius is like no other. Upon imagining the soul as wonderful as his being tormented because of the daemon’s—because of his own failure, he feels a new level of fury rise up within him.
“We will find Asterius, quickly. We will find him and then Asterius and I together shall send you back to the depths of Tartarus where you belong.”
The daemon rolls his eyes. He hefts his fists and shrugs off Theseus’ hands, which had not left his shoulders that whole time. Theseus does not think about its implications.
“Wonderful. Now can you—" he breaks off, sighing deeply before continuing. “Blood and darkness, I can’t believe I’m saying this. Can’t believe I’m doing this. Theseus, I need you to kill me.”
“What?” Theseus barks. “What sort of trickery—”
“I want my sword, Stygius,” he says flatly. “It’ll be faster if you just kill me. I’ll work my way back here and then take you with me.” He pauses. “Come on, don’t act like you haven’t been aching to do it this whole time.”
“Of—Of course!” Theseus answers, taken aback. He moves to grab his spear and shield, only just now reminded that they are surrounded by shades still waiting to see them fight. The crowds look anxious, and they cheer when Theseus picks up his spear.
“Defend yourself, daemon!” Theseus calls with renewed vigor. “Prepare your body for my spear!”
The daemon laughs, though Theseus hardly finds the situation amusing.
“Right. Well, let’s make this look good.” He rolls his shoulders, flexing his admittedly admirable muscles. “And by the way, I’m not a daemon. Call me Zagreus. Zag, even, if you prefer. Though I’m sure you don’t.”
Theseus grins and throws his spear.
Is this a completely realistic scenario? Of course not. Am I going to write it anyway? Absolutely!
What could go wrong indeed…
Chapter 2: Asphodel
Zagreus faces the Boon and says, “in the name of Hades! Olympus! I accept this message.”
The Boon glows brighter, and shortly after the voice of Ares booms in the cavernous space around them.
“Greetings, my death-inflicting kin. I see your fighting spirit hasn’t left you yet.”
Theseus watches in absolute bafflement as Zagreus is gifted a Boon of choice. He deliberates, whilst Theseus loses his mind.
I'm so happy to see so many of you interested in this concept! I was worried it would just be me. Thank you for your comments and support!!! I was going to wait… But you can have the chapter early as a present.
If you couldn't already tell, Theseus' biggest flaw is his insecurity. We are going to see a lot of that here, and you can hear what his own voice actor has to say about it.
A few notes if any of you haven't played the game: Theseus and Asterius have a move where he will throw Theseus at Zagreus during their fight, which is referenced here. The witches in the game send a bunch of purple orbs at you nonstop, which makes it pretty difficult if you don't have some kind of deflecting Boon. As far as I could tell, nobody in the game wears any shoes or sandals of any kind. Also, some very slight spoilers here if that's something you're worried about.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The multitude of reasons for why this is perhaps the foolhardiest thing Theseus has ever done in both his life and afterlife are made obvious the moment he exits his chambers to “face” his opponent in Elysium Stadium.
During their last battle, the daemon would find moments to speak with him, detailing a plan to aid in their escape from Elysium and find the Bull, Asterius. It is a basic order of events; that of which Theseus easily could have concocted in his sleep, no less! Were that he a horrible trickster, such as Zagreus, that is.
Zagreus stands on the opposite end of the stadium, his daemonic sword at his side once more. Theseus has felt its blows too many times to count, and even now he raises his chin, having no intention of making his victory an easy one.
“So you have returned again!” he calls boisterously. The crowds rise, cheering at the sound of his voice. Theseus grins wide with a practiced ease. “You really must enjoy being bested by me to have come so far so quickly. Well, by the power of the gods, we’ll see to it you remain yet in death!”
“Not even going to give me a chance to say hi?” Zagreus says, sounding bored. Truly, even though it may be within their shaky, agreed-upon truce, he is still but an uncouth, blatantly disrespectful creature. “Let’s get this over with. I’ve got to get to the surface by noon to share lunch with my mother, and I’ve no idea what time it is.”
Often his speech is constantly riddled with peculiar sentiments and senseless asides. Asterius had once remarked at how he could be humorous even not the worst of times. Ha! Theseus sees no humor in him.
“On your guard!” Theseus roars, wasting no more time.
For all his preparedness, and despite knowing the truth lurking behind their shared façade, Theseus isn’t able to maintain much of a façade in the face of all of Elysium watching him. He fights the daemon dashing about the hallowed grounds with everything he has, as he always does and always will, because he knows no other way. To lose is to fail, and to fail on purpose?
Even so, he is not the only one giving it his all. Zagreus wields his enormous sword as though it weighs nothing; he slams it against Theseus’ shield hard enough to rattle his core, and he is incredibly light on his feet. In a single instance, he is able to step away from him and appear behind, delivering onto him blow after blow until the blood pooling in Theseus’ mouth overflows.
Still, he cannot bring himself to yield. Asterius may be his most important and dearest friend in this undying life, but he is King; he is King Theseus of Elysium—
Suddenly, his internal monologue comes to a thundering halt. Theseus looks down in shock, finding a sword thrust straight through his chest, mere minutes after they began. His grip loosens, going slack, and his spear slips from his fingers.
When he wakes up, he is in his chambers again.
The fury he had felt just moments ago feels distant and faded. It will be minutes before it returns and he feels himself, as is to be expected. The river Lethe washes away their aches and pains, but so does it dull their senses—their very memories if they allow it.
Theseus takes a few moments to stare at the architecture above his bed, admiring the intricate greenery surrounding figures in combat, as he so often does after losing a battle.
Movement out of the corner of his eye catches his attention. Since he was here last, a few butterflies have sneaked into his chambers and flutter by his bedside, surrounding the half–eaten apple resting on the end table.
He sits up and slides to the edge of bed. There are several apples in a basket nearby, untouched thus far. He had gathered them himself to give to Asterius on their next win. Asterius is fond of the taste of a fresh apple, nearly as much as nectar when they happen upon it.
Something in his chest constricts, binding him to the spot until he can make himself stand and head for the door.
The daemon is standing outside his door when he steps outside. Theseus is immediately struck by the oddness of the situation.
By the gods, he thinks, taking a moment to drink in the sight of him before he notices his presence. Are we really to do this?
“Oh good, you’re awake,” Zagreus greets him cheerfully upon noticing. His sword is free of blood and ichor, as though it were never there in the first place. “I made it look like I was going on ahead, then I came back around and bothered a few shades until I found your chambers. Is there a reason your doors are so big? Is it a test of strength to see if you deserve to lie down and sleep or something?”
“You insult the great architects of Elysium!” Theseus yells, nearly as loud as when they are in the stadium. Zagreus winces, raising and lowering his hands in a gesture meant to imply he be quiet. Fool! As if he can contain him, as if he has any right to even stand within five feet of him, with his muscled arms and nimble fingers.
“Are you going to do that the whole time?” Zagreus bites, keeping his voice low. “And I’ll have you know I’m very familiar with those who’ve worked on this place. They’re not all they’re cracked up to be, trust me. And we should probably get out of here before one of your service shades or whatever comes to check on you.”
Theseus makes a sound of discontent. To hold a conversation like this with someone who offers little to no respect to those greater than him should not be well within these halls. His fist closes around air, aching for his spear.
I gave you respect, and you threw it in my face. How’s that for respect, King?
Theseus grits his teeth and turns to march back into his chambers for his spear and shield. Moving beyond the fields into the unknown realms is unthinkable, but having Asterius taken from him even more so.
“Don’t enter my chambers,” he tells Zagreus before he steps away, who has not moved an inch. Once his position is assured, he finds his weapons and returns, eyeing his unwelcome companion with obvious distaste.
Was he always slightly taller than Theseus? Had his height always escaped him, or is this another feeble attempt to gain one up on Theseus?
“You are pathetically short, for a god,” he says upon approach, without thinking. He adds immediately after, “So are your false claims thus far, though I’ve a mind not to believe a single word that comes from your lying lips!”
Zagreus looks at him then, and Theseus feels inexplicably exposed.
“Listen, Theseus. If we’re going to do this, you’re going to have to try your best not to insult me every chance you get. I don’t like bullies and I’m not going to put up with it like Asterius will. Darkness knows why he does. He deserve so much better.”
Theseus’ grip tightens around his spear.
How is it that the daemon is able deflect everything Theseus says back at him, and much more painfully so? He is nothing; no, worse than nothing, and yet he would find ways to gnaw at Theseus’ insecurities.
Unbeknownst to his internal struggle, Zagreus carries on.
“We’re headed to Asphodel first. Though Tartarus is our resident torture realm, it‘s a little too close to the House. Asphodel is filled with magma and lava. He‘s got all that fur, so.” Zagreus shrugs. “If any place was going to cause Asterius the most suffering, it would be Asphodel.”
He continues to speak, but Theseus is barely listening, too consumed by his own thoughts. He opens his mouth to deliver a tirade on who exactly is putting up with whom, when the sounds of shades walking the path near his chambers echo around them. They are not far off; seconds within seeing the pair, and Theseus flounders for a moment, panic settling in.
If he is seen with Zagreus, it will truly spell the end.
“Come on!” Zagreus hisses at him. He gestures in the direction opposite to the approaching shades and then takes off without waiting to see if Theseus has followed. Theseus is then forced to really consider their foolhardy quest.
Is it worth risking his position? Is this truly worth risking everything he has worked so hard for his entire natural born life?
His mind unintentionally draws up the memory of Asterius shortly after he was promoted to the realm of Elysium. He had knelt on the ground in front of Theseus, gazing up at him with something akin to wonder. Even kneeling, he was frightfully tall.
“What have I done to deserve this chance, King Theseus?” he had asked.
Sometimes still Asterius would ask him that question, or allude to it, and Theseus’ heart would be plundered.
How could he not see?
Theseus steels himself with a breath and moves to follow the direction that Zagreus went.
“Gods, blood and darkness, gods, what am I doing? Why am I—?”
Zagreus lifts his head from where he’s worrying it between his palms when Theseus rounds the corner to the secluded spot. They are surrounded by lush greenery, obscuring other shades from peering in easily.
“Oh, good, you’re here,” Zagreus says, sounding like he means the opposite. “Come on let’s just—follow me. We need to move quickly.”
For once, they are in agreement.
Zagreus leads him through tunnels and passageways long forgotten by most of the shades that wander the fields. Elysium is still recovering from his most recent thrashing, so the way is quiet and undisturbed. By the time they reach the passage, that is when reality begins to crash over him again.
Zagreus looks back at him. He looks nervous–frightened, even—casting him glances as if Theseus will turn around and pummel him with his spear. He would readily admit he is tempted, but his palms have become unreasonably sweaty despite the cool temperature of the realm.
“It’s just through here. Your pesky warriors won’t have come back just yet, so this is our best chance. I’m hoping the Hydra hasn’t reformed yet either.”
“Lernaean Hydra?” Theseus gasps. He has always been aware that it guards the passage to Elysium, but to know they are knowingly trespassing through its lair is another thing entirely!
“Know this, daemon—“
“—If you are attempting to lure me into a trap, you will not succeed! Should you slay me, I will only return to my chambers, as healthy as I ever was! Nay, better than ever!”
“I know,” Zagreus drawls. “I’m risking a lot here, too, you know. If my father finds out I’m leading the King of Elysium on a rescue mission—“ he breaks off, then barks a laugh. “I’m not sure he’d believe it, if I’m being honest. I can’t quite believe it.”
“Your mind does seem remarkably unsound.”
The looks Zagreus shoots him is withering. He turns around, hefts his sword over his shoulder, and without another word stalks away towards the passage, disappearing past its glowing splendor.
Theseus hesitates, sweat pooling in every orifice. This is—this is blasphemy. The daemon Zagreus will lead him to ruin should he follow.
Then he thinks of Asterius, suffering from a torment unknown, and he lifts his chin, moving his feet until he passes through himself.
“Make no mistake, fiend!” Theseus calls the moment he catches sight of Zagreus. He’s standing at the center of a room with large pillars scattered about, staring at the lava as if he expects it will come alive. “I journey on this quest for Asterius and Asterius alone! Do not let my presence inflate your overimaginative ego.”
“Oh, blood and darkness, you don’t have sandals!” Zagreus cries when he’s close, ignoring his prior words completely.
“I didn’t even think about sandals.” He makes a motion as if to rip the hair from his head. “Look around us, King. I hope the shades of Elysium are fireproof. Or resistant.”
Theseus lifts his head and gazes at their surroundings. They are on an island—one of many —surrounded by lava and more islands. The molten liquid pools and drips over every orifice, and oh, the heat.
He no longer lives, nor breathes, but by whatever mechanism allows his body to continue with its existence has endowed him with the ability to sweat. The heat sinks into his skin quickly, and after a few minutes its oppressiveness threatens to steal his breath away.
“You look well,” he tells Zagreus. “It would suit your daemonic nature to find solace in this terrible heat, I am sure!”
Zagreus leans on his sword and regards Theseus. “I am Prince of the Underworld, you realize. If I can’t stand a little heat, I’d make a poor Prince. Besides, it’s not like I’m fireproof. Just fire resistant.”
He lifts one of his flaming feet into view and Theseus does not admire its structure, nor how the flames create a gradient much like a flower in full bloom.
He scoffs, casting his gaze about until it lands on a structure far off their current position. A coliseum, it looks like.
“Tell me, what lives on in that structure,” he demands, pointing.
Zagreus follows his finger and then nods. “That’s the coliseum. I’ve only been there once or twice; mostly I stick to the lava pools. It’s much faster. That’s the first place I think we should go. Giant pool of lava, no escape, etcetera. If Asterius is anywhere in Asphodel, he’ll be there.”
The coliseum is foreboding in size even without the lava cascading around it. Theseus walks along the island rock to find a better angle for viewing, and he hears Zagreus sigh.
“At least you’re not burning up on these rocks. Well” he pauses, and when Theseus looks at him, his eyes are glancing up and down his figure, taking in his sweaty appearance “no more than usual.”
His cheeks do not burn. “Your appreciation of me is noted. I, too, sometimes cannot help but marvel the way sweat gleams on these fine muscles.”
“Oh, for the love of Aphrodite—" Zagreus shakes his head and starts walking. Theseus has no choice but to follow.
That is not to say he is willing to stray behind like a lamb following its mother; he strides to Zagreus's side, then even further, following whilst leading, as any King would do.
For most of the walk, there is silence. The Hydra has yet to reform, as have several of the souls Zagreus evidently dispatched prior to his trip through Elysium. Zagreus does not attempt to make conversation, and due to the heat and how carefully he must walk to avoid the hotter patches of magma infused rock, Theseus is quiet as well.
Eventually they reach a larger island that does contain a number of shades. Witches, Zagreus calls them. They wield dark magic that they send flying in their direction, but with Zagreus on the left and Theseus on the right, they are dealt with quickly.
“We’ll have to avoid the shades if we can,” Zagreus says. “We don’t want to risk any of them getting back to my father about all this.”
Theseus says nothing in reply, for once. His thoughts cling to the image of the wretched witches’ still dissipating images. Watching his spear fly through the gut of one of the witches made an odd unease settle over his spine. These shades may be wretches sent to live in this unpleasant place, but they are shades all the same. He is not their King, but he feels something tug at him to destroy them so readily.
For Asterius, he reminds himself firmly. For Asterius, I will stop at nothing.
After they have fully dissolved into nothing, an odd glowing object appears before Zagreus's feet. His face lights up, and then he presses his palm to the surface of it, revealing the symbol of...of Ares.
“What is that?” Theseus demands, walking up to peer at it more closely. “What is the Boon of a god doing here? Were these witches able to somehow gain their favor?”
Instead of answering, Zagreus faces the Boon and says, “in the name of Hades! Olympus! I accept this message.”
The Boon glows brighter, and shortly after the voice of Ares booms in the cavernous space around them.
“Greetings, my death-inflicting kin. I see your fighting spirit hasn’t left you yet.”
Theseus watches in absolute bafflement as Zagreus is gifted a Boon of choice. He deliberates, whilst Theseus loses his mind.
“He has gifted you a Boon!” he belts, at length. “Ares, the god of war, gifting you—you—”
He flounders, a rare occurrence on its own, and Zagreus looks at him as though he is the one acting strange.
“They all have at some point or another. They want to help me reach the surface,” Zagreus tells him, as if it makes sense. “Though they don’t know I can’t survive up there for long.”
It makes no sense. The gods were generous enough to grant Theseus their favor, but only once he had proved himself a valiant and honorable warrior. He is the king of Elysium; he is deserving. This fiend; this wretch; this monster knows nothing. His supple flesh and his soft gaze know nothing.
I’m a god, in case you forgot.
“You are no god,” he says lowly. “In case you have forgotten, the reason Asterius is currently being tormented is due to your neglect!”
“Who have I been neglecting?” Zagreus replies, blinking in response to his sudden aggression.
“Your duty! Your honor! You act like no god I have ever known, traversing around the realms without a care for those you hurt in the process. Asterius—my dearest friend, my brother in arms—he is far more worthy than you!”
“Don’t act like you know me,” Zagreus says, his tone shifting from agreeable to threatening. “I feel bad about Asterius, but that’s my father’s doing. He doesn’t have to stand in my way, but he does. He doesn’t have to send you all after me, but he does.” Zagreus points a finger at him. “And anyway, you don’t know anything about my father, or me, or any of the other gods. Have you ever wondered why I’m trying to escape? Has it ever crossed your mind?”
“Ignorant swine, I think of you not! You are but to smear the filth trapped in recesses of my mind. Would that I could, I'd kill you where you stand!”
“Blood and darkness, I have never met someone so full of themselves in my life, and I lived surrounded by the worst shades mortals have to offer.” Zagreus's fist curl at his side, and Theseus is suddenly aware of the slight glow of red coursing along his skin. His single wretched eye seems to glow even brighter under the dim haze of Asphodel. “I can’t believe that Asterius puts up with you! Even at your best, you’re just a self-righteous ass.”
“You dare bring Asterius into this! Have I not said you shan’t invoke his name?”
“I am helping you find him!” Zagreus snaps. “His name is going to come up!”
“Then try to restrain yourself! After all, he is missing because of you!”
“I am not my father!” Zagreus thunders. Theseus’ grip on his spear loosens as the world shifts, trembling underneath. Magma bubbles from open pockets in the ground. Zagreus is glowing with a dim, reddish light, and Theseus can feel Ares presence in the room, as though he is there.
Fear worms its way into Theseus’ chest. In that moment, gazing at Zagreus endowed with the gods’ favor, he is…
He is beautiful.
Then, mere moments after the display, Zagreus's fierce expression softens into concern. He backs away from Theseus, concern transforming into guilt.
“I—I’m sorry. The magma, the...I didn’t…” Zagreus scratches the back of his neck, taking an aborted step towards Theseus. He raises his hand, then lowers it. “Ares’ Boon always keeps me a little more on edge. I didn’t mean to—I wasn’t trying to hurt you. You didn’t even say that I…” He shakes his head, sending petals from his laurels floating into the air. “Darkness, you really do know how to get to me. I didn’t mean to do that.”
Theseus is still brandishing his shield in front of him—an instinctive and defensive action—and behind it his arms are trembling.
He really is like no other god.
“So you claim,” Theseus says. The sensation in his chest has formed into a hard knot; he will not name it guilt. “In this instance, I forgive you.”
The silence thereon after is distinctly uncomfortable. At length Zagreus sighs and motions for Theseus to follow him up the path towards the magma-drenched coliseum.
“Let’s just go. The sooner we find Asterius, the better.”
“Fine by me!”
Theseus slams his spear into the ground and then they’re off.
On the way, more shades rise to fight them. And on occasion, a Boon will be made available for Zagreus to take. There is always a message attached, and Theseus listens as each and every god and goddess expresses gratitude or interest in Zagreus's well-being.
It’s nothing like he expected. In the face of the mounting evidence contrary to what he’s always believed, Theseus doesn’t know what to think.
Zagreus will sometimes look at him while he absorbs the Boon’s power, the expression on his face unreadable. Nothing about him changes physically, but Theseus can sense the difference now that he is so close. He feels like a fool for not noticing it before; for thinking that had somehow cheated his way into being granted their Boons.
Why? he wants to ask. Why do the gods help you?
Because they find me more worthy than you. Is that what you’re afraid to hear? that traitorous voice answers.
He angrily wipes sweat from his brow and charges ahead, past Zagreus and up the ramp leading to the coliseum.
Once they enter the coliseum grounds, Theseus understands why Zagreus claimed he could not do it on his own. Since embarking on their journey, he had his doubts—so far, they had met little resistance—but in seeing the enemies awaiting them, he is more convinced.
“That is…a lot of witches,” Zagreus says, peering around one of the pillars. From their position, they can’t see much of the magma pool, and Theseus is aching to get a better view and spot Asterius there. “Hypnos mentioned the witches were gathering their covens somewhere, but I didn’t realize it would be here.”
“Hmph.” Theseus squeezes past him and peers around the same doorway. “I can see now why you were so desperate for my aid.”
Zagreus shoot him a look. “Desperate is not the way I would put it.”
“Stand aside, daemon. I’ll vanquish these foes posthaste!”
“Would you please stop calling me that?“ Zagreus grumbles. He lifts his sword and starts inching towards the doorway, bouncing on the balls of his feet. He’s never still for long, Theseus has noticed. Always moving, always eager to face the next enemy. Quite the opposite of Asterius, who stays calm and collected even in the face of certain death. “I’ve dealt with these before. Stay far away, and keep your shield up!”
His advice soon proves to be sound. Zagreus dashes forward, sprinting with that same swiftness that Theseus in many instances has found dizzying. He hops from molten rock to molten rock, avoiding lava while slicing through the dark magic their enemies form and toss their way. Though Theseus has been forced with time to admit that Zagreus is an opponent to be feared, still he can’t take them all, and several pockets dark magic surge past him and bounce off the pillars towards Theseus.
His shield stands firm, as does he. When he isn’t strategically crouched behind its girth, he tosses his spear at witch after wretched witch. Several times Zagreus bears the full brunt of the witches’ magic, and they burn him just as surely as they would a mortal. Zagreus however, is the son of a god, so he keeps going, until they have managed to work their way through the worst of it.
There are just so many. It’s difficult for Theseus to find openings when there magic constantly cascades in his direction, and Zagreus can’t move in close on the largest grouping of witches due to the enormous lava pool blocking his way. Were he with the Bull—
The thought stalls in his mind.
Such strategies are reserved for Asterius, he thinks firmly. Asterius may weigh more than two of him combined, but when they work together, tossing him towards Zagreus—or any enemy for that matter, is too easy.
Asterius isn’t here, so you’ll have to make do with me. You want to die here and pretend that none of this ever happened, or do you want to win?
His fist tightens around his spear.
What’ll it be, King?
Theseus lowers his shield to look at their surroundings. Zagreus's shoulders are scorched, and his chest is heaving as he fights nearly single-handedly at this point.
For Asterius, he thinks.
“Fiend!” he bellows, but Zagreus does not turn.
“Daemon!” he tries, but all that Zagreus does is crouch and burst forward, slicing through another swathe of magic. His shoulder muscles gleam with sweat—evidence of his efforts.
Swallowing down a curse, Theseus tries again. “Zagreus! To me!”
Zagreus's entire body jolts. He turns to face him, eyes wide, but there isn’t time to marvel at his generosity. Once he recovers, he dashes to Theseus, and then, as he approached in range, Theseus calls out again:
“Dash into my shield! I shall propel you to the other side where the witches are!”
For a moment Zagreus expresses confusion, then his expression hardens with fierce determination. He speeds up, as fast as Theseus has ever seen him, and when the pounding of his feet is close, Theseus heaves his body forward at the same moment that Zagreus lands on his angled shield.
He is heavy; it is a wonder that Asterius is able to toss Theseus across the stadium as easily as he does. And truthfully, this is the strategy that he and Asterius had planned to employ later. He’s not certain he’s strong enough on his own.
But he will do it. He will not fail.
Theseus heaves him with a roar, hefting his shoulder against the weight of Zagreus pushing into him in preparing his own jump, and when he is released, he lifts his head over his shield so he can watch Zagreus sail across the lake of lava and land at the edge of the other island.
Theseus bursts into motion, getting as close as he dares while they prepare their next round of magics. As their attacks grow focused, he stabs as many with his spears as he can, taking out the ones that aim for Zagreus while he is otherwise occupied.
Several long minutes pass, and then finally, finally, they achieve their goal and vanquish them all.
“Haha! Yes!” Theseus booms, dropping his shield. He raises his fist triumphantly, and without a second thought he sets his shield into the lava and sends it towards Zagreus so he can make use of it as a makeshift boat.
This is what it is like to feel alive again. Surrounded by danger, circumventing certain death to achieve a goal and prove his merit—he can feel his blood burning in triumph.
Zagreus returns to him grinning and bouncing on his feet; hardly the picture he should be covered in burns and dust from their magic. He walks up to Theseus and Theseus to him, and together they clasp their right hands, as brothers in battle would.
“That was amazing!” Zagreus says. Both of his eyes burn into Theseus. The green one is a beautiful, shining emerald, but the other—
Realizing just who he‘s embracing, Theseus scrambles backward, still out of breath and sweating fiercely.
“You should not forget why it is we are here!” he says loud enough to drown out the pounding in his chest. “Whilst my skill is impressive, don’t let it get to your head.”
“Of course not,” Zagreus says. He cocks his head to one side and regards Theseus, still smiling a joyous, disarming smile. “I wouldn’t dare, King.”
There is an odd fondness in the way he says his title. “See that you don’t,” Theseus replies, relieved his voice remains even, since his heart refuses to.
He ignores the fluttering in his chest and moves to pick up his shield, only to pause once he realizes it still glows from the lava’s heat.
“I can hold onto that for a while,” Zagreus says behind him. “If you’d like.”
Theseus stares down at his shield, hands on his hips.
“I would never leave my precious shield in your hands, fiend,” he says, but it lacks the heat usually reserved for Zagreus. “Since we are already in a rush to find Asterius, I’ll overlook it this time.”
With that settled, he grabs his spear and glances around.
“Now: where is he?”
Zagreus sighs and reaches down to pick up Theseus’ shield. Though it still glows from the heat, he merely adjusts the way the handle rest in his hands.
“I thought he might be in the center of all that lava—father has punished a few people by leaving them there—but maybe he’s… Somewhere else in here.” Zagreus bounces from foot to foot, revving himself up. “I’m going to take a look around the more lava-ridden bits. You circle the outer ring and I’ll meet you up top.”
“Make it quick,” Theseus says. Zagreus nods, distracted, and hefts the shield over his shoulder. Then he jogs in the opposite direction, leaving Theseus to his own devices.
They search high and low, but due to the coliseum’s open passageways, it’s obvious very quickly that Asterius is not being housed there. There are several shades living in the coliseum, minding themselves, but when Theseus probes them for information, they have nothing to offer.
The hope that had been slowly flitting inside him is quickly dashed. He makes his way to the top of the coliseum, feeling like a fool, and when he arrives, Zagreus is already there. He appears pensive, and at the sound of Theseus approaching, he turns to face him.
“Well, it looks like he’s not here. There are few more places in Asphodel I’d like to try, but if he’s not there…” Zagreus trails off uncertainly.
“You brought me to the sorry place just inform me that Asterius is not here?” Theseus places his hands on his hips. “You claimed you knew, yet you’ve dragged me to this place and not a scrap of him to show for it! I should have expected as much.”
“I said I know where he might be. There’s more to Asphodel than this coliseum, Theseus.” Zagreus frowns. “We have a few more places to check.”
He doesn’t say what he expects to happen in the event that Asterius is not in Asphodel and they must confront other realms. Theseus also doesn’t want to consider its implications, so instead they agree to continue their search. After all, what choice does he have? He has set in motion events that he cannot back away from. Even though his body aches and he is covered in sweat in a way he hasn’t been since he was alive, he will not falter.
He will find Asterius, and they will go on from there.
I do occasionally take creative liberties as you can tell, and I'm not sorry!
Edit: THERE IS ART!! AHHH PLEASE BEHOLD
Chapter 3: Tartarus
As with all of the Boons, nothing is different about his appearance, physically. His hair is the same, as are his lips, pursed in a subtle pout, and his eyes—
Theseus does not gasp, but it is a close thing.
The sound of his own name rings like a siren song. The sensation budding in his chest blooms.
And we're back!!! Thank you soo much for your lovely comments and kudos <3 I hope you enjoy. I don't spend tooo much time in the action, mostly because I'm more interested in the relationship bits, which we will get more of soon!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Asterius is not in Asphodel.
They search the realm far and wide, but he is nowhere to be found. It’s clear—has been clear since the coliseum.
Asterius is not in Asphodel, which means he is in Tartarus.
The realization steals what little breath Theseus has left. Zagreus is quiet as they gather themselves at the center of one of the larger islands.
“I need only a moment to catch my breath,” he tells Zagreus. His body aches, but he can only imagine how Asterius must be suffering through torment after torment.
He seats himself on the coolest rock he can find (it is not particularly cool), too exhausted from the heat to muster enough energy to voice his frustrations at Zagreus. And Zagreus himself isn’t faring much better; a soft sheen of sweat coats his skin, pale and glistening.
“Tartarus isn’t so bad if you avoid the torture chambers,” Zagreus tells him, a pale attempt at humor. Theseus shoots him the dirtiest look he can manage.
“You would be all too familiar with them,” he bites.
“It’s the closest realm to the House. It wouldn’t be my first pick for a neighbor, but you’d have to take that up with my father.”
“Your father,” Theseus repeats evenly. “You still make that claim.”
“Do you really not believe me, after all this time?”
“You are nothing like him! He is the Lord residing over all of us, and you are a small, ungod-like god in comparison.”
“So you finally admit that I’m a god.” Zagreus moves to the other side of Theseus and kicks at a loose stone. He keeps shooting glances in a specific direction; Theseus can only assume that is where Tartarus lay. “You even said my name. I’m impressed you bothered to remember.”
“Asterius has mentioned it often enough,” Theseus says.
“He mentions me?” Zagreus asks, with such honest and sincere pleasure in his voice that Theseus finds himself suddenly seething.
“Only to remind me how easily it is to bring you down!” Theseus stands, then picks up his shield and spear. “Are you quite done wasting our time with your imagined friendship? We—”
“Asterius and I get along quite well, actually.”
“We,” Theseus continues, louder, “have another realm to explore. No thanks to your guidance!”
Zagreus doesn’t say anything for a time. When Theseus looks over, Zagreus is staring at him intently.
Theseus looks away. “Gaze upon me if you must. But when you are quite done, I’m certain Asterius would appreciate a quicker pace.”
“You know, I’m still trying to figure out what problem you have with me. Other than the obvious fact that we fight each other to the death every day, I try to remain at least civil during our interactions. You’re a king, aren’t you? Aren’t kings supposed to be, I don’t know, kind?”
“I am kind to those who deserve it!” Theseus defends. “I have been tasked with stopping you as many times as it takes. Would you expect me to be kind to a blackguard defying the rules of these undying realms?”
“You know it’s not that simple.” Zagreus walks up to him, stopping a few feet away, and Theseus lifts his chin. “Aren’t you going to ask me why? I know you’ve been dying to.”
“I do not care what drives you to do what you do, fiend,” Theseus lies. “I know my duty.”
“I am not a fiend,” Zagreus says hotly. “Nor am I a monster, and I’m not a daemon! I’m none of those things, and I’d appreciate it if you’d stop calling me by those names. I said I wouldn’t put up this attitude of yours and I mean it, Theseus.”
“What, have your feelings been hurt by my remarks? Ha!”
Zagreus's supple lips form a soft frown. “Frankly, yes. Don’t you want the truth?”
I’m better than you. I’m more worthy than you.
“Don’t bother. It changes nothing,” he says vehemently.
I’m going to get out of here, and when I do, I’ll have a good laugh with the gods about how pathetic you are.
“Asterius suffers whilst we wait!” Theseus exclaims. “We don’t have time to entertain another falsehood of yours!”
“I just want to see my mother,” Zagreus says then, so softly at first that Theseus isn’t sure he hears him correctly. His own intrusive thoughts come to a grinding halt.
“What was that?”
Zagreus looks down, then when he drags his eyes back up to Theseus, they shine with emotion.
“I just have a few minutes with her, every time. It takes me long enough to reach the place where she is, and then I—“ He turns his head away, speaking towards the lava on his right. “I demanded father let me see her. He refused, and so I have no choice. He forces us to fight. I have to kill my own father so I can see my mother, who didn’t even know I existed until a short while ago.”
“Persephone.” Zagreus takes a breath, then meets Theseus's eyes. “She’s wonderful. Kind and patient, but authoritative. Her garden is like nothing I’ve ever seen. Not that I’ve seen many gardens.”
Persephone. The Queen.
No, no, no. That isn’t right. That isn’t true. His own duty is noble; it is true.
“You are lying,” Theseus says waveringly.
“I’ve no reason to lie,” Zagreus says. “I don’t care if you believe me. It’s the truth. Though it would make things a little easier if you did.”
“If that is the truth, then why do we fight?” Theseus bursts. “The Queen, your mother, why does Lord Hades keep you away?”
“I think he’s protecting her somehow.” Zagreus combs his fingers through his hair and heaves a world-weary sigh. “In any case, we should get moving. You’re right; Asterius would appreciate a little haste.”
“I—Yes.” Theseus blinks rapidly, then adjust his grip on his weaponry and lifts his chin. “It is as I said. We must find Asterius, quickly. To Tartarus, then?”
“Yes, I suppose. As I said, it’s the realm closest to my father, so I am a bit wary. You know, it’s not too late for you to turn around and go back to Elysium. I’m sure I can find him on my own now.”
“As I would expect, an obvious attempt to undermine my friendship with Asterius. Nay, fie—you,” he finishes, stumbling somewhat. It is not that he cares what Zagreus thinks of his choice in words, but the pathetic expression on his face is impossible to ignore. Perhaps a modicum of kindness is due, but only just! “I will journey with you to your realm and save my friend! Perhaps you should return to provide a distraction for your Lord father.”
Zagreus snorts. “If I spoke with him for more than ten seconds, well, now that would be suspicious of me. No, we’ll go together, but—” he hesitates a moment "—I think it would be best if we split up when we get to Tartarus. The wretches there will be child’s play for the both of us, so you should be fine on your own. I need—if you need anything, call out to me and I’ll find you.”
Without waiting for him to reply, he starts walking. Theseus hesitates, still attempting to comprehend all that he’s learned in such a short while, but then eventually he follows Zagreus towards their next destination.
Though not before adding, “I should be saying that to you! Should you need my aid, speak my name and I will surely come to your rescue. Your untimely death wouldn’t help Asterius in this instance.”
“Right,” Zagreus says humorlessly. Theseus takes no notice of it. He continues to turn what Zagreus has revealed to him in his mind. It is well-known that the gods are vindictive and vengeful on those that deserve it, but Zagreus is… He is…
Don’t I deserve it? Don’t you hate me, King?
He presses his lips together and forges on ahead.
Tartarus is quite unlike anything Theseus had imagined it would be.
Perhaps it is the air which is cloying and clings to his throat like mud. Theseus catches himself swallowing and coughing mere minutes after entering the realm, whilst Zagreus appears unaffected.
“You live in this place?” he asks. Zagreus lifts his shoulders in a shrug and jogs a few paces ahead so he can trigger a trap in the ground that Theseus had hardly noticed. Since entering, there have been several of these. Crude mechanisms with spikes and metal. The shield-bearers in Elysium are far more appropriate for would-be attackers.
Zagreus's next words are cut off by a gut-wrenching scream from somewhere nearby. Theseus is immediately on guard, but Zagreus barely gives the direction of the noise more than a quick glance.
“You get used to it,” is what he finishes with, though to his credit he does appear discomforted by the noise. “I’m not sure how Meg and her sisters do the whole ‘torture poor unfortunate shades for eternity’ bit. The Furies,” he clarifies, at Theseus's look of confusion. When Theseus continues to stare, he scratches his arm. “I suppose they’d be unfamiliar to you. I am acquainted with most of the people in this realm. Those that do the torture, I should say. Not the most pleasant job, but we don’t really discuss that at the House.”
Theseus cannot even begin to imagine what his home must look like. “Such a place of depravity it must be! You have been raised and nurtured in the depths of the Underworld; it is no wonder Lord Hades insists on preventing your escape to the surface.”
