In his teens, Ryan had gone through a pretty intense edgy phase, what he now thought of as a pretty intense cringe phase. He’d decided the silent, suited figure of Nabu was a demon and that he’d been chosen for some dark purpose. Ryan communicated this to the outside world by wearing the tightest jeans he could fit into, black shirts with grinning skulls on them, leather cuffs with spikes, and his hair artfully draped down to the point where it perpetually covered his left eye.
It was a period of his life that Ryan desperately tried to push into the back of his mind, and he’d thanked god a thousand times that social media had only gotten big after he’d finished that phase – he’d only needed to delete his four follower MySpace page.
During those dark times of skinny jeans and obscured vision, however, he’d developed the hobby of walking through a graveyard when he needed to clear his mind. There had been one not far from his home, a small affair that sat directly across from a waterpark. In summer the sounds of children playing and splashing had ruined the atmosphere, but in fall and winter it was perfect for the brooding teenager to write poetry about the eternal blackness of their damned void of a soul.
Sometimes he would go there with his few friends to sneak pilfered booze and cigarettes, but for the most part his excursions were solo. Well, discounting Nabu’s omnipresent watchful eyes, but as a teenager Ryan had found it easier to ignore his presence when he wanted to. A couple times he’d actually felt something. Not anything mystic or divine. Just brief, fleeting echoes of the real pain and sadness that permeated the place, penetrating his self-absorbed middle class adolescent angst.
That feeling, which had been a fleeting and ephemeral thing in the run down graveyard by the water park, was very real and tangible thing. It settled into the trio as they walked through the decaying ruins of Olympus, and conversation quickly halted as they adopted the silence that was usually reserved for mausoleums.
It seemed to impact Athena most heavily – hardly surprising, since this had been her home once, and the absent inhabitants were her family – but even Crystal lost both her surface cheer and underlying irritation. Ryan noted as he glanced at them that Athena’s eyes were starting to give off a wet shine.
He wanted to say something to her, some words of comfort, but what do you say to someone who walking through the ruins of part of their life? So he kept silent, and the three of them wove between columns that in places supported still supported ceilings and in others held up only the open sky. A few of those colossal statues were visible as well, standing silent vigil over the crumbling ruins.
The statues weren’t fully intact either. At one point they had to wander under a hand with fingers twice as thick as Ryan’s shoulders. Another point had them passing by the head of one of the statues. It bore the face of a woman, and Ryan glanced from that face to Athena’s. Crystal caught his glance and nodded – she’d seen the similarities between the two as well.
It was painfully obvious to both of them it would be best not to point out they’d just walked by Athena’s decapitated statue. If they had any doubts, the grim set of their companion’s face would have quickly laid them to rest.
Ryan lost track of how long they were walking, but it was long enough where the oppressive nature of this place was beginning to wear on him. He was just getting ready to break the silence when someone else did, a voice from a doorway that caused all three of their heads to snap to attention.
“Depressing, isn’t it?” The regal figure that walked out of that darkened doorway gave them a mocking bow. “Athena. Crystal. Ryan. Good to see you again.”
Ryan forced himself to relax despite his racing heart. While they hadn’t talked much, he at least recognized the man. “Hades. I thought you were going back home after the war.”
Hades gave Ryan a thin smile. “And I did intend to, but since I was free – thanks to the three of you – I decided I’d stop by to check on my brothers. So far, this is all I’ve found.”
“Any idea what happened?” Ryan didn’t feel a need to respond to the thanks for his freedom, although it was the first time any of the Underworld gods had given any appreciation for it. Not that Ryan was bitter about the lack of gratitude. The deal that had been brokered by the King of Hell allowed the Underworld gods to walk as freely as any other deity, no longer restricted to their own realms and purgatory. All the three of them had done was use their nanoverses’ staging areas to make it possible.
Hades was shaking his head. “I’ve found no trace of them yet. In fact, was planning on heading back to my realm to check with the sisters, see if they knew what had happened to our kin.” He was looking at Athena, not Ryan.
She caught Hades gaze and responded. “So the Fates were with you? I wondered why I couldn’t find them after I was cast out.”
“Oh, yes. All the deities with the gift for prophecy got locked away with us. I guess Yahweh did not want competition.” He smiled without humor. “I don’t suppose you have any insight to what happened here, stern Athena?” It was an odd phrase, but seemed to mean something to Athena, who blushed slightly.
“I wish I did. Have you maybe found a clue – anything – that tells what happened?” Ryan noted the touch of desperation in her voice.
Hades nodded at that. “Yes. Well, in a sense. I’ve found a complete lack of clues, which is a clue in and of itself.”
“Oh, spare us the riddles, love.” Crystal snapped out the words, and Ryan wondered again about her irritation – but given her glance towards Athena, it could easily be concern for their mutual friend and nothing more worrisome.
