A/N: The END! Thanks for everyone for sticking with me through the delays. This is the final chapter, I hope you enjoy it!
Chapter 30: Death and Rebirth
It was by necessity an abbreviated tour, not like the one that Hades had given her upon first arrival. Demeter was still not strong enough to walk all over the place, and there was the urgency of needing to return to the mortal realm and stop the unnecessary deaths. Still, she wanted to give her mother an overview of what her life was like here. Demeter leaned on Persephone's arm as they walked, with Hades trailing behind them. Occasionally his shadow reached out and stroked her back, reminding her that she was never far from his thoughts. He was careful not to touch Demeter with his shadow, as the older goddess looked alarmed every time his shadow moved independently.
As they walked through the palace, Persephone pointed out places that were significant to her. Demeter was rather tense at first, but as nothing jumped out at them, she began to relax. In fact, the more that Persephone showed to her mother, the more surprised the elder goddess became. Persephone took a certain pride in showing off her home, and in dispelling Demeter's assumptions that the Underworld was a dark, dank place. The fine materials that had made her uncomfortable in their cost now served to impress her mother. And Demeter was impressed. Clearly, the Underworld was nothing like she'd expected.
They stopped before the doors of the throne room so that Demeter could admire the elaborate carvings of Elysium, Asphodel, and Tartarus. Hades moved forward to stand by Persephone's shoulder.
"Touch the doors," he told her in a quiet undertone.
She glanced at him curiously, but did as he said. To her surprise, the white seams in the sodalite doors glowed with quiet power when she touched them, much as they had for Hades in the mines. They had never done that for her before.
"That was pretty," Demeter said, touching the doors while Persephone was still gaping at them. They didn't react to Demeter's touch.
"She's my Queen," Hades said with obvious pride.
And somehow that meant that the Underworld was reacting to her presence? Maybe it had to do with the piece of Hades she could feel inside her? It was something to be explored at a later time.
"I think we still have a little time to visit the kennels and stables before we have to go," she began, trying to hide her confusion over the doors' reaction to her.
Hades cleared his throat. "Aren't you going to go in?" he asked with a far too innocent expression. She shot him a suspicious glance, but his face gave nothing away. She pushed the doors open, causing another ripple of light to go through them.
"And here, Mom, is the throne room where Hades… judges the…" Her voice trailed off as she took in the far side of the room, where there were now two chairs on the dais.
"What's this?" she asked Hades blankly.
"Your throne," he said proprietarily.
She moved forward to take a closer look at it. She was stunned that he'd done this for her. Objectively she knew that she was now Queen of the Underworld, but it didn't really hit her until he did things like this. Like giving her a throne next to his. She approached it silently, too stunned to speak. Hades' throne was a flat, unrelieved black, but hers was far different. It was made of a dark red stone, maybe garnet, and elaborately inset with a looping design of green vines and blue flowers, outlined in white to make the pattern stand out. It was beautiful, and very appropriate for her, made out of materials from Hades' world, but in the symbols of her power. Her throat grew tight looking at it, and she couldn't speak. Hades came up behind her and put his arms around her waist. She leaned back on him.
"You won't be sitting below me anymore," he murmured in satisfaction.
"Th-thank you," she stammered her gratitude.
Demeter watched them, her expression thoughtful.
They left the throne room, and continued the tour by going to the kennels to visit Cerberus. Demeter was less than pleased to see the three-headed dog. Cerberus charged forward to greet Persephone with his usual exuberance. Demeter let out a frightened squeak and hid behind her brother. He laughed, and Persephone wanted to roll in the rich sound. She scratched Cerberus under his chins, alternating hands so that the heads didn't get jealous of each other. She saw her mother slowly venturing out from behind Hades. Demeter stared at Cerberus, then at the Lord of the Underworld.
"I don't know you," she realized slowly.
"No one does," he agreed. "Except her."
He nodded to Persephone. She looked up and met his eyes. She felt a surge of warmth and affection. It still amazed her that this man had chosen her. Demeter watched the two of them curiously.
"Maybe when all of this is over," she began, "I could come back here to visit."