It is the only reasonable explanation.
It’s not the answer Zagreus is looking for. "You don’t understand.” He shakes his head. “You’ll never understand. We faced each other dozens of times, and not once did you ask yourself why. Darkness, you won’t even try. Theseus—”
He is interrupted by another horrific scream, followed by several others. Theseus does not flinch from the sound, but it is close. He can stand much worse, unsettling though it may be.
Shooting him a final look of contempt, Zagreus leads them wordlessly through more doorways and passages, on the lookout for any sign of Asterius. They are meant to divide their attention, but Theseus does not mind getting his bearings first, so he sticks to Zagreus's side as they appear to circle the center of the place. When he inquires as to why they have not ventured in, Zagreus explains that there are renovations going on.
Theseus is unconvinced of the truth of what he says, but unless it involves Asterius, he is not concerned.
“Oh, Asterius,” Theseus mourns, quietly to himself. They have dispatched a fresh set of Tartaran shades and peered into chamber after chamber, but there is no sign of him. He listens for the sound of his voice or any indication he may be near, but there is nothing.
“What torture you must be under!” he cries, unable to contain himself. “It burns my very soul to think of you within these terrifying halls.”
“We haven’t heard him yet, so that’s good. He’s not being currently tortured in our vicinity,” Zagreus says. In the center of the room there is another Boon––this one Theseus does not recognize from before. Zagreus makes the sound in the back of his throat that Theseus can’t properly name.
“Haven’t had this one in a while.” Zagreus walks up to it, but then hesitates with his hand hovering over the Boon’s surface. “You know of lady Aphrodite, I’m sure,” he says to Theseus. “Goddess of love and desire, et cetera.”
“You insult me. Of course I am aware of our Lady! If there is a goddess worthy of praise, it is she. May we thank her for all the love in our lives. For that my love for Asterius never wanes!”
“You really are something else,” Zagreus says to him. His meaning is indeterminable, but Theseus isn’t concerned. He is more curious to see what gift Zagreus will be bestowed in this instance.
However, Zagreus doesn’t accept it immediately. He shifts uneasily from foot to foot, and opens his mouth again, only to shut it firmly. Puzzled, Theseus watches him squirm, assuming his hesitation is due to his upbringing. Certainly, love must be an unfamiliar feeling to such a wretched being. For a moment, he feels pity for Zagreus.
“Gods,” Zagreus says, as the Boon disappears. He shivers inexplicably. “None of the other Boons are like this. She told me—well, she informed me she was giving her Boon a bit of a boost. As long as we don’t run into anyone I know, we should be fine.”
“Explain yourself,” Theseus demands, not because he is curious, but only to be prepared for the worst.
Zagreus turns to him, and Theseus's heart threatens to stop beating in his chest.
As with all of the Boons, nothing is different about his appearance, physically. His hair is the same, as are his lips, pursed in a subtle pout, and his eyes—
Theseus does not gasp, but it is a close thing.
Oh, gods, his eyes. How did he not realize what depths lie in his emerald gaze? It is a shining verdant green, and even the ruby red glow of his other iris is suddenly striking and remarkable.
“We should keep moving. I’m wondering if I can find Sisyphus around here; he might have an idea where Asterius would be.” He doesn’t seem to notice Theseus's sudden silence, distracted by more screams and howls from tortured victims. “Did you know Sisyphus tied up Thanatos—that’s death himself—and that’s the reason he’s stuck pushing that boulder for eternity? Than is as unforgiving as ever. Still doesn’t forgive me for leaving. Not yet anyway.”
His lips. His beautiful, luscious, sinful lips. It seems as though they are always moving, always attempting to torment him.
The sound of his own name rings like a siren song. The sensation budding in his chest blooms.
His feet begin moving on their own, approaching Zagreus until he is close enough to touch.
“What are you doing?”
Zagreus backs away from him hastily, and nearly triggers the trap a second time. “Is this about the Boon? You don’t have to worry about that. It’s more potent, but it only affects people with whom I—” He clears his throat and straightens, schooling his expression. “You won’t have to worry about it. There has to be something there on both ends. If there’s nothing there, then there’s nothing…”
He trails off, distracted by the sight of Theseus lifting his hand. While he has been speaking, Theseus had been inching closer, the thundering of his heart urging him to bring himself as close as possible.
Zagreus flinches when Theseus's hand comes close to his face, expecting him to strike, no doubt. But Theseus doesn’t strike him. He lays his palm over the side of Zagreus's face, cupping his cheek in hand.
His skin so soft, just as he had imagined. Pale, yes, but pleasing to the touch.
Zagreus's eyes are wide with shock, his breath hitched and shallow.
“Theseus,” he says, but Theseus is too overwhelmed with his sudden and intense emotions to answer. Theseus's thumb swipes over the length of his cheekbone and Zagreus goes still. For a moment, Theseus vaguely wonders what he will do; how he will react.
And then he melts into his touch, and an unknown sound escapes Theseus's throat.
Such handsome beauty. He is worthy of sculpture. Seeking a similar reaction to the touch of his right hand, he takes his left and lays it on Zagreus's other cheek, now caressing him as he would on occasion with Asterius.
He takes a moment to revel in the warmth his touch brings, and that is when Zagreus speaks again.
“Theseus,” he breathes. Theseus remains where he is, so Zagreus licks his lips and says louder. “Theseus, I—Theseus. King. Theseus. Sir.”
At the unfamiliar title, seemingly all at once the truth of what he is doing slams into him. Horrified and ashamed, Theseus pushes him back.
“What are you doing!” he calls loudly, enunciating each word clearly and with precision.
“What am I—you came on to me!” Zagreus gapes at him, a flush high on his cheeks. “You—you touched me.”
“I wasn’t in control of myself! Your dark magic and hellborn nature have overtaken your feeble body. You may try to draw me in, but I will not fall prey!”
He can still recall the exact feeling of Zagreus's breath ghosting hot over his wrist. The gentle way that he had called his name. Theseus.
“It was the Boon!” Zagreus exclaims, aggravated. Even in anger, he shines. “I told you less than five minutes ago how Aphrodite’s Boon affects the people around me. I just didn’t think…”
He looks at Theseus. His words sink in slowly.
“You’re attracted to me,” Zagreus says, at the same time that Theseus cries, “Fiend!!”
“The Boon doesn’t affect just anyone. She is the goddess of desire, so it stands to reason that she has the power to heighten any feelings of love, infatuation, or desire—”
“You lie! Vicious, Horrible lies! I would never love you!”
“Ouch,” Zagreus says with a small laugh. “You’re not the first to say that. Regardless, point being you feel something, or you wouldn’t have…” He trails off again, rubbing his cheek with his palm like he can still feel the ghost of Theseus's hand. A feeling unlike any other wells up inside Theseus, threatening to overflow.
I must touch him again.
“Nobody’s touched me like that in forever,” Zagreus adds softly.
The chalice that’s holding all of Theseus's feelings begins to spill over. He lets out an inhuman cry and storms off in the opposite direction to put some space between them. It is his proximity to Zagreus that must be the cause; if he can remove himself, he will be well again and of sound mind.
“Rid yourself of that Boon! Return it!”
“I can’t just return it! If I find another it can be replaced, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a god that won’t be upset if you try to return Boon they’ve graciously bestowed on you.” There is a long pause. “It would help if maybe you’d stop lying to yourself about how you feel for every little thing.”
Within the time he has spent staring at the opposite wall, the overwhelming feelings have dissipated some. Then, when he glances back at Zagreus, they begin to return.
“The only lies are your own,” he says heatedly. “I understand the need to find a lover to satisfy your own needs, but I suggest you find another!”
He hears Zagreus let out an exaggerated sigh. “I can’t believe I ever looked up to you. So much for the legendary King of Athens. So you’re attracted me, so what? I think you’re quite nice to look at, but I’m not having an existential crisis over it.”
Theseus spins around to release his fury onto Zagreus, but movement behind him stops him short.
A giant, hulking wretch rises up from behind Zagreus and raises its arms. Theseus opens his mouth to warn him, but the words catching his throat. Thankfully, Zagreus sees the change in his face and raises his sword just as the lout swings downward. It’s attack sends Zagreus skidding backwards, but he holds strong and then defeats it with a few swings of his sword.
Relieved, Theseus takes hold of his shield and spear with the intention of making some sort of threat, when another voice sounds from the far end of the room.
It’s the voice of a woman. Deep and smooth like nectar. Zagreus goes completely still when he hears it.
“Zagreus,” she repeats, just now noticing Theseus standing some feet away. Her eyes widen, then narrow, lips curling into a snarl. She growls, “What have you done?”
“It’s not what it looks like, I promise,” Zagreus tells her. “Well, it is, a bit, but not for the reasons you’d think.”
Theseus notices that she is wielding a fierce looking whip. She flicks it in their direction, and then pulls it taut.
“This is a new low, Zagreus. Dragging others into the mess you’ve made isn’t like you.”
“It’s for a good reason, I swear. We’re trying to find his friend Asterius. My father—”
“I’ve heard enough,” she rasps. She pulls the whip even tighter, lowering herself into a battle stance. “Don’t you dare try to explain yourself to me. I’m going to make this easy for all of us and send you both back to where you belong.”
“Not without Asterius!” Theseus cries, having had enough of remaining silent. A tormentor she may be, but he is the Champion of Elysium; he has faced worse. He has faced Zagreus at his most powerful and given him a good fight. Surely, he can take this one woman.
Her whip flies in his direction, faster than he can blink. He raises his shield, just barely defending himself against the attack. He hears Zagreus start running back towards Theseus—likely to create some space between him and this Meg—and he notes was some concern how the room that they are in is relatively small compared to others.
“Blood and darkness, this is what I was hoping to avoid,” Zagreus says in a hushed tone once he’s in range. “And now we’re in this tiny room with her and her very long whip.”
“I’ll take her on,” Theseus says, with fervor. He looks to Zagreus, and a protective fury overcomes him. “Stay behind my shield and you will be safe!”
“Your shield wouldn’t keep either of us safe. Not for long anyway. She’s—”
Whatever he is going to say is interrupted by the woman herself flying towards them at breakneck speed. Zagreus barely misses being struck by her whip, dashing out of her way and into the opposite direction.
Meg turns to Theseus. Her lips curl.
“From what I heard you hate Zagreus. Now you’re helping him?”
He doesn’t get a chance to answer. Her whip sails his way, and he’s forced to shield himself.
“I am here for Asterius and only Asterius! I insist–nay, I demand you tell me where he is!” He pauses, throwing his spear in her direction. “Tell me where you have put him!”
“I don’t even know who that is,” she says, and after that, talking becomes a moot point.
The woman—Meg—is incredibly quick on her feet. She is a vision of grace and beauty, and her movements are ferocious and unforgiving. Theseus's shield absorbs the force of her whip countless times, but if she is quick, she is able to get behind him and strike him. At those times, thankfully, Zagreus is there to assist him—though he provides more of a distraction than anything.
“Again you attempt to slice me with your demonic sword!” Theseus snaps, when that exact event nearly occurs.
“Theseus, I can’t hit her if you’re in my way.”
“I have barely moved from the spot!”
“I’ve noticed that. Aren't you supposed to throw your spear?"
“Stop flirting,” Meg growls, and in mere moments she is upon them, wielding her whip with terrifying strength and aiming it at Zagreus. “I’ll go ahead and make this easy for both of you.”
Theseus dives in front of Zagreus, just-in-time for his shield to absorb the impact. He hears Meg scoff, and the sound of her footsteps begins to fade as she presumably backs away.
“That’s not good,” Zagreus tells him, crouching behind the shield. Much too close for comfort if Theseus were to be asked. His heart pounds loud enough to nearly drown out Zagreus's next words. “She’s going to call on the forces in Tartarus. At this point, we’d be lucky if my father isn't already on his way to decimate the both of us. Darkness, I hope she doesn’t summon any brimstones.”
Theseus wants to touch him. He wants to—blast, that Boon.
His hand reaches back of its own volition and lands on Zagreus's shoulder. He squeezes the muscle.
“We will defeat her and find Asterius. And if I am to die—”
Zagreus stops him with a hand over his. The contact is like pure electricity.
“You’ll live, King. I’ll make sure of it.”
“Wretches! To me!” They hear Meg call out. Almost immediately they begin to appear in numbers, summoned by her authority.
“This is going to get ugly,” Zagreus says. He eyes the brimstones with distaste. “You’ll need that shield.”
“As I am all too aware.” Theseus nods. “Once more you will receive my support. You may thank me later!”
Zagreus chuckles, and then he dashes into the first group of enemies while Theseus turns his attention to the brimstones aiming at Zagreus. Their enemies are hardly as strong as the weakest shades in Elysium, but with the Fury constantly at their backs, progress is slow.
Zagreus, meanwhile, is without shield, and so he moves with breathtaking speed. He is never still, swinging his sword to slaughter their enemy shades, alternating between fighting the shades coming in droves and fighting Meg.
Watching the two of them dance in battle, Theseus has an idea as to who will win. In any other battle, he is certain Zagreus would prevail, but with each dash and every quickstep taken to avoid the force of her whip, he can see his strength begin to flag. Zagreus has been fighting at Theseus's side for much longer, and even he feels exhaustion weighing him down.
He attempts to assist, but Theseus's own weaponry is easily deflected by her whip. Would that they had the time, and he was fresh from his chambers, not surrounded by brimstone’s and gigantic louts attempting to crush and pin them in a small space, their battle would be a different story.
Theseus grinds his teeth together.
Think, he tells himself. Were you with Asterius, what strategy would you employ?
Almost immediately the low tones of his voice echo in his head. It is far too easy to imagine his friend speaking to him, and he feels a pang at the thought of him.
What does she have that works in her favor?
That blasted whip. Zagreus's exposed shoulder is decorated with scratches, and his tunic is torn in places.
Disable it. Find the means to take away her advantage if brute force is not an option.
After wiping the sweat from his brow, Theseus scans the length of the room while he takes out more wretches that appear. It reminds him of their fight in Asphodel, when he used his shield to propel him over the lava. If Asterius was with him, he could toss him in her direction and pin her.
You are fond of your shield, King, his imagined friend tells him. She will know this.
He thinks about the way she attacks them; how despite his restricted movement, making him an easier target, her aim is for Zagreus.
She is out for blood, he realizes. That is, it is more than just that Zagreus is in her way; it’s personal.
Theseus maneuvers into the center of the room, backing up against the pillar and trying to make himself as unnoticeable as possible. He cannot remove himself from her awareness, but if he can just find an opening…
Zagreus notices his position and hesitates for a split-second, falsely assuming he has been cornered. In that second, Meg sees his hesitation and lets out a low laugh.
“Go home, Zagreus.”
But before she can fully attack, Theseus bursts from around the pillar and heaves his upturned shield in at her like a disc. She startles, but dodges easily, as he expected.
He did not intend for the hit to land.
Theseus slams into her with his shoulder. She grunts, fingers digging into his skin as she fights against him. He has moments until she overpowers him; he is exhausted, and she is an incredibly powerful foe nonetheless. Still, moments are all he needs.
With one arm still free and holding onto his spear, he stabs at her whip and catches it under the pointed tip. Then he proceeds to wind it quickly around his spear. Once he has a good grip on it, he flings it away from her direction against the opposite wall.
“What are you doing," she hisses, grasping even more wildly. “You’ll be punished for this. Hades will find out. You know this.”
Theseus does not deign to reply. After all, there is nothing to say.
“Tell me where Asterius is, Meg,” Zagreus says, holding the tip of his sword at her throat. She relaxes in Theseus's hold, and when he releases her, she slides to the ground in defeat, though the fire in her eyes never abates. "Now, if you would, please."
“I can’t do that Zagreus, because I don’t know who that is.”
“We’re looking for the Minotaur. Bull of Minos. Surely you’ve heard of him.”
Her eyes widen, and then she laughs, long and low and dangerous.
“I don’t know where you heard that the Minotaur would be here, but he’s not. You’re wasting your time.”
“Then where is he!?” Theseus bursts, sounding too close to a whine for his liking. “If Asterius is not here, then I demand you tell me where he is.”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” she says, barely sparing him a glance. She lifts her chin at Zagreus. “This is probably the stupidest thing you’ve ever done, Zagreus. I hope you're happy. Now: Either you kill me, or I’ll kill you.”
Zagreus raises his sword. “I’m sorry, Meg.”
Theseus has caught some FEELS. And we got a hint of touch starved Zagreus... hell yeah
EDIT: ART ALERT!!! Please go look!!!
Chapter 4: Elysium
Theseus stills as the realization hits him.
How could he have not thought of it before? There was one place they did not search high and low; one place in which they had assumed that Asterius would not reside.
They did not search thoroughly because they did not search at all.
“Theseus?” Zagreus prompts.
Sorry about the wait. Some capital s Stuff happened, but we are back. The rating makes a slight appearance! Enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Theseus can’t stop pacing the length of the chamber where the Fury was defeated.
Asterius is not in Asphodel. Asterius is not in Tartarus.
Where is he?
“Where is he?” Theseus says, spinning to face Zagreus. While Theseus paced, he watched, looking far too unconcerned for his tastes.
“I… I wish I knew. We’ve been everywhere, and I can’t imagine he would bring Asterius to the House. Meg would’ve at least mentioned seeing the Bull of Minos hanging around my father.”
Theseus turns away to begin pacing again. Normally it would not do for the king to show such obvious malcontent, but here he is not a king. He is a man, looking for someone dear to him.
“Meg could have been lying,” Zagreus says. His eyes track Theseus's quick and aggravated movements, relatively calm. “She’s firmly against lying since she deals with traitors and oathbreakers all day, but she’s been under a lot of stress lately with her career, so it’s possible. Especially if my father forbid her from telling the truth.”
“A career in torturing shades?” Theseus scoffs derisively. “And if your friend was a liar, what are we to do? Search every inch of Tartarus? If he is not here, what then?”
“We keep searching. I promised I’d help you find him, and I will.”
Theseus turns to continue pacing. He hesitates to agree that the woman was lying to them. Something about what they are doing doesn’t feel right.
“I don’t believe she was lying,” Theseus says, somewhat uncertainly. “Surely there must be another location worth searching. Or that awful House you live in.”
“Actually, since the renovations, it’s become quite nice. We’ve got candles and chairs. Tables. Beds,” he adds, after a moment. “Just about everything you’d expect in a house. We’ve even got a kitchen for those on payroll to eat. You shades can eat, can’t you? Some of the shades in the house do sometimes, but not often. I’ve shared nectar with Achilles on occasion.”
It is a wonder those Zagreus spends long lengths of time with are able to get in a single word edgewise. His mind moves as often as his body; his thoughts are like petals scattered in the wind, all part of the same picture but never aligned.
“Asterius likes apples,” Theseus says with a sniff. “Certainly, you do not experience such splendor down here.”
“I don’t think I’ve tried an apple,” Zagreus muses. “We have pomegranates if that’s in any way the same. I could fetch you some nectar.”
“There is no need, though your attempt at groveling for my favor is noted! As Champion, I am gifted nectar upon achieving victory. Ambrosia, when it is you.”
“I’m worth ambrosia?” Zagreus asks. His face lights up with a smile so beautiful that Theseus must look away. He clears his throat several times, and then knocks his spear into the ground to aid in reorienting his grasp on solid ground.
“What about all the times I’ve beat you? Shouldn’t that make me the champion?” he asks.
“You do not belong in Elysium. You can’t be Champion.”
“That’s hardly fair. Though I suppose due to the fact that I have to fight you and Asterius at the same time, I shouldn’t be surprised.” His chest heaves with the small sigh. “At least I still get the rewards.”
“You have several—nay, nearly a dozen Boons from the gods, yet you speak to me of fairness?”
“Not all the time. And it’s only because I’ve gone backwards this one time that I got so many.” He leans on his sword, a now customary position. “The power granted to you is usually even better than mine. Demeter really knows how to pack a frozen punch.”
Zagreus's still and even paler frozen body moments before being slain appears in Theseus's mind. He scowls.
“I will not apologize for doing what I must.”
“Neither will I.”
His meaning is not lost on Theseus. He drums his fingers on his shield, irritated, less irritated when he looks at Zagreus and more irritated for the fact.
That blasted Boon.
“Well!” Theseus knocks his spear against the ground a few times. “If Asterius is not here, then he must be somewhere else.”
There’s Asphodel, which did not contain him. Tartarus, the less ideal locale and still he is not within grasp (thank the gods for that). There are few options left.
“Maybe I should find Sisyphus,” Zagreus says. “One of the Furies might have mentioned Asterius if he’s around here. There is the Temple of Styx, but its occupants are vermin and Saytrs. Not exactly a haven of torture, especially with how strong Asterius is.”
Theseus stills as the realization hits him.
How could he have not thought of it before? There was one place they did not search high and low; one place in which they had assumed that Asterius would not reside.
They did not search thoroughly because they did not search at all.
“Theseus?” Zagreus prompts.
“He must—he must be in Elysium!”
“Elysium? No,” Zagreus drawls with a small chuckle. Then he appears to give it some thought and straightens, pushing himself away from the wall. “No. You think my father would—? But it’s so obvious.”
“A taunt. A test, placed right under our noses. Fool!” Theseus exclaims, mostly to himself. “By the gods, we must return!”
“Now hold on, Theseus. We don’t know if that’s true. We don’t even know—he could be anywhere.”
“Do you see him now? He is not here, nor in Asphodel. So kill me.”
“I must return to my chambers, so stab me with your large sword. I've taken it enough times in previous battles.” For some reason, this causes Zagreus to smile. Theseus looks away to save himself from further torment and fixates his eyes on a trap nearby. “Quickly, now. Asterius awaits.”
“What happens if you’re wrong?”
“Then you will continue your search, will you not?”
“I—Of course. It’s not half as fun fighting you without Asterius doing all the hard work.”
“Hmph.” Theseus crosses his arms. “Then I see no issue here. Once I find him, word will make it to you eventually. That, or we will see you on the battlefield. If you continue to try and reach your mother, I’m sure you will face us again at some point—”
“Wait a moment, hold on, you don’t seriously think I’m just going to wait around here and not follow you up into Elysium, do you?”
“That is exactly what I propose! You are safer here, and Asterius is my beloved friend and companion.”
“Since when did you care about my safety?” Zagreus asks him, amused.
Theseus sputters. “I don’t! I’m only stating fact—”
“You want to keep me safe, is that it? I’m quite flattered. But I’m an immortal, you know. I can’t actually die.”
The warmth in Theseus's cheeks is from the residual heat of their battle, nothing more. “What I want is to have Asterius at my side again! Then the world will be right, and things can return to what they were.”
Zagreus moves away from the wall he had been leaning on starts circling Theseus. Theseus's eyes track him, mainly because he finds it difficult to look away.
“You mean me clobbering both you and Asterius multiple times a day? Are you sure you both wouldn’t just like to name me champion and let me be on my way?”
“You would like that, wouldn’t you?” Theseus scoffs. “Asterius is not here to give his opinion and I will not speak for him, but I can tell you for certain that he values our battles just as much as I.”
“So you do like fighting me.”
“Yes, I—” Theseus only realizes his mistake a moment too late. He backpedals. “Don’t mistake my meaning, mon—” He covers his blunder by clearing his throat. “What I seek is only the glory of crushing you underfoot! I value the feeling of my spear striking you through the heart time and time again. I value victory!”
Zagreus stares at him with an expression Theseus can’t—won’t name.
“I do look forward to it, sometimes.” Zagreus cocks his head, his delectable smile appearing once more. Theseus wants to drink it in until it is burned into his memory. “You could learn some manners, but letting loose with you two is, honestly, fun.” He shifts his stance, mirroring Theseus with his arms crossed and displaying his rather striking forearms. “Having to escape my father’s realm and avoid death isn’t as fun, but winning ambrosia helps.”
It burns Theseus just how often Zagreus has won said ambrosia. By now, he must have at least a dozen bottles.
“Our honor as great warriors is the only reason you continue to receive your prize. Were it up to me, you would be banned from participating!”
“You want to let me through without a fight?” He shrugs. “Perfectly fine with me.”
“Ugh!” Theseus's undignified sound is followed by an uncharacteristic eye roll. “You continue blatantly misunderstand my meaning. Enough with this: kill me. I’m certain you have been thirsting for this chance since we began.”
“I…suppose it can’t hurt to send you back. I could still check out the Temple of Styx to see if maybe my father tasked Asterius with cleaning out the Sayter infestations, but if he really is in Elysium…”
Just the thought is thrilling. He has not been away from Asterius in such a long time, though Zagreus does provide a decent distraction from his absence.
“Quickly, now! Through the heart, if you will.”
Zagreus frowns. “I never thought I’d hear those words come out of your mouth. Well, all right then. Er, best prepare yourself, King.”
“As if you have not bested me enough,” Theseus says, entirely too fond and instantly clearing his throat to rid himself of any residual fondness.
Zagreus lifts his sword and forms a stance. Theseus closes his eyes and waits.
After several seconds, unhurt and decidedly not sporting any stab wounds, Theseus opens his eyes. Zagreus is gazing at him with a complex expression on his face. When their eyes meet, its complexity only deepens.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go with me? We can make it quick.”
“Why do you hesitate? Strike me down!”
“I don’t…want to?” Zagreus winces, surely because he sees the fault in his suddenly ridiculous claim.
“What do you mean you don’t want to kill me? Get on with it!”
“It’s—it’s the Boon. It’s like—” he makes a sound in the back of his throat and lowers his weapon slightly. “It’s different, having it inside you. You think you have it bad, Theseus, but there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface for me here.”
“Ah, so you fallen madly in love with me, then.” A shiver runs up his spine at his own words. His face begins to flush with heat, but he ignores it. “I must say I’m not surprised; many have made such claims. But don’t let your emotions overcome our sense of urgency.”
“You’re kidding me, right?” Zagreus lowers his weapon even further. “Remember when you were caressing my face just a little while ago?”
“Bah! I hardly recall the moment now. It was nothing.”
A line of irritation crosses Zagreus's brow. “You know what? I think I am feeling homicidal urges coming on.”
“Perhaps Lord Ares has taken pity on you.”
“No, I don’t think that’s it.” He sighs. “See you soon, Theseus.”
Theseus opens his mouth to respond, but Zagreus thrusts sword forward and into the center of his chest. Pain and blood spill forth, but—thank the gods—he disintegrates quickly enough so that the pain doesn’t linger.
It is somewhat surreal to be surrounded by the walls of his regal chambers after traversing through the Underworld for many hours, covered in sweat and heat.
Theseus lifts his head, cradling it, half expecting to feel the soreness one would feel after such excursions if one were alive. But instead, he feels perfectly well. He takes a moment to gather his bearings, then gets off his bed and looks around.
Zagreus will be on his way, he supposes. He is quick, and has beaten the realms nearly twice over, this time. It won’t take long.
He lets his mind linger, drawing on what he had experienced earlier slowly. He had expected his feelings to abate with distance, as it had before, but they stubbornly stick. He cannot deny that he feels...something for Zagreus. The gods, brutal though they are, lean towards honesty. After all, what reason does a god have to lie?
He thinks of Zagreus and all that he has said—all that they have discussed—and feels guilt worm and wriggle inside him. He attempts to ignore it, allowing his mind to wander, thinking now, of Zagreus.
Augh! The memory is seared into his mind. He can’t seem to be rid of it. Those low tones, formed by sinuous lips…
If he wished for it, Theseus could drink from the river Lethe to dull his memories. A few mouthfuls would remove them completely.
Zagreus's low plea continues to echo in his mind on repeat. He can nearly feel the touch of his cheek on his hand.
The hand that has been slowly gravitating towards his thigh presses in. It glides over the warm skin around his inner thigh and under his tunic to where his cock has begun to stir.
Theseus reasons that if he does this, surely it will resolve any residual effects of the Boon.
His hand wraps around his cock, and he gives it a few firm strokes. Oh, it has been some time. Zagreus occupies much of their time attempting to escape every eve, and Asterius as of late had been preoccupied with challenging other warriors to battle to better himself in their efforts against Zagreus.
Thinking of Asterius pains him, so he turns back to Zagreus. It will not be long until he returns. On especially quick days, it had taken Zagreus mere hours to return to their stadium.
As he strokes himself languidly, a thought pops into his head.
What would Zagreus think, if he saw him now?
Really? You just couldn’t help yourself, could you, King?
His cock spurts precome over his fingers as a bolt of desire hits his spine. His hips leave the bed. He strokes himself faster now, feet digging into the sheets to find purchase while he fucks his fist. Oh gods, Zagreus had looked so beautiful. In anger, and in anguish. Theseus does not permit himself to admit it—can barely admit to it now—but although he has never met a god, Zagreus is everything he had imagined for a god. Strength. Beauty. Even humor, as loath to admit it as he is.
He’s a god. Oh, he’s a god. Theseus has been insulting and berating a god.
I think you’re quite nice to look at, Zagreus, a god, had told him.
Theseus turns his face into his pillow to muffle his shout as he coats his fingers and his tunic in his seed. He strokes himself through it, imagining Zagreus at his side, his body warmth and touch firm.
Theseus strokes himself until it becomes too painful and he’s left gasping for breath. Then, when he comes down from the high, the reality of his actions settles over him
Oh gods, he thinks, covering his face with his clean hand. Oh gods, what have I done.
Theseus exits his chambers, half expecting to find Zagreus waiting outside for him.
Thankfully, he is not. Theseus looks around, then returns to his chambers briefly to consider the merit of taking his spear and shield. When he takes a walk around fair Elysium without the intent of battling another warrior, he does not take his weaponry. He doesn’t want to appear suspicious.
Perhaps just the spear. He takes it from where it appeared on his wall and runs his hand over the surface of the pole. It had been blessed by a god, once upon a time. It is still blessed.
Theseus glances around the rest of his room. The apples for Asterius have remained, in continual and everlasting perfect condition. Even the one he had taken a bite out of has not rotted away. He could eat it, if he so chose—though he does not hunger—but the thought of eating an apple several days old is still too unsettling a thought. He picks it up and then tosses it outside his chambers into the brush for whatever creature would like to feast on it.
Now, to find Asterius.
Yes, Asterius. He must remind himself that there is one reason he has agreed to work with his enemy, though a god he may be.
With his spear in hand, Theseus begins walking the path away from his chambers and towards the stadium to bypass it and take his search further away. While he walks, he is greeted by several shades, one of whom stops him to inquire as to his whereabouts for the last few days.
“I was ill,” he tells them, only to receive a startled and disbelieving look. “But in the mind only. I have recovered, and we shall see the day our Elysium is once more restored to its peaceful nature.”
“Might I suggest using Lethe next time?” they say helpfully. “We missed seeing you, King. There were rumors you had left Elysium on some sort of conquest. I am glad those rumors are proven untrue.”
“Most untrue!” Theseus laughs boisterously and claps the shade on the shoulder. “I will see you at the stadium.”
He manages to extract himself, and then he elects to take quieter paths for his search.
It is pleasant. And without Zagreus beside him, bouncing on his toes and dashing about, it is almost too peaceful.
He can hardly believe the thought has even crossed his mind. Theseus plants his hands on his hips and stops short of his destination: one of the chambers in the ever-shifting underworld. Theseus has access to the entire roster, and this is one of the infrequently used chambers, by whatever mechanism makes such decisions.
He walks inside and peers around. A few shades mill about, some in light combat while others rest and pass their day in daydreams. Theseus has them vacate the room with the excuse that he is inspecting it. For what, he does not say, and they do not dare to ask.
Once it’s empty, Theseus returns to the center of the room and knocks his spear against the ground in several places. It is his thought that the traps in Tartarus may provide some fruit here. A hidden chamber would make sense as a location in which Asterius may be held.
He makes his way around the entire room twice over, knocking his spear and into every crevice, but after a time nothing reveals itself to him. One more turn about the chamber, and then he relinquishes it back to the shades waiting outside.
Asterius is not there, so he will just have to try another.
Theseus heads into chamber after chamber, using what knowledge he has of the realms he just explored in his search, but the chambers of Elysium are evidently what they appear to be. He can’t find hidden passageways to other places, nor does he spot anything even a little out of place.
Am I a fool? he wonders. To be searching like this, in secret, with no idea as to whether or not his hunch is correct—perhaps the answer lies elsewhere.
Theseus steps away from the chamber and regards the roster in his hands. It has been inscribed on a piece of parchment that returns to his room on the event is it destroyed. The list changes every few hours—even more often, at times—so Theseus rarely tries to memorize the patterns.
Maybe he should have. Maybe Asterius's whereabouts would be clear if he had paid more attention.
Gods, where is he?
Tears spring into his eyes unbidden. Theseus had maintained his composure during their journey by reminding himself that Asterius was just around the corner, but with the reality of their circumstances hanging over his head, he can’t help but falter.
He sucks in a short, shuddering breath and seats himself on the ground. He covers his face with his palm. If Asterius can’t be found even with the help of the Prince of the Underworld, who has traversed its realms time and time again, what is he to do?
And so you have failed me, too, King, echoes the voice of his friend.
Theseus laughs quietly to himself. It is not a happy sound.
Then a different sound, one that comes from the other side of the field has him on alert. He quickly wipes his tears away, then grips his spear and stands, poised to greet whoever may have found him here, when Zagreus comes barreling through the bushes.
“Oh, thank the gods,” he says, his voice plain with relief. “You’re actually here. I was beginning to think I’d never find you, Theseus.”
“Zagreus,” Theseus greets, echoing his relief in a way he can't help. Companionship—even one such as this—is welcome. Though when he looks at his face, his previous actions flash in the forefront of his mind and he must resist allowing his face to heat.
“I don’t suppose you found my bovine companion on your way here? Elysium has responded to my efforts with more elusiveness than I had expected!”
I have failed.
“I was hoping you’d have that answer for me.”
He scratches the back of his head, and Theseus only just notices his disheveled appearance. He looks terrible. His pallid skin is even more pale, and his hair is a sweaty mess. Even the laurels he so often adorns lays haphazard with petals missing all over.
“You seemed confident he was here,” Zagreus continues. “On the way up here I almost died a few times.” He pauses. “I sort of wish I had.”
“You appear unwell,” Theseus agrees. He crosses his arms. “I have not exhausted all of this realm. Searching Elysium without being noticed is not an easy feat!”
“Unless you’re me, in which case I have become quite accomplished at sneaking around. Where do you have left to look?”
Theseus doesn’t want to admit he had been wandering from chamber to chamber, attempting to find hidden traps without any luck.
“I mean to check Asterius's chambers still. I never intrude uninvited, but in this case, there may be clues as to his disappearance.”
He isn’t all too certain of that, but Zagreus nods as though it makes sense, and before he realizes, he is leading them to said chambers. And upon reaching the doors, he hesitates.
“Know this,” he states loudly, “should you invade my friend’s privacy in any untoward matter, I won’t hesitate to strike you down!”
“Oh, calm down,” Zagreus says with an eye roll. “I’m only trying to help find him. I won’t go rifling through any obviously personal items. Though I am curious what your rooms here look like.”
“Hmph. You know what they say about curiosity.”
“Actually, I’m not familiar. What do they say?” Zagreus asked, his tone teasing. It is bait, and Theseus will not rise to it. Instead, he pushes the doors open and walks inside, revealing Asterius's chamber in all its glory.
For all intents and purposes, it looks nearly identical to Theseus's. There is a large bed surrounded by four stone pillars and adorned with luxurious sheets that match the decor. Theseus had long done away with what they were initially provided with in terms of decoration, but Asterius has never changed the look or layout of his room. The only personal items of immediate note are his axe hanging on the wall, the painting Theseus had commissioned of himself to give Asterius, and a small plate of sugar water he had left for the butterflies.
“Is that a painting of you?”
“Striking, isn’t it? A true likeness!”
“… Your spear is not that big.”
“Bah, what do you know?” Theseus walks up to the painting and poses near it, mirroring the position. “I had to stand for hours. All for Asterius!”
“And he wanted that?”
“Of course.” Theseus frowns. When he had suggested getting a portrait done of Asterius, he’d insisted that Theseus was far more suited to the task. While Theseus did not and does not agree, he hopes that one day Asterius will be more willing to bear the gauntlet, so to speak.
Zagreus eyes the painting, then Theseus. Theseus doesn’t like the look on his face.
“Speak. I can see you have words to say.”