Hades gave her one of those thin grins now. “Ishtar. As charming as I remember. Fine – I’ve found no evidence of battle. I’ve found no destruction that couldn’t be attributed to neglect. Whatever happened here, I believe our fellow Olympians left under their own power. I believe they could still be alive.”
Athena sagged at those last four words. Crystal ground her teeth, but kept her tone level. “Well, that’s good news at least. Thank you for that.”
Hades studied her a moment. “Yet you dislike it?”
“Too bloody right.” Ryan motioned for her to stop, but she plowed ahead. “Hades, we’ve got a situation here, yeah? I know you underworld gods are a bit tied up with Hell and all that, but if we fail the sun will literally explode.”
Ryan had to admit to himself, it was nice to see Hades look shaken. “Explode. The sun is going to explode.” His voice was not disbelieving, just shocked.
Crystal nodded, her eyes flashing as she continued, “So if you have any insight as to where we might find the Olympians, or any other god, now would be a good bloody time to share it.”
Hades thought for a long moment, and then looked at Athena. “Tartarus.”
That one word made Athena suck air in a sharp sound. “You think?”
As Hades made a gesture of affirmation, Ryan interrupted. “Care to explain to the Nascent guy?”
Athena and Hades both turned towards him. “Tartarus is a different underworld realm,” Hades explained patiently. “One that never had a god. It was where we imprisoned the Titans eons ago – the most secure prison we could devise.”
“And you think the Olympians were locked up there? But if there was no fight, how did they get locked up?”
“No, Ryan.” Athena took over for Hades, and now her eyes were blazing, but not with Crystal’s anger – they shone with the hope of the desperate. “In times of crisis, it’s easy to convert a prison into a fortress. They must have gone there to defend themselves!”
It made sense to Ryan, although he didn’t want to be the one to point out to Athena that just because they had gone there willingly didn’t mean they were still safely. “Okay, we’ll go there next.”
Crystal grumbled. “Please tell me we can just take a bloody staging area directly there?”
“It wouldn’t be much of a prison if you could, now would it?” Hades asked. Since the question was clearly rhetorical, he barely paused before continuing, “You have a bit of a trip ahead of you, I’m afraid.”
“I know the way,” Athena’s voice was calm and full of purpose.
“Wonderful,” was Hades response. “In that case, I take my leave. Best of luck.” He turned, waving his hand into the air. A hole opened in front of him – not a doorway, but a proper portal. Before stepping through it, he turned over his shoulder to look at them, “I would consider that perhaps not all of you are needed to find out what happened there. Giving how pressing things seem to be, perhaps it would be best if some of you sought allies elsewhere.”
Without waiting for a response, Hades stepped through the portal and into his realm.
Crystal was the one to break the silence. “He’s not bloody wrong, you know. Athena, love, how long is this trip?”
Athena bit her lip in thought. “A week. Maybe more, depending on the obstacles we face. But if one of us attempts to go alone, it would prove much more dangerous.”
“We’re strapped for time,” Crystal said, “If all three of us go off on a quest to Tartarus, and it turns out the Olympians aren’t there, then we just wasted a sodding week we don’t have.”
“It’s also the only lead we do have!” Athena retorted, her tone sharpening to match Crystal’s. “The Curators will not give locations, and my kin remain our best hope.”
“No, they aren’t! We wasted an entire climb up the mountain and now you want to go on another quest with no guarantee that’s where they are.” Crystal was squaring up now, her jaw setting in frustration. “You just want to make sure they’re okay and don’t seem to understand that if we waste too much time, they’ll die with the rest of humanity!”
“Uh,” Ryan knew he had to speak before things got uglier, but he had nothing more to add beyond that single syllable.
Fortunately, Athena hadn’t earned the title ‘goddess of wisdom’ for getting sucked into arguments, and Ryan’s sound managed to stop Crystal from saying anything uglier. Athena held up a placating hand. “Two days. We take two days to try to find other allies. After that, if we haven’t found any, we try Tartarus. And if we have, then we can split up since it won’t just be the three of us.”
Crystal closed her eyes for a moment, and Ryan could have sworn she was counting backwards. “Agreed. And that last comment was out of line, love. Sorry.”
“Apology accepted for the sentiment, Crystal, but you were not entirely incorrect. I do want to make sure they are well – but I have not forgotten the importance of what we do.” She offered Crystal a hand, and Crystal took it, relaxing some.
“Great,” Ryan said. “So…where do we look for those two days?”
They both turned to him, and Crystal smiled. “I actually think I have a pretty good idea there. Tell you on the way, yeah?”
As soon as they agreed, she took out her nanoverse and opened a door. She was smiling as she held it open for them, and as they walked through Ryan caught a glimpse of her nanoverse, resting between her fingers and looking like just a normal black marble there. In hindsight, Ryan wished he’d paid more attention to what he’d felt when he saw it. At the moment, he put it down to the stress of the looming end of the world and worrying about his friend’s increasingly erratic behavior.
But for a moment, when he looked at her nanoverse, he’d felt the same revulsion he had for the cancerous mass that Enki’s had become.