From the Ashes:
The clouds flew overhead, whipping past at a dizzying rate, a full overcast of blue-gray, boiling violently though only a gentle breeze touched the heroes. Snow-capped mountains broke the horizon, one towering above the rest, across rolling hills of green and brown grasses.
There had been no time lapse for the heroes, only a bright flash and they were standing in a different place. Artemis stood before them, facing the horizon, the breeze pulling her bronze hair in streamers.
“Is this the after-life?” Skida Marink asked Thauma quietly.
“No,” Artemis responded, her back still to the heroes. “You stand in a place of limbo, between thine own world and the next. Hades rules this land and the next, creating a path for those whom he welcomes into his arms.”
“Do we have to cross this land to find PhoenixHawk?” Thauma asked the Goddess.
“Perhaps. That will be up to Hades.”
Artemis lapsed into silence, the heroes looking at one another with unspoken questions. After many long moments, Shakti approached the Goddess.
“What are we waiting for, mother?”
“Is he waiting for us to come to him?”
“He is in his domain, daughter. Thou couldst not reach him even should you try.”
“Then what does he want?”
“To know thy purpose. He watches, awaiting your actions.”
Shakti nodded and stepped in front of her mother.
“Uncle! You may have an eternities patience, but I do not!”
“Indeed,” came the response from behind the group. They whipped around to find Hades standing behind them, leaning upon the cane he carried. His tuxedo was flawless, top hat canted at an angle upon his head that made it seem as though it was going to fall off at any time. The black bottomless eyes set in his skeletally thin face regarded the group without humor.
“Thank you for coming, Uncle,” Shakti said, bowing her head.
“I never could refuse you, niece. How is your family?”
“They are well, thank you for asking.”
Hades turned to Thauma Guard. “I see you return to me, once again before your time.”
“Maybe not this time,” Thauma replied.
“My child, if there is one thing in eternity that I know, it is when one has entered my realm at the appointed time.”
“Perhaps this will be my time, perhaps not. That remains to be seen.”
“You talk in riddles, child.”
Thauma smiled, and nodded.
Hades turned to Artemis. “So it is as I warned you. Your hero cannot handle the power, again.”
“Centuries of planning rests upon his head,” Artemis said. “He is not lost, but it is a close thing. The one we spoke of before is required.”
Hades stood upright and twirled his cane through pale, thin fingers.
“As I said before, that one is mine. He came to me willingly when his time came. I would not disturb him from his rest.”
“He is perhaps the only one with whom the Dread One will reason.”
“Then your plans fall apart.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Thauma Guard said.
“It is that way because it is how I wish it,” Hades responded.
“I could take his place,” Thauma said.
Hades cocked his head. “I can see into your heart, and know you would willingly do this. But why would I?”
“You wouldn