Zagreus shakes his head. “Theseus, I—look. Have you...have you ever considered the idea that maybe Asterius...wanted to leave? This reminds me of something I recently learned about my mother–“
“Absolutely not,” Theseus interrupts, before he can spout further nonsense. “Asterius will remain by my side, as both he and I wish.”
“I’m just saying, based on what I’ve observed…”
It feels as though a knife buries itself in Theseus's chest. His good humor vanishes in an instant, replaced by anger and something else he can’t name.
“You know nothing, hellspawn. You continue to defy your family in hope of changing your fate, while I embrace mine in these great fields! Do not speak of what you don’t understand.”
“Firstly, cut it out with the names. Secondly, I’m not trying to insult you, Theseus. I just think that you could sometimes be a little nicer.”
“And I suppose you—the cause of my friend’s disappearance—should deserve such niceties!”
Zagreus's eyes narrow. “You know, I didn’t have to come back, but I wanted to help you. It looks like you’ve just been sitting lying in the grass of your precious fields, hoping I’d return with an answer.”
“That is obviously untrue! I have been searching for Asterius for hours!
“Have you tried asking the blades of grass if they’ve seen him?”
“You shall not question my intentions,” Theseus says bitingly. “Perhaps I should be asking the real questions, here. How is it that the Prince of this place is unable to locate a single occupant?”
“I’m beginning to regret getting rid of Aphrodite’s Boon in place of Poseidon if this is what it gets me.” Zagreus combs his fingers through his hair tiredly. “I understand you’re frustrated, Theseus, but I’m a little weary from running around with you all day, trying to find Asterius, so I’d appreciate—”
“In case it has slipped your mind, he was taken because of—”
“It’s not my fault!” Zagreus breaks. “And anyway, I thought we were over this. Maybe if you two had been able to beat me even a few times the last couple of weeks, or however time moves around here, he wouldn’t have been taken away.”
“Perhaps if our fights were fair, the outcome would be different!”
“Fair? Fair?! Theseus—“Zagreus lets out a broken laugh “—you have never played fair! Asterius helping you; powerful blessings; and don’t forget that I’ve fought you in that chariot before. You have guns!”
“You have a gun, yourself!”
“I really can’t”—Zagreus pinches the bridge of his nose and walks out of Asterius's chambers and into the grassy plain nearby—“Listen, I’d love nothing more than to fight with you all day, but my father—” a pause “I have my own—”
Zagreus stops and takes a breath, his fists curling and uncurling. “What you want me to say? Do you want me to say I’m sorry?”
“Sorry will not bring Asterius back!” Theseus rages, having followed him outside. It is difficult to believe that a moment ago they were casually discussing the merits of the painting he had commissioned. “Abandon your quest and be content with life that you have! Stop being foolish for your own gain!”
“You can’t understand, King Theseus,” Zagreus says, saying his title like it’s a curse. “To everyone in the Underworld, you are a hero. You live in ‘eternal paradise’ getting into fights over and over in an endless cycle of violence with other ‘great’ warriors while I’m trying to meet with my mother long enough to have a conversation so I can understand why she left me!”
Progressively in his speech Zagreus had been getting louder; more fervent with his passion. He is glowing with multiple colors, the subtle influence of his Boons providing power tenfold. The grass under his feet burns, ashes spreading outward as his feet grow white-hot.
When he finishes, nearly out of breath and trembling with a weight Theseus cannot imagine, he shifts in place as though he doesn’t know how to hold himself any longer.
“Blood and darkness, I’m not in control of what my father does! We may occupy the same space, but I have a life I’m still trying to live. I have to do this.”
Theseus's fists clench. He thinks of Asterius and feels insurmountable sorrow and rage, combined into a hard ball weighing down his chest.
“Then find him! Bring him back!”
Zagreus's chest heaves with each breath. He raises his arms, curls his fists, and then turns around and smashes them into the nearby wall. Though he is barehanded, it crumbles to dust like he had been blasted away with the Adamant Rail.
It is terrifying. Theseus's breath quickens.
“Right now,” Zagreus says, “I can’t tell with whom I’m angrier. You, or my father. I thought—” his voice cracks, and when he turns around, the fury is gone, replaced by lingering exhaustion. “I suppose it doesn’t matter what I thought. Forget it.”
Neither of them feels inclined to say much, after that. The silence then is inexorably awkward and long-standing. Zagreus eventually slides to the ground, the fire having gone out of him. Evidence of his prior anger is still there in the form of a large circle of singed grass and the dust dispersing behind him, though the grass has begun to regenerate already.
Theseus goes to say something—what he will say exactly, he is not sure—when he notices something behind Zagreus.
“What is that? Behind you.” He walks over to peer into the space, and Zagreus stands to follow, groaning as he does so.
As the final clouds of dust disperse, Theseus gasps.
“This is a chamber!” He pulls out the parchment with the roster and begin scanning it. “There should be no chamber at the spot near the fields. The closest chamber is C32.”
“Let me see that.” Zagreus approaches his side and Theseus relinquishes it, only because he is so shocked to find it here.
“Oh, I see what’s going on,” Zagreus says, to his befuddlement. “This is one of the unused chambers.”
“Unused chambers?” Theseus repeats. “There are no unused chambers!” He snatches the roster back and holds it up. “I have the roster in my very hands.”
“Well, yes, they wouldn’t appear on any roster because they’re unused. I’ve seen these before in the administrative chamber logs. When I was actually allowed in there.” At Theseus's dumbfounded expression, Zagreus gestures to the chamber he just revealed. “When my father renovates, most of these chambers get replaced by newer versions and then ignored as the paperwork piles up. I suppose it’s easier for him to leave them undisturbed in case they become useful again.”
Theseus stares at the roster, then at Zagreus.
Does he not see? Does he not realize?
“Zagreus,” he starts, shaking the parchment. He drops his spear to grab Zagreus by the shoulder and give him a solid shake as well. “If there are chambers that have not been used and don’t appear on any roster, then Asterius—”
“Might be in one of them,” Zagreus finishes slowly. He blinks at Theseus's outstretched hand, and his eyes gradually widen. “Oh. Oh! You’ll have to excuse me; I’m actually feeling the urge to sleep for once. That’s amazing news!”
“We must move! Asterius awaits our rescue!”
Zagreus steps away from Theseus to look into the room. “All the chambers have identification numbers, right? Where are they usually found in Elysium? In Tartarus, they’re usually on the inside edge of a trap when it’s disabled.”
“The shield,” Theseus blurts. He rushes past Zagreus and walks up to one of the inactive shield bearers. He slides his fingers on the inside edge until he feels a bumpy surface. The angle is awkward, but he can nearly make it out…
“Chamber 35,” Zagreus says from over his shoulder. Theseus stiffens. Zagreus doesn’t seem to notice. When he backs up, Theseus can feel the air cool where he left it. “So at one point, this was chamber 35. I don’t suppose that helps us particularly well. You said C32 before.”
Theseus glances at the roster. He imagines Asterius somewhere in the fields, waiting for him. Did the other shades know? Have they kept it from him?
“Then we will simply have to find it ourselves,” Theseus says, knowing fully well what he is suggesting. Zagreus stares at him and Theseus meets his gaze head-on. He does not relish the thought of destroying Elysium, but for Asterius, the temporary damage is well worth it. “Will your sword make do?”
Zagreus visibly hesitates. The remnants of their argument still hang in the air, so Theseus can understand his hesitation. Thinking on it, he did not behave as honorably as he supposes he could have.
He opens his mouth to say something when Zagreus suddenly moves and walks back to where he left his sword. He lifts it off the ground and gives it a few swings, then taps it against the nearby wall.
“Malphon would be better,” he says. “But with the Boons I have I think I can make do.”
“Then it is settled.” There is a wicked and bloody welt extending from Zagreus's shoulder to beneath his tunic, and Theseus cannot seem to tear his eyes away. Zagreus is a god, but he supposes the other immortals and gods would do better at wounding him.
Guilt claws at his insides. He should… He should say something.
Apologize, Asterius would have urged.
“We will find these unused chambers,” he says instead. “We begin immediately.”
Zagreus nods. Then, inexplicably, he walks to the nearest wall and sits down, leaning his back against it.
“Just give me a minute. I’ve been running around for hours, so before we do any more of that I’d like to catch my breath.”
He closes his eyes, saying nothing more, and Theseus can’t bring himself to make the remarks that come to mind. Instead, he quietly moves forward to look at Zagreus and observe him up close in a way he has not since he received the Boon from Aphrodite.
It is obvious now that it has been exchanged. No longer does he feel the inexorable pull urging him into Zagreus's space, but he still feels—
Zagreus shifts, letting out a short huff. He adjusts the way he is leaning into the wall so his laurels aren’t being crushed before he settles. So far, he has kept his eyes closed. The movement of his chest has slowed.
His bare shoulder is in view, made even barer by the tears in his tunic.
It is a taunt. That is the only explanation that would explain why he would so quickly and so suddenly present himself as he’s doing. It must be a taunt; a provocation. Theseus will not fall prey.
He sits down next to Zagreus, who shifts again, squeezing his eyes shut even tighter. He groans softly. “Not sure if it’s all the Boons—more than I usually take—or because of Meg’s whip, but I don’t feel well.”
Theseus leans towards him, thinking of the welt along his back. “Her whip?”
Zagreus twitches. If he realizes that Theseus is closer than he remembers, he says nothing about it.
“One of her abilities is…” His brows furrow. “Perpetual exhaustion, I think? The more she whips you, the more tired you feel. It’s ingenious, actually.”
Theseus hums, absorbed in staring at a small mole he has just noticed occupying the space under Zagreus's jaw.
“You do look unwell,” he says, and Zagreus's opens his eyes. His piercing, beautiful, godly eyes.
“The Boon. Is it possible,” Theseus begins haltingly, “that it is still affecting you?”
Zagreus doesn’t have to ask which Boon.
“I don’t know,” he says. It feels like a lie, but it must be the truth. No other reason would explain why his hand gravitates towards Zagreus like a moth to flame.
Zagreus shudders at the first of his palm to his shoulder. Theseus lingers there, taking in the warmth of his skin, careful not to brush over his wounds. He moves his hand upwards, until his knuckles brush Zagreus's throat, passing by the mole he noticed, and then his jaw.
This time, Zagreus doesn’t even hesitate to lean into the contact. He rubs his cheek against Theseus's knuckles like he is hungry for his touch. Theseus's heart thunders in his chest, and when he pulls his hand away to hide how much it is trembling, Zagreus's head follows.
It lands on Theseus's shoulder. His hair—Theseus had not considered how the strands, even tacky with sweat, would feel like a softened painter’s brush.
Theseus shifts so the position is more comfortable, offering Zagreus more of his shoulder. He feels him shudder, then sink into him, his breath coming out and warm, gentle puffs.
Theseus realizes belatedly he has been holding his own breath, and he lets it out in a quiet rush. His heart will not stop beating.
By the gods, I really do—
Theseus forces the thought away. He won’t acknowledge it—cannot acknowledge it, when Asterius is the most important person in his undying life. He distracts himself by listening to the distant sound of Lethe running its course and gazes at their surroundings, but his focus is almost entirely on the point of contact between them.
It’s only when they hear the light tread of a nearby shade that they finally separate. Zagreus pulls away and stands, not looking at him.
“Let’s go,” he says. “I have an idea.”
As you can tell, there is definitely some work to be done! Zagreus misunderstands a lot about Asterius and Theseus' relationship, and Theseus is still in the middle of rubbing his two brains cells together to realize he has feelings. Where oh where has our little bull gone...
Oh, and not that I made it super clear, but Asterius and Theseus are already established in the setting, which is hinted at a tiny bit in this chapter.
Chapter 5: Asterius
Thank you so much for your continued interest! TYSM for your lovely comments. I'm trying not to respond to all of them and inflate the number of comments, but know that I cherish every one.
Many creative liberties were taken. Enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“So you have returned, you monster!”
Theseus’s address of the approaching Zagreus is met with a raucous cheer from the arena’s audience. In eternal paradise, nothing changes, and they have not seen Zagreus nor Theseus fight in the arena in days. Perhaps even longer. Time seems to move differently for all in the realms of the of the world.
“Call me monster again, Theseus,” Zagreus says, raising his voice as the cheers rise to a fever pitch. He points his sword, which is glowing with several Boons that Theseus recognizes. Even though the battle is similar to the last (falsified for the sake of saving his friend), sweat builds on the back of his neck at the sight. It is only Zagreus’s gingerly swaying form that grounds him to the reality of their situation.
“Are you certain you are well enough to be fighting?” he had asked him before the match.
“Oh, I’m well,” Zagreus had replied. The smile on his face had struck him as odd. “I’m too well, in fact. Let’s get on with the fight.”
Zagreus had returned entrance to Elysium and had made his presence known as he usually would. Theseus had been summoned to the arena to face his challenger.
“I have many names that would suit you just as well, you filth! Though I shan’t waste my breath on one such as you!”
The insult comes to him naturally, and Zagreus doesn’t react in any way to what is a rather unimaginative jibe. Still, for some reason Theseus feels a certain unease in returning to their usual banter.
He does not allow it to show, doubling down in both tone and fervor.
“On your guard, you horrible beast!” he cries passionately. “I will defeat you in mere moments!”
Faster than he can blink, Zagreus sprints to one side. Theseus had seen him moving with increasing swiftness as they had journeyed, but it holds no candle to his speed now. Theseus can hardly track him, and when he aims his spear, Zagreus has crossed the entirety of the arena before he has even summoned it back to his fingers.
“You’re not going to beat me,” he had told Theseus when they began discussing his plan. “Nor am I going to beat you. Let’s say…halfway through the battle, I’m going to leave and go on a ‘rampage’ about Elysium, destroying everything in my path.”
“A rampage,” Theseus had repeated. He scratched at his chin in thought. “And how do you propose to keep the entirety of Elysium from grasping at your throat? The shades will be incensed to see such destruction!”
“I destroy bits of my father’s realm all the time. How is this any different?”
“Desecrating the land itself is another matter entirely. The statuettes you normally destroy regenerate within minutes, but these walls take somewhat longer.”
“Do you want to find Asterius, or what?”
After that, the decision had been made.
Theseus watches him now, looking for any sign that he will make his exit. They must make the battle interesting for the shades gathered, for more might show, and when they take their leave, they might stay to wait for him while Theseus gives chase.
It would help if he could keep track of him at all.
Gods, he is faster than I’ve ever seen.
“Daemon,” he yells, lifting his spear. He waits until he spots him ducking behind one of the pillars and sends the prepared spear at the spot he predicts Zagreus will reappear. When he is proven right, Zagreus doesn’t even bother to try dodging; it bounces harmlessly from his person. An odd sort of aura surrounding Zagreus blinks into view, then disperses. A barrier?
“You can’t keep that up forever! My blessed spear will pierce you through again and again until you have been reduced to nothing but ichor!”
A more gruesome response than is perhaps warranted, but the crowd loves it. They cheer his name, while Zagreus finally makes his approach.
Theseus blocks his sword’s swing with his shield, but for all the good it does, he may as well be barehanded. Its effects reverberate throughout his entire body in teeth grinding intensity. His limbs tremble and lock, and when Zagreus dashes behind him and raises his sword, Theseus can only clench his teeth and take it.
The pain is excruciating. Usually, their fights last long enough to offer their audience a challenging viewing; however, this time, if Zagreus was seriously trying to kill him, he is certain it would be over in no time at all.
“You call that a hit?” he manages. “The butterflies here in Elysium could do better!”
It is odd that Zagreus has yet to respond to his taunts. Usually, he is the first to offer response, even if it’s to tell him to shut his mouth. Yet so far, Zagreus has kept up his assault without pause or comment. His expression is severe and quite unlike his typical demeanor.
“Speak! Surely you have something to say. Or have I stunned you into silence?”
Zagreus lands another strike at his back before dashing away to avoid Theseus’s spear. At this point, Theseus would call upon the gods favor, but he waits. And waits.
Is he not going to make his move? Is it up to Theseus?
On his next approach, Theseus angle s himself towards the door in case that is what Zagreus needs to make his escape. When he comes at him from the front, Theseus thrusts himself forward, spinning with his shield and spear in a vicious circular attack.
Zagreus doesn’t even flinch. He brings his sword down on Theseus’s shield, the force of his blow knocking Theseus back. His fingers ache from holding his grip. Zagreus dips out of view, then appears in front of him again and raises his sword, a terrifying gleam in his eye.
Theseus goes to block it with his shield, and it yields to his next swing with a horrifying, echoing snap.
The crowd goes deathly silent. Theseus stares at what remains of his shield, mouth hanging open.
Zagreus stands in front of him still, unmoved. His eyes have narrowed into slits and his chest trembles with each have a breath. He bares his teeth when their eyes meet.
“Zagreus,” Theseus says, quiet enough that the crowd will not hear.
At the sound of his name, the frightening expression on Zagreus’s face melts away.
“Oh gods. Oh. Gods. I’m…your shield. I—” He shakes his head. Takes a step back. “I should—it’s time. Now is a good time, isn’t it?”
It feels like something that should be acknowledged, what has just happened. His shield—it is unthinkable. But there is no time, nor would he be able to in the middle of an arena battle. Before he can even respond, Zagreus bursts into motion and dashes towards the entrance back into Elysium. Then, remembering himself, he turns and motions to Theseus.
“If you want to stop me so bad, King, leave the stadium and fight me out here!”
A confused burst of sound echoes around Theseus. He turns to the shades and raises his spear with the half of his shield still attached to the handle.
“Fear not, shades! I will vanquish the daemon momentarily. Stay where you are until I return!”
There is no guarantee they will listen to him, and not every shade comes to the arena to watch the challengers fight, but it will be enough time for them to conduct their search, at least for a while.
Theseus turns and runs to follow direction that Zagreus went, leaving his baffled crowd behind.
Now on the move, Zagreus is still too quick for Theseus to follow without running at a full sprint, but the destruction he causes is easy enough to track.
So far, bushes have been trampled and sliced clean through, and there are long, jagged sword strikes buried deep into the walls following his path. Theseus follows his tracks until he reaches a larger clearing that Zagreus is standing motionless in the center of.
He suddenly pivots, twisting his body and his sword in an upwards arc, then slamming it down against the ground. Rubble erupts and flies in all directions, leaving behind a crater where he stands.
“Zagreus!” Theseus calls. There are no shades in their vicinity, and if there were, they would have been frightened away by the thing that Zagreus has become. He went from bare-bones exhaustion to a being that strikes fear even in Theseus’s heart.
He is a god. Lest we forget that when we fight, Asterius had said on multiple occasions. Theseus had never truly comprehended what that meant until now.
Zagreus looks around, distracted, until his gaze finally lands on Theseus. Something in his stance changes, settling, and he starts walking towards him, brushing astray bit of rubble from his shoulders.
“What you said earlier,” Zagreus starts once he’s close enough. His eyes flash an array of colors, so quick that Theseus isn’t certain he didn’t imagine it. “It made me angry. Really, very angry, in fact.”
He brings a hand to his face and curls his fingers inward as though he’s considering clawing at it.
“Urgh. Normally you’re good at being frustrating, but what you said, I can’t—”
He falters. Theseus approaches, incapable of denying his own concern for Zagreus’s state of being.
“What I said was necessary for our ploy,” he says, more defensively than he would like. “You have heard worse, before!”
“I know. I know.” His lips curl back and he shakes his head like a beast shaking off an unseen enemy. “Darkness, I know. This is why don’t—I have a limit for myself. Too many Boons and their influence really messes with me. Ares especially—”
Theseus takes another step towards them. Zagreus jerks in place. He cradles his head with both hands.
“Their voices—it’s like… I can hear them.”
Sometimes Theseus would experience the gods power in a way that made him feel as though a god was with him, urging him on. Provoking him.
How many Boons does Zagreus have?
“Zagreus,” Theseus begins cautiously. He raises his hands like Zagreus is a beast that must be tamed, and Zagreus’s head snaps upward.
Can hear his heart pounding? Can he follow the short thread of fear tethering him to where he stands?
Theseus realizes too late he is still holding his spear. He lets it fall, and Zagreus lunges for him in an explosion of movement.
His back hits the ground as Zagreus’s weight slams into him. All his breath leaves him in a single gasp, and before he can breathe in another, Zagreus’s hands close around his throat.
Theseus can no longer experience a true death, nor does he need to breathe, but the sharp sting of fear and adrenaline makes him struggle anyway. He claws at Zagreus’s fingers around his throat with all his might, but they are suddenly like iron weights. The subtle glow of colors on his skin has turned red; Theseus can practically feel it drumming through his fingers.
Zagreus’s grip tightens. Theseus can still breathe, if only in quick, thin gasps.
“I really, really want to kill you right now.”
His voice is terrifyingly even. In that moment, Theseus knows that Zagreus truly means it, in a way he never has before.
“Blood and darkness,” he says. His grip tightens further, then abruptly loosens, and Theseus sucks in air, despite himself. “Blood and darkness. Blood and darkness. Blood and darkness.”
Zagreus leaps away from him like he’s been burned. His back slams into rock wall. His hands rise, coming up over his head, raking into his scalp.
“Oh, gods. This is—I need…Theseus.”
Theseus's hands go to this throat on autopilot. He can't see himself, but he can feel the presence of Zagreus's fingers still. He wonders for a brief moment if there are visible imprints on his skin. Though he is a shade, he still bleeds. He still acts as though he needs to take breath, by an instinct he can't remove.
There is no time to consider it further. The sound of his name urges him to his feet. He approaches Zagreus quickly, dropping down so he can grasp his hands by his wrists and pull them away from his head.
“By the gods, get a hold of yourself, man! What can I do to aid you?”
“I need a fountain,” Zagreus gasps. “I thought I could handle it. I hoped I could get used to it—make fighting my father easier, but I need more—urgh.”
Theseus cups Zagreus cheeks, much like before, and Zagreus leans into it with his entire body. In a matter of moments, he is nearly cradling Zagreus in his arms while he shivers and shakes.
“Should’ve never taken that last one.”
While he speaks, Theseus regards the roster with one hand. “There is a fountain on the eastern side at this very moment that will heal you—”
“Not that kind of fountain,” Zagreus interrupts. He shakes his head, burying his face against Theseus’s chest. Theseus’s fingers skirt down the edge of his tunic. He’s very warm. “It’s a red fountain. There are skulls adorning the edge. It’s called the Pool of Purging. There are a few around here, I think.”
Again, Theseus glances over the roster.
“It is several chambers away, to our west. Can you stand?”
“It’s not exactly a matter of if I can stand, but what I can stand,” Zagreus says, but he does not move immediately. Theseus waits a few seconds, but when it appears that Zagreus will remain where he is, at least for a time, he comes to a decision.
He inserts his hands under Zagreus’s body, scooping him into his arms. Zagreus lets out an undignified yelp and clings to him to keep his balance.
“Theseus, what are you doing?”
“Fear not,” Theseus says, “if your body has been rendered immobile by the power bestowed upon you, I shall carry you the rest of the way!” Zagreus looks up at him, entirely too alarmed by Theseus’s incredible generosity. “Don’t worry, I have carried Asterius on my back before!” Not for very long, but Zagreus weighs much less than Asterius.
“That’s not really my concern here!” Zagreus says. His startled look does not abate, even as Theseus begins the trek to the pool of purging. Eventually though, when it’s clear that Theseus isn’t going to drop him anytime soon, he relaxes slightly in his hold.
Zagreus is lighter than Theseus had imagined. When Theseus remarks upon this, Zagreus responds with a scowl.
“You don’t have to carry me, Theseus. I can manage myself just fine.”
His fingers curl into the short hairs on the back of Theseus’s neck. His nails dig in, and Theseus tries not to think about how they had just been wrapped around his throat.
“What you have managed to do is get yourself into this sorry state! Take your rest. We will be there soon.”
Zagreus’s fingers dig in harder. Theseus chances a glance down at him.
He’s looking at him intently, the glow of his eyes seeming ever brighter this close. Theseus resolutely looks ahead and quickens his pace.
For all Zagreus’s claims of managing himself, with time, his body returns to its previous state; he begins to tremble, and his nails bury themselves into the back of Theseus’s neck to a painful degree.
When Theseus attempts to inquire into his well-being, Zagreus refuses to answer with a shake of his head. He only responds to his inquiries by fully leaning into him, evidently having given up on being stubborn.
The silence is in one word, awkward. Zagreus is a shivering mess in his arms, and Theseus is carrying him as though he didn’t just break through his divine shield and nearly choke him to death minutes ago.
“I’ve never been held like—” Zagreus starts, at length, then stops himself. “I didn’t know—"
The fingers digging into Theseus’s neck gradually loosen, and his damp breath ghosts over Theseus’s throat.
“I can’t help locate Asterius like this,” he finishes quietly.
Theseus says nothing in reply to that. There is nothing he can say. He will not allow their plan to fail due to Zagreus’s recklessness in his choice of Boons; however, nor does he relish in his suffering.
He nearly halts as the thought crosses his mind.
That isn’t right—Theseus wants him to suffer. He should want him to suffer. It is his duty to see him suffer, by his own hands no less! Yet, when he gazes at Zagreus’s shivering form, both flush and pale at once, something more than sympathy eats at him.
How long are you going to keep denying yourself?
The echo is his own voice, this time.
“You will resume once you are well,” he says, grateful his voice remains even.
“Put me down,” Zagreus says.
There is a dangerous edge to his voice. Thankfully, they reach the fountain within the next few minutes. When he has it in his sights, Zagreus casts his gaze upon it like he is desperate to be plunged into its depths, and Theseus will not deny him.
He holds him there, hovering at its edge, unsure as to whether or not he should set him on the ground or simply lay him inside the liquid. It’s red like blood, and thicker than water.
“So! Explain this Pool of Purging to me. What is our next step?”
“Just drop me in there. I’ll take care of the rest.”
With that decided, Theseus carefully sets him inside the pool. It is just large enough to fit a single person, and when Zagreus sinks down so that only the tops of his shoulders are visible, he lets out a sigh of pure relief.
“Thank you, King.”
Their eyes meet over the edge. The harsh lines on Zagreus’s face soften, and he smiles. It is such a sweetened, grateful smile that Theseus can do little else but grip his arm with one hand to stop himself from speaking words.
Then Zagreus sucks in a quick breath and sinks under the pool’s surface.
Theseus nearly gasps out loud. He hurries to its edge and leans over. A few bubbles slip to the surface as the only indication Zagreus resides underneath. Theseus waits, watching, for what he isn’t sure. Zagreus can swim, and if he died, he would surely return to his House.
Seconds pass. Then nearly a minute. Theseus drums his fingers on the edge of the pool and looks around. This section of Elysium is quite near to where they had first begun their search anew. Bits of rock and rubble far off mark Zagreus’s initial attempts to locate a chamber.
The sound of a splash distracts Theseus from his musings. He looks at the pool to find a small shard of rock has fallen into the liquid. When he glances upward, he finds the source is a small hole in the wall high above, from which a small soul catcher butterfly has crawled.
Theseus watches its wings flutter and slow. He shifts in place, and the butterfly stills, then turns to him. Against the dark and lush greenery of their surroundings, its vibrant pink color is even more stark.
Theseus jerks backwards when Zagreus suddenly bursts from the pool, gasping. Fluid cascades down his musculature and sloshes over the edge of the pool. For a moment Zagreus flounders, blinking rapidly through the wet, and then he grips both edges and heaves himself up and over onto the grass.
“Darkness, that felt good.” He runs his fingers through his hair, then shakes it. “Rid myself of a few Ares Boons and one of Poseidon. Those two are a frightening and dangerous combination. Woo!”
Zagreus lifts his head and stretches his arms high above. He looks to be much recovered from what had affected him so severely before.
“Thanks again, Theseus,” Zagreus says, whilst Theseus stares, still attempting to catch up. “Could have made it on my own, but who am I to deny you the opportunity to show your strength?”
“I was simply assisting you in your weakened state! Your gratitude is unnecessary.”
“Uh huh. So.” Zagreus shifts from foot to foot. Theseus glances at the grass burning under his feet and then back up to where he had seen the butterfly. It’s gone. “What’s next?”
Theseus refocuses on Zagreus’s face. “I will need my spear. I left it behind to carry you here.”
“You left your spear behind? Your blessed spear? I suppose I should be flattered.”
“Pah. It will return to my quarters should I die. My shield is another matter, though.”
“Ah. Right.” Zagreus looks chastened.
“It was an impressive feat of strength,” he says. There is a note of wonder in his voice that he can’t help. “Truly.”
“Are you complementing me?” Zagreus asks, leaning back against the wall with his arms crossed. That’s when Theseus notices the butterfly he saw before. It has moved to their right and is now slowly fluttering their way.
“You would like to think so, wouldn’t you!”
He observes the butterfly as it flutters past Zagreus and head towards Theseus. By the time it reaches his outstretched hand, Zagreus has also taken note of its presence. He frowns when it lands gently on Theseus’s fingers.
“It didn’t hurt you?”
“Naturally,” Theseus says smugly. “I would be shocked if the opposite were the case!”
“What?” Zagreus cocks his head. “Those things hurt me all the time.”
“Of course they hurt you! They are designated to do so. But for the other residents, they should be nothing more than an attractive companion.” Theseus lifts the butterfly up and examines it in the light. He moves closer to Zagreus and the butterfly turns its body with him, its wings moving back-and-forth slowly. “There are entire rooms dedicated to viewing soul catchers.”
“Well, that’s not fair.” Zagreus pouts briefly. He crosses his arms, and that the motion the butterfly begins moving towards him. “Why does everything have to want to kill me around here?”
Theseus chuckles and lifts his hand so that it nears Zagreus’s, attempting to encourage it onto his hand to demonstrate the difference. Zagreus moves his hand up next to Theseus’s obediently, and their fingers unintentionally brush.
Theseus is so startled by the warm sizzle of contact that he doesn’t even notice when the butterfly crawls onto Zagreus’s fingers.
“Oh,” he says, bringing Theseus back to the present. “It didn’t explode.”
Theseus stares. “What? Surely it should have wounded you.”
“Looking forward to it, were you?”
“Hardly! It should have— it’s simply supposed to—"
Theseus continues to stare at where the butterfly is slowly crawling across Zagreus’s fingers as he turns his hand. He encourages onto his palm, a look of pure delight on his face.
“This is wonderful. Why can’t they always be like this? I’m sure my father could think of something else unpleasant to encourage my demise.”
Staring at the picture Zagreus makes, something about it feels so intrinsically wrong in a way Theseus cannot describe. Why this butterfly, alone, separated from its spawner?
“Look, another one.”
Theseus’s head lifts. Another butterfly has crawled through the tiny hole in the wall and is fluttering toward Zagreus this time. When it’s within range, he cups it in his palms and shows Theseus, still smiling with that same delight.
“As quaint as this is, it is a bit odd,” he admits. “I don’t see its ball anywhere nearby.”
“That is odd,” Theseus echoes. He walks up to the fountain and presses his palm to the wall behind it. It came through hole in the wall, which is odd in itself. Nothing about it seems out of place, but when he presses his ear to it, something about it strikes him as different.
He checks the roster, just to be sure. Then he turns to Zagreus.
Zagreus lifts his head from examining the butterflies on his hands. “Theseus?”
Their eyes meet. He takes in Theseus’s position and hole in the wall where the butterflies appeared. Theseus doesn’t have to say more; Zagreus turns around and sprints back the way they came to find their weapons.
Theseus’s stomach is in knots. Zagreus was quick to retrieve their weapons, but even in such a short span of time, Theseus felt his doubts crawl into his throat and settle there.
He swallows several times over before he is able to speak to Zagreus, who hands him his spear and his broken shield without comment.
“If Asterius truly is here, then…” he trails off. Zagreus often remarks how he will deal with the consequences of what they are doing, but with Asterius so close, he now wonders if the punishment may be much worse.
“I scared off some shades that had wandered this way,” Zagreus says, which is not an answer. Perhaps there is no answer that will tell him what he wants to hear.
“If Lord Hades deems it necessary to punish someone, make certain it is me,” he tells him. Zagreus frowns, but he nods.
“I don’t think Asterius would be very happy about that.”
“No,” Theseus replies, “and it will not bring me any joy, but he doesn’t deserve to suffer for my mistakes.”
Zagreus opens his mouth. Then he closes it and nods again.
Theseus moves out of the way of Zagreus’s swing. He tests his might in the air once, then twice, and on the third the muscles in his back strain as he whips it at the wall in front of him.
The wall crumbles like paper as his sword swings, glowing arrows, and tidal waves pummel its surface. Theseus’s breath refuses to leave his throat until the wall has been completely decimated, and even then, he finds it hard to breathe. In theory, this time is no different than any of the others. There is no indication that it is more likely Asterius maybe within these walls, save for a few living creatures that may as well be entirely coincidental in their appearance.
Yet he can’t help but hope.
Please, Asterius. Please.
Zagreus steps back. Every muscle in Theseus’s body is pulled tight.
“Wait a moment, I’ll clear this with my Gust Boon.”
Asterius. Asterius. Asterius. Asterius.
There is a chill in the air left behind from Zagreus’s Boon. Theseus grips his arms with both hands while the dust clears and Zagreus moves aside.
“Oh, gods, that’s...”
“Asterius,” Theseus chokes.
Emotions he has been holding back rush forth, spilling over inside him. He drops to his knees and covers his mouth with one hand to muffle his sob.
In front of them lies Asterius, seemingly unharmed, sitting at the far end of the room. The butterfly that they had noticed is one of many; hundreds—nay, thousands of soul catchers coat the entirety of the chamber, pouring out from the ball summoning them forth. Every inch is covered in a blanket of pink, save for a small circle of space surrounding Asterius.
The sound of his name coming from his beloved’s mouth threatens to send him over the brink again. At their entry, Asterius doesn’t move from his spot on the ground, cross-legged and fenced in by butterflies. His arms are raised, the shock of their entrance no doubt a great surprise.
“Asterius mate,” Zagreus says beside him. Theseus can’t see his face, but he can hear the pleasure in his tone. “I can’t believe we actually found you. It’s so good to see you!”
“Short one…? How did you—” he pauses, looking between them, eyes wide “—I have many questions.”
“We have come to rescue you!” Theseus exclaims. Several dozen of the butterflies had moved when he dropped to his knees, and so he stays where he is, still. “Oh, my dearest friend, it is so good to hear your voice. I have traveled through many realms to find you! Please, tell me. Are you well?”
“I am well, King,” Asterius answers. Relief floods Theseus.
“Oh, thank the gods,” Theseus says, heavy with emotion. “Thank the gods!”
“Asterius,” Zagreus says, “if you been here the whole time, and you’re relatively unharmed, why haven’t you tried to leave?”
He makes as if to take a step forward, and Theseus’s arm shoots out to stop him with his hand.
“Do not move from that spot!” he barks. “Movement attracts them!”
Zagreus stills immediately. “So that’s why they chased me,” he realizes aloud. “It makes sense now. Wow.”
“Yes. They respond to movement from both friend and foe. The faster the opponent, the more attracted they are.”
When Zagreus had taken the aborted step, dozens of butterflies had risen before settling once his movements stilled. Oddly enough, butterflies closest to them had moved away instead of towards them.
Asterius gradually lowers his arms and Theseus—so consumed with joy at the sight of his friend—only just now notes the spots of blood dot his arms, chest, and legs. There is even a bright red splotch near his nose. As hands come to rest on his knees, a few butterflies flap and flutter near his arm, exploding when they land. Asterius does not flinch, but his nostrils flare.
What? That makes no sense. The butterflies did not harm them, so why—?
He stills his thoughts before they can begin to wander. He can save question for a later date. Whatever meaning is behind it, whatever reason Asterius has for staying where he has, Theseus will not risk it just yet.
He looks back at Asterius. His chest rises and falls slowly, calm despite the circumstances. Were it any other situation, Theseus would have a painting commissioned of the scene to commit it to memory. The butterflies are in stark contrast to his dark fur, and he looks almost peaceful surrounded by their beauty.
His heart aches just looking at him. Theseus missed him so much.
“Asterius,” Theseus pleads, when he still does not offer an answer. “Why have you not moved?”
His snout lifts imperceptibly. One of his ears flicks back.
“Did you want to leave?” Theseus manages. He hears Zagreus suck in a sharp breath. “Have I—have I caused you this much suffering that you would prefer to hide away? Please, tell me, for I can’t suffer the silence any longer. Speak with me, I implore you!”