Hades exchanged a look with Persephone before he said, "We'd like that."
They went to the stables as their last stop. Demeter automatically flinched as they entered the building, expecting the fierce Nightmare steeds she'd seen before. She stared in wonder at the gentle, inquisitive equine faces that turned in her direction instead. Persephone loved how every one of her mother's assumptions about the Underworld were being demolished.
Hades' chariot was readied while Persephone introduced Demeter to Sunny and Phlegethon. The journey to the mortal realm was made in silence. Persephone leaned on her husband, both drawing comfort from him and offering reassurance. His muscles were tight with tension, and she knew he hated the idea of leading her into danger. She loved him more for the way he didn't try to stop her. Demeter clung to the side of the chariot with her eyes closed, conserving her strength.
They emerged a short time later into a shock of white. The world was incredibly cold and barren. Persephone had never seen anything like it. She instinctively huddled closer to Hades. His shadow wrapped around them like a blanket, and it had enough substance to protect them from the cold. She stared at the ruin of the mortal world, horrified by what had become of it. Where were her green fields and bright flowers? Where were the animals, the insects, the people?
Everything was eerily still, covered in a thick layer of frost. If there was life remaining in this empty place, it was well hidden away. In other circumstances it would have been beautiful, but all Persephone could think of now were all the people starving, freezing and dying because of this devastation. How could Zeus have let his obsession get this far?
Demeter was also badly affected by the white, empty world around them. She fell to her knees in the snow, heedless of the cold or the wet. Tears fell down her face, threatening to freeze on her cheeks.
"My world," she mourned, "My beautiful, growing world…"
Persephone had never seen her mother so wounded before, and it hurt to witness it.
Demeter scrabbled at the snow with her hands until she uncovered a bare patched of dead earth. She pressed her palm to the frozen dirt, and Persephone felt her mother's power surge. Nothing happened for several minutes, until a few fragile, green shoots slowly rose from the ground. Demeter sat back heavily, already worn from the effort. And this was only small patch of ground, let alone the entire world. Persephone stepped forward and rested a hand on Demeter's bony shoulder.
"I'll help you, Mom," she promised. She'd spent months in the Underground, learning and growing stronger, while Demeter had been chased and starved. Even with the new dark power of the Underworld flowing through her veins, she could feel the young life of the plants. She could still grow things.
Demeter looked up gratefully, but before she could reply, there was a clap of thunder. Zeus appeared before them with the stench of ozone.
"Demeter," he hissed furiously. "Did you think you could escape me without consequence?"
Persephone froze at the sight of her father, her tormentor. Fear made her heart pound in her throat. She should have never insisted on coming. What was she thinking, imagining she could stand up to the King of the Skies?
Demeter however rose gracefully to her feet, facing him defiantly and incidentally blocking Persephone from view. The younger goddess was all too happy to hide in her mother's shadow.
"Think again, Zeus," Demeter said coolly. "I've had enough of your interference. This ends now."
Zeus laughed cruelly. "You think you can tell me to stop? You haven't the strength to stand against me, even before you withered away." He cast her a dismissive glance.
"But I do," Hades rumbled, stepping forward to make another barrier between Persephone and Zeus. His shadow caressed her legs in a familiar gesture. She was grateful for her protectors. The reality of Zeus was far more than she'd been prepared for. She might be the Queen of the Underworld in name, but in her heart she was still a simple spring goddess he could easily crush.
Zeus paused, taking in his brother's rare appearance warily. He'd been so focused on Demeter that he hadn't realized just who was with her.
"Hades," he said stiffly, his eyes narrowed. "What are you doing here? Go back to your shadows and your ghosts. This doesn't concern you."
Hades didn't move, but he didn't have to look threatening. He'd retreated to his dark, quiet persona. He fairly exuded power and a sense of warning. His shadow flowed restlessly. Zeus' eyes flicked to the diaphanous shadow. Persephone realized he was… cautious of it. For the first time she felt a thread of relief. All her life Zeus had been the ultimate power that all bowed before. Only now did it occur to her that he was the youngest brother. She was married to the oldest. Hades held all the power and authority of being the eldest, and even Zeus was wary of challenging him.