“No!” Asterius booms, with such emphasis that Theseus is momentarily stunned. “No, King, I was happy by your side. I would have stayed with you, if it were my choice.”
“Then why—" Zagreus starts.
Asterius breathes out through his nostrils. The hands on his knees curl inward.
“It happened without warning,” Asterius admits. “Servants of Lord Hades came to fetch me some time ago. They put me in this room and told me that if I died, I would not be able to return to my post. That I’d be cast into Tartarus for all eternity for failing to defeat you, short one.”
“So it really was my father’s punishment. If you die, you can’t go back. But you can’t go back anyway, because if you move, you’ll die.” Zagreus whistles. “Darkness, that’s particularly cruel of my father. If you had moved, we might have actually found you sooner. We went looking for you in Tatarus.”
Asterius says nothing for a long moment, absorbing what they’re saying. He keeps glancing between them, his confusion evident.
“I had to find you,” Theseus says defensively. “I had thought you lost, and only one being in this realm could help me find you again. I did not relish a truce, but I found you. Now: you can move from that spot and allow the butterflies to slay you. You shall return to your chambers.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, King.”
“What?” Theseus gapes. “Why ever not?”
“I have my orders.”
That is not the answer he expected. “Very well: I am ordering you to come to me.”
“I will not.”
Theseus’s mouth hangs open. Although he rarely ever enacts orders on him, Asterius rarely disobeys them. In fact, he is not certain he has ever done so. They have always trusted each other implicitly.
“Asterius!” he calls, scandalized. “Surely you are not serious!”
Asterius snorts. He maintains his cross-legged position, despite how uncomfortable he must feel.
“Asterius,” Theseus says, softer now, deeply wounded by what his friend is telling him.
“If I die,” Asterius begins, then stops. His throat bobs. “I will lose my place by your side. For now, it is still technically here.”
“Asterius,” Theseus pleads.
A low sound like a growl reverberates out from Asterius. “Theseus,” he says, nary more than a whisper. His name sounds like a promise. “Lord Hades has given me a choice. An unfair one, but a choice nonetheless. I know not what you and the short one did when I was taken, but you can’t fight the fate’s design.” He pauses, then addresses Zagreus. “No matter what you hope to accomplish, he cannot fight Lord Hades’s wrath like you. And I would rather remain here, close to him, than return to that place.”
Theseus grits his teeth against a shout. How could Asterius think that for a moment he would accept this fate? To be so close, yet unable to be with him. A thoughtless assumption!
“The fates did not put you here! Lord Hades did, and his will is one I will fight!”
A shiver of fear worms into his gut at his own words. If Lord Hades could hear him now, he would truly be sent to the depths of Tartarus. Yet he means what he says.
“This is ridiculous,” Zagreus says, apparently an agreement. “I understand where you’re coming from, Asterius, but we didn’t come all this way just to leave you here in a room full of butterflies. There’s a simple solution for all of this.”
Zagreus takes a step back. The closest butterflies rise up to give chase, but when he continues to walk backwards, the butterflies do not turn in his direction. Instead, they turn towards Asterius. They rise in a single cloud of movement, and Theseus watches Asterius close his eyes and lifts his chin.
Zagreus has already stopped moving by the time Theseus shouts for him to stop.
“I…don’t understand,” Zagreus says. “These butterflies, earlier—”
“When near, they will only harm me,” Asterius says. Some of butterflies have already exploded along his skin. And in truth, the damage is minuscule compared to the swing of a sword or an axe or even his spear.
But the damage from hundreds, or even thousands of them will surely kill him.
The realization finally hits Theseus. He gasps like he has just remembered how to breathe.
“Asterius,” he rasps. He digs his fingers into the dirt, pulling up chunks of grass. “No, no, no, no! I will not allow this! You will return to me, unharmed, and we will leave this place.”
“I am sorry, Theseus.”
Theseus makes an inhuman sound and pounds his fist into the dirt.
Theseus has not come all this way to admit defeat. He has not traversed through nearly all the realms in the Underworld to leave his friend behind when he has been right under his nose from the beginning. It is an insult, to both him and Asterius.
He observes their surroundings. There are too many butterflies to kill them all at once, and Zagreus has no range with his sword. Theseus briefly considers the idea of allowing Asterius to die, but that ultimately discards it. Based on his contract, as long as Asterius remains alive, he can stay in Elysium.
Theseus looks down at the remaining half of his shield. It gleams in the light, a promise half kept. He squeezes his eyes shut.
“Leave me, Theseus,” Asterius urges. He sounds agitated. “Do not shed your tears over me. I have accepted the gods’ punishment.”
His eyes snap open. That’s it.
The gods. How could he have forgotten, after all this time? He had been so distracted by their quest that he had not thought even once to call upon them outside of their battle in the arena. What a fool! Zagreus has their aid, but so does Theseus.
“Well I have not!” Theseus snaps, to drown out the fury that erupts from Asterius’s insinuation. “Zagreus! Do you trust me?”
He moves his head to look at his newest ally. Zagreus’s eyes are gleaming, glittering pools of ruby and emerald, and they hold nothing but fierce determination.
“What do you need me to do?”
He turns to Asterius.
“You have some nerve, Asterius!” Theseus belts, reveling in the shocked look his friend is giving him. “You call yourself undeserving; unworthy. How dare you. If anyone is worthy, it is you. You are worthy. You are loved. By all of those in Elysium”—Theseus stands and reinforces his grip on his shield in front of him. The soul catchers are rising, attracted by his movement—"by me!”
“And now!” He lifts his spear into the air and inhales.
It is through the will of the gods on Olympus that he has been granted their favor. He is no fool—he is aware that not all the gods share in his vision, and there have been times where their power was not bestowed. They can be moody, and erratic, as any could expect of beings that hold the greatest power in this world.
Theseus knows it is by their favor that he is granted supreme power, and his request may yet still be denied if they feel so inclined.
“Olympus!” he bellows, forcing his voice to rise up as loud as he can manage, with a confidence he does not feel, ‘Tis my time of need! Lend me your power!!”
For a moment, all is quiet. Zagreus, has raised his sword on instinct, poised to move.
Then: A blue light begins to shine underneath Zagreus. A circle of water erupts from the ground, bubbling and bursting upwards.
Zagreus may be his ally, but in this instance, he is also a perfect target. There are too many butterflies to risk in targeting his attack on them, but Zagreus—he knows exactly what to do.
“Move!” Theseus shouts. Without waiting to hear his answer or to see if he has followed his command, Theseus makes a mad dash for Asterius.
The butterflies engulf him, colliding with him as they move in search of their goal. He sees out of the corner of his eye the blurred form of Zagreus making his own move, dashing through the clouds to lead the Olympian’s power into the waiting soul catchers. As Zagreus passes him, light burns bright in the space he left near Theseus, and then a tidal wave explodes up from the ground.
It is only water, yet somehow it slices right through him. He flounders for a moment, then regains his footing and continues. As he runs, blood runs down his arm in rivulets and slips over the fingers gripping his shield, but there’s no time to bolster his grip; more waves pound into him, and the butterflies are swarming before being annihilated by the gods’ power.
Theseus bursts through the worst of the assault and catapults straight into Asterius. They collide solidly, and with effort Theseus pushes him back, until he is able to knock him further away from the destruction being havocked behind him. At once he quickly attempts to wipe away the sweat and blood from his eyes, though it is hardly worth the effort; he is soaked entirely.
“King, you moved too quickly, too soon,” he hears Asterius say. “I could have—that was unnecessary. You are wounded and covered in blood.”
Oh, his voice. This close, it rings like the deepest bell. Theseus raises his hand in a placating gesture while he catches his breath. Covered in water and blood, Theseus realizes this is the first time he has touched Asterius since he has been gone. Longer, as Zagreus had distracted them, and he had felt no need to worry about physical touch when he was so near.
“Asterius,” Theseus breathes, looking up at him with a clear gaze, drinking in the sight. He bites his lip to keep it from trembling. “Oh, Asterius. My Asterius.”
For his part, Asterius looks from Theseus, to Zagreus, and then at his immediate surroundings, as if he can’t understand what has occurred. During the chaos, the tidal waves from Lord Poseidon splashed him as well, but thankfully only the surface coat of his hair is wet. Theseus runs his hands over his chest and shoulders, making certain what he is seeing is real.
Asterius catches his hand when it nears his. His thumb brushes across Theseus’s knuckles. He looks as though he has so much to say, but can’t decide where to begin.
Before either of them can speak again, Zagreus dashes just past him suddenly and swings his sword down on the dire soul catcher—the source of the butterflies. It dies after a few swings of his sword, and then…
“Did you have to ask for so much power?” Zagreus asks him. A breathtaking smile is slowly spreading across his face. He bounces on the balls of his feet, and his smile transforms into a grin.
They’ve done it. He did it.
Letting out a cry of pure joy, Theseus throws his arms around Asterius’s shoulders.
“Asterius! Asterius! You’re free! Thank the gods, I missed you so, my friend! You have no idea what I had to endure to reach you!”
“King…” Asterius hesitates with his hands hovering above Theseus. When Theseus lifts his head and leans back to get a better look at him, the expression on his face must erode away at what lingering doubts he has.
Asterius takes Theseus into his arms and holds him firm, nuzzling and pressing the side of his face to Theseus’s hurriedly, as though he won't get the chance to later. His hands wander, coming up over his hips, exploring the length of his chest and shoulders, unconcerned by the blood staining his hands and tunic.
“I know not what you did to find me,” he says, his voice warm near Theseus’s ears, “nor why I deserve the chances you have given me, but I’m… I suppose I’ve no choice left but to thank you. Both of you.”
“It was nothing, Asterius mate.” Zagreus tosses his sword over his shoulder as though he doesn’t appear moments from collapse. “Anything for a friend.”
“Ha! He lies, Asterius! He went through quite the effort to assist me in finding you!” Theseus says, quite loudly and hardly concerned for it. He grips Asterius’s biceps with both hands and gives him a squeeze, and then a shake, because he is still in the process of realizing what they have done. Unsurprisingly, Asterius doesn’t move an inch.
“Look at you, Asterius!” he cries, because he is simply so pleased by the sight of him.
Asterius responds by cupping the back of Theseus’s head and pressing his mouth to the top of it. He is not a true mortal, and so it is how he expresses his dearest affections most often. Through touch, through the warm press of his body, and his mouth where he can find ways to use it without his nose ring getting in the way.
Asterius’s breath huffs over the side of Theseus’s face. He moves his mouth to a high point on Theseus’s throat, and Theseus hums, exposing it to allow him more access.
There is a cough to their left. Theseus freezes, realizing just whom he has been ignoring in favor of getting his hands all over Asterius in a most embarrassing fashion. He stands, face flooding with heat.
“Short one,” Asterius says. They stand to face him, and Asterius holds none of Theseus’s hesitation. He motions for him to move closer. “Come.”
“I didn’t mean to interrupt your moment,” Zagreus says, but approaches obediently. “I just thought it might be prudent if we save your reunion for a better location. There is still the matter of my father to deal with, though we avoided breaching the terms of your contract.”
“That can wait.” Asterius motions for him to come even closer, waiting until he is just a few feet away before he pulls him into his spectacular chest muscles. Zagreus goes stiff, then like what Theseus had experienced on previous occasions, he melts into him, bringing Theseus to wonder how long it has been since he was held thus.
“You fought well, short one. Zagreus,” Asterius says. He leans him back by his shoulders, both hands nearly engulfing them entirely. “I’ve never seen such a sight, nor had I expected to in this after-lifetime. I must thank you.”
Zagreus blinks up at him slowly, looking starstruck. “I… You’re welcome, sir. I felt it was my duty to help fix my mistake.”
“The mistake is ours,” Asterius says with a short shake of his head. “We have our duty, and you, yours. I’m glad to return to it.” His hands leave Zagreus's shoulders. "Which we must do now. I am going to assume your work together was done in secret."
"Naturally," Theseus says, crossing his arms. "We couldn't let word get back to Lord Hades what went on."
"Probably too late for that," Zagreus replies.
"Regardless. There will be much to discuss on our way home, Asterius. Which you will be headed to, this time."
"So long as I am kept alive for the moment, that is where I will go."
"You think my father's contract extends that long? There weren't any clauses about just that room you were in alone?"
Asterius shrugs his shoulders. Theseus watches his muscles shift with interest, then catches Zagreus giving him a look he can't quite define.
"For now, we will go. And what of you, short one?"
"I'm...well, I suppose I'll keep doing what I'm doing. I'll need to get back to the House and asses the situation as it stands. It's hard to believe he wouldn't know, but it's possible."
"Understood. Then we will see you on the battlefield." Asterius turns to Theseus, then jerks his head in Zagreus’s direction pointedly.
Is this truly the end? Just like that, they separate, after everything that has happened?
Oh, you want more? You'll have to ask for it.
Theseus blinks down at the remains of his shield. As if such a thing would occur. As if he would-
He is jostled by Asterius's gentle nudge at his side. He scowls at him, then looks at Zagreus. He so dislikes goodbyes. They are such bittersweet moments, and often he is left feeling worse after. He meets Zagreus’s eyes, feeling an unnamed emotion lodge itself in his throat. With Asterius watching them, the dynamic feels altogether different.
“I suppose we shall see you at the stadium, then,” Theseus says, which is not what he wants to say.
It’s not what Zagreus wants to hear. He smiles, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “Right. It’s been fun, Theseus. Quite the unusual adventure, I’ll say. Since our mission is complete, I’ll probably go find and let some shade kill me and head on home. Or if you’d rather, we can go back to the arena and finish what we started.”
“Not a bad idea,” Asterius remarks. “Though your complexion leaves something to be desired.”
“I believe we should—” Theseus starts, and finds he is suddenly unable to finish “—I should—“
Gazing at the two of them, something in Theseus’s heart twists. His mouth dries up, and his heart gives a panicked flutter.
Damn it. Damn it. Damn it all. This is wrong; Zagreus has sacrificed enough to deserve his acknowledgment. There is no honor in what he has been trying to avoid saying.
“Zagreus!” he says. Zagreus’s head snaps in his direction as Theseus strides forward and pulls him into a fierce embrace, much like he had with Asterius, only without the wandering hands. “Thank you.”
“Must I repeat myself?” Theseus lowers his arms slightly, still preserving his hold. “I thank you. Without you, I would not have found Asterius at all. But don’t let it get to your head! I shall not go easy on you as a challenger!”
Zagreus’s smile is more genuine that time. “I wouldn’t dream of it. And Theseus?”
He lowers the hand that has been resting on his shoulder and it trails inadvertently down Theseus’s arm, leaving sparks in its wake. When Theseus makes to step away, Zagreus’s fingertips brush under the palm of his hand and it is like a lightning strike from Zeus himself.
His words are cut off when, suddenly, the world around them rumbles and shakes. Then, a familiar voice echoes in the chamber.
The singular word is enough to quicken Theseus’s breath and simultaneously steal it away.
“L-Lord Hades,” he breathes. He directs his hapless stare onto Zagreus, who returns it was one of intense resolve.
“Well, that answers that. I’ll deal with my father. You go back to the arena and tell the shades you slayed me or whatever you need to do to keep the peace.”
“Go!” Zagreus interrupts, already backing away. “I’ll handle it! See you both later!”
He takes off without waiting for their acknowledgment. Theseus watches him go, his heart sitting in his throat.
Something has changed, he realizes. Something that cannot be reversed.
What a ride!!! I hope you enjoyed it. I know a lot of you were probably hoping for something more dramatic but this is what I had planned from the beginning and I like it! I know the ending is a bit abrupt but a lot of what went on will be unpacked in future chapters
*clenches fist* Asterius's insecurities
Chapter 6: Change
Theseus is forced to talk about feelings. It goes about as well as one would expect.
A little Zag POV here! Also, there is some explicit smut this chapter so if that's not your thing... I did rate it correctly! I hope you enjoy. Also also, thank you so much for the continued support as always. Your comments motivate me. I really do treasure you all... <3
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Zagreus stands at the foot of his father’s desk once again, only this time, he isn’t certain of the outcome.
“What do you have to say for yourself this time, boy?” Hades says, almost lazily. He leans on one arm while he speaks, and with the other he takes up his quill and begins scribbling on a parchment. To anyone else, it would look as though he’s barely paying him any attention. Zagreus knows better.
Usually at this point Zagreus would respond with the quip or an insult, but for once, he refrains from saying the first thing that comes to mind. If he isn’t careful, those he just spent an awfully long time assisting may end up back where they were: on the wrong side of his father’s wrath. It’s wrath he’s usually not one to shy away from testing, until this moment.
“The terms of your contract were not breached,” Zagreus says. He crosses his arms and juts his chin. “The Bull of Minos is still alive. You’ve no reason to be cross this time.”
“Is that what you think?!” Hades slams his fist against the desk, his calm evaporating in an instant. His quill rolls away from him and the vial of ink he’s using nearly topples over. “Do you suppose simply because he remains alive your transgressions will be forgiven? I put up with the destruction of my realm on a regular basis because I know that one day you will realize your efforts are futile. But I will not have you interfering with the way I discipline those under my command.”
“Then don’t discipline them at all! Though I suppose that’s too much to ask of you, father. You certainly never held back before.”
He shouldn’t test him like this. Zagreus knows this, but he can’t help himself. He cares about the people he’s hurting, even as he hurts them. It’s not fair—to anyone. He’s not going to stop escaping just so the denizens of the Underworld can fulfill their duty, and they’re out there just trying to do their job.
He knows that Meg gets punished the worst out of all of them. Than gets involved in secret to avoid potentially losing his position, and the Hydra doesn’t have quite the intelligence warranted to be worth punishing. If anything, he should feel the most guilty about Meg.
But it’s Theseus he can’t stop thinking about. Asterius whom he’s desperate to impress.
You knew what you were getting into, he tells himself. You knew it was going to hurt. You knew people would suffer until you found her and brought her back.
“Boy—” Hades begins, leaning forward.
“What’s done is done,” Zagreus says. “If you try to confine them—either of them—again, I’ll find a way to break them out. So leave the punishing to me.”
Hades settles back in his throne with a deep sigh. While he speaks, he picks up the parchment he was working on and begins rolling it.
“And I suppose you think it’s that easy, do you? Boy, you think I don’t know you half as well as I do. Any fool can see you’ve grown an attachment.”
Zagreus’s heart starts pounding. How could he—? Of course he knows.
“I’m attached to many shades and non-shades alike.”
There was one question that he kept asking himself while he was out there, exploring the furthest depths of the Underworld: Why?
Why this time? Why risk everything he had worked for to help someone who had done nothing but try to kill and berate him time and time again? The answer hadn’t become clear to him until Theseus has started warming up to him bit by bit, and then after, when Aphrodite had revealed what had been lurking under the surface all along.
Sometimes, Zagreus swears he can still feel the ghost of Theseus’s palm against his cheek. He’ll think about it for second to long in his body will come alive with a hunger that can’t be sated. His father was never one to express affection physically, and outside of combat, the most that Achilles granted him was a pat on the shoulder or the arm. Nyx, Than, and Hypnos were technically family, but they weren’t close.
They didn’t touch him. Not like Theseus. Not like Asterius, whose hug had him floating the moment he’d entered his sturdy arms.
Oh, he’d thought in that moment. This is it. This is what I want.
Zagreus digs his fingers into his arms and jerks his chin up his father. Hades’s mouth is barely visible under his mustache, but Zagreus can see his eyes gleaming.
“How quickly do you suppose it will take you to find the Minotaur next time?” Hades says. “If you think I’ll allow another walk about the Underworld with that fool Theseus then you are sorely mistaken.”
Zagreus knows he should let it go. His father is trying to goad him into revealing himself and he shouldn’t give in.
“Those two aren’t your lackeys,” he says, with more aggression than he intends. “They’re just following your orders. Leave them alone. Let them be.”
“Mm. Perhaps I’ll consider it,” Hades says. He sounds almost amicable, and Zagreus is immediately suspicious of the shift in his tone. “So long as you adhere to my conditions.”
Truly, he isn’t surprised by this development. Zagreus isn’t stupid enough to think his father is simply giving in because he sees he has no other choice. Standing there now, watching it all unfold, he’s willing to bet his father knew what was going on the entire time. That while he was out with Theseus, his father was deciding what to do about it.
He might have been banking on it; waiting for the leverage needed to try and force Zagreus to bend to his will.
Meeting his father’s eyes, he asks, “Not that I’m saying I’m agreeing, but what do you propose?”
Hades leans forward and nonchalantly slides a rolled parchment to the edge of his desk. Zagreus picks it up, then gingerly unrolls it and starts reading from the first line.
“No,” he says, after a moment. His voice is flat, devoid of any and all humor. “No. No! This is impossible. I’m not…”
“I’ve given you an option, boy. Two options, in fact. Choose one.”
“You won’t even talk about her, yet you’re asking me to…“ The parchment crumples in his shaking hands.
“The matter is settled, I presume,” Hades says. Zagreus closes his eyes.
It has been days since Zagreus left them.
Though Theseus has no means of telling time, he has grown accustomed to its passage through other means, such as the boatman passing through, or his fellow shades performing their ritualistic habits. It is not something that Theseus often actively thinks about. At first, he is absorbed by reveling in his beloved’s return, and his work as King.
“The shades of the arena cheered so loudly for you,” Theseus told him mere hours after him the event in question. They were in his room, lying on his bed. Asterius had attempted to return to his usual routine, but Theseus had insisted they take their rest.
“My return was welcome, it would seem,” Asterius says. He trails his fingertips over the back of Theseus’s head. It’s the easiest part of Theseus to reach with how he has curled himself up against his side. “I was not gone so long. Yet you still seem agitated, at times.”
“I was concerned!” Theseus exclaims, sitting up for a moment before settling back into his warmth. And how warm he is! Asterius is less prone to extended periods of contact, a fact that which Theseus begrudgingly accepts. Though at a time such as this, Asterius indulges him, for which Theseus is grateful. “Can you truly blame me?”
Still, being like this with Asterius is dangerous. Is too easy to let his guard down with Asterius petting and stroking him thus. His defenses are always at a weakened state with Asterius, and even more so now.
“Do you believe the shades at the stadium believed me?” he asks, a question that he would never dare to bring to his attention at any other time. To imply that the residents would find fault with his word doesn’t bear speaking. “I will begrudgingly admit that Zagreus has always presented himself an—nrgh—honorable foe. I suppose. In the right light.”
“Do not strain yourself,” Asterius teases. Theseus scoffs, then rolls onto his back and tugs at Asterius’s shoulder at the same time to encourage him to follow. He does, though he could easily resist Theseus’s gentle tug. Soon, Theseus lies on his back and Asterius has him caged between his muscular arms.
“Asterius,” he says, lowering his voice. His hands rise of their own accord and spread out across his chest, with the right inching under his chiton so he can push it off his shoulder. “It appears you have me wholly within your grasp. Whatever shall you do?”
Asterius snorts, a purely animal sound that brings forth a warm bolt of desire from within Theseus. He leans down, pressing his nose and mouth to the crook of Theseus’s neck. He inhales, once, greedily, and rubs his nose along the skin. It is so rare an occurrence that Theseus is nearly stunned into silence. Asterius minds his actions too often, never bowing to instincts he deems monstrous and irredeemable.
If he does so now, he must have missed Theseus nearly as much as Theseus missed him.
“Whatever you desire, King,” Asterius rumbles, then lifts his head and stares him down. Gods, Theseus could get lost in the depths of his gaze.
“I have not had you in such a long time, my friend,” Theseus replies. He smooths his hand gingerly up the length of Asterius’s thigh, until his fingertips drift underneath his chiton. He moves his hand further inward, grasping at his cock. Had he paid closer attention to how the heavens had endowed Asterius with such girth, perhaps their battle in the labyrinth may have gone differently! “You are truly massive.”
He responds by tugging Theseus closer. His hand dips under to join Theseus’s and encourages him to start stroking.
“Has it been so long?” Asterius asks. He grunts as Theseus tightens his grip, stroking faster. His hips began to buck, and a bead of precome wells up between his fingers. Theseus’s mouth feels dry, desperate to lick it away. “You may have me at any time, Theseus. You only need to ask.”
As if he could debase himself so! To plead for such frivolous and unnecessary activities. He enjoys it much more when Asterius comes at him fresh from battle and pins him to the bed or the wall or even the nearest patch of grass to have his way with him.
As if sensing his thoughts, one of Asterius’s large hands places itself at Theseus’s chest. He presses in, trapping him where he lays, pinning him with both his body and his gaze. Then with his free hand he reaches down underneath Theseus’s chiton. Theseus’s eyes flick off to his right, in the direction that the vial of oil resides on one of the nearby shelves. He licks his lips.
If Asterius will do what he is expecting, he will need it. His heart starts beating with excitement. It has been some time since they reveled in each other, and even longer since Asterius fucked him.
Just a thought is enough to nearly send Theseus right to the edge. He trembles as Asterius grips his cock; he hardly even realizes that he is gasping until Asterius leans down and presses his mouth to Theseus’s carefully.
“Another time, King,” he says, because he knows. He always knows, which is what Theseus both hates and loves about him. “We have our duties to attend to. There will be time.”
But I want it now. I want you now, he longs to say. Instead, he nods, and they come together, cocks aligned. Asterius does reach for the oil, only so he can pour it between them to make the slide slick.
“Asterius,” Theseus breathes. He enjoys speaking his name out loud. He likes the way it forms on his tongue, particularly when they fuck and he can cry it out without shame.
“Theseus,” Asterius says in reply, bending down to murmur it low in his ear. He does it to indulge him, knowing full well how Theseus adores his acknowledgement; his praise. He plants one hand beside Theseus’s head and starts stroking the two of them together, the movement of his hips inching him close.
“Oh, that feels divine, Asterius,” he says. “Such a firm grasp on us both.”
Asterius chuckles. Theseus swears he can feel it rumble all around them.
Gazing between them, watching their cocks disappear within his fist, Theseus's mouth begins to water. Occasionally Asterius will request a specific act that Theseus has come to enjoy; he is good with his mouth, so Asterius claims.
He swallows, and for a moment he imagines another at his side, speaking into his ear in that familiar and polite intonation.
Your mouth is just begging to be filled.
Theseus groans, attempting to cast thought aside. He is here, with Asterius, whose thighs flex under Theseus’s knees, evidence of his efforts. Theseus moves his hand to join him, but Asterius’s grip is strong and fast and sure, and all that Theseus does is get in his way. So he leans back, eyes fluttering shut as his grip tightens, stroking harder now. It’s close to painful, for Theseus, but Asterius has his eyes closed, bucking his hips in short, quick motions.
“Good,” he snorts.
Oh, that has him close. Theseus’s knees tremble, his toes curl again to Asterius’s side.
“Asterius,” he says, perilously close to a whine. He rakes his fingers down Asterius’s chest now that he is bent over him, thrusting against him. The smell of his musk is tantalizing. “You feel marvelous. It’s outrageous how you can reduce me to—” he breaks off as Asterius thrusts against him forcefully, shoving his snout into Theseus’s neck “—such a wanton creature. Oh, yes, yes, yes, Asterius, Asterius.”
“Ngkh.” Asterius shudders. Theseus grips him by the shoulders and thrusts with him, chasing his pleasure, until the muscles under his thighs go tight.
“On me,” Theseus gasps in between breaths. “Release yourself on me.”
The sound that Asterius makes is inhuman. He thrusts erratically for several seconds, and then he goes still with a cut off groan. His seed is thick, and coats much of Theseus’s stomach before he is done. Theseus follows closely behind, inserting his hand underneath Asterius’s loose one so he can stroke himself to completion. It takes but a moment, and with Asterius hovering above, watching him, looking as though he would like nothing better than to devour him, his climax hits him like a punch in the gut.
His following cry is shouted into the heavens. As he comes, Asterius leans down and presses his nose to the space under his throat. Theseus exposes it, shuddering violently as his tongue swipes across the skin there.
By the time he is done, still breathing like he’s just run miles, Theseus collapses back against his pillows. “Asterius, we should do that more often! Such satisfying sensations.”
Asterius shuffles up to his side and draws him into his arms, using a nearby cloth to clean Theseus off before doing so. He would never admit it, but Asterius is particularly gentle and amicable to being persuaded in his postcoital state.
“If you want it, ask,” he says. Theseus scowls into his chest.
“But you know me so well,” Theseus says, fluttering his lashes at Asterius.
Asterius meets his gaze head-on. His nostrils flare.
“Rest,” he says. “We’ve work to do soon enough.”
They live in eternal paradise, and yet he still has work! Being King has its upsides, and at other times, he despises Asterius’s steadfast dedication in assisting him.
Thus, the first day passes in quiet. Theseus resolutely does not think about Zagreus and catches up on duties that he has neglected, whilst Asterius does much the same. Though his contract was modified, he is still under it, acting as direct assistance to Theseus in ruling over Elysium.
Mostly, it involves resolving petty disputes and ensuring its residents have ample room to continue sparring in comfortable and occasionally unique settings. On the second day, Theseus spends most of it buried underneath paperwork, some of which he can’t make sense of. Theseus tries to tell himself that it is all too easy to forget the god that disappeared but a moment ago and left him feeling like a chalice only half filled.
“Asterius,” he addresses shortly, somewhere in the middle of the day. “Has approval come back yet for lawncare? The grass has nearly reached a meter, I should say!”
“No.” Asterius hefts his axe over his shoulder. “I will go through the parchments again later and send for the messenger. My attention is required elsewhere.”
“Who is it this time?” Theseus asks, leaning his head in his hand. “Has that fool Patroclus agreed yet to vacate his chamber so its pending reassignment may conclude?”
Asterius’s lips curve upward, displaying a rare smirk. Theseus groans and stretches his arms to the end of his desk.
“Ugh!” he cries aloud. Asterius chuckles and stomps away to deal with whatever shades are causing a ruckus.
Though his days are busy, and he has his routine, Zagreus’s absence is soon felt by all. The shades that have grown used to his constant attempts to escape appear restless to have such a rigid and exhausting routine interrupted. If they were not warriors that took great pleasure in battle after their lives had already ended, Theseus is certain the break would be welcome.
He wishes it was. Though he is not there, it is Zagreus’s absence that lingers more than anything. The last that they spoke, he had gone to deal with the Lord of the realm over their actions.
He looks up as a shade enters his office and drops a message on his desk. Theseus sighs and unrolls the parchment, reading the words before dismissing them.
He doesn’t know if Zagreus’s absence bodes well. He doesn’t know what it means at all. But what Theseus does know, is that he cannot stop thinking about it. He finds himself speaking with other shades about Zagreus instead of brushing them off. He converses with them, theorizing what may have happened without giving himself away. He is firmly against gossip, but the insight of the shades out on the field is invaluable.
“If I didn’t know better,” a shade tells him, “I would say it sounds like you miss his appearances at the stadium!”
“Ah, but the peace we have kept here is so splendid!” he replies, loud enough to drown out his beating heart.
The shades around him are not the only ones to notice how often he finds ways to bring up the Prince.
“Something has changed between you,” Asterius tells him sometime later.
“What nonsense are you spouting now, Asterius?” Theseus asks, playing dumb.
Asterius snorts, seeing right through it. “The short one. Zagreus.”
Theseus twitches at the way Asterius says his name. It sounds pointed; a gentle reminder that Theseus hasn’t once referred to him by his usual namesakes.
“Pfft. Nothing has changed. It is as it always was, and as I hope it will continue to be!”
“It is interesting,” Asterius says. “This life, such as is, is still yet ever-changing. Even you and I find change in ourselves.”
Theseus places his hands on his hips and stares out at the scenery. He won’t look Asterius in the eye.
What does he mean by asking such questions? Asterius is usually fairly easy to read, but now, Theseus is unable to parse his meaning. Yes, he is respecting Zagreus’s wishes to be referred to by his name only because of the journey that they took. Is that so nonsensical?
“I could not begin to imagine going on such a journey and not being changed by it,” Asterius adds, at Theseus’s continued silence. His tone would imply that Theseus needs gentling, as if he cannot handle what he asks!
“And what do you suppose has changed about me? I am as dedicated to the well-being of Elysium as ever! And if Zagre—the daemon walked through these halls, well, I would slay him without hesitation! I would even do it with glee!”
Asterius snorts. “He hasn’t shown himself since our post resumed.”
“Are you worried, Asterius? Well I am not!”
Theseus lacks his spear, so he can’t gesture to the heavens or any of the other motions he would prefer, instead he elects to stand at his full height and lift his chin. He will show Elysium he is a worthy Champion and King.
Asterius rises to a stand. He walks by Theseus and brushes a hand across his shoulders as he departs. After he is gone, Theseus can’t help but think that he disappointed him somehow.
It is another Underworld cycle before Asterius approaches him again. They have been adjusting back into the routines, and they have even faced a few challengers in the arena, though none come close to Zagreus’s might, and after fighting him for so long, the challengers he faces are child’s play.
Asterius corners him just as he’s finished oiling himself up for a bout of barehanded combat with a fresh challenger.
“I would like to speak with you,” he greets.
“Why, then speak, Asterius! Though make it quick; I’m about to pound this challenger into smithereens!”
Asterius shifts in place. He scratches under his chin and says nothing for a long moment. If Theseus didn’t know better, he would say he was nervous. Which is preposterous. Asterius’s confidence and assuredness is one of the things Theseus admires about him.
“Well? Is something ailing you?”
“Swear that you will respond with the truth, Theseus.”
“I need your word that you will not react to what I say with anger, but truth.”
Theseus frowns. “You have no need to fear my reaction, my good friend. I’m in high spirits, today! I swear I shall not be angry with you, and I will speak only the truth.”
Asterius nods. “Good. We will speak after the battle.”
“I…very well. I will see you then!”
Theseus takes on the challenger and defeats them in record time. Afterwards, when they clasp hands, the shade invites him to the bathhouse, but Theseus tells him he is otherwise occupied. He heads back the way he entered, through the back entrance to the stadium, and finds Asterius just outside. Theseus offers him an energetic greeting that is met with a more muted one.
“Asterius! Your expression is so severe! Ah, I see you plain; you wanted to join me in that battle. Why, you simply should have said!”
“Would’ve been hardly fair,” Asterius says with a snort, amused. “No, I only wish to speak with you.”
“Ah, yes, we have words to exchange. Whatever plagues your mind, I am happy to listen.”
“Not here. Come.” Asterius glances over at him, then starts walking, forcing Theseus to follow. Asterius clasps his hands behind his back, still waiting to speak his mind, and it dawns on Theseus why Asterius began the conversation just before his battle. Why he had him swear.
“You have been distracted, as of late,” he says, after a long pause.
Implications lie underneath, ones that Theseus immediately wants to bristle at.
“I have not neglected my duties,” Theseus says.
Another pause, even longer this time. “No. But your attention is elsewhere.” He stops and turns to take another path, away from a group of shades gathered. “With others.”
“Am I not allowed to converse with the residents here?”
Asterius’s hands drop to his side, and he finally faces Theseus. “There is a common element to your distraction.” This time, when he pauses to speak, Theseus realizes what he is about to say. “The short one.”
“I—pffbt! Zagr—him?” Theseus waves a hand. “So what if his name has come up in passing? It often does!”
“Things are not like they once were. With you. With him.”
It is not a question, and Theseus doesn’t quite know how to respond.
“I don’t—” he remembers his promise not to lie “I…will…admit that I have…wondered where he has gone. He has never taken this long to wait in challenging us. I sometimes wonder—” he pauses, but then his mouth moves of its own accord “—I hope he is all right.”
Asterius’s expression turns soft in a way that Theseus can’t handle. He clears his throat and turns his attention towards a nearby bush.
“Why do you ask? You must be concerned then, Asterius? His sacrifice was notable!”
“He can handle himself. My concern is not for the short one, but for you.”
“If this is not something you feel you can speak about, I will respect your decision. But I want the truth, Theseus. What changed between the two of you—”
A sound begins to roar in Theseus’s ears.
“Nothing changed, Asterius! Must you go on about that? I have told you before, it—”
“Theseus.” He crosses his arms. “You swore to me.”
“Wh—damn you, Asterius!” He curls his fists held at his side. “Damn you. What does it matter if anything has changed? He is a god, and I am…” nothing “I am King, here. He is attempting to leave this place for good.”
“Both you and I know that is not the truth. As one born of darkness, I know as well as you do that there is no escaping this place.”
They don’t know that I can’t survive up there for very long, Zagreus had said, what feels like ages ago.
Theseus swallows thickly. “Nevertheless.”
Asterius suddenly stands and walks over to him. His steps sound unreasonably loud in the quiet around them. His arms envelope Theseus once he’s in range, and he’s pulled tight against his chest.
“You remember when I had you swear to me to never question our bond? You were angry with the short one and myself—our friendship.”
“I remember,” Theseus says quietly. “Of course I remember. I had been such a fool.”
“The bond I share with you cannot be broken,” Asterius says emphatically.
“Yes, our brotherhood is a force to be reckoned with,” Theseus says, his impatience bleeding through. “What is your point, Asterius?”
Asterius visibly hesitates. When he speaks, he strokes his large hand down Theseus’s lower back, an action that he knows calms Theseus. Theseus is immediately on edge.
“I know that I have your heart, King, but I have not expected I would always keep it. Why you would choose to love a monster—“
Theseus pushes himself away from Asterius in a flash, staring at him with unbridled rage. “Asterius! You are no monster! I won’t allow such words to leave your lips without refute!” It doubles as an excuse to ignore the other words that have just come out of Asterius’s mouth. “Have we not had this conversation not long ago? You are a worthy resident here. Lord Hades saw to that, even in punishment.”
Asterius breathes through his nose and crosses his arms again, his expression expectant. “Theseus, admit to me that you do not harbor feelings for the short one.”
The roaring gets louder.
“Oh, that’s easy! I do in fact harbor many feelings towards him. Loathing; contempt—” Theseus begins listing them on his fingers “—hatred; disgust. And let us not forget loathing! Did I already mention loathing?”
“You swore the truth,” Asterius says, his voice flat. “In your own words, half-truths, nor quarter truths will suffice this time.”
“You believe…feelings…ha!” Theseus can feel his face growing warm and wants to curse what deity has allowed their bodies—for what they are—to continue to express their most unsavory tells. “You have a unique sense of humor, Asterius!” He laughs, but as Asterius stays silent, watching him, Theseus’s laughter dies. His heart—which has refused to act in ways a heart should postmortem—once again leaps into his throat.
The silence stretches on. Theseus thinks about making his excuses and returning to his chambers, but ultimately it is Asterius’s open expression that stops him. To run away—it would be less honorable than anything he could say in that very moment.
“What you want me to say, Asterius?” Theseus finally says. “You want me to say that I—that I want to—to—"
The image of Zagreus’s evil mouth appears in the forefront of his mind. His gaze warm, his smile gentle.
“And what about you, Asterius!” He adds, waving a hand in his direction. Perhaps if he waves it hard enough, the images will leave his mind. “Your feelings are as tantamount as mine. What you imply…”
“He and I do share a bond. When we meet in Elysium, before the arena, we fight. Talk.”
“A bond,” Theseus repeats. “Then you—you feel for him yourself!”
“I feel that he is a decent man. Not unattractive,” he adds, after a moment.
At that, Theseus sputters. “I-I am devoted to you, Asterius! I would never seek to betray you in such a way!”
“It is no betrayal. Such matters of flesh will not break our bond. It is ours. The short one has only just come to understand it, and only just.”
This is not the conversation Theseus had expected to have after a resounding victory in the stadium. He flounders for a response, and settles on what is familiar.
“You ask me to neglect my duty. I will not!”
“I ask no such thing. You know the short one—Zagreus—would ask no such thing.”
Theseus opens and closes his mouth several times. He can’t find it in himself to admit to what Asterius claims, yet he also can’t deny it. There is too much that he has learned in such a short amount of time—about himself, as well as Zagreus.
“Asterius,” he starts, feeling as though a blanket of exhaustion has settled over him. “What do you want?”
“I want what you want, King. For you to be honest with yourself.”
“I—” Theseus is horrified to hear his own voice break on the single syllable. He drags his hand down his face. “I think that you believe I am much more capable than I am.”
“I believe you to be perfectly capable, as you are,” Asterius says. “But we've spoken long enough. I see that I've pushed you; you need not admit to it now. But know that whatever happens next, I will never leave your side.”
It is meant as a comfort, but Theseus finds it difficult to feel comforted in that moment. He is simply grateful the conversation is coming to an end.
“Fine. Yes. Good. Will you—will you continue with your patrol? I have a few chambers for you to check on if you are willing.”
“I am. Give me the roster and I shall go.”
Theseus doesn’t have it with him, but he directs Asterius where he can find it in his chambers as if he hasn’t done it a thousand times before.
After they part, Asterius heads towards his chambers, and Theseus decides to take a trip through the fields of Elysium. Perhaps he will find a room of soul catchers to reinstate his sense of calm.
As soon as the thought crosses his mind, he recalls the experience they just had and decides instead to sit by the river Lethe. There he can consider once again clearing his torrential thoughts and replacing them with blind nothingness. He supposes then he might have an idea as to how he should be reacting to all of this. Maybe he’ll even pay that idiot Patroclus a visit and see about recovering his chamber.
Just before he starts on his journey, he spots a shade hurrying his way over to him, holding onto a parchment.
“King!” he calls. “I have a message for you. From the gates.”
It is a familiar phrase. Theseus has heard this message a thousand times, yet now, his entire body seizes, locking him into place.
“What is the message,” he manages.
“He—he has returned!” The shade says, panting. They seem to have run around trying to find him. “He’s already made it through nearly a dozen chambers.”
“What you just said, repeat it back to me,” Theseus tells the messenger. “Do not mince words.”
“The daemon has entered Elysium and is on his way to the stadium now!”
Chapter 7: Contracted
Thanks as always for your support! Some feelings are definitely being had!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
As is their duty, they head to Elysium Stadium. Having done this now hundreds of times, it feels almost as if it is a stage to their play, acted out over and over again. No matter the outcome of what happens in their lives, so long as normality remains, they will return here.
He can take solace in that, at least.
Inexplicably, or perhaps explicably because of Asterius’s efforts to goad him into revealing himself, Theseus does not feel ready for this moment. So soon after such a conversation, which left him reeling, he is not ready to face the object of his many thoughts.
Asterius takes notice of this, despite his best efforts.
“We’ll fight as we always have,” Asterius tells him. He grips his axe with both hands and nods at Theseus, then at the unopened door to the stadium.
“Yes,” Theseus says. His voice sounds strained even to his own ears. “I said I would fight him, and I shall. We shall.”
Theseus takes hold of his spear and pushes the doors open to the stadium. They walk in, and the audience that greets them is bigger than they’ve ever seen. The shades in the stands rise and cheer, their bloodlust palpable from where Theseus stands. He supposes the spectacle of a rematch with a long missing foe is enough to bring out even those typically uninterested in their fights.
Somehow, it doesn’t fill Theseus with his usual confidence. He greets the audience on autopilot, flashing his practiced smiles and raising his spear at the particularly loud cheers and those waving banners with his face on them. Asterius beside him nods at a few.
When Zagreus enters the gate and finally makes his approach, Theseus’s mouth runs dry.
Relief floods him instantly. He had feared that Zagreus may have faced some sort of torturous punishment, but he is at least well enough to make his journey to them at his usual speed. He looks well recovered from his aches and pains of the last time they had seen him, of course, but upon closer inspection, Theseus notices that he wears a peculiar expression.
“So you have returned for another thrashing!” Theseus belts. He points his spear. “You must have been so frightened by your last defeat that it took you this long to recover!”
“We will not go easy on you, nevertheless,” Asterius adds, silent assurance that nothing has changed, even with his absence.
The response is met with silence. Zagreus is wielding his sword. It hangs loose at his side, rather than slung over his shoulder. He looks between them, then eventually lifts It and assumes his usual stance.
“Theseus. Asterius,” Zagreus greets at length. It is spoken with almost none of his usual vigor, and Theseus frowns.
Oh, how he wishes for once they didn’t have an audience! He is desperate beyond belief to know what transpired to keep him away; what punishments he may have endured, but those who have come to the stadium are salivating to see them fight.
“Well, if you are ready… Prepare yourself!”
Theseus quickly shifts back into place. Asterius moves in front of him, axe at the ready.
Typically, Zagreus will make the first move. He usually lunges for Asterius first, who is only too happy to meet him head-on. Theseus has tried caution him to be a less obvious target, but Asterius’s lust for battle doesn’t permit such tactics, so he claims. Their moves usually favor brute force because of this, which has worked less as of late.
Theseus prepares himself for Zagreus’s attack. His shield has been repaired and his spear has never been sharper. However, after more than a few moments of waiting, Zagreus maintains his position on the opposite side of the stadium. The peculiar expression on his face morphs, and Theseus finally realizes what he’s seeing.
Zagreus looks… miserable. As though he could imagine no punishment worse than the opponents he is about to face.
Theseus glances at Asterius. Certainly, he has taken note of the same, for he has yet to attack, himself.
He refocuses on Zagreus. His expression has only soured further, and now there is a visible shine to his eyes. He blinks rapidly, then lowers his sword and swipes at his face, as if to dispel tears.
Theseus’s heart inexplicably twists.
What have you had to endure?
He longs to address Zagreus’s misery, but the crowd behind them is becoming restless, their murmured excitement and cheers transforming into displeased shouts.
“Er, Zagreus?” Theseus begins, taking an aborted step forward. He lowers his shield. “Are you…”
“Perhaps you don’t feel well,” Asterius offers as an excuse. It is only obvious to them that he is upset, and becoming increasingly so, but if they do not begin, the crowd will be made aware of it as well.
Theseus and Asterius exchange glances. Theseus jerks his head towards Zagreus, but Asterius shakes his.
Well, there is nothing for it then.
“Prepare—” he starts.
“Sorry. I’m sorry. I’m fine,” Zagreus chokes suddenly, wiping Theseus’s mind clean of all that he was about to say. “Just… Got a bit of dust in my eye. Give me a second.”
“Ah. That is…fine. If you must. We don’t want the battle to be over too soon!”
The audience boos. Asterius’s grip shifts impatiently along the handle of his axe.
“There’s a lot of dust up here,” Zagreus says, a weak attempt at humor. He collects himself, and then adjusts his stance to be more assured. “Darkness, I should probably just tell you.”
“Tell us what, short one?” Asterius probes. Though he clearly longs for the fight, he gentles his tone, softened into the kind he would employ on Theseus to weaken his defenses.
“This is the last time I’m going to see you like this,” he says. “Here, in the arena.”
Theseus doesn’t comprehend his meaning at first. “What?”
“I’m under a new contract,” Zagreus says. “Or I signed a new contract, I should say.”
“What?” Theseus repeats.
“And the contract forbids you from entering the stadium,” Asterius guesses.
“No.” Zagreus shakes his head. He blinks a few times. “After this, I…I have to tell my mother I’m not going to see her again.”
His response leaves Theseus dumbfounded. Never to see his mother again—is this a part of the punishment Lord Hades enacted?
“But why?” he asks. “Was that not your goal?”
“I’ll put it this way. My father wasn’t happy I helped you.” Zagreus sucks in a breath and then readies his stance. “Regardless, it looks like the crowd is getting bored of all this talk. And I won’t bore you both with the details. Let’s make this last fight worthwhile.”
There are no words to describe how wrong the situation feels. Zagreus has hand-delivered them a bomb of information without explanation, and he expects them to simply accept it without asking for more?
“I’d like to know the details, but I understand this isn’t the place nor the time.” Asterius nods his head, then lowers himself. “It was an honor to fight you, short one.”
Theseus is interrupted by Zagreus, dashing at him from the front. Still attempting to reconcile all that he knows with what he’d just been told, he barely raises his shield in time to block the frontal attack.
“Zagreus!” he says, half shout, half plea. Theseus’s lungs feel fit to burst with the willpower he exerts in not immediately demanding an explanation then and there.
Zagreus shakes his head. He says no more and leans into strike him again.
Despite the crowd, and despite the battle taking place in front of him, Theseus finds that he can’t divert his attention from what Zagreus said to them. He remains distracted the entire fight, and later, when Asterius motions for him to make his way over so they may Bullhorn, it takes Theseus an unreasonably long time to take notice.
“Asterius,” he pleads when he is close. He’s not sure what unspoken question he asks, but Asterius understands immediately.
“By whatever means the short one came to this decision, we must fulfill our duty and fight him with honor. Make the last battle count.”
“But he…I…" Never has he been at such a loss for words, and he hardly understands why until Asterius’s hand lands on his shoulder and squeezes meaningfully.
“Theseus,” he says. Zagreus has darted out from behind the pillar and is dashing towards them, so his touch only lasts but a moment.
Theseus briefly closes his eyes, grounded by his touch. He knows he is acting quite unlike himself. He must focus. Being champion is not simply a series of small victories, but an entire way of being. He is champion and King, and he should act like it.
No matter how much he desires to thrust a spear into the midsection of who made Zagreus wear such an expression.
He turns to face Zagreus, and in that span of time Asterius grabs hold of him and hurls Theseus toward him for a fierce Bullhorn attack. The surprise is enough that they land a hit on him, to which the audience responds with earsplitting cheers. They begin chanting their names, and Theseus finds himself riled up by them, despite himself.
Soon, every lob of his spear is surer than the next. Each leap from Asterius is done with more force, shaking the ground underneath their feet. They are giving it their all.
Zagreus wears no armor, so if they can land a hit, it doesn’t take many more to begin chipping away at his health. He is not nearly as powerful as when he had been awash in Boons, but he is focused now. Determined. Setting aside his emotions for the heat of battle.
Eventually, Asterius falls. Then Theseus, even with a blessing from Demeter, too, falls to his sword.
Just before he dissipates, Theseus grasps the end of Zagreus’s sword and pulls it forward.
“Wait for me,” he says. “After the battle, I will find you.”
“It won’t change anything,” Zagreus says. Theseus grits his teeth, suddenly enraged.
“We will come!” he rasps. “Asterius and I will be—ghk, blast."
Zagreus’s face cast in that same misery is the last thing that Theseus sees before it all goes dark.
The moment that Theseus wakens in his chamber, he leaps from the bed. He doesn’t bother to take his spear nor his shield, not wanting to be slowed by their weight. He exits his chamber, then heads quickly for Asterius’s.
He doesn’t have to wait long. Asterius has already woken and awaits him on the crossroads leading towards the stadium.
“If the short one doesn’t want to speak, he won’t,” he says, when Theseus draws close.
“Are you satisfied not knowing what outcome awaited him when he took the blow for our shared disobedience?”
“I was willing to accept my punishment. I had no quarrel with the Lord Hades.” Before Theseus can open his mouth and respond to his dispassionate speech, he adds, “but I’m grateful to be reunited with you, my King. And I’ve no wish to see him suffer. I only caution you to be careful. His lot is with the gods. He himself is a god. We both know their cruelty. Though I see that didn’t stop you before.”
“You need not caution me, Asterius. I only think it is our right to know. Surely you saw the look on his face?”
Unlike Theseus, Asterius bears his axe. His grip tightens along the handle.
“Then let’s go!” Theseus shouts. Together, they hurry to the stadium and through the back entrance that connects to the exit gates. Theseus doesn’t see him at first, and he grows concerned that he has already gone ahead through the tunnels infested with poisonous Saytrs and vermin. But then he spots movement out of the corner of his eye.
Zagreus has seated himself on the floor near the gates. He has his head in his hands, and on their approach he raises it and blinks at them blearily. He has not yet wept, but he appears on the verge of it still. Theseus’s phantom heart beats in agony.
“Come to gloat?” Zagreus greets, deadpan.
“We’ve come to listen,” Asterius replies.
“I believe an explanation is warranted!” Theseus says. “You cannot simply come into our stadium with an announcement like that without one!”
“Yes, well, that’s what I was trying to avoid, Theseus.”
“You waited for us to arrive,” Asterius says. He has the uncanny ability to strike right at the heart of any matter, and now is certainly no exception.
Zagreus opens his mouth, then sighs and pushes himself to a stand. “I suppose I did.”
“What happened?” Theseus blurts. “You seemed in good spirits the last we spoke. I am sure that your father was angry with us, but…” He trails off, thinking of the gods’ cruelty, and the god in particular whom they tested. “You are well, at least?”
At his question, Zagreus’s expression softens some. He shrugs, rubbing his cheek with the heel of his hand. “I’m fine. A little tired from trying to find ways around my father’s contract and ending up in circles. I even spent some time blasting my way through Tartarus and Asphodel, then letting myself get killed so I could collect enough dark energy to buy my administrative privileges back. But it didn’t work. Even with that, I don’t have the authority to manage this contract.”
“So you are put under contract as punishment?”
“Sort of. I mean, yes. The alternative wasn’t really an option.”
“You mentioned your mother,” Asterius says. Zagreus looks at him, his despair returning. No; it is more than that. It is grief, now plain to see. He grieves, for an outcome he expects will happen.
“I wasn’t lying, earlier. I have to tell her…I won’t be seeing her again. Then I can no longer make my escape attempts.” His head dips down. “That’s why I told you this would be the last time. Darkness, this…I really didn’t expect—"
He stops. Theseus knows without asking what he means. Zagreus wasn’t expecting an outcome where he was forced to abandon his quest, simply because he freed Asterius from his chamber. Although it was Zagreus’s idea from the beginning, Theseus’s guilt begins to compound. He shoots Asterius a helpless look. Asterius sets his axe on the ground and gives his head a short shake.
He won’t benefit from your guilt, Theseus can imagine him saying.
“I… I don’t quite know what to say,” Theseus admits. “Seeing your mother…I know that was important to you.”
“It was all that mattered to me,” Zagreus replies instantly.
Asterius asks, “The terms of this contract, what were they, exactly?”
Zagreus’s brow furrows in thought. “The next time I see her, I am to tell her I will not see her again, and then I’m to make no more escape attempts to try and see her after the fact.” His fingers dig into his arms, going pale white. “I suppose after that my father will put me back on rotation for something like Tartarus inspection or an equally ridiculous job. Why does he even need inspections? To make sure its victims are being tortured enough?”
“And there is no other option?”
“Not one that’s worth entertaining.” He abruptly turns away from them and heads towards the gate. “Anyway, now you’re informed. I’m sure my father is waiting for me, so I should get back to that.”
“Wait!” Theseus calls, barely aware the words had left his mouth until Zagreus is looking at him. “You can’t simply—but I haven’t—”
Words fill his mouth, too many to say all at once. If he leaves them now, as they are, there will be no reason for him to come to Elysium; to fight his way there and battle them. Certainly, as a resident of the realm he could make the journey, but Theseus can see a future Zagreus can’t bear to go to a place that is so close to his lost goal.
They will not see him again. Theseus will not see him again.
In some respects, he should be pleased. It would be duty fulfilled, without a need to continue returning to the stadium’s arena and keep fighting each other in what Zagreus had referred to as an endless cycle of violence.
Theseus should be overjoyed.
“Allow me to help you,” he says without thinking.
Yes. Yes, that’s it! He strides forward and clasps Zagreus’s right hand in his, lifting it up, an echo of a gesture made long ago. “If you can no longer see your mother, then I can see her for you!”
“Theseus—" Asterius begins, but Theseus ignores him.
“Certainly this will not breach your terms!”
“But I—no shade has ever—” Zagreus shakes his head, eyes saucer wide. “I don’t understand.”
“I will help you fight your father. Surely then, he can’t punish you.”
Though a part of his mind is screaming at him that what he utters is a traitorous statement that would have him thrown into the depths of Tartarus, the memory of Zagreus's grief wipes away his fears. He is Champion. Alone, Theseus would not succeed, but together, he is sure of the outcome.
Zagreus still appears flabbergasted, looking from him to Asterius and then back.
“Theseus, I don’t quite have the words for what you’re suggesting. No shade has ever gone back to the surface. The one who got closest is in service to my father. But aside from that, why?”
“Why would you go so far to help me?”
In his own excitement, is a question that Theseus failed to even ask himself. He looks between them now, sees how his hand has firmly grasped Zagreus’s, and watches his fingers curl, tightening his hold.
“Because…Because you aided me! Have you forgotten already?”
“But that’s nothing compared to this. This doesn’t have anything to do with you.”
His words sting, but he is not wrong. Theseus struggles to come up with a response, and that’s when Asterius walks up to his side and lays his hand on Theseus’s shoulder.
“You protected us,” he says. “You wouldn’t have signed the contract unless it risked us harm.”
Zagreus’s throat bobs. “There would be no point to that if you help me now. Even if it was an option, I won’t risk yours or Asterius’s safety. I made a choice, and now I have to make another.”
“And what of the other terms? You are offered another choice, weren’t you?”
“I... Don't know that I would call it a choice. It wasn't a fair one,” Zagreus admits. “My other 'choice', if I want to keep making my attempts, is to first complete a list of tasks my father set out for me.” He shakes his head. “They’re impossible. Three of the tasks are to mow the lawns in Elysium, clear the Satyrs out of the surface tunnels for good, and drain the lava out of the Asphodel Meadows. I'd go mad before I finished.”
The first and the second, Theseus can comprehend. The last, less so. It would take an insurmountable amount of effort for one person to accomplish the task.
Theseus racks his mind for an immediate solution, but nothing immediately comes to mind. He is certain Zagreus has spent much longer contemplating much the same and finding nothing that would suffice. He makes a sound of discontent, and Zagreus’s hand tightens around his.
Theseus blinks, realizing only just then that he has not let go of him. Their hands have lowered, but they stayed clutched. Theseus breaks free of his hold too slow for his own liking, and Zagreus drags his own up his arm, rubbing the skin below his elbow. Staring at him, Theseus can’t help but wonder if all gods share such soft skin. Zagreus’s hand was slightly clammy but welcoming against his own palm.
“There’s nothing we can do,” Zagreus says eventually. “Unless you can find a loophole in my father’s contract—which, by the way, he is the god of the dead, so writing up various documents is kind of what he does all day—then this is now my lot in life.”
His frustration is palpable. Theseus can understand some of what he must be feeling; to have spent days attempting to thwart a contract he himself signed—because of them.
Theseus glances at Asterius, trying to read him, but he is like a blank parchment.
“I—” I’m sorry, Theseus wants to say. “Certainly you will not give up so easily!” he says instead, trying for levity. “There must be a solution just out of reach.”
“There isn’t!” Zagreus exclaims, unexpectedly angry. “I’ve tried everything I can think of. And what do you really care, King?” He glares at him, still gripping his other arm. “You should be pleased by this outcome. Aren’t I a monster? A daemon from the pits of hell? An insect you deign to run over with your precious chariot?”
Having his own words thrown back at him should not hurt. What he says in the line of duty—what he believes—it should not affect him so.
But it does. Zagreus does.
“You should—“ Zagreus’s lower lip wobbles. His eyes begin to shine. “You should—blood and darkness.” He begins to drag his hand down his face, leaving it over his eyes. “Don’t you think I’ve tried?”
Theseus is horrified to see a single tear slip down Zagreus’s cheek from under his hand. It’s followed by another, and then another, and soon Zagreus’s chest heaves with desperate, shuddering breaths.
This—this is worse than any outcome he could imagine. He has seen Zagreus in many states, but never like this. And Theseus cannot—will not allow for its continuation.
“Zagreus,” he starts. His regrets begin to assemble as Asterius focuses on him and his heated face, but he forges on ahead. “I am completely unsatisfied with this turn of events, I will have you know! Not pleased in the least. You may have spent your time searching for a solution, but you did not have me at your side! And Asterius here is as resourceful as any.”
He lowers his voice, losing some of the bravado and allowing warmth to bleed through. “I want to help you, so allow me to.”
“Why?” Zagreus chokes.
“Because!” Theseus starts, then stops. “Because. Because I…”
Asterius’s hand slips down his back, silent support.
Be honest with yourself, King.
“Because I care for you!” he shouts, too loudly for the small space that encases them. He marches into Zagreus’s space and cups his cheeks with both hands. Zagreus flinches at the first touch, but then he simply stares at him in pure shock, the last of his tears dripping down his cheeks like an afterthought. Theseus’s thumbs brush them away. “Dry your tears, Zagreus. We will find a way to thwart your Lord father, and soon you’ll get to keep visiting your mother. So do not despair!”
“If the King decrees it, he will do his best to uphold his promise,” Asterius adds. “You can trust in that, at least.”
Zagreus lets out a laugh, and then seems surprised that he made the sound at all. He shoots Asterius a puzzled glance, and then another. “Theseus, are you...admitting that you have feelings? More than the usual hatred and hostility?” He sniffles, then blinks a few times. His lashes brush the edge of Theseus’s thumb. “You’re blushing.”
“I am doing no such thing,” Theseus grinds out. “I am simply—”
His hands thus far have refused to leave Zagreus’s face, and when Zagreus turns his head slightly, nuzzling into his palm, the words he meant to speak fall away.
“I am simply—”
Zagreus’s eyes flutter shut. His breath evens out.
How is Theseus meant to concentrate when he is—when he is—?!
“Have you any idea how beautiful you are?” Theseus snaps.
“Oh. Well.” Zagreus’s eyes open, his cheeks warming under his palms. “Beautiful is not the word most people usually use to describe me. Polite, maybe.”
Theseus’s hands slip down to his shoulders. He feels agitated; both tempted by the morsel standing in front of him, and disturbed at his own lack of control. It feels especially wrong to be doing what he is doing in front of Asterius. Is it not a betrayal to all they stand for? But Asterius’s hand has not left his back, and soon he shifts to stand beside them both, lifting his other hand to stroke it over the back of Zagreus’s head.
His large hand looks like it belongs there. It is a sight so unique that Theseus can find no words to describe the way it makes him feel. Zagreus looks equally stunned, then his face opens up with a helpless vulnerability before it shutters away.
“I’m not—” Zagreus pulls away from him. Away from them. “Please, I’m not trying to get in the way of anything. And you can’t just—this was meant to be my goodbye! You both are muddling it all up.”
“Bring us the parchment,” Asterius says. “The King and I have some experience with these matters.”
“My father will probably notice if this specific parchment suddenly disappears, you know.”
“Then you’d best hurry,” Theseus commands. “So he will have no idea what hit him!”
Zagreus takes a step towards the door, then glances behind him at the shining gates. He seems undecided still, for which Theseus can’t find it fit to blame him.
“If I die in the tunnels,” he says at length, “I might just have time to get into the administrative chamber before my father returns. And if I’m unable to find you and we meet in the stadium, you’re going to have to lose.”
Asterius snorts. “We will find you before it comes to that.”
Unsurprisingly, losing is not an option for Asterius. Though Theseus is certain he would make the sacrifice if commanded, if there is one who values the honor of a true fight, it is Asterius.
“Darkness, I’ve never lost on purpose so many times before.” Zagreus shakes his head ruefully. “You know, I didn’t come here to drag you to into my business again.”
“We are perfectly capable of dragging ourselves!” Theseus declares.
Zagreus laughs, and the sound is like music to Theseus’s ears. “I suppose I should thank you.”
“Save your thanks for when the fight is over,” Asterius says. “Go.”
Zagreus nods. Then he disappears past the gates, and they are left alone.
“Asterius,” Theseus starts, after he’s sure that Zagreus is gone. “I can’t believe you allowed me to make a fool of myself like that.”
If Theseus is to defy the will of the Lord of their realm, he will need to prepare himself.
“Asterius, find me the parchment of Patroclus,” Theseus barks the moment they enter his room.
“You are aware that at one point I attempted to have him removed from this realm.”
“Well, thanks to my scrutiny, a copy of his contract is within our purview! I think it should give us some insights for what to expect.”
Years ago, when Patroclus had yet to find his hole in the wall chamber and muddled about Elysium instead, his constant despair and negativity irked Theseus to no end. It was obvious to him that Patroclus, without a single spark inside him for the heat of battle, did not belong with them there. He went as far as to send in a request for his removal, but his request was rejected. Lord Hades did, however, send a copy of Patroclus’s contract. Theseus doesn’t know if it was perhaps too busy a time to bother with any other response, or if it was because Theseus holds the highest rank among most shades in the Underworld, but he received said copy, read that he was bound to Elysium because of another, and immediately tossed it somewhere entirely random.
Together, he and Asterius comb through the parchments around his workspace, but it soon becomes obvious that it may take longer than he hopes to find it. The search reveals just how bad Theseus’s organization has fallen recently, and he somewhat regrets having never listened when Asterius suggested to him he should improve the state of things.
“Pah! What use is organizing useless parchments? I’d rather they be lost.”
Asterius was correct, as he often is.
At the thought, Theseus’s hand stills on the parchment he has just grabbed.
“How did you know?” he asks.
Asterius lifts his head from his own parchment pile and looks at him. “Know what, King?”
“How did you know that I…”
He doesn’t finish. Asterius breathes heavily through his nose.
“I have always known.”
“From the beginning?” Theseus asks, as calmly as he can manage.
“No. in the beginning, we were focused on defeating the challenger. But when he began to win, and we began to expect his presence, I noticed.”
Theseus unrolls the parchment in front of him, and in finding him no mention of Patroclus, he sets it aside and picks up the next.
“You must think yourself very wise, Asterius.”
“In death I have found there is value in truth and honesty, and none in ignorance.” Asterius rises and walks over, a parchment in hand. He sets it beside Theseus and then walks back to the pile he had just been rifling through and begins cleaning up the parchments. “Are you angry with me, King?”
“I am angry,” Theseus admits. “But not with you, Asterius. I’m angry with myself.”
It is not just that he didn’t notice the way he himself felt, but rather that Asterius went so long believing that he might one day be replaced, or cast aside.
I know that I have your heart, King, but I have not expected I would always keep it.
Theseus stands. “Asterius, you are aware how important you are to me, yes?”
“I believe you still may be under a misconception. Earlier, you told me that you would never leave my side. Your comforts mean so much to me, Asterius, but it wounds me when you refer to yourself as a monster. You are no monster, do you hear me?”
Asterius’s chest rises and falls. He shrugs.
“I’ve no qualms about what I am. You yourself have referred to the short one as a monster a number of times. I was made in darkness, and it was only by your decree that saw a path to light.”
“I was wrong!” Theseus exclaims. “Zagreus is not a monster, and neither are you! Asterius—“ he walks up to him and grabs him by his triceps, forcing Asterius to meet his eyes “—you are the most important person to me in this undying life. You are irreplaceable. You belong here, in Elysium, with me. The being that you were on the surface is not who you are now.”
Asterius still looks doubtful, so Theseus pulls his head down and plants a firm kiss on the tip of his nose, then his mouth. Though he is not like any mortal, Theseus had always been attracted to his prowess and his magnitude. It means nothing that he has the face of an animal, because it is a face he has come to love.
“Do not hold back with me, Asterius. Perhaps you’ve yet to realize it, but I will never leave your side, so long as I live and breathe, such as it is. You, my beautiful bovine friend, will not be rid of me anytime soon, no matter what comes to pass.”
For a moment, Asterius gazes at him silently, his eyes scanning his face. Then he abruptly pulls Theseus into his arms and hugs him tightly.
“Thank you,” he says. He buries his face into Theseus’s neck.
“Entirely unnecessary to thank me, Asterius. My love for you is eternal.”
Asterius squeezes him tighter.
Later, when they shift their attention back to the parchments, Theseus scrutinizes what Asterius handed him.
“You found it, I see,” he says.
Asterius snorts his assent.
Theseus vaguely recalls reading it when it had first been delivered. He had wanted Patroclus out of Elysium, and truth be told, he still finds him unfit, but a contract is a contract.
As he scans the text, a frown appears on his face. The parts about the great warrior Achilles and agreeing to work for Lord Hades personally so that Patroclus could be placed into Elysium—why does it feel like he is reading it for the first time? It’s as though when he first read it, he didn’t comprehend what it all meant. How it reflects much of what he would have done for Asterius, had they been in the same situation.
“He cared for him,” Asterius says beside him. He strokes the back of Theseus’s head and nuzzles the side of it.
“I suppose he did. And he was cast into Tartarus for it.”
“He is employed at the short one’s House.”
“The House of Hades,” Theseus reads. He shudders. “Even I can’t imagine what that must be like. I’m grateful that Lord Hades allowed for you to be brought to me, here.”
“As am I.”
Theseus shoots him a smile and then returns to the contract, starting from the top.
This Employment Agreement (“Agreement”) is being made between Achilles (“Employee”; “Shade”), Patroclus (“Resident”; “Shade”), and Hades (“Employer”) located in the Underworld. Achilles, Patroclus, and Hades may also be referred to as “Party” or together as the “Parties”.
Theseus skims past the beginning sections. The contract, like most Underworld contracts, is entirely too long and unnecessarily complicated. Theseus continues to skim until his eyes land on a particular section of the contract.
This Agreement will begin on the Commencement Date and will remain in effect for the duration of the employment relationship. This Agreement will automatically terminate at the end of the employment relationship, which is henceforth eternal.
This Agreement puts the Parties entire understanding of the employment arrangement, and anything else the Parties have agreed to, in writing. This Agreement supersedes any other written or verbal communications between the Parties, whether they were made before or after signing the Agreement.
If any section of this Agreement is found to be invalid, illegal, or unenforceable, Parties may request an audience with Hades in relation to this agreement. If the original copy of this Agreement is removed from the House of Hades (“House”) without the permission from all Parties, this Agreement becomes thus inseverable and ever-binding.
“Wait, hold on a moment, Asterius, have you read this?”
Asterius follows Theseus’s finger to the sentence that describes its severance. Asterius stares at it for several moments.
“Wait here,” he says, then turns around and picks up a few parchments. He unrolls them hurriedly, presenting them next to the original contract. Theseus doesn’t quite comprehend his goal until he points at a portion on one of the other contract copies, again under severability.
“If the original copy of this Agreement is removed from the House of Hades without the permission from all Parties, this Agreement becomes thus inseverable and ever-binding,” he reads. It’s the same statement on both parchments.
“This is…standard practice?” Theseus asks. “To—to keep others from attempting to rid themselves of their own contracts, perhaps.”
“Theseus,” Asterius says, his tone beckoning. “We told the short one to bring his contract to us.”
“Oh gods.” Theseus grasps his head with both hands. “Oh, gods!” He leaps from his seat. “We must warn him! We must stop in his tracks, now!!”
“He has likely died at this point,” Asterius remarks, but he is in the process of scrambling to pick up the parchments. He snorts once, then twice. “I’m not sure we can reach him in time.”
“The boatman!“ Theseus exclaims, shoving the parchments out of Asterius’s hands and pushing him towards the door. “Leave those, Asterius. If we hurry, we might make it in time!”
“Theseus.” Asterius moves out of his grasp, so Theseus charges past him and out the door. “You must stay calm!”
“There is no time for calm! We have to go, before it’s too late!”
“And how are you going to convince the boatman to take us all the way to the House of Hades?” Asterius calls. He stops Theseus by his wrist, immovable as stone. “Please, King, let’s think this through.”
Theseus can understand his concern. To be directly in Hades’s line of sight is to risk it all, at least as it stands now. But he can’t allow for Zagreus’s sacrifice to render him trapped in a contract, and because of his own ignorance.
“You said it yourself, Asterius. I am King. It is my duty to right my own wrongs.”
“I only ask that we be careful. The boatman is not a being to be trifled with. I have heard he can be persuaded by coin, but that if you arouse his anger, his might is to be feared.”
“Yes, I have heard much the same. I have enough coin to persuade him, I am sure!”
“And if you cannot?”
Theseus rips his hand out of Asterius’s grip, but he does not step away. “Asterius, do you want Zagreus to be trapped in that contract with his father?”
“No. I—” Asterius’s shoulders slump down, making him look uncharacteristically small. “King, I was almost lost to you once. Perhaps selfishly so, I hope to avoid having it happen again. Please do not misunderstand my caution for a lack of caring for the short one.”
Just like that, Theseus’s heart softens. “Oh, Asterius. Well, I suppose. But we must think fast! I believe the boatman is our best way into the House.”
“On that, you may be right." Asterius crosses his arms. He looks around them, then back at the building they had just vacated. "The parchment mentioned requesting an audience. You yourself requested an audience with him. That may be our way in.”
“I did have an audience with Lord Hades, though it was not technically so much a request. Every so often he has a hearing where he allows the shades of the Underworld to make a claim to him. He felt favorable that day, and my request was granted. It was the boatman who…” Theseus trails off suddenly. “Wait, Asterius! That’s it! The boatman needs no convincing—I-I will simply tell him I am off to have a hearing!”