"It concerns me when my wife is involved," Hades said in a low, deadly tone.
"Wife?" Zeus rocked back slightly, looking over Demeter. "Her?"
Knowing that Hades and Demeter were on her side gave Persephone the courage to come forward.
"Hello, Father," she said calmly.
He glanced at her with an expression of confusion. No doubt he had sired so many scions that it was hard for him to remember them all. Plus, she had changed while in the Underworld. She was no longer the innocent maiden to tremble before him. She was married, a Queen, with new strength coursing through her. She held his gaze steadily until recognition dawned for him.
He looked her up and down, his face turning hungry. "Well, if it isn't little Persephone," he drawled. "All this fuss over you, child. You should have come with me in the beginning, and none of this would have happened."
She felt a flicker of doubt, wondering if he was right. If she'd only let Zeus… have her, he would have grown bored soon enough, and then she would have been free. And no one would have died because of her. Hades and Demeter both edged toward her, offering their unconditional support.
"Watch your tongue," Hades growled. "She is worth more than you."
Zeus smirked. "No, she isn't. And you should know better than to think that your vows mean anything to me. Give her up, Hades. I promise I'll even give her back to you."
He reached for her. Hades stepped in front of her protectively.
"Move aside, brother!" Zeus snapped, thunder in his voice.
"No," Hades whispered, his tone more dangerous for being so quiet. Shadows gathered in his palms. Tension crackled in the air. Even Demeter was leaning away from her brothers in alarm.
And instead of feeling afraid of Zeus and his threat, Persephone felt something shift inside of her. Something dark and unforgiving. It was power, separate from her connection to Hades. This was her link to the Underworld, truly felt and understood for the first time. She touched it and it unfurled inside her, filling her veins with iron. With strength. The Underworld was with her, and she knew she had nothing to fear from Zeus. Suddenly she wanted to laugh. She didn't feel like the little child Zeus had called her. She was no longer the trembling maiden hiding from him. She was the Queen of the Underworld, with reason to fear no one.
She stepped forward, away from Hades. He made a sound in the back of his throat, and his shadow surged up to surround her. She ran her hands across it, and it arched under her touch like a living thing. She could feel Hades' palpable need to pull her back and protect her, and she sent back her own reassurance that she knew what she was doing. That which was within her was reacting to that which was within him. It was the Underworld. They might be far from their home, but it would never forsake them.
There was an uncomfortable look on Zeus' face as he watched her within her husband's shadow. She knew at once that he couldn't understand the dark power that flowed through them—and it made him afraid. Furthermore, she saw that he was a true predator: strong, but ultimately a coward at heart. A hunter always chose the fight he knew he would win. Zeus might like his women to struggle in bed, but he always knew he could overwhelm them. Never had there been someone who could stand up to him, who could resist him on equal grounds. Not until Hades elevated her to his position. Not until the Underworld accepted her as its Queen, and freely gave her its strength.
"You don't want me, Father," she said. "Not like this." She smiled at him, fey and unfettered. She called up her magic, letting it freely mingle with Hades' shadow. It was different now. Instead of the delicate, twining green vines, her magic had become twisted vines of the Underworld's iron, strong and pliable. Razor sharp thorns grew from the stems, ready to defend her and her mate. Tiny blood-red blossoms grew along the vines, sparkling with the flames of Tartarus.
Zeus visibly gulped and took a step back. He'd been expecting some fragile goddess, not this bastion of power. Part of her wanted to follow him, for the fear he'd caused her and the pain he'd inflicted on her mother. She wasn't here to start a fight, though. The goal was to get out of this without an altercation.
"H-how?" Zeus stammered. He wasn't looking at her with lust anymore, but with revulsion. It hurt the tiny part of her that hoped for her father's approbation, but her heart belonged to Hades, not to this petty god-king.
"I grew up," she said firmly. "I'm not the little girl you can push around and traumatize."
Hades shifted forward, sliding his arm around her waist. She leaned on him, knowing they made a striking image with her iron magic and his shadow-form.