“How often does Lord Hades allow for a hearing?”
“It doesn’t matter!” Theseus exclaims giddily. “The boatman doesn’t know of such things. He will bring us there, and we will simply blend in with the other shades!”
Theseus takes hold of Asterius’s hand and drags him towards the river. It isn’t far off, thankfully. On the way, Asterius is unusually silent, and when they reach the river’s edge, a look appears on Asterius’s face, one that Theseus does not appreciate.
“King, we both know I’m not much for blending in.” He gestures to his horns, and then the rest of him.
“Nonsense, Asterius!” Theseus replies. He cranes his neck to see if he can spot the boatman’s approach. “You blend in perfectly fine.”
“Oh, fine!” He turns to face him. “Then what do you suggest we do?”
“Perhaps it is best if you go,” Asterius suggests. His eyes skate past Theseus, eyeing something behind him. “As much as I would like to join you, this mission doesn’t need us both.”
“Asterius! You would have me go to the House of Hades alone?”
“You have been, before. This time should be no different.”
“I thrust those memories from my mind ages ago! For good reason, I am sure. I shudder to think what it must be like there.”
Asterius’s eyes peer past him again, and he nods. “Now is your chance to remember.”
Theseus turns around. The boatman is coming their way, riding with a few fresh shades and some that must be doing exactly what Theseus is. He wonders how strange it will be, for him, the king, to be riding with them in such a small boat.
“Asterius—” he begins, then stops. His first thought is to refute his earlier assertion, but after giving it some thought, it does make sense. Asterius is famous in the Underworld, both for his role on the surface and for Theseus having a claim granted to move him to another location, which is rarely heard of. And while Theseus is much more famous, blending in will certainly be easier.
He glances towards the boatman, who is even closer now. He will be quick to pass, and never waits more than is necessary.
“Very well. You stay here, Asterius. Though you wound me with your cruelty, leaving me to grapple with this task alone, I trust you will keep an eye on the comings and goings. And should you need anything, I will be a boat ride away!”
Asterius’s response is to brush his hand over the back of Theseus’s arm. Then the boatman takes notice of them at the rivers edge and begins to slow. Theseus swallows.
Theseus does like to touch Zagreus's face, for many reasons!
So, I'm sure if any of you are lawyers or you work with legal documents you'll probably notice I'm taking creative liberties with the contract. I like some realism but I'm not really that concerned so suspend your disbelief! Also, if you haven't played the game, this is what a court hearing looks like in the game.
Chapter 8: The House of Hades
“Zagreus,” he whispers, though the danger has passed.
“Theseus,” Zagreus replies, barely louder than him. He tilts his head the barest amount, and his nose brushes Theseus’s.
The last threads of Theseus’s self-control finally snap.
I have attached a few images from the game to the text so that you know exactly what I'm referencing in certain scenes. Those are from my game, so it definitely influences the vibe here a little bit. Also, for the purposes of this fic, I consider the courtyard a part of the House.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“I’m to take this boat into the House of Hades, for a hearing.”
Theseus delivers his request to the boatman loudly, with the commandeering demeanor of a king. He waits, scrutinizing the boatman for any indication that his request will be denied, but the boatman only gestures to his raft.
“Yes. Well. Precisely so.”
Theseus gingerly steps onto the boat, careful not to slip, and then searches for a place to sit. There are shades on either side, many of whom Theseus would prefer not to interact with, failing all else. After several moments of indecision, he decides to stand instead. But once the boat begins moving, he realizes quickly that he looks more buffoonish attempting to stay standing whilst swaying to and fro than if he would just sit.
If Asterius were with him, he would find a seat for him. Perhaps he would be his seat; yes, Theseus quite likes that imagery.
However, he is not with them. He is back at home keeping an eye on things.
Oh, gods. He’s headed to the House of Hades, where Lord Hades himself and the other gods dedicated to torture reside, with no idea as to what he might expect.
“Boatman!” he says loudly, to distract himself. “You’ve been doing this for quite some time, haven’t you?”
The boatman spares him half a glance. Then he returns to his steady rowing.
Theseus glances around, and realizes they are already partway through Asphodel. Were they not just in Elysium? Is that how the boatman so quickly delivers undead souls?
“Keep it up, my good man!” he says, then casually as he can manage seats himself beside one of the shades. They are freshly dead, so Theseus doesn’t have to concern himself with warding off conversation. They appear shellshocked, perhaps surprised by the turn their death is taking.
“How long does this journey usually take, boatman?” Theseus asks, after a time.
Theseus has no idea what he is saying, but based on the threatening rumble his tone has taken, Theseus is not far from testing the limits of his patience.
Once he diverts his attention to their surroundings, the ride goes much faster than the expects. The boatman’s boat is much swifter than his languid rowing would imply, and soon they leave the heat of Asphodel behind and venture into Tartarus. It is so fast that Theseus has to wonder why Zagreus didn’t mention this way of travel before.
Perhaps his father forbid it? Theseus frowns at the thought. The boatman is an employee of Hades, after all. It is unlikely he could commence him to take him to the surface.
Theseus looks at the boatman and rises to his feet. He gingerly crosses the boat and stands before him, hands poised on his hips.
The boatman’s unsettling eyes fixate on him. They glow like Zagreus’s, but not in the same warm, ethereal way. The boatman’s eyes are like soulless, unblinking pits.
“You should help him,” he states. Sweat builds under his arms at the boatman’s stare. “Zagreus. The son of Lord Hades. You should help him make his escapes.”
The boatman blinks—a thing Theseus did not know he was capable of—and opens his mouth, releasing a stream of smoke.
“Hheeeeehhh… hhrhooohh…. Hrrrrgghhh..."
Utter nonsense. Theseus stares him down, but the boatman only repeats the phrase. Something about the way he says it suggests not a threat, but neither does Theseus feel it is in his favor. Eventually, he nods his head and sits back down, and then soon, they arrive at the House of Hades.
The outside of the house, save for the gates they passed, reminds Theseus of the rest of Tartarus. Emanating a sickly green hue, it speaks of danger. Theseus sits rigid as the boat enters the House, resisting the urge to close his eyes as his unease skyrockets.
Zagreus is inside, he reminds himself. He needs you.
Theseus sucks in a fortifying breath and stands with the other shades to step out of the boat. The distance from the boat to the rest of the House is several feet, so he wades through shallow red water before reaching the steps. He strides up them, until he reaches the top, at which point he has no choice but to lift his head and take in his surroundings.
The first thing he notices is the throne. Theseus feels slight recollection tickle the back of his mind as he gazes that it. It is gigantic, but less extravagant than he would have imagined. The features to both the throne and the circular desk in front of it are ornate, but somewhat subtle compared to his imagination.
Thankfully, Lord Hades has yet to return from his excursion. Or at the very least, he is not at his desk.
Movement out of the corner of his eye catches his attention. Theseus watches the shade next to him reach for a towel—one of many lying on the table, ready to be used. He looks down at his soaked legs and then walks over and picks up a towel himself.
It is surprisingly soft to the touch. He looks around, and notices that bouquets of flowers line the edges of the hall, with their petals scattered artistically along the path. Not only that, but there are candles adorning the tops of each wall, providing warm lighting, and large vases of flowers have been placed in several corners of the house.
This is not what he expected. His fleeting memory is of a dark and trodden locale, dimly lit, with suffering and screams. The shades milling about surrounded by flowers and paintings with soft music playing in the background speaks nothing of what he remembers.
While he takes in his surroundings, Theseus begins toweling himself off. As he does this, he spots a Gorgon floating their way. Theseus immediately shoves himself and between the shade to his right and the Gorgon, but it glides past him and uses one of her tendrils to pick up the used towels on the floor and tosses them into a nearby basket.
What is this? Is a Gorgon employed at the house? Is it a trap?
“Are you done with that, sir?”
Theseus nearly jumps a foot into the air. The Gorgon has moved past the pile of towels and it is staring at him expectantly. He looks down at his hands holding the bloodied towel and he hands it over without a word. The Gorgon nods, somehow, and then leaves, also without a word.
“You there,” he calls, once he realizes the Gorgon has intelligence. “Gorgon!”
She stills, and turns back to him, her eyes wide with fright. “M-me? I’m sorry, were you still using your towel…?”
“No, you may do with that what you will. I have a request, and I’m in a hurry, so be quick with your answer. I am not just any shade here looking to have a hearing with Lord Hades. I’m looking for Zagreus.”
“Z-Z-Zagreus? The Prince?”
The Gorgon in front of him trembles. Theseus cannot determine if it is due to fear or excitement; perhaps both. He knows nothing about Zagreus’s life outside of their matches. He has never thought to ask.
“Yes, the Prince,” he confirms, stumbling over the title. “I must find him. It is of the utmost importance!”
“O-Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t know exactly where he is. He’s probably around here somewhere. Not—not that I know where he usually is! I mean, I don’t keep track of where he goes or anything like that. I mean—”
How has someone with such a nervous disposition survived in a place like this? Theseus looks around inconspicuously, observing the groups of shades nearest to him. He would not describe them as particularly happy, but they seem comfortable. Some openly weep, and others remain by themselves in the shadows, but it doesn’t appear to be the House of pure evil that he had expected.
“I’m sorry, I really have to get back to work,” the Gorgon is telling him. “If you really want to find Prince Zagreus, I’m sure he’ll turn up somewhere!”
He doesn’t have that kind of time! Zagreus could be leaving at this very moment!
“Then point me in the direction of your record keeping chamber!” he demands. “Quickly, now!”
“I-I’m afraid I c-can’t do that either,” she says, shrinking away from him. “Only those with administrative access can go in there. I can’t even clean in there unless someone goes with me!”
“Do you have any idea to whom you are speaking?”
“I-I’m sorry, who are you?” she asks.
Theseus opens his mouth to inform her who he is, but then he remembers himself and storms away from the Gorgon. The fewer people that recognize him, the better.
Ugh! Useless! By Zeus, is there nothing he can do?!
Locating Zagreus will take too long! If he could simply call out to him…
Theseus stops where he stands as the realization hits him.
Perhaps that is it. Lord Hades is not around to find his behavior repugnant, and none of the other shades will likely pay him any mind. If there is a time that simply bellowing his name in hopes Zagreus will hear it and come running may provide some benefit, it is now!
Setting his pride aside, Theseus stalks to the center of the room and cups his hands around his mouth.
“Zagreus!” he shouts, startling the shades around him. Theseus waits, but Zagreus doesn’t show, so he does it again.
Most of the shades are staring at him now. No matter!
“Zagreus!” he tries again, even louder. “I am looking for Prince Zagreus of the Underworld! Zagreus, where are you! ZAGREUS!!”
“Good heavens,” says a shade sitting in a nearby chair. He is an odd-looking fellow, holding onto a lute for dear life. “Are you perhaps looking for the Prince?”
May he be struck down by Lord Zeus if this does not work! If Asterius could see him now, he would certainly find this humiliating situation humorous.
Theseus ignores the shade and sucks in a large breath to give it another go, when he spots movement to his left. His name dies on his tongue, coming out quiet as a whisper.
Theseus sags with relief, hand over his heart, and shoves past the gathering shades. And what a sight he is! Since he has appeared now, it’s Theseus’s hope that Zagreus hasn’t left the grounds, which is good—better than good—and he has a parchment in his hands that looks like it has an official seal.
Theseus expects him to be surprised by the summoning. Certainly, he could not have expected Theseus to arrive here! But as he approaches, what he does not expect is for Zagreus to receive him with such a look of dawning horror that Theseus looks behind him to make sure he isn’t reacting to something else.
They meet at the end of the hall, where Theseus nearly barrels into him in his haste.
“Zagreus! Zagreus, thank the gods you are here! I’m here to warn you—” Theseus starts, but Zagreus interrupts him, pulling him off to the side, near a pyre.
“What are you doing here?” he hisses. “What was all that shouting for? I could hear you all the way from the courtyard!”
“I came here to warn you!” Theseus repeats. “The contract you made, there was—” he’s speaking so fast he ends up nearly choking, hurrying to have his words heard “—there was likely a clause to your contract that we didn’t anticipate. Or we should have, but—but Zagreus, if you leave this place with it you’ll be trapped by its terms forever!”
“I—what? Theseus, calm down, what are you talking about?”
He moves them from the main entrance, towards a hallway on Theseus’s right.
“The contract states that if you leave the House with the original copy, you will be bound forever. Hurry, open it!”
“Okay. All right, Theseus, all right!” he says, when Theseus tries to take it from him. “We’ll look at the contract. But—you haven’t answered me. What are you doing here? How did you get here?”
“The boatman, of course,” Theseus says hurriedly.
“Charon? he brought you here? With Asterius? Where is he?”
“He decided to stay in Elysium. Understandably, he blends in less than the other shades, and my realm needs looking after! Will I not suffice?”
“That’s not really my point,” Zagreus says, somewhat helplessly. “It’s just, I wasn’t expecting to suddenly see you here. One second I’m talking with Orpheus and then Skelly, trying to come up with a plan before I battle my way back to Elysium, and then you show up here right before my father—“ He stops. “blood and darkness, my father is going to be back any minute now. If he sees you—”
As if on cue, Theseus hears several gasps sound behind him. Zagreus in front of him goes stiff, and the air is filled with a sudden charge.
A force that Theseus can’t fight against makes him turn and look as Lord Hades steps out of the boatman’s raft in all his glory. Theseus hasn’t seen him many years, but he still recalls the fear that had overtaken him in staring up at such a being. He is massive, made to seem even bigger by his daemonic presence.
“Blood and darkness,” he hears Zagreus say before he’s being shoved in the opposite direction. He corrals Theseus down the hallway, past a beautiful woman floating above the ground (another god?) and into a rather odd looking room.
“Darkness. Darkness. Well, now my father’s back. And you’re here. Why are you here again?”
“Well, if I must repeat myself. Your contract—”
“Right. Contract. But my father...and you’re here. You’re here. And you’re in my room, and you’re in my room, oh gods.”
Theseus looks around. Zagreus looks panicked.
“It’s not usually this bad,” he says, as Theseus appraises a nearby pile of clothes. Several piles, in fact, scattered around his chamber. There’s also a set of weights, glorious in their design, but covered in dust. And there is a lyre, and even more clothes on the other side—
“The contract,” Zagreus says, stepping in front of him. “Let’s talk about the contract. There’s a clause you mentioned?”
“The contract, indeed.” Theseus holds out his hand, and a moment later Zagreus sets it there. Zagreus makes a sound when he unrolls it.
“Ah, by the way, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to read it.”
“Whatever do you mean? Do you think I’m a fool?”
“Well, answering that last question might take us a little longer than the time we have here.”
“Hilarious. Please, Zagreus.”
“Take a look at the contract for yourself.”
Theseus turns his attention to the parchment. He blinks.
“I…truly can’t read this. I see the words, but none of it makes any sense.”
“That’s a little splash of my father’s influence. When you’re in the house, you can read official paperwork in the designated chamber. Which would be the administrative chamber across the hall.”
“So in order to read and verify if the clause exists—” Theseus starts.
“We would have to go past my father,” Zagreus finishes.
A sliver of fear runs up Theseus’s spine.
“I thought you had read the contract. Before you signed it, at least!”
“Of course I did. I read it multiple times.” He waves his hand. “Sure, there were a few sections I skimmed over, but overall, I paid attention. Just evidently not to that specific bit.”
Theseus looks back at the nonsensical words. He knows what the words are, and in the back of his mind, the structure of each sentence make sense, but it doesn’t come together. He growls and rolls the parchment back up, holding it out for Zagreus to take.
“So, then we know our next move.”
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around you being here,” Zagreus says. He takes the parchment gingerly, shaking his head. “You came all this way. On Charon’s boat. How did you even manage that?”
“The boatman? Unlike some, my passage is not illegal. Your father holds hearings all the time, a fact of which I was aware, and I needed to reach you before you left your House.”
Zagreus shakes his head again, sending petals flying. Theseus becomes transfixed by the sight, so much so that he nearly misses Zagreus’s next words.
“You came all this way because you were worried about me,” he says teasingly, though genuine pleasure is reflected underneath.
“And if I was?” Theseus retorts. “You’ve shown a carelessness unparalleled, so someone should be!”
“Well, thank you,” Zagreus says, suddenly serious. “I appreciate your concern. It’s… I’ll be honest, it’s not something I ever expected from you.”
“That makes two of us,” Theseus says under his breath. Then, louder, “if you are finished being amazed by my kindness and generosity, we should make our way to the administrative chambers you mentioned.”
“Right.” Zagreus walks past him and peers out from his open doorway. “He’s at his desk, all right. We have to walk right past him if we want to get to the chambers.”
“Are you not worried your father will simply waltz into your room when it lies open like this for all to see?”
“He hasn’t visited this wing of the House in years. For now, we’re safe. Dusa might stop by, but she’s not one to gossip.”
Theseus digests what Zagreus is telling him. “You and your father have a complicated relationship,” he observes.
“That’s putting it lightly. He only ever calls me ‘boy’. Sometimes I wonder if he remembers my name.”
Theseus joins him at the doorway, peering out. The woman he saw floating just down the hall lifts her head and glances their way. Zagreus lifts his hand in a wave, and Theseus jerks back out of view.
“Maybe Nyx can conceal us…” Zagreus muses aloud, then sighs. He leans against the doorway, arms crossed. “If my father sees the both of us together, it’ll spell trouble. At the very least, he’ll know something is up. We just need to distract him somehow.”
They stand in thought for a time, and that’s when they hear Hades’s voice boom from down the hall.
“A hearing is now in session!”
“I am a phantasmagoric shade, like the others,” Theseus points out. “I came with the intentions of blending in. There will be potentially hundreds of shades lined up to make a claim to Lord Hades. Perhaps under the cover of other shades, I would remain unnoticed.”
“Well, he definitely wouldn’t be expecting you here.” Zagreus scratches the back of his head. “I suppose I can cause somewhat of a ruckus while you make your way there.”
“Waste of time,” they hear Hades declare. “Claim denied. Next!”
Zagreus looks down at the contract in his hands. After a moment, he hides it under his chiton, adjusting it until it looks natural. “Stick to my side until we get to the end of the hallway. Then you go left, find any group of shades to blend in with, and I’ll handle my father.”
It’s reminiscent of what happened when Zagreus left them after rescuing Asterius. Theseus remembers how bright he looked before he was forced into his contract, and then he recalls the tears that had streamed down his face thereafter.
“Take care, Zagreus,” he says firmly.
“You don’t have to tell me that.” He fixates both eyes on Theseus. His glowing red eye shines. “I know what he’s like. We’re both gods, you know.”
If his statement is meant as a deterrent, it has no effect on Theseus. He has made his own choice, though foolish it may be.
“For a god, it is odd that you bleed red.” He lifts his chin. It is such a thing Theseus would never dare to imply with any other god, though it has certainly not stopped him from saying such things before! “And I will not pray to you, if that is what you are after!”
Zagreus snorts, his shoulders relaxing. “I wouldn’t dream of it, King. Let’s go.”
They slip out of his room together, side by side. Zagreus is a bare a few inches taller than Theseus, and he does his best to angle his body to keep Theseus out of view, just in case Hades decides to look their way. Thankfully, a shade openly sobbing at the center of the room has his attention, so when they reach the opening to the throne room, Theseus breaks away and disappears into a crowd of shades. A few of them look his way, as if they recognize him, but he ducks his head and hurries past.
“Did I hear you’re having a hearing, father?” he hears Zagreus say from across the room. “Why don’t you ever make time to hear my claims?”
Theseus resists the urge to observe his performance and crosses the line of shades leading to Lord Hades’s desk. It is a very long line, so Theseus feels relatively safe moving through it. None of the shades pay him any particular attention either, too focused on attending the line.
“What do you think you’re doing here, boy?” he hears Hades say. Theseus chances a glance and see Zagreus standing next to the shade at the front, gesturing to them.
“Have you heard this poor shade’s story, father? Please, will you tell us again?”
The shade that had just finished recounting what seemed like a rather long story nods her head and then start speaking. As she speaks, her eyes begin to well, spill over, and then her words become an incoherent, warbling mess.
From his position at the desk, Hades sighs deeply. He looks around the room, and when his eyes near Theseus, he quickly ducks behind the nearby pyre, his heart pounding.
Theseus ends up having to do this several times. Though Hades remains distracted, he is the god of this realm. It’s as if he can sense that something is amiss each time Theseus moves in the direction of his goal. His gaze is never far, so Theseus has to get creative with how he shields his presence, whether it’s by means of a tall flowerpot, or another shade.
The shade behind Theseus jostles him, and he stumbles out of the undignified crouched position he holds behind another pyre. Nearer to the front, where he needs to slip past unnoticed, the procession of shades and much thinner and more organized. With nowhere else to go, Theseus ends up pressed against the wall, inching his way towards the open hallway leading to his goal.
For now, Hades is staring at Zagreus and the shade with ill contained loathing. In theory, he is safe. Theseus keeps scooting along the wall, attempting to appear both casual and inconspicuous.
Once he reaches the corner, Theseus quickly darts past and pivots, sprinting to the left to stay out of view. Once he is certain he can no longer be observed by Hades, Theseus collapses against the wall, his heart trouncing in his chest.
Were he alive, he isn’t certain his mortal body could survive such frights!
“You there. Shade. What are you doing?”
Theseus spits a curse under his breath. This time, when he faces the shade motioning to him from across the hallway, it is clear that it is someone indebted to the House in some way. He has long, flowing hair, wields a sharp looking spear, and he is dressed appropriately for a guard of some sort.
Theseus straightens, placing his hands on his hips and posturing as if he hadn’t just appeared particularly suspicious.
“I’ve come for hearing, obviously! I merely require a respite from sharing space with so many other incomparable shades. It’s quite, erm—” he glances around, and catches sight of one of the pyres “—warm in here. Yes! Yes, it’s quite warm.”
The shade regards him with some unease. “That voice. Your clothes. I’d recognize that look anywhere. The same as in the painting. Are you… King Theseus?”
Painting? What? Theseus doesn’t have time to think over his meaning.
“Me? King? No! No, no, of course not. You have me mistaken for someone else. Clearly, whomever this King Theseus is. Ha!”
Theseus is fairly certain he pulled off his subterfuge brilliantly, but the shade doesn’t look convinced. Theseus is about to find a way to further distract him when he feels a presence appear behind him.
“Achilles!” Zagreus says brightly. He claps his hands together and shoves his way in between Theseus and Achilles. “I was hoping I could speak with you for a moment. If it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”
“Oh. Of course, no trouble at all, lad. I just had a quick question for—”
“It’s time sensitive!” Zagreus practically shouts. He shoots Theseus a quick look and then steps closer to Achilles (is it truly him? This is Achilles, the great warrior?), blocking his view of Theseus.
Theseus doesn’t need to be told twice. While he has him distracted, Theseus hurries towards the room that Zagreus had described. It’s impossible to miss; the door leading to it is enormous, and it only takes him a moment to realize that he can’t open it.
Ah. He was meant to meet with Zagreus here and they would go in together. Is there something special he should be doing?
When he looks back toward Zagreus, he is already hurrying his way. The warrior Achilles remains at what Theseus can only assume is his post, but he is watching them.
“Don’t worry about him,” Zagreus says, pushing out the door. “He’s on the clock, so he can’t leave that spot. Unless he decides to take a break, but I doubt he’ll do that for this.”
“He recognized me,” Theseus says. “He spoke of a painting.”
Zagreus’s face turns red. “That’s completely unrelated.” He presses his palm to Theseus’s back and pushes him towards the open doorway. “Let’s hurry and get you back to Elysium.”
Theseus walks inside, and the sight that greets him is, again, an unexpected one. He would presume that the shades toiling away would be constantly whipped by torturers, forced to continue at a hurried pace, but the elegant and ornate door leading to this room reveals a dimly lit, but comfortable setting. There are a few dozen shades seated at desks lit by candles. Parchments cover much of their desk space, as well as the walls. In fact, the walls are stuffed full of parchments, of which many are covered in thickly layered dust.
The moment that they are noticed, several of the shades frown in displeasure.
“I’m not particularly well-liked, here,” Zagreus whispers to him. “My father had me working here, but it didn’t exactly turn out well.”
“Ah,” Theseus says, attempting to keep his voice steady with Zagreus whispering warm in his ear.
Zagreus leads them wordlessly to one of the open desks unoccupied by any shade. He pulls out the parchment, and then lays it out along the desk.
“Okay, where is this clause?”
While Theseus would be humiliated if he was proven wrong and there was no clause describing what he had seen, the reality is that Zagreus would benefit if, for once, Lord Hades had forgotten himself. But when he finds the section near the end of the parchment, he feels Zagreus beside him sag.
“So I really can’t leave with it.” He lowers his head. “I could try to make a copy, or have the house contractor write up a copy, but I’m not sure my father wouldn’t interfere. Besides—” he pauses to chuckle quietly “—you’re already here.”
There’s a thread of warmth there that Theseus responds to by laying his hand over Zagreus’s, a move he only dares in the dim lighting of this room.
“Chin up, Zagreus,” he says, keeping his voice low. He raises his fist between them. “We will find a way. Even without Asterius, I’m certain there is something here that will work to our advantage!”
“Maybe,” Zagreus says unconvincingly. He moves past the desk and walks over to a large filing cabinet and starts rifling through the cabinet in search of something. Theseus follows, leaving the contract on the table. The cabinets are not labeled, like the rest of the room, and when Theseus moves to look at the other cabinet, he notices the water cooler to his right.
“Is that contraption filled with blood?”
Zagreus barely glances at it before answering. “No, it’s filled with the waters of the River Styx. I’m sure it’s relatively safe to drink. Not that you could die, anyway.”
“No, thank you,” Theseus sniffs. He turns away from the water cooler and watches Zagreus pull out and put back files. “And what are you doing with those?”
Zagreus lifts up a few and starts comparing them. “Taking a glance at my permanent record. It includes all of my attempts to escape and the details of each one. I wanted to take a look at the one where I saw my mother last. Hoping with all available tools, it might help find a solution faster. I already checked once, but it doesn’t hurt to look again, I suppose.”
“Eager to be rid of me, are you?” Theseus asks, only half joking.
“I’m eager to be done with all this. I haven’t seen her since before I started helping you.” His hands lower, setting the parchments on the edge of the open cabinet. “I wonder if she’s worried.”
The Queen—Theseus cannot imagine what she must look like. Certainly as impressive as Lord Hades in size and stature. When she ruled, Theseus never saw her at the stadium, not even once. He had even gone as far as to extend the personal invitation to the couple to view some of their matches, but they never showed.
“I should hope so! You’ve gone to such lengths to see her.”
Zagreus looks over at him, smiling. He goes to say something, and that’s when they are suddenly interrupted by a loud thump.
No, Theseus realizes. It isn’t a thump. It is a stomp.
Though he hasn’t known him long, Lord Hades’s footsteps are unmistakable—like Asterius, he stomps around wherever he goes. Theseus watches all the color drain Zagreus’s face, and he finds his own body has frozen.
What kind of warrior are you? You do not balk from any challenger, no matter their size nor rank.
He manages to turn his body, intending to face whom he now considers his enemy in some capacity, when he is unexpectedly and without warning shoved backwards. He barely restrains from shouting as Zagreus pushes him in the darkened space between the two cabinets and then joins him a moment later.
“Shh,” he whispers, shaking his head. Behind him, he sees Lord Hades stop in the center of the room.
“What are you all looking at?” Hades says, to all the shades that meet his gaze. Theseus sees a few of them look in Zagreus’s and his direction, but none of them speak up. They return to their work, with a hurried pace now that Hades is there watching them.
Theseus tilts his head slightly to get a better look, unable to help himself. He sees Hades’s head turn away from them. He seems to be looking for something in particular. Did he see Zagreus head down this hallway?
Theseus watches as he turns his head their way, those familiar, glowing eyes coming into view, but Zagreus forcibly turns Theseus’s head to meet his eyes.
“Don’t look at him,” he says, barely above a whisper. “If he sees you now, it will be very bad. Worst-case, he sees me standing here and I make some sort of excuse. We’re the same height, so I’m hoping that won’t happen.”
Theseus is bracketed by Zagreus’s arms. This close, he can feel his breath ghosting across his face. As they stand there, he hears Lord Hades move further into the room. Zagreus’s breath begins to even out slowly.
His breath smells like pomegranates. Theseus wonders, are pomegranates provided for them at the House of Hades? With his impatience, Theseus can’t imagine Zagreus taking on the painstaking process of plucking out the seeds from a pomegranate and pushing them past his lips, one by one. No; he would have a servant do it, or someone even closer. A lover, perhaps.
Theseus can’t help but imagine a scenario where he does exactly that, feeding them to Zagreus like an offering. He licks his lips; feels his breath quicken.
His eyes flick to Zagreus’s lips, slightly parted. Would they still hold the taste?
Theseus has wanted to taste him for so long.
“Hmph. Missing,” he hears Hades say. “That boy he thinks removing the contract will help him. The contractor will not assist him this time.”
Concentrate, he tells himself. Set your focus only on your goal.
They listen as he moves somewhere else around the room. Zagreus has started to lean into Theseus, perhaps for the sake of protecting him. Theseus has never been this close to him; he is only inches away, near enough that if Theseus moves at all, it would bring their bodies into contact.
Focus, he thinks again, half-hearted now.
His heart is thundering in his chest, pounding at his ribcage. If he thought it had been loud when facing Lord Hades, that is nothing compared to this.
They stay stiff and silent as Hades takes another round around the room. It feels like his presence lasts for ages, but eventually he finally leaves the way he came, giving the shades around them a command to continue working before he closes the door firmly shut behind him.
The moment he’s gone, Zagreus sags into him, his breath comes out in a relieved rush of air.
“Oh, gods, that was close.”
It was close. He is close. Zagreus is so close.
“Zagreus,” he whispers, though the danger has passed.
“Theseus,” Zagreus replies, barely louder than him. He tilts his head the barest amount, and his nose brushes Theseus’s.
The last threads of Theseus’s self-control finally snap.
He leans forward, crossing the boundary; crossing the threshold that had once divided them as foes and now friends, and brushes his mouth across Zagreus’s.
It is nothing; the barest touch, and yet it strikes like a lightning bolt, with hot sparks of desire blooming to life in Theseus’s chest. Theseus hears Zagreus’s breath hitch uncertainly, and then a moment later, he closes the acute distance between them and brushes his lips back against Theseus’s.
Oh, gods. Oh, heavens. How could he resist this? How could he have ever resisted this?
Theseus’s fingers curl into Zagreus’s hair as he pulls him forward, slotting their mouths together.
In an instant, Zagreus comes to life before him. He surges forward, slamming Theseus into the metal grating separating the two rooms and kisses him back forcefully. Their lips collide, sliding, warm, warmer still. Zagreus’s mouth is hot on his; hot as the rest of him. He cups Theseus’s jaw to hold him steady while he kisses him again, and again, and again.
“This is—” Zagreus starts, but then interrupts his own words by claiming Theseus’s mouth with his once more. Theseus’s fingers tighten in his hair, tugging him closer. The hand that has gravitated to his chest curls, digging into Zagreus’s bare skin. Zagreus breaks away, his breath shuddering out, a sound caught somewhere deep in his throat.
“This is really not the…time. Oh, gods, your mouth—”
Zagreus takes Theseus’s right hand and threads their fingers. Then he does the same with the left, pressing them both into the wall and kissing Theseus deeply, devouring him like nectar.
“You taste like pomegranates,” Theseus gasps against his lips. His chest heaves. He sounds angry, and he is. What right does Zagreus have to smell like he does, to taste like he does?
He wants to bury his fingers in that soft hair again. Theseus wants to press him down into the floor and kiss him for hours. But Zagreus has him pinned, and with each deep, searing kiss, Zagreus shivers, full-bodied, winding Theseus’s longing into a fierce, spear-point of want.
He manages to yank one hand free, and with it he grabs the back of Zagreus’s head and begins returning his kisses frantically, until they’re both grasping at each other, pulled as close as their physical forms will allow. He has one hand wound around Zagreus’s waist, the other clutching the back of his neck, and Zagreus has shoved his palm underneath Theseus’s chiton, scalding warmth against his skin.
“Theseus,” he breathes in between each kiss. “Theseus. King. Theseus. Theseus.”
Theseus wants. He wants, he wants, he wants Zagreus in every way possible. He can feel himself slowly growing stiff. Oh, gods, but he wants.
One of the shades whose desk is near where they stand coughs loudly, breaking them of their reverie. Zagreus jolts upright and hastily steps back from him.
They stare at each other. Zagreus’s hair and laurels are askew. Theseus likely presents no better.
“Theseus. I’m—I… I…" Zagreus attempts to adjust his chiton back into its original position, but his hands are trembling. “I—”
“Your chambers!” Theseus hastens to say. “We—we should save any sort of discussion for another time. Yes, we should return to your chambers and finish there. I mean—” he realizes his blunder and tries to correct “—we can conclude our business there and return here after.”
Zagreus glances around at the other shades and nods. His face is completely aflame, though Theseus’s is no better. The fact that he was so overtaken in such a public place, no matter how dimly lit… Theseus swears to memorize each shade’s appearance.
Zagreus takes an aborted step towards his contract—Hades didn’t notice it laid out on the table—but then turns and heads towards the door.
“We’ll go back the same way we came. I’ll—I don’t know, figure out a way to distract my father.”
He isn’t looking at Theseus. Theseus still recalls the heat of Zagreus’s mouth on his.
Theseus follows him out. They pass near Achilles, watches them with his eyebrows raised. Though their clothing and hair has been adjusted there is no hiding certain obvious signs. Theseus does not allow his gaze to wander, focusing on passing by unseen.
Things seem to be going well until Hades suddenly addresses Zagreus as he’s passing by his desk.
“You did that on purpose, didn’t you, boy?”
“Do you think I’m a fool? I saw you in cohorts with that shade in the quarter of the administrative chamber. Don’t think that kind of obedience will get you out of this. And don’t think that I will tolerate such flagrant behaviors from you here on out.”
Theseus feels his entire body slump with relief. Though he recognized Zagreus, he did not realize it was Theseus behind him.
Thank the gods for that.
While he is distracted with Zagreus, Theseus makes his way to his room and walks inside. He stands there then, alone, the reality of what he has done crashing down over him.
Zagreus and he…kissed. They embraced, passionately. Theseus’s tongue was in his mouth. His hot, wonderful, delectable mouth.
Theseus seriously considers slamming his head against the nearest surface until he has gained his sanity back.
“Well, that was an incredibly awkward conversation,” Zagreus says on his way in. “Blood and darkness.”
He stops short of nearing Theseus, an uncertain expression on his face.
“Theseus, I’m really sorry,” he begins, which is all wrong. “I shouldn’t have done that. Like I said before, I’m not trying to get in the way of what you and Asterius have.”
“No, of course not! Asterius would never—I would never—”
It isn’t coming out right. He can see it isn’t coming out right by the look on Zagreus’s face, which falls the longer that he speaks.
“I misunderstood, I know. I’ve always admired you—both of you. I let that get to me, I suppose.”
“Zagreus,” Theseus says, feeling like he is losing control of the situation. “You are—”
“I know,” Zagreus interrupts. “I know. You don’t have to tell me. Or let me down easy. I know, Theseus. Most mortals have single partners, and you are technically a mortal—”
“I wanted to kiss you!” Theseus bursts.
Zagreus goes still and looks up at him. “What?”
“I wanted it!” Theseus insists. He nearly shouts it. “Zagreus, have you any idea—do you honestly believe—?”
Theseus stops and tries again. “You have…bewitched me in every possible way. When I said I cared for you, I…”
For a moment, Theseus feels frozen, the words lodged under his tongue, coating his throat; refusing to move. Then he thinks of Asterius, and the kiss, and he feels like a fool for showing even an ounce of hesitation.
“I have wanted you for so long,” he admits. “Surely you must have realized.” He takes a step towards Zagreus and lets out a laugh, feeling free all of a sudden. To say it out loud for the first time, it’s as if all the pieces are finally falling into place. “Surely you realize how I feel, how—how Asterius feels.”
“Have I realized that the people my father hired to try and kill me over and over again have romantic feelings for me? No, I can’t say I’ve ever thought about it.” A pause. “Well, that last part was a lie. I have thought about it. I’ve thought about it a lot, actually.” Zagreus grimaces, tilting his head up towards the ceiling. “…I’m not imagining this, am I? You’re actually saying you want to—what are you saying, Theseus?”
The fragility of his voice is so unlike the confident and sarcastic god he’s come to respect. Theseus’s first thought is to respond with a quip to lighten the tension and the load on his own heart, but it doesn’t feel right.
In death, I have found there is value in truth and honesty, and none in ignorance.
“I care for you, Zagreus. But I know that you are a god," he begins. "And that you have your own goals outside of this place. I am Champion and King with my own duties, so in that respect I can understand. I admit that I have not been kind to you. I deserve nothing of your regard, and so, once we return to our positions, I hope that you may consider, on occasion—if it pleases you, that is—to-to perhaps permit some sort of. Well, partnership. Though you may find it difficult to engage in combat with such a, er, partner, so if such a situation arises, I promise you that I will...we will—mmph”
Theseus’s rambling speech is interrupted by warm, soft lips pressed against his. While he had been speaking, his eyes had slipped close, but now they are open, staring wide at Zagreus’s as he pulls away.
“Shut up, King,” he says, tilting his head close. “Just shut up and kiss me.”
And for the next several minutes, he does.
The painting reference is a nod to how you can have the contractor commission a painting of Theseus that you can hang up in the House! This game really is so fun...
I hope you enjoyed all the nonsense! And that kiss •̀.̫•́✧ just so it's clear, Theseus is including Asterius in at the end, it's just that he is really a big ol' rambling mess on his own!
edit: pls view this beautiful art!! ahh
Chapter 9: Thanatos
One moment, the shades and they are working away, and the next, Death appears in the room.
Theseus gasps, and his blood runs still, though he cannot bleed, and he cannot die. He has never technically met Death; even when he died, it was Lord Ares’s will that carried him to his demise, and so it was Hermes who delivered him to the boatman.
Yet he knows, immediately. This is Death.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Theseus could lose himself to the taste of Zagreus’s lips. Though the moment that Zagreus reciprocated his affections, Theseus was already lost.
They kiss for an age, and yet it feels too short for Theseus’s liking. They start in the center of the room, exchanging warm, sweetened kisses, but their fervor encourages them to relocate to Zagreus’s bed nearby.
“Pomegranates,” Theseus says at length. A part of him is still sour that it was the scent of pomegranates—a fruit permeating the entirety of the Underworld—that drove him to this point.
“Would you—like some?” Zagreus asks, halting his speech midway when Theseus’s touch proves distracting.
He has Zagreus pressed onto the bed, and he keeps stroking Zagreus’s face with his thumbs, mostly due to the reaction he is granted. It doesn’t take a fool to realize that Zagreus responds to touch like a moth to flame. Theseus had observed it previously, and even now Zagreus leans into grasp, occasionally trembling as though the air is cold when Theseus can feel his heated skin seeping into his hands.
“I would like to continue kissing you,” Theseus declares, answering his earlier inquiry. Zagreus strokes his hand along the length of Theseus’s arm, and Theseus responds to the gesture by drawing him into another kiss.
“You keep touching my face,” Zagreus says. He slides his hand over Theseus’s, which is admittedly, doing exactly that. “I’ve noticed that’s a thing for you.”
Theseus huffs, letting his hand fall. “I did not hear your complaints a moment ago. Do you know that you respond well to touch?”
“I’m just not really…used to it,” Zagreus defends, but he doesn’t resist when Theseus cups his cheek and presses the kiss to the other side. “I’ve been—” he pauses as Theseus steals another kiss from his supple lips “—I’ve been with other shades before, but it’s been a very long time. Been distracted with other things, as you might be aware. And I wouldn’t have taken you for the affectionate type.”
“Then you have much to learn,” Theseus says, preoccupied with the mole on his jaw. He has wanted to drag his tongue along the length for an age, and he mouths over the mark now; then, when Zagreus tips his head back with a quiet sigh, he can’t help but begin to pepper kisses up and down his throat to drag similar sounds from him.
“Theseus,” Zagreus breathes. His hand comes up to toy with the longer strands of hair near the back of Theseus’s neck. “Tell me, then.”
Theseus’s stops with his mouth over Zagreus’s clavicle. He goes no further, though the sculpted form trembling underneath him is excruciatingly tempting. “Tell you?”
Zagreus pulls him up and kisses him once, then once more, and by the third, he has his legs wrapped around Theseus’s waist, hands buried in the strands of his hair, and Theseus forgets for a time he spoke at all.
“Tell me about the man hiding underneath that pompous act of yours,” Zagreus continues, once they part. He leans back against the sheets, out of the range of temptation. “We have some time now, and you did just confess your feelings for me.”
Theseus scowls. “Is it not enough to know that I feel for you?”
The look that Zagreus gives him implies that, no, it will not suffice.
“’King’ this, ‘Champion’ that. I’ve heard so much about the legend of King Theseus, Champion of Elysium. Was that all talk? You have nothing to share?”
It is an obvious taunt, but Zagreus’s eyes beckon Theseus to fall prey to it. And for once, he makes no attempts to resist.
“Well! I suppose I could share an anecdote or two. I was quite the King, you know!” He sits up and glances around, as if time will reveal itself despite evidence to the contrary. “Though we will have to continue with our mission, after. Asterius is certainly worried for us both.”
“I know,” Zagreus says. His hand inches forward, fingertips brushing against Theseus’s. “You’re certain Asterius wouldn’t mind? This, I mean. Us. You’re very certain about that?”
“Asterius understands,” Theseus says. He hesitates before adding, “In truth, he understands more than I do. He…encouraged me. Forced me to face the truth of it all.”
“You are stubborn,” Zagreus agrees.
Ignoring him, Theseus continues, “He would be here, if he was able. I don’t know how he would feel about us, being here now, but I have no intention of hiding anything from him. Which is why we should best be on our way.”
“I am aware. But I’d like to think about something nice, for a change. Something other than my father and how I barely escaped being eternally bound to him. If you wouldn’t mind, of course.”
There is no opposing Zagreus’s quiet, polite intonation. Theseus flips his hand so that his fingers curl underneath Zagreus’s, and then he begins recounting a few of his more exciting tales. Though it isn’t exactly what Zagreus implied he wanted to hear, his attention remains rapt the entire time, particularly when the details are about the surface.
“So much happens on the surface,” Zagreus says, practically bouncing on the bed. “Asterius said that you killed him, but you became friends in the afterlife. What made you want to do that?”
Theseus has told his stories thousands of times, but with Zagreus asking dozens of questions about the most mundane things down on the surface, so much so that the conversation moves away from Theseus and back to Zagreus’s never-ending fascination with the overworld, it feels different.
Everything feels different, with Zagreus.
“The Minotaur—Asterius—was unlike anything I had ever seen. He intrigued me, and when we met in the Underworld, my hunch was proven correct. I have never known someone like Asterius, and I don’t expect I ever shall again. He is one of a kind. Truly, my greatest ally and friend. I would do anything to have him remain at my side.”
He doesn’t mean to speak so plainly, and his initial gut reaction is to defend his honest words, but Zagreus looks at him with none of the judgment he would expect.
“You love him,” Zagreus says.
“I—do,” Theseus replies haltingly. He scans Zagreus’s face for any sign that the admission upsets him in any way, but his expression is open and honest.
“That’s very sweet, actually. You know, if you stopped trying so hard to prove yourself to everyone around you, you’d have a much easier time making friends.”
“I have no need for friends,” Theseus remarks. Though well-intentioned, the comment sours his mood some. Perhaps sensing this, Zagreus leans into his space and kisses him, soft and slow.
“Tempter,” Theseus breathes into his mouth. He lets himself fall back into the pile of pillows, with Zagreus hovering above. One kiss, unsurprisingly, turns into many.
“And you?” Theseus manages in between kisses. At this rate, his lips will become sore. Yet, since it has been so long since Theseus was able to indulge like this, he can’t find it in himself to mind. “Why do you try so hard to escape from it all? Just your mother?”
Zagreus distracts him from his question with his tongue, exploring the length of Theseus’s mouth. His hands, much like the rest of him, are never still. One hand smooths over Theseus’s chest and shoulders, and the other slides up the top of his thigh. Up, further still, inching under the skirts of his chiton. Theseus’s breath catches, because he wants, half-hard already, but inevitably, Zagreus stops himself and withdraws, mouth lingering over Theseus’s.
“Beginning to regret the lack of a door, are we?” Theseus manages.
Zagreus ducks his head, chuckling. “Mostly. Even if I wanted to, I know that we don’t have that kind of time.”
Theseus sits up, bringing Zagreus with him. “You haven’t yet answered my question.”
“Why I’m trying to escape?”
“The Prince of the Underworld escaping his own home,” Theseus remarks. “I had presumed this place would be torturous enough to warrant your escape attempts, but it is rather nice here.”
Zagreus sighs. “You’ve met my father. I’ve never felt—or rather, I’ve always felt that there was something missing. And when I learned my mother was out there on the surface, I knew I had to find her. I don’t know why she left, exactly, but I have an idea. And I know that I can’t escape this place, but…I need her in my life. That’s what I’m focusing on, right now.”
“But he forbids you from seeing her! To what end?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out.”
Zagreus ducks his head, and this time, Theseus cups both sides of his face without hesitation, lifting it so he can study his expression.
“I will give you my aid,” he says. “Anything that is within my power, I will make use of it. We will find a solution.”
Zagreus’s mouth stretches into a gentle smile. He leans into Theseus’s touch, completely unaware how he is threatening to stop Theseus’s heart entirely.
“My thanks, King.”
When they return to the administrative chamber, Theseus approaches the still open parchment and settles in front of it to read. Zagreus is not far behind, and together they pour over its words. Theseus combs over each written word carefully, refusing to let any pass by without examination. The text is similar to several contracts he has read through, but this one is particularly thorough. Its terms, though simplistic, are extremely specific, to the point where Theseus begins to doubt his assumption that they may find something useful within the text.
Time passes in quiet. Beside him, Zagreus yawns.
“Sorry,” he says. “Parchmentwork has never really been my thing, thus far.”
“And to that, I can relate,” Theseus says. He sets the parchment down and rubs at his eyes. “When we are not fighting in the stadium, I’m often surrounded by parchments such as these. It is one of the few duties I take no pleasure in.”
“That makes two of us.” Zagreus shuffles closer and leans his chin on Theseus’s shoulder. Theseus stiffens, then attempts to appear relaxed.
“See this part?” Zagreus tells him. “It’s as I told you. The next time I see her, I must tell her I will not see her again. Then, no more escapes.”
Theseus has read it a few times already, but he does it again in hopes something will jump out at him.
The Contractee agrees to complete the following terms, in order:
- Upon exiting the Underworld Surface doors and defeating Hades in combat, the Contractee will immediately locate his birth mother.
- The Contractee shall recite the statements described in Section 5.
- Contractee shall stop attempting to escape the Underworld.
Theseus shifts the parchment further up, then back down.
“Perhaps the gods could offer assistance?” Theseus hazards. “In regards to the tasks laid out as a secondary option. Lady Demeter has the ability to freeze over all of hell, I’m sure.”
“And what would I tell them? ‘Please, Uncle Zeus, Lady Demeter, would you help me complete these tasks without asking why?’”
“Make something up then!”
“Even if that were possible, they would not come down here. And if I take too many Boons to try my hand at accomplishing the same thing, there’s no telling what sort of state I’ll be in.” Zagreus shakes his head, jostling Theseus. One of his flaming feet have come into direct contact with Theseus’s. “Trust me, I’ve already considered asking for their help. It will not work.”
Theseus breathes through his nose. “Then we must find something else. A mistake. Your father wrote this over the course of just a few days, did he not?”
“I…suppose so, yes. I’m certain once he realized what was happening, he went right to work.”
“Then he must have slipped up somewhere in this egregiously long document. Though he rules over his realm, he is not a perfect being.”
“You can say that again. As I’ve started getting to know them, I’ve learned none of the gods embody perfection.” Zagreus shrugs, then shuffles to his other side to get a better look at the contract. “All right, then. You start from the top, I start from the bottom?”
“Indeed, I will gladly act on top of you.”
“Now you’re just doing it on purpose.”
“I have no idea what you mean,” Theseus says, redirecting his attention to the scroll.
Finding a mistake is easier said than done. Particularly when the text is so inescapably dull. In the past, there were many times when Theseus had shunted paperwork onto Asterius when he was not in the mood for it. Theseus starts at the very beginning once more.
This Contract (“Contract”) is entered into by and between Zagreus (“Contractee”; “Son”; “God”) and Hades (“Father”; “Contractor”) for the purpose of preventing further escapes from the Underworld as described in Section 8 of this contract. Zagreus and Hades may also be referred to as “Party” or together as the “Parties”.
He reads on, looking for anything akin to a mistake. First, he glances the terms for the umpteenth time, then the definitions to see if any words haven’t been defined, but Hades was thorough. Their meanings are absolutely clear.
He keeps expecting to see their names appear in the text, but there is mention of neither him nor Asterius within its contents. There are vague mentions of other parties being affected should Zagreus breach the contract, and though it is laid out vaguely, it is unmistakable in its intent.
Provided this contract is breached, Hades reserves the right to invoke punishments on any Underworld residents immediately, without penalty, and Zagreus shall be fully responsible for completing the terms laid out in Section 3 in whole.
Guilt claws at him each time his eyes run across the words.
“The definitions are three parchment lengths long,” Zagreus whines loudly beside him. The shade to their front turns around and glares. Zagreus sighs and leans his head back on Theseus’s shoulder.
It continues to fascinate Theseus how Zagreus’s presence is at once both immeasurable and understated. A god that acts like no other god, who bleeds red and defies his own kind. For the longest time Theseus had refused to admit that he was a god, and royalty, no less!
Undoubtedly there are others that would be better suited as partners, yet Zagreus looked to him: a being no more worthy than any other. Less worthy. He was a king among mortals, once, and he is champion now, but there are days when he feels as though his existence has amounted to nothing. He is nothing. Worthless, self-absorbed, despicable—
“Did you find anything?”
Theseus stares down at the parchment clutched between his fingers and relaxes his grip.
“Not as such,” he says. Theseus blinks and reads it again. “Is there a definition for visitation?”
A pause. Then, “Yes. Several lines worth.”
“Hmph. I had hoped—” he stops. There is no point in blind hope. “Zagreus, when you visit the Queen, what is it like? I have since…wondered, upon learning that was your destination.”
“She has a garden,” Zagreus says, tilting his head up as he recalls. “It’s beautiful. Full of all types of plants. Vegetables, fruit—you name it. And there’s a river nearby that sparkles under the sun. Water on the surface appears very different. And the grass there is so soft. I’ve never seen nor felt anything like it.”
“The sun,” Theseus repeats. “I haven’t seen it myself for so long.”
“Do you still remember what it was like?”
“In some senses. It has been such a long time. My memories remain, but they can be fleeting.”
“I was very surprised by how hot the sun was. And bright. At first it felt so gentle—but eventually, I began to bake under the heat. Even with the cold from Lady Demeter. You remember the sun being that warm? Is that normal?”
His honest and genuine curiosity touches something within Theseus. He may not be able to recall the exact sensations, but he does recall the feelings that Zagreus describes.
He looks at Zagreus, taking in his steady gaze and the heat of him, radiating towards Theseus as though it seeks him out. He thinks of his smile, which lights up whatever chamber he’s in. He thinks of his laugh, and how it warms him inside out.
When he thinks of the sun, and he thinks of Zagreus, rather pathetic thoughts to mind, but instead of voicing them, he inches his fingers over until they brush against Zagreus’s.
Surprised by his own frivolous thoughts, Theseus clears his throat and returns to the parchmentwork. He can feel Zagreus’s eyes on him, but whatever he may say falls away as another unexpected being appears.
One moment, the shades and they are working away, and the next, Death appears in the room.
Theseus gasps, and his blood runs still, though he cannot bleed, and he cannot die. He has never technically met Death; even when he died, it was Lord Ares’s will that carried him to his demise, and so it was Hermes who delivered him to the boatman.
Yet he knows, immediately. This is Death.
Theseus watches, baffled, as Zagreus leaps from his seat and walks up to Death to greet him.
Death barely bothers to look at Zagreus, and when he does, it is with displeasure.
“So, you have your administrative privileges back? I thought you were done with this place.”
“I won’t be finished until I bring my mother back, you know that. But anyway, Than—”
“I’m not here to chat,” he says, voice flat. He walks over to a section of parchments and starts picking through them.
“I know you said you would throw away my last few bottles of nectar, but I’m not angry with you,” Zagreus says. “And my father isn’t here. You can talk to me.”
‘Than’ looks even more upset by Zagreus’s words. He sighs, then plucks the parchment he was searching for from the wall and heads towards the door.
“Wait!” Zagreus calls, hurrying to catch up. Theseus, too, stands, but only to keep them both in his sights. Death is not a foe to be trifled with.
“Than, please, I could really use your help.”
“I know what you’re going to ask,” Thanatos says without looking at him. “Even if I was willing, that’s not really my area.”
“You are quite literally looking at a contract, Than. What are you doing here, anyway?”
“I don’t think that’s any of your business, Zag,” he says, tossing the nickname back at him with more of his casual disdain. Theseus watches hurt flash briefly across Zagreus’s face. If Thanatos notices, he doesn’t acknowledge it.
Anger flutters to life from within Theseus. Though he has said much worse, to hear another casually disregard him is quite another thing.
“So even Death wanders this realm,” he says, approaching the pair. Thanatos looks over at him, startled, as though he’s just noticed him. Was he that focused on Zagreus?
“Megeara mentioned you brought King Theseus into this, but I didn’t believe her. You really do like making a mess of things, don’t you, Zagreus?
“That’s not fair,” Zagreus says. “If you know about the contract, then you know it’s more complicated than it appears.”
“Complicated or not, you didn’t have to do this,” Thanatos tells him. He turns his mouth down in Theseus’s direction. “You could have just stayed home.”
“You know why I can’t.”
Thanatos sighs again. It’s obvious to Theseus that he will not budge, so Theseus takes Zagreus by the hand and pulls him towards the contract lying on the desk.
“There is work to be done. We shouldn’t waste time those who won’t offer their aid.”
Death turns his eyes onto Theseus, who holds his ground, refusing to shrink back.
“You don’t know anything about what’s really going on around here,” Thanatos says. “It’s your fault that Zagreus has been tied down like this, you realize. If it weren’t for you, he would be on his way to his mother.”
Though he speaks quietly, there is an undercurrent of anger held by his words. Theseus doesn’t need to be told that he is the cause of Zagreus’s punishment. Equally so, both Zagreus and he are aware that Zagreus was the cause of Asterius’s imprisonment.
Time has bound them together, and it has changed them. Changed everything. Though Death may be aware of the situation, Theseus isn’t certain he understands.
Theseus does not say any of this to Thanatos. Instead, he says, pointedly, “I am helping him.”
Thanatos whirls past them and stops at the desk where Zagreus’s contract rests.
“You won’t find a way out of this through any mistake he’s made. Knowing you, that will be your first attempt at getting out of this. Listen, Zag, your father is too clever and too experienced for a mistake. Here’s my advice: get creative. Look at the terms, closely. Really look at them, and think about what they mean.”
“Find a loophole, you mean.”
Thanatos says nothing, but gestures to the parchment.
“What extremely helpful advice,” Theseus drawls, but Zagreus looks hopeful. He walks past Theseus and stands next to Than at the desk to look, much to Theseus’s consternation.
Theseus watches the two of them stare down at the parchment, both fixated on it, yet somehow clearly aware of each other. Zagreus murmurs something to himself and Thanatos nods along slowly. When he looks at Zagreus, the lines in his face soften, and his lips turned slightly upward.
Theseus’s annoyance grows, for reasons he can’t properly explain. He stands, angry, fists clenched, trying to get a hold of himself.
“Theseus, come help me,” Zagreus says once he realizes Theseus is still standing near the door. He flashes him a smile, and Theseus’s irritation begins to melt away. “I need your eyes on this.”
His eyes. His! Not Death’s.
He walks up to the desk, not deigning to acknowledge the other god in the room and moves to stand next to Zagreus. Together, they read through the parchment again. Zagreus scans the definitions page, but Theseus’s eyes keep returning to the initial terms. Perhaps there is some way to skate around what he tells his mother?
He immediately dismisses the thought. No matter what he says, future terms dictate he must cease his attempts. Theseus reads the terms, again, and again, and again.
Upon exiting the Underworld Surface doors and defeating Hades in combat, the Contractee will immediately locate his birth mother.
“Upon exiting the doors,” he mutters “…will immediately locate his birth mother.”
“What did you say?”
Theseus looks up. “About your birth mother?”
“No….no—” Zagreus shakes his head, blinking like he’s coming out of a daze and pulls the parchmentwork towards him. “You said, upon exiting the doors.”
“Yes, the doors that leave the Underworld.”
“Exactly. The term says ‘in that order’. That means there is an order of events. My father constructed it, probably to keep me from getting around stopping my attempts, but he didn’t consider—I mean, I didn’t consider…”
“Well?” Theseus says, Zagreus’s excited energy bleeding into him. “Spit it out!”
“The doors. He expects me to go through the doors. But there’s another way to get to the surface!”
Zagreus looks at him, his eyes glittering. “Charon.”
“The boatman,” Theseus responds. The realization hits him. He grips Zagreus by the tricep and gives him a gentle shake. “The boatman! Charon!”
“If I can—I don’t know—somehow convince him to give me a ride, maybe I can keep visiting my mother!”
“Then the boatman can be convinced? I presumed your previous escapes didn’t involve him for that very reason.”
“Well—” Zagreus winces. “Charon has made it clear he isn’t going to help me get there the easy way, but he has helped. Gods used him to communicate sometimes, though I still have to pay him to read their messages. Maybe Thanatos can—” Zagreus looks around, taking in his surroundings for the first time in a while. “Thanatos? Where did he go?”
Theseus echoes his movements. It’s apparent that Death left some time ago, likely whilst they were absorbed in their task.
“We do not need him,” Theseus states. “If it’s coin you seek, I can provide more than enough.”
The look that Zagreus gives him then speaks volumes. “You’re not…Jealous of Than, are you?”
“Je—Pbfft! Envious? Of him—of-of Death? I cannot think of a more ridiculous notion. I am jealous of no man nor god. In fact, I have never once, in my life—both lived and unlived—felt even an ounce of jealousy for any being—”
“All right!” Zagreus interrupts, placing his hands on his hips. His ears are red. “Since you’re definitely not jealous, and we quite possibly do need his help, I’ll have to find him. If he hasn’t left yet, he won’t be far.”
“What makes you so certain his help is invaluable?”
“He’s Charon’s brother. If we’re going to convince Charon to take me to the surface, we’ll need Thanatos.”
Without waiting for Theseus’s reply, Zagreus strides out of the room and into the hallway. He peers around before he motions for Theseus to follow, and together they keep an eye out for Thanatos.
It doesn’t take long. Death is standing out the balcony near the end of the hall, gazing out at the River Styx. His pose invokes casual indifference, and despite the stillness of the air, somehow there is a slight breeze blowing through his hair, just enough to make it appear beautifully windswept.
“Than!” Zagreus calls, jogging over to him. Theseus glances behind him and shifts closer to the shadows, just to be safe.
“Zagreus.” Thanatos turns halfway, meeting Zagreus with his arms crossed. “Found a solution? Or are you here to ask for my help again?”
“I have found a solution. We did. But Than—I hate to ask when you have so much going on, but I do need your help.”
“I’ve already given you my help, a thankless number of times.”
“To be fair, all those times out there, I never asked for you. I knew what I was getting into, Than. I was ready to let it all go. But this time I really do need your help.” Zagreus takes a step forward, reaching out halfway. “Please.”
Thanatos remains unmoved, staring at his hand.
“Please, Than. I’ll never ask you for anything again. I’ll find a way to repay you. Please. If not for me, then for her. I need to let her know.”
Thanatos turns away, towards the river. He plants his hands on the railing, and after several minutes of silence, he finally turns back around.
“It’s always been for you,” he says, so quietly that Theseus isn’t sure he misheard. “Even though I’m risking my position—risking everything—I’ll help you, Zag. What are you planning to do?”
“I need Charon to give me a ride to the surface.”
“You’re not serious.”
“I’ve never been more serious. It’s the only way around my father’s terms. If I can get past the gate with Charon’s help, I won’t have to do what the contract says. I can make it there at least one more time.”
Thanatos turns his head toward Theseus; the look on his face suggests he holds Theseus responsible for this idea. Theseus expands his chest, forgetting his place in the shadows to stand by Zagreus’s side.
“It is the only way. The boatman—Charon. Zagreus believes you will be key to convincing him.”
“Even if I thought I could, he would never take you all the way. Of that much I’m sure.”
“I don’t need him to take me all the way,” Zagreus says. “I can get to the temple of Styx on my own. I just need to get around the gates instead of through them.”
“I…don’t know. He and I, we’re not close. Though our paths cross, you know he’s not much for conversation.”
“You’re his brother. If anyone can convince him, it’ll be you. Come on, Thanatos, where’s your fighting spirit? Remember when we were kids, and you got Charon to bring us all the way to Asphodel?”
Thanatos smiles for the briefest moment. “You cried the second we got to the Meadows. You didn’t know they’d been flooded with lava. Your father was furious with us.”
“Did I cry? That’s not exactly how I remember it,” Zagreus says sheepishly. “But if you’ve done it once, I know you can definitely do it again.”
Thanatos turns away again. When he swings back around to face them, he has his scythe in his hands.
“Don’t make me regret this. Meet me at the temple in an hour.”
“An hour? But that—” the air around them shifts, and the sound of a gong rings clear “—Than, wait!”
Thanatos doesn’t wait. He gives Theseus one final, searching look, and then he dissipates into a puff of smoke. Zagreus stares at the spot he vacated. He lets out a curse.
“An hour? Darkness. If we have an hour, I have to go. Immediately.”
Theseus thinks fast, now that they have been given a deadline. “I can return to Elysium and see what I can do about the shades there. It’s unlikely I can change their minds, but perhaps I can distract some of them from the bounty on your head.”
“I’d appreciate that.” Zagreus walks past him, back towards the main hallway, and then turns around. “I can blast my way through the best of them, but I don’t think I’ve ever been on the short of a timer. Why does it always seem like we’re short on time? Nothing ever really happens down here, and yet.”
“I suppose that’s your doing.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“What I mean is—you make things happen, Zagreus,” Theseus tells him. “I’ve come to realize something these past days. You are so...different. You’re nothing like the other gods, what I know of them.”
“I hope that’s a good thing.”
“It is to me.”
“Well, thanks.” He smiles briefly, and his gaze on Theseus is warm. “Since we only have an hour, I’ll…I’ll be the one to send you back, I suppose. Unless you want to wait for Charon.”
“No, this will be quicker. Would that we could, we would battle to the death! To fall by your hand personally will suffice.”
“My father’s not going to be happy about the blood.”
“Neither shall I,” Theseus says lightly. Zagreus chuckles, taking a step closer.
“I’ll make it quick.” His eyes flick down to Theseus’s lips. He licks his own. “I apologize in advance.”
Theseus could simply let himself leave. He could ignore the storm brewing inside him and make the safe bet to examine it all later, but instead, he gathers all that he had felt before in watching the two gods interact, and he pulls Zagreus in for a long, searing kiss.
“I will see you again, Zagreus.”
Zagreus’s hand settles on his chest. He leans forward, as though he’ll steal another kiss from him, but then he stops just short of Theseus’s mouth. His damp breath ghosts over Theseus’s chin. The fingers on his chest curl and dig in slightly.
“I’ll return that later,” he says, after a moment. “See you soon, Theseus.”
The last thing he sees before Zagreus stabs him through the heart is Achilles, the warrior from across the hall, staring their way in wide-eyed shock.
Anyone who knows me knows I like to keep things simple... Hopefully it is still satisfying in between all the romance! Again I'll mention that a real-life contract probably would not read like this but this ain't real life!
I have a couple notes here that I wanted to make.
1) so when I was writing this I had already finished the game and I thought you learned that he died as a baby a little bit later after visiting Persephone. Then after re-watching I belatedly realized that you learn why she left immediately LMAO. whoops. In this universe we can assume that Zagreus knows he died but Persephone hasn't said that was why she left, because they didn't have time when he last died on the surface
2) Thanatos is a bit of a jerk here. But remember, this is early game so he is still pretty angry. I do love Than (and thanzag! Though not for this fic ofc)
3) yes the beginning was fluffy and romantic because I can't help myself okay!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I am soft...............
4) I'm not trying to really imply anything with Achilles at the end, I just like having side characters react to the main couple, especially if it's an enemies to lovers one! I realize it may sound a little bit like some sort of implied cliffhanger but I promise it's not
5) my eyes have been killing me recently so I will probably take a bit longer than usual next time to update. I'm really sorry :( I will do my best but I need a short rest! I promise to work hard after!!!
Chapter 10: Charon
Thank you for continuing to read! Please enjoy. There will be some POV shifting throughout this chapter, so just a warning for that.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Could I trouble you for a word, lad?”
Achilles is the last person that Zagreus wants to speak with. Shortly after he shared a passionate kiss with Theseus, he realized that they were in full view of one of his closest friends and confidantes.
With Achilles’s pointed stare, Zagreus wants to curse his mother’s genetics for making it so he’s the only non-shade in the entire Underworld capable of blushing.
“I’m sorry, Achilles,” he says, “I’m in a bit of a hurry. Quite a big hurry, actually.”
“Of course. I won’t keep you. It’s just—well, I don’t mean to pry, but was that…did I just watch you murder King Theseus in front of the administrative chamber? After he…and you…”
He trails off. Zagreus considers sprinting in the opposite direction.
“You won’t tell my father, will you?”
“I’m not sure what there is to tell, to be quite honest with you.” Achilles shifts in place, adjusting his spear in his hands. He looks uncomfortable; Zagreus can relate. “I had no idea that you and King Theseus were on good terms. Or—any terms at all. I’d heard the things he says to you during your fights.”
“We’ve come to an understanding. He’s… Not so bad once you get to know him. I suppose good terms are one way to put it. I’ll be honest with you—er, can I be honest about this?”
“Of course. I have no qualms with him, at least not personally.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a relationship with anyone. Romantically, that is. I still have to find out where we all stand in this. And it’s not just Theseus, either,” Zagreus adds sheepishly. “At least I don’t think. It’s hard to explain. Asterius is—I mean, the Minotaur is…” Zagreus’s blush deepens. “Well, you must have seen him before. He’s fairly…large.”
Perhaps spending so long fighting and interacting with the King of Elysium and the Minotaur has warped his sense of what is considered strange; Achilles’s eyes can’t get much wider than they currently are.
“That is… surprising, I will admit.” He blinks, then shakes his head, smiling wryly. “Mortals tend to favor a single partner, but I’ve not observed that behavior in many gods. Your father being somewhat of an exception. But—regardless, if you’re happy, lad, that’s all that matters. And you know I’d never mention any of this to your father.”
“Thank you, Achilles.” Zagreus glances around him. “I appreciate you checking in. But I’ve really got to go now. I’ll speak with you later.”
“Remember your training!” he calls, just before Zagreus runs out of earshot.
After entering his workroom, Theseus watches a stray parchment roll across the room before he speaks, stunned by what he’s seeing.
“Asterius,” he says. “What is all this?”
Initially, after he wakes, Theseus went to find Asterius. It didn’t take long to discover that shortly after he left, Asterius disappeared in Theseus’s workroom and had not emerged.
“King!” Asterius moves as if to stand. Surrounding him are what appears to be a thousand parchments, strewn about the room, his desk, and leaning against the walls. As he stands, a few parchments crinkle, crushed under his feet, and he stills, halfway between a stand and a crouch. “You have come back.”
“I have. There is much news to share, but before that—what have you been doing?”
Asterius snorts. His ears flick to and fro, and he glances at his surroundings.
“I can see you’ve only just begun,” Theseus remarks. He walks closer and picks up a parchment, dusting off the paper. “How long did you expect I would be gone? Cleaning this up will take days!”
Asterius hesitates before answering. “I hadn’t given it much thought. You were gone, and this space needed to be organized.”
Theseus absorbs Asterius’s words. He takes in the piles of parchments. After a while, understanding hits him like a bolt from Zeus, and he breaks out into a smile.
“You missed me, didn’t you, Asterius! Why, you simply should have said!”
Were he capable of it, Theseus is certain Asterius would be blushing up to his ears. He stands again, then stops, and then gingerly finds a path around the parchments towards Theseus.
“I had some concerns. For you, and the short one. Did you…succeed?”
It is a question too loaded for Theseus to summarize all at once. There is so much that he must say, but with time ticking, he knows they have so little time to explore those topics.
“The short version of it is that we have a solution at hand. A plan.” Theseus walks over to Asterius and he rises to meet him, reaching out for his hand like it is second nature. Theseus gives it a squeeze. “I need your help, Asterius, and I don’t have time to explain much.”
Asterius lowers his head, and Theseus’s hands rise up on instinct to pet the side of his face. The laurels set in his mane have nearly fallen out, so Theseus takes a few moments to adjust them.
“You have my aide, King,” Asterius says. His ears flick at Theseus’s hands as they work. “Tell me what I must do. And thank you,” he adds, after a pause.
His instant acceptance is nearly enough to bring tears to Theseus’s eyes.
“Thank you, Asterius. I thank you.” He keeps working, and as his fingers work the laurels under his horns, he notes the dull sheen on their usually gleaming appearance. “Please, think nothing of it. This is much easier done by me than by you and a reflection. I will also assist you in buffing and polishing your horns, later.”
Theseus presses his lips together. Though Asterius presents himself with care, there are certain signs that point to his continued self-hatred.
“Must I make it an order?”
Asterius huffs. Theseus sets it aside, for now. He finishes setting in Asterius’s laurels and steps back.
“There is one thing I must tell you now, whilst we have the time.”
“I…” Theseus’s face begins to burn. “I was able to tell him. How I…felt.”
“We—” Theseus clears his throat several times. Then a few more, just to be on the safe side. “We-we embraced. Briefly. For a time. It was… good.”
Good is an inadequate word to describe what occurred, and by the glint in Asterius’s eye, he suspects he believes much the same.
“You will tell me about it?” he says, a request and a question on its own. There is a note of hesitancy, that which Theseus tries to wipe away by kissing him firmly on his mouth.
“I will tell you all that occurred, Asterius. You have my word. And now I need yours.” He steps back again and motions behind him. “We must find a way to distract the other shades until Zagreus arrives. Death is involved, and he set a deadline for an hour. It’s my understanding that they have some sort of history, so he has not acted favorably.”
“Death. That is unexpected.” Asterius tilts his head, raising a hand to his chin in thought. A minute passes before he answers. “He needs time, then?”
“Yes. It is my hope that we may distract them long enough to make the way here at least a little easier.”
“The bloodlust of our brethren is a sure thing,” Asterius remarks doubtfully. “But…perhaps until he arrives, we may suggest a location to spar away from the exit.”
“Those were my thoughts exactly. I am so glad we are of the same mind! Perhaps if we are fortuitous today, the shades will feel the same!”
“Not really interested.”
The shade standing before Theseus doesn’t lift her head from the butterfly she is examining. Though it must look like every other butterfly in the region, exact in their appearance, she seems fascinated by this particular one. As her eyes continue to stay glued to it, Theseus has to repress the urge to scare it off.
“Ah, but you haven’t heard the best part yet! You can spar not only with Asterius, but with me!”
Theseus has earned the respect of the shades here. He is King, Champion, all of it. She cannot deny such a tempting offer!
The shade blinks as though she’s just come to awareness and then glances at Theseus.
“The daemon will be here soon, I heard. I want to fight him. No offense, Your Majesty. I’d be happy to spar with you later, though.”
Theseus wants to gasp outright at the insult. As though he is the one desperate for a fight. The nerve!!
They abandon that shade, and move onto another.
“I’m sorry, but the daemon is a powerful foe. I’ve sharpened my blade especially for this.”
“Last time he tore right through me. Not this time! I’m here to make sure of it.”
“We have a King?”
Theseus grinds his teeth together. To encourage the shades of Elysium to a sudden and swift battle should be an easy feat. Eternal combat is the one given in Elysium. Yet all of Theseus’s attempts to sway the shades in direction of one of the furthest fields has resulted in resistance.
He wishes he could order them to disperse, but that would only anger Lord Hades. They need to do something. Messengers have already come to let him know that Zagreus is nearly within the bounds of Elysium. An hour is not nearly long enough—they have minutes to find a solution before it becomes too late.
Theseus approaches a larger group of Elysium shades and stands before them. Upon noticing him, they bow their heads respectfully, saluting him with their arms against their chests.
“King Theseus,” one of them says, speaking for the group, “it is an honor.”
"Good day, my loyal subjects!"
Theseus gets to the point as quickly as he can manage, making it sound honorable and grand; a chance they don’t often get.
“I find that I long for the fights of old,” he finishes. “It has been so long since we sparred. What do you say?”
Theseus flashes them a beaming smile. One of them exchanges a glance with the shade that spoke up.
“My King, we would love nothing more. You are a beacon of strength. But, with all due respect, we have heard tales—”
“Say no more! I know that tales of my might have traveled far and wide, within Elysium and even beyond. Save your compliments or another time, if you will. I have just the location for us to spar!”
“My Lord,” the shade begins again, his tone even more respectful, which causes Theseus to frown, “truly, we’d love nothing more. But the daemon is on quite a rampage at the moment, and we had an interest in seeking the bounty of Lord Hades.”
“But—” Theseus attempts not to sound as puzzled as he feels. “Za-the daemon is nothing in comparison to your King! Do not wish to best the Champion of Elysium?”
The shades look at Theseus with something that he dares not name, and Theseus has to work to keep his smile in place. It is not as though he is desperate to fight them at all, but they cannot fail. He may be useless to Zagreus in many ways, but in this, he can succeed. In this he must succeed.
Theseus takes in a breath. It is no use; he must make it an order.
“Well, gentlemen, as King it is my right to inform you that—"
“With me,” Asterius suddenly interrupts. He steps forward, next to Theseus, his nostrils flaring. “Battle me. The shades who participate will fight as a group, against me. The first to strike the killing blow in battle may take my place at the stadium and battle with your King against the daemon.”
A collective gasp echoes in the field they stand in. Theseus’s mouth is hanging open.
“Your chance is now. You have up until the short one arrives at the stadium.”
The shades do not even have to confer together before they are all clamoring loudly at the chance to face Zagreus in such a circumstance. Theseus is aware that some shades envy their battles as much as they enjoy them, and a chance to fight alongside him is both an honor and a uniquely tantalizing offer. Theseus would not—could not—lower himself to make the same offer, but Asterius has always been somewhat of an outlier. Only in Elysium due to Theseus’s influence, and all the shades know it. Asterius holds their respect, of course, but in this, he has offered something Theseus cannot.
“Meet me in the field by the cluster of apple trees by the exit,” Asterius says. “If there are others who wish to join the battle, notify them. As stated, you have until the short one arrives.”
There is no more hesitation lingering on their faces. The shades bow once more, and then they take off, eager for this new challenge. Theseus waits until they have gone out of sight before he speaks.
“Asterius, I will fight with no one but you at my side!”
“And I would fight with no other,” Asterius responds without hesitation. He snorts, then faces Theseus, adjusting his ax in his hands impatiently. “I don’t intend to lose.”
“But, Asterius—” Theseus closes his eyes and breathes in, calming his mind, reminding himself it is not about him nor his feelings. “Do you truly believe it will work?”
“I know what will. The envy of our audience is palpable with each fight. Their bloodlust is never stated.”
Theseus nods, feeling tired all of a sudden. “Then I will come and watch.”
“No,” Asterius says. “You must meet Zagreus at the stadium if I do not arrive in time.”
Theseus wants to deny any such assertion that Asterius may not be beside him, but it would be foolish to do so. He nods again, lingering, even as Asterius pulls away and begins to head to his destination. Words clutter and tumble inside Theseus’s mouth, and he reaches out for Asterius’s hand before he can get too far.
“Be careful, my friend. Try not to lose yourself in the heat of it.”
Asterius nods, a small smile on his face. “Wait for me at the stadium, Theseus. I will be there.”
Standing alone while he waits for Zagreus feels eerily similar to when he last did the same, when Asterius was taken. At the time, their lives where irrevocably different, and it feels as though decades have passed since then even though it was not that long ago.
The audience is abysmally small. Usually at this point they will be shades lining the first few rows, but Theseus isn’t certain they have reached even a dozen viewers as of yet.
It causes hope to flit in his chest that Asterius must have amassed an audience to fight him instead of Zagreus. An audience that he hopes will not be strong enough to take him down. Theseus can only pray that it will not be too much for him, and no warrior but he will arrive through the doors.
Theseus tries to focus on the door from which Zagreus will arrive, but his mind keeps turning back to Asterius.
Gods, but Asterius is beautiful when he fights. Theseus is envious of those who get to experience it firsthand. It has been so long since he witnessed the sight of Asterius battling with another without being involved himself, and Theseus has no doubt he would seek to jump in the place of the shades he fights and spar with him himself. They used to make such a habit of it, before Lord Hades made use of their services.
Time passes. The messenger returns to let him know that Zagreus has passed through most of the chambers in Elysium. He sends him away and returns to his post, waiting for the both of them.
Come back to me, Asterius. I said I would fight with no one but you at my side and I meant it.
The crowd starts to thicken, though it is still much thinner than usual. Theseus’s and Asterius’s banners begin to rise, likely expecting that Asterius will join him shortly. And as time ticks closer to its end, Theseus becomes increasingly nervous.
Come back, he thinks. His muscles tighten and clench. Return to my side.
The crowd’s deafening roar suddenly sounds through the quiet. Theseus’s head jerks towards where Asterius would be joining him, but he realizes shortly that it’s Zagreus who has arrived, approaching the stadium with his usual single-minded focus. He looks healthy as ever, his eyes flickering to Theseus’s left when he realizes Asterius isn’t there.
“Where is Asterius?” he asks, an odd note in his voice. Theseus imagines he must see the parallel.
Theseus shakes his head. “For the moment, he is otherwise indisposed. Though he will be here shortly!” Praying that what I say is true. “So, fiendish opponent that you are, you have come back for another beating!”
“Suppose I have. Though I won’t be the one beaten here today.”
Theseus says nothing to that. For once, he does not feel much inclined to fight. Without Asterius at his side, and knowing what he knows, cannot bring himself to fight at his full potential.
“They say you moved through the realms quickly,” Theseus says. “I suppose you hope this battle will be even quicker!”
He knows his words lacks heat. He has applied a fresh coat of oil, and his weapons glitter and gleam, ready to assist him. The crowd is as voracious as it always is. But now he knows; he has seen what this does to Zagreus, what it is currently doing to him. To take part in it is something that pains him in this instance, even knowing it is something he must do, does not make Theseus want to bask in his usual confidence.
He doesn’t want to fight Zagreus like this.
He is not certain he wants to fight at all.
Zagreus smiles, but it’s cracked. “You’re not wrong. In a bit of a rush today. You’ll forgive me if I cut our conversation short.”
Theseus responds with a halfhearted taunt, and the crowd around them cheers, as they are wont to do. Though there are fewer of them than usual, observing their lust for battle, and observing Zagreus’s fatigued, yet determined expression, Theseus’s once tenured resolve continues to loosen.
In their contract, they are required to fight him to the death. Together. Theseus can’t quite remember the exact terms, but that at least was clear. So perhaps—
Zagreus charges towards him, sprinting a speed unparalleled. Theseus takes a deep breath. His fists clench and unclench.
Perhaps this will still count. Fighting to the death is so very vague, and surely the means of his loss won’t make it to Lord Hades. Theseus’s breath quickens as he dodges one strike, and then another, without raising his own weapons.
So much of his mortal life involved following others or doing great things. Great, but not good.
Now, here, in the afterlife, he wants to do good.
Theseus doesn’t want to raise his spear to someone who doesn’t deserve it.
He lets his grip slacken, spear and shield slipping from his fingers. Zagreus rushes him, fists raised, and that’s when seemingly out of nowhere, Asterius suddenly appears, thrusting himself in front of Theseus and blocking Zagreus’s attack with his ax. After Zagreus leaps backwards, ready to attack again, Asterius lowers his ax.
“No,” he says loudly, so the crowd can hear. “We will not fight.”
The audience at first falls into a shocked silence, but then they begin to boo.
“Asterius!” Theseus is shocked, relieved, happy to see him well. He is covered in blood, but most of it is not his own. “What are you doing?” he asks, despite what he had been about to allow. “What about our duty, our honor—”
“What honor lies in this?” Asterius answers him. He turns to Theseus, his gaze knowing in the way it always is. Asterius walks up to him in his silence and takes his shield in his hands. Then he tosses it to the side, with enough force to bury it in the nearby pillar.
“Asterius,” Theseus repeats, dumbfounded. But he’s smiling, close to laughter at the absurdity of it all. “Have you lost your mind?”
“Er, what’s happening?” Zagreus says.
“Not since you found me, King,” Asterius says, ignoring him for the moment. “Hand me your spear.”
Theseus looks down at the blessed spear in his hands. It was given to him in the afterlife and has always endured. Not a single scratch marks its pristine surface.
He weighs it in his hands, and a beat later it is Theseus who rears back and tosses it into the same pillar his shield is now stuck in.
“I think you’ve made your point quite clear, Asterius!” he shouts. “Maybe unnecessarily so, but I can feel your spirit, my friend! And you, fiend!”
Theseus regards Zagreus with renewed vigor. He steps around Asterius to face him, observing the way he shifts impatiently in the center of the arena, looking between them with confusion and the doorway with determination.
“Go, Zagreus,” Theseus says, quiet enough so the crowd can’t hear him. “Find Death. Asterius is right. You can’t waste time fighting us here.”
“I’m sorry,” Zagreus says, “did you just say you’re letting me go?”
“Not just that. We will follow after you. As protection,” Asterius adds, after a moment. It is a pitiful excuse for what hangs in the air between them, unacknowledged yet obvious.
“I’m sorry, you’re what?”
“Asterius! You know that I cannot endanger you nor risk your safety—”
“With all due respect, King, it is my own choice to risk what is mine,” Asterius interrupts. His tone brooks no argument. “And this time… I will not be left behind.”
Theseus is stunned. Asterius has never been so adamant about such a request before. Not since the last time they quarreled and he stood his ground contrary to Theseus’s wishes. Like now, he had kept his tone, but Theseus could read his anger in between the lines. He is reminded then, that it was once again over Zagreus.
I do not think I am asking for too much, Asterius had said. He had wanted Theseus to acknowledge Zagreus for who and what he was, and Theseus refused in the end.
It begins to dawn on him why he had been so adamant then that Theseus see Zagreus, and in turn see Asterius.
“My dearest friend,” Theseus says, when he finds his voice. “I see you. You are right. You are always so right. I would always have you with me if such a thing was within my power, you know that. If this is your will, then I shall not stand in your way. Nay, I shall stand with you!”
“That is absolutely wonderful,” Zagreus says loudly, interrupting them. He pushes past them, towards the exit. “I’d love to stay and be a part of whatever it is that’s going on here, but I have a deadline. And if you’re going to follow me, well—you’d best hurry.”
Theseus turns to the audience still standing restlessly at the stadium’s seats.
“Fear not, my brethren! I will return to you, soon!”
Ignoring their shocked cries, Theseus motions for Asterius and together, they follow behind Zagreus, through the exit and onto the surface.
Remember your training, Achilles had told him.
Well, his training couldn’t have prepared him for anything remotely close to what he’s experiencing now.
Once he entered the stadium, Zagreus had expected to fight the long fight, even though they were technically on the same side. Theseus had never once suggested they would give up a fight for him, and Zagreus hadn’t expected it. Which is why it was so surprising when it happened. Even though Asterius had been the one Zagreus would be a fool not to notice the way Theseus had looked at him, with something like despair, his powerful weapons nearly lax at his side.
Zagreus can’t quite wrap his mind around it all. They let him go, and decided to come with him. It’s so outside of the realm of he expected that it—it just doesn’t make sense.
And there’s no time to try and make sense of it: Than is waiting for him.
Zagreus glances behind him and catches sight of the awe on their faces.
Though this may be a first for Asterius and Theseus the under-surface realm, there is no time to marvel like Zagreus once did. Zagreus rushes them past his keepsakes and the offering pools and towards the exits that lead into the area just outside the gates. But even with his insistence, Asterius and Theseus linger, gazing at their surroundings.
“If my father hears that you came with me all this way, he’s not going to be happy,” Zagreus tells them. He tugs on Asterius’s hand encouragingly, leading them both in the right direction. “And a third of Elysium just watched you do exactly that.”
“We are aware of the consequences,” Asterius says. His deep voice booms and echoes in the large space. When he refocuses on Zagreus, he wraps his fingers around Zagreus’s wrist purposefully. “We have chosen to follow.”
Zagreus tries not to think about the contact. “Well, I don’t know if you should have left your weapons behind.”
“It was symbolic!” Theseus exclaims. He crosses his arms, staring at Zagreus with an expression that he can only assume Theseus believes makes him appear aloof. Zagreus catches his eye and flashes him a smile, and the lines around Theseus’s eyes abruptly soften, his lips turning upward.
“Have your nerves taken hold of you?” he asks. “If it bothers you that much, I can retrieve my weapons.”
“I suspect there is a blessing on the weapons that keeps them from being taken,” Asterius interjects. “It is partially the reason I threw them aside.”
“I’m not bothered.” Zagreus pulls his hand back and must resist touching the place that Asterius had. “But we do have a deadline, remember? Come on.”
Zagreus dashes towards the gates, not waiting this time to see if they’ve followed him. He bursts through, onto the dark carpet that leads up to Cerberus. Zagreus immediately turns in circles, looking for Thanatos. He sees Charon in his usual spot, the chambers filled with Satyrs and vermin, and then Cerberus—
Zagreus stops short. Thanatos is waiting for him by Cerberus.
Hot relief courses through him the moment he sees him there. He knows it’s been over an hour–it was an impossible task—but he had an inkling that Than would wait for him regardless.
“Than,” he calls, the exhaustion he’s been staving off creeping into his voice. He survived, and he has enough Boons that he thinks he can take on his father without issue.
“You’re late,” Thanatos says. “I said to meet me here in an hour.”
“And he told you to wait before you disappeared!” Theseus snaps from behind him. “Are you trying to help or not?”
Thanatos takes one look at Theseus and Asterius and pulls out his scythe. He sweeps past Zagreus and positions himself between them, pointing it their way.
“No,” is all he says.
“Than,” Zagreus pleads.
“I didn’t ask you to come with friends. Listen, Zag. I had you get here in an hour because that’s the time I have. And the longer I wait, standing here, out of place, the more suspicious my brother is going to be. He’s already going to suspect something, but if we play our cards right, we can get this over with before he decides to up and leave.”
“I thought it might have something to do with that,” Zagreus says. “And I appreciate it, Than, I really do. But Theseus and Asterius have been really helpful; they’re just here for moral support, I swear.”
“Moral support—” Theseus spits, obviously enraged. Zagreus doesn’t know what it is about Thanatos that gets to him more than Zagreus does, but thankfully Asterius is there to settle his hands on Theseus’s shoulders and pull him backwards, as though Theseus is the dangerous one between them.
“We are here to serve in whatever capacity the short one needs,” he says. “Much as I expect you are.”
If looks could kill, they would be dead already. Thanatos him turns away from them, pinching the space between his brow, sighs, and then looks at Zagreus.
“I haven’t spoken with Charon yet. And he hasn’t called to me. I can’t imagine that will last long with the four of us standing here.”
Zagreus chances a glance at Charon; as expected, he is looking over at them. He doesn’t appear as though he’s going to move from his spot, but Zagreus isn’t willing to bet on it.
“Then we should go over to him.”
“Zag, shouldn’t you be clearing out the tunnels in search of a snack for Cerberus, first?”
“So you do pay attention,” Zagreus teases. “I suppose you’re right. If I die after you’ve convinced him, it won’t be much help to me.”
“Assuming I can do so. Which is why you need to be quick about it.“
“Right.” Zagreus turns back towards the tunnels, frowning. The rewards shine above each entrance, and he can’t decide which to take on first. “There’s an element of randomness based on where the satyrs have gathered and what I can scrounge up. I could get lucky and be back in a few minutes, or very unlucky and go through them all. It would be great if I could pop around the room like you do, Than.”
“Then that is where we come in,” Theseus declares. He lifts his fists, flexing. “Tell me what it is you desire, Zagreus. I will find it for you!”
“We can take on this task,” Asterius adds. “You can focus on the boatman.”
“That’s a little more than simple moral support,” Thanatos says.
“Little do you know, it will increase Zagreus’s mood exponentially to know he has such capable shades assisting him!” Theseus says, his smile becoming blinding. Zagreus didn’t know a smile could look so threatening. Thanatos looks as though he wants to roll his eyes.
“I…I don’t know,” Zagreus admits. “It doesn’t feel right to do it this way. Is this even ethical?”
“I don’t believe anything that you’re doing qualifies in the realm of ethics,” Thanatos drawls. “Well then, Zag, if you’re insistent they be here, let them play fetch.”
“Now you listen here!” Theseus cries. “You may be Death, but I’ll have you know—”
Suddenly pulled back by Asterius, Theseus is interrupted from his tirade. He attempts to right himself, only for Asterius to begin walking away from the pair, towards the tunnels.
“Aster—let me go!” When it is obvious that Asterius intends to drag him into the tunnels, Theseus stops resisting, but he continues to face them as he walks backwards.
“If anyone does a dog’s bidding, it is Death!!” he shouts. “Go fetch some souls! I’ll return before then, quick as my own wit!”
Zagreus’s face is lightly flushed by the time they disappear. Thanatos moves to stand beside him, nudging him with his shoulder.
“I’m still not sure what you see in him. Asterius, I can see. But Theseus…” He shrugs. “Suppose you always have been a glutton for punishment.”
“Oh, shut up,” Zagreus says, turning away to approach Charon. “Let’s get this over with.”
“The nerve of that man!” Theseus says as soon as they enter the tunnel. “As though we are dogs, and not a King and his most trusted companion.”
Asterius moves in front of Theseus to bring his fist down on several small vermin that begin scurrying towards them.
“I believe his words were not meant to offend.”
“Oh, he meant to offend, Asterius! Death is an old flame, you see. I realized shortly after our first meeting that he holds intense jealousy for you and I. For we are beholden to Zagreus’s affections! Haha!”
“I did not sense anything between them,” Asterius says. He takes on more vermin, and then bodily shoves a much larger vermin against the wall, choking it with his bare hands. “Hmph. Live flesh and blood is much less pleasant in the afterlife.”
“And that is why I am King! I knew it the moment I saw him. Such wicked eyes.”
Asterius shakes his hands free of filth. He approaches the nearby doorway hand lifted to attempt to open it, when it abruptly opens on its own.
“A doorway! Good going, my friend. Let’s continue on.”
Theseus strides past Asterius and into the next room. The door closes behind them once they are both inside. Several large satyrs turn in their direction.
“Which one of these are the poisonous ones?” Theseus asks.
“I believe they all are,” Asterius answers.
Convincing Charon is easier said than done.
The moment they approached his shop, Zagreus could sense that he was on edge. Charon had never shown Zagreus anything like nerves, but he looked between Zagreus and Thanatos with something akin to curiosity, gripping his oar with both bony hands.
“Hello Charon,” Thanatos greets.
“Hey there, Charon, mate. It’s good to see you!”
“Nrrnnnnnhh….” is Charon’s reply. “Heeehhhhh.”
“Thought I’d take a trip up to the surface gates since I have some time. You sell your wares here, don’t you? How’s that…going?”
Zagreus wants to wince. Thanatos has never been one for small talk.
“This is my first time down here, yes. Do I need a reason to come see my brother? You know how much I like…” Thanatos looks over and gestures vaguely in the direction of his wares “…centaur hearts. I like to keep stock.”
“He really does,” Zagreus adds. “Sometimes he has so many he has to give them away. Just loves them.”
Evidently, Charon doesn’t find their act amusing. He knocks his oar into the ground and narrows his eyes.
“Now that you mention it, there is something I’ve been meaning to speak with you about,” Thanatos says casually. “Brother, do you recall that you owe me a favor? From the year ’69.”
Charon says nothing. He waits, expectant.
“Zagreus here is trying to get to the surface. He can go through those doors just fine, but doubtless you’ve heard he’s under a new contract.”
“I only need to get around the doors,” Zagreus says. “I don’t even want you to take me past my father. I’ll fight him, like I always do. I just need a way past those doors without going through them.”
“I understand why you might feel that way,” Thanatos says. How he understands all of what he says, Zagreus has no idea. “Though I’m afraid I’m going to have to call in that favor and ask you to do this.”
Zagreus holds his breath. A favor—he doesn’t know what happened that year, and as far as he knows Thanatos doesn’t go out of his way to help others, let alone do anything amounting to a favor. Whatever it is, it must have been a big deal.
And now he’s calling it in for Zagreus, even though he is against what Zagreus is trying to do.
“Than…” Zagreus trails off. Thanatos crosses his arms.
“Pray that the next is the last time we must enter these tunnels, Asterius. I’m not certain I can take much more!”
“I underestimated our enemy. I won’t make the same mistake.”
They watch as the crumpled body of the tiny rat slumps against the wall. It may look like any other tiny rat, but it carries the might of a thousand. Initially Theseus had merely raised his foot to crush it, but then it began to move, and fast.
“This will be the third tunnel,” Asterius says shortly after they drop back at the entrance. “Our luck will most certainly change.”
“I do hope you are correct,” Theseus says. They walk quickly past the center of the room and the terrifying beast Cerberus, towards the left tunnels. Theseus pauses briefly to look over at Zagreus and Thanatos to mark upon their progress. Based on Zagreus’s solid expression, it is not going well.
“When we return—with our prize—perhaps I will see about convincing the boatman myself.”
“Best to leave the gods to it,” Asterius says. He stops in front of their chosen tunnel. “Zagreus’s capabilities are not to be taken lightly.”
“As if I have ever!” Theseus says. Asterius chuckles and drags him closer.
“You’re strong, King,” he says. His nose finds Theseus’s throat. “Earlier, you fought well.”
“Asterius.” Theseus grasps him by the arm. He feels the thick length of his cock pressing into his side. “Oh—now?”
“Not now. Later, when this has been resolved.” His teeth scrape along Theseus’s neck. He rolls his hips into Theseus. “I’ll have you.”
Theseus’s breath quickens. He has never felt so deprived as of late—never wanted something so badly, not since the early days. And it’s clear that Asterius feels much the same.
“You shall, my friend. I’d love nothing more.”
Asterius snorts into his neck. His teeth sink in, but not hard enough to break the skin. Theseus shudders.
“Let’s go, Asterius. Before your temptations distract us both.”
“Indeed.” Before he moves away, Asterius grabs Theseus’s ass with one hand and squeezes. “Lead us, King.”
“Oh, please, brother, spare me the dramatics. I’m well aware that you like to work alone. You’re not working with anyone. It should be a five minute ride.”
This is probably the most frustrated Zagreus has ever heard Thanatos get with Charon. They never fight, and during the rare times Thanatos has heard them speak, they typically remain polite.
But Charon won’t help him.
Even with Thanatos backing him up. Zagreus isn’t sure if it has to do with Hades, or if it’s Charon’s own personal convictions. He is an independent contractor, and as such he has very few obligations outside of his job. But that also means he is technically more expendable because of it.
“You know, I’m not sure there’s anything you could do that would cause my father to get rid of you, if that’s the reason you hesitate. You are half of what keeps this place running.”
Zagreus has implied this several times, and like the other times Charon appears unmoved.
“He’s stuck in his ways,” Thanatos says, not bothering to move to where Charon won’t hear them. “I was shocked to learn he had struck deals with all the Olympians to deliver you messages. Unsurprised it costed coin.”
“So that’s where you draw the line?”
Zagreus doesn’t need to know what Charon is saying to understand what he means. Frustrated, Zagreus steps away from the two of them before he says something he regrets, or he starts begging. Instead, since it has been a minute since he looked to see how Theseus and Asterius are doing, he directs his attention towards the tunnels. By the looks of it, two of the tunnels have gone dark, and since they aren’t in sight, they are likely deep in the third.
“Perhaps I should help,” Zagreus says, once Thanatos moves beside him. “Since Charon isn’t feeling charitable right now. Outside of Theseus’s ego and Asterius’s horns, they don’t have any weapons.”
“Have a little faith,” Thanatos says.
With all his power he must sense something, because moments later, the two of them drop to the entrance, covered in blood and gore. Theseus makes a face, shaking his hands free of grime, whilst Asterius appears to have resigned himself to it. When Asterius notices the two of them watching, he nudges Theseus.
Theseus meets his eyes. He smirks and lifts one hand.
“You found the sack!” Zagreus shouts. “Great job, you too!”
Theseus puffs up at his praise, walking over with the sack as though it’s a prize he’s won, instead of the entrails of a few satyrs.
“Pah, It was nothing! The tiny rat, and the gigantic rat, were no match for the two of us!!”
“I’m sorry you had to do something so gruesome,” Zagreus says, approaching the pair. He takes the sack from Theseus and then walks back towards Cerberus. He has been waiting patiently since they arrived. Behaved, too, which is particularly unusual. Zagreus supposes even he must take his job pretty seriously.
“Thanks for waiting, boy. I’ve got your fetid sack, right here.”
The moment Zagreus tosses the sack in front of him, Cerberus bursts into movement. He barks several times, then he picks up the sack in one of his mouths and takes off towards the exit. He bounds past Zagreus, and leaps over Asterius and Theseus, his pounding steps echoing long after he is gone.
“Well, that was frightening,” Theseus says, a rare admission on its own.
“Sorry again,” Zagreus says. He’s relieved they got that out of the way without resulting in anyone’s death, and he can’t help but smile at them. “You look awful, both of you. You don’t smell very nice either.”
“Your apologies are unnecessary,” Asterius says. He reaches with his hand, and Zagreus realizes a moment too late as Asterius pulls him into his arms, smearing a good portion of the grime along his front.
“Hey!” he shouts. “Really, Asterius? I thought you were supposed to be the one with sense.”
“I’ve been taught that the spoils of war should be shared.”
“Perhaps those ones are best kept to yourself,” Zagreus replies, attempting to wipe down his front. “Ugh. The stuff doesn’t seem so bad when you’re in the middle of it for half an hour. Did I hear you mention you fought a tiny rat?”
“Oh, yes. The tiny rat was a vicious foe, but we conquered it!” Theseus says. “With hardly a scratch on us!”
“What about that blood pooling under your feet?”
Theseus lifts said foot, revealing a nasty gash that runs along the length of it.
“Ah, well. It’s nothing the river Lethe won’t heal.”
“Not for a while, though.” Zagreus crouches and grabs his foot with one hand. Asterius moves to support Theseus, who nearly loses his balance. “I have enough coin for centaur heart. If you consume it, it might be enough to heal the worst of that.”
Theseus’s face is red. Zagreus lifts his head and quirks his lips into a smile.
“If—If that is what would please you, then so be it. I admit I have never consumed its essence before.”
“Why should I? It has little benefit for us, and the same can be accomplished in Elysium.”
“Suppose you’re right,” Zagreus says, releasing his foot. “I’ll go pop by Charon’s and be right back.”
He leaves them standing there and jogs over to where Thanatos is still speaking with Charon. He nods at them, then pulls out his coin and exchanges it for the centaur heart.
“I’ll return after I give this to Theseus,” he tells Thanatos. “You two keep talking.”
"Not for yourself?" Thanatos asks.
"I don't need it." Zagreus shrugs. "His foot is bleeding."
"Yes, but he's just a shade," Thanatos points out, waving his hand lazily at them. "He'll heal just fine. Can't even die anymore."
"Nevertheless," Zagreus says. He hesitates a moment more, looking between Charon and Thanatos, and then he straightens, a determined set in his shoulders and a gleam in his eye.
Thanatos doesn’t respond, waiting until Zagreus is out of earshot before speaking again.
“That's so like him," Thanatos says, breaking the quiet. Charon tilts his head, but doesn't reply.
"You know, we're not much for change, are we?” Thanatos tells Charon. He turns and regards his brother in the eye. “As gods, we are comfortable with what’s expected.”
Charon remains quiet. Like Thanatos, he is looking at Zagreus. Zagreus—who has somehow managed to change the minds of the last people Thanatos would have expected. Then again, he never expected Zagreus to try to leave home at all. His restlessness—he hadn’t read it right. He had thought that with time it would settle; that he would settle.
“Zagreus has a way of getting through to the worst parts of ourselves. Even his father, though he would never admit to it.”
Still, Charon holds the silence, though it feels less oppressive than it did before.
“I can’t stay any longer, Charon. My work is already piling up.” He reaches over and presses his palm awkwardly to Charon’s shoulder. He can’t remember the last time they touched, though since seeing Zagreus interact with others, he’s been trying. “I’ll leave the rest to you.”
The sound of a bell, and then he’s gone. Charon stares at the space he left.
Zagreus is still at the center of the room, speaking with Theseus and Asterius. He is mid laughter, saying something indistinguishable from this distance that causes a deep red flush to rise onto Theseus’s face. He sputters his reply, and Asterius stands between both their sides, silent, but at ease.
Charon flips his oar in his hands and releases a plume of smoke.
Zagreus realizes he must have missed something crucial when he turns around and Thanatos is gone.
“Where did Than go?” Zagreus asks Charon, a sinking feeling settling in his chest. “Did he… did he leave already?”
Zagreus blinks, his comprehension the same as it ever is: minimal. Still, he gets the gist of it.
“He had work?” he asks, as though clarification will change things. While he was helping Theseus, Thanatos must have finally given up. Zagreus can’t say that he didn’t see this coming; their plan wasn’t exactly foolproof, but he had thought it was solid, at the very least.
He plasters on a smile.
“Well, Charon, mate, have you given any more thought to what we spoke about?”
Charon seems to pause, then he turns and begins to gather his things.
“Charon? Mate?” Zagreus can’t help the slight disbelief in his tone. After all that—he’s really going to leave? “Charon, I really do think we can work something out. Please.”
He’s been trying not to beg, or sound as desperate as he is. Charon doesn’t respond well to it—certainly he has had his fair share of souls clinging to his robes, begging to return to life. But Zagreus just can’t help himself.
He feels a hand on his back, and then Theseus appears next to him.
“Have you no heart? Can you not see how Zagreus struggled? How he has suffered? The length of that river cannot amount to the shame you will bear by denying his request!”
“Theseus,” Zagreus says, both a warning and a plea. “It’s—okay. I’ll… I’ll find another way.”
“There is no other way! You may be satisfied with making friends, but I, as a former and current King, know when it is time to play it tough!”
“It’s not about making friends, I’m trying not to offend the people who go out of their way to help me!”
“And I suppose denying you the chance to see your mother is helping, hm?”
A spark of anger enters Zagreus’s chest. “Don’t act like you are any better, Theseus. Just a while ago, you wouldn’t even say my name. In fact, you had several other colorful names you used.”
“I—well—that has changed. I did not know the full extent of it—”
“Not for lack of trying,” Zagreus bites.
“—and the boatman here is well aware of your situation! I will not allow anyone else to remain complicit! If I have to, I will carry you there myself!”
For all his ridiculousness, there is no denying how touching it is to have someone so firmly at his side. It may be a more recent event, born of new feelings that haven’t been fully explored, but Zagreus appreciates them for what they are.
“Listen, Theseus.” He takes his hand to still his movements. “I mean it when I say that I really do appreciate the sentiment of what you’re saying, but it’s not that simple for everybody else. Charon isn’t like you shades.”
“Ggrraaaahhhh,” Charon says. He sounds miffed.
“Don’t take it personally, Charon. I’m just trying to make a point.”
“Grraaaaaahhhhh,” he repeats, with more aggression. Zagreus hears his oar tapping the ground behind him. The sound of water sloshing at the edge of his boat shortly follows.
“Zagreus, the boatman —” Theseus starts, urgently.
Zagreus can’t make himself look. He can’t watch his last chance get away from him.
“Theseus, unlike you, I don’t have the luxury of being an eternally corporal King and Champion and whatever else you were, having already gained all the respect you need from your surface life. I have very few people on my side in this!”
“Yes, yes, I know! It’s just— Charon is—”
“Theseus,” Zagreus returns. “I told you, it’s fine. I can’t force him help me. Than is the only one who really, directly helps me on occasion down here, but he’s never once actually supported my endeavors, so what does it say about the one person I am closest to in this place that he won’t even give me the time of day, or—or night, or whatever time it actually is down here—”
“Zagreus,” Asterius interrupts, walking up to him. He grabs him by both shoulders and swings around. “Look.”
Zagreus is half out of breath as he follows Asterius’s instructions and looks. Then it takes a solid beat before Zagreus understands what he’s looking at.
Charon gestures to the center of the raft with his oar. He has his things packed away, ready to be taken home—whether than is the House, or somewhere else entirely—but there is an obvious space that has been made near the front. It’s the space Charon gestures to, impatiently.
His voice is softer that time. Zagreus doesn’t need to understand what he is saying just then.
He takes a step forward, scarcely able to believe the sudden change.
“Charon… are you certain?”
Charon breathes out a plume of smoke. If he could roll his eyes, Zagreus is certain he would be. He gestures again to the boat, and Zagreus has no choice but to climb in.
Immediately, it feels… wrong, somehow. He’s never been on the side of things, and it feels as though any second from now something horrible will happen. He half expects Charon to reveal he’s been toying with him all this time and to knock him into the river with his oar.
Charon doesn’t move, and Zagreus clings to the boat’s edge, his breath coming out quick anyway. Asterius and Theseus remains where they stand at the edge of the river. They know they can’t follow, without needing Charon to tell them.
“I…I suppose I’m...leaving then? With Charon. Blood and darkness.” He blinks, looking at his surroundings. His movements shift the boat, and his fingers turn white.
“Will you two be all right?” Zagreus asks. Asterius raises a brow.
“Our home is not far. We can handle any consequences.”
“Precisely! Cease your endless fretting and go!” Theseus steps forward and crouches near the edge of the river, reaching out. Zagreus hesitates, but eventually meets him halfway, unsure what to expect, and when Theseus clasps their hands, like they did once, long ago, Zagreus tries not to panic as the boat rocks. “Do not fail, my friend.”
“I don’t plan on it.”
Charon starts to move, pulling Zagreus away from Theseus. He leans back, careful not to shift in a way that could endanger himself. While moving through Asphodel requires riding on rafts made of literal bones, if he accidentally took a dive into the lava in asphodel, he would survive.
Here, not so much. They are moving upriver, fighting against a gentle but threatening current that has the ability to swallow Zagreus and send him home packing.
He realizes abruptly he hasn’t ridden in a boat since he was a child.
He locks eyes with Theseus. Both of them wave at him, and inexplicably, it helps. Zagreus keeps his eyes on them as the boat moves, even though he is aware that he should turn around and get a good look at his surroundings on the river whilst he has the chance. His gaze doesn’t waver until Charon takes them around a bend and he loses sight of them completely, and by then, he’s calmed down somewhat.
“Charon,” Zagreus says, settling into the center of the boat. Charon doesn’t say anything in response, but Zagreus gets the feeling he’s listening.
“I was too surprised a moment ago to say this, but thank you. For this, and everything before it. I know what you all are risking, helping me. I don’t…I didn’t expect it. I wasn’t going to ask for it. But then those two—they’re so…” Zagreus licks his lips. “I mean, it started as guilt. I thought after I helped Asterius it would be over and done with and my father would see it like he had seen everything else so far: a minor inconvenience, for him. But it’s gone on much longer than I expected, and now…”
He trails off. Zagreus doesn’t finish his sentence, and Charon doesn’t prompt him. They sit in silence, until Zagreus feels the cold brush of air roll down his back.
When he turns around, the bright and blinding surface is staring back at him.
I know teeechnically they would need to accept the rewards to get through the tunnels, so there is a bit of handwaving going on this chapter. Because I can. And on that note, I must apologize. I know the wait was longer than expected, and that's mostly because of the eye thing, but also my own struggle with self confidence that I've been having with my writing lately. I wanted to have two chapters since I know this is more transitional, but it's just not finished yet. I know the last chapter and this chapter are a drop in quality and not the kind of work I should be providing. I hope you are still enjoying it regardless.