"She is more than my wife," Hades spoke with primal satisfaction. "She is my Queen. My equal—and yours."
"Leave me alone," she said warningly. "Leave my husband alone. Leave my mother alone. Have nothing more to do with us. Or we will go after you."
Zeus sneered. "You can't dictate to me! I am the King of the Heavens!"
"And we are the Queen and King of the Underworld." Power crackled in her voice, making him flinch. He tried to cover it up.
"Like I would want to spend myself with such an uptight—"
His words were cut off by a loud growl from Hades. It was just as well, since there were some things a daughter shouldn't have to hear from her father.
"You forget, that with every person you've killed off in you petulance, you have only added to our stable," she said mildly.
Zeus really paused at that, and seemed to consider just how many souls he'd sent to the Underworld by his actions. There was a definite flicker of worry in his eyes. He pretended it didn't bother him by shrugging.
"I'd rather just forget that I ever bothered with you or your mother," he said coldly. He turned away disdainfully.
Hades' tensed to lunge after him. Persephone leaned hard against him, silently urging him to restraint. Surprisingly, it was Demeter who reacted.
"Forget us?" she cried angrily, bright spots of color on her thin, pale face. "After what you did to us, to me, you want to forget us? No, I won't stand for it! I curse you, Zeus. As you took me from the earth and made it cold and barren, so I curse you to be cold. Starve as I starved. For the time you imprisoned me, three months will you suffer, of every year from now to eternity!"
She curved her fingers into claws and raked them at Zeus. Caught unaware, there was little he could do to deflect the curse. It struck him and took vicious hold. Zeus had been casual about Demeter's position, but the fact was that she was his sister, one of the original Olympians. If she was not a queen or ruler over anything, she was still old and strong enough to make herself felt. Her power as the goddess of the harvest crashed over him and took root.
Zeus blanched as he staggered away. Without another word he disappeared in a flash of lightning.
There was stunned silence once Zeus was gone. Persephone was quite impressed with her mother. Even in her weakened state, she still had the power to lay a curse of winter on Zeus. There was no way he'd been forgetting them in a hurry.
Hades began to laugh. It wasn't a booming sound, but it seemed startlingly loud in the stillness. He turned to Persephone and swept her up in his arms.
"You are magnificent, my love," he said, nuzzling his face into her hair.
She let out a breathless giggle, hardly able to believe they'd faced down Zeus, lord of the skies, without injury.
"You were pretty good yourself," she said cheekily, and he grinned at her.
"Persephone," Demeter called in a strained voice.
The younger goddess looked at her mother in alarm. Now that the flush of confrontation had faded, she appeared frail and tired.
"I need your help to heal the world. I'm not strong enough on my own, and if we do nothing it will continue to die," Demeter said.
Hades set Persephone on her feet, and she walked to Demeter.
"I said I'd help you," she said, holding out her hands. Demeter took them, and together they faced the vast expanse of white, Hades and his shadow a dark presence behind him. As one the goddesses reached out to revive the world. Demeter's power was older, deeper and more familiar, but also weaker and exhausted. Persephone's power was younger, stronger but untried. Together they did far more than either could hope to do alone, but it wasn't enough. They needed more.
Instinctively Persephone reached back for Hades. He took her hand, and his dark power flooded into the bond between mother and daughter. Demeter started to shudder away from him, but Persephone gripped her hand hard. They needed Hades. Persephone was a perfect blend of the two powers on either side of her. Daughter of the goddess of the harvest, wife to the god of the dead. Light and dark, death and life, growing and decay. She channeled Hades' strength into herself, and then let it whisper out into the world.
The world sighed in relief.
The touch of death stole over the earth. The restless death were given peace at last, and the dying were eased into their final slumber. Both gave up their vital energy so that new life may grow on their remains. Finally, it was enough.
The three of them warmed the cold world. White snow melted into brown mud, but even the mud was teeming with life. New buds burst into being around them, tentatively raising their heads with growing strength. They rose out of their fallen ancestors, hardier for having been nourished by death.
It was a beginning and an ending. Death and rebirth.
Just as it should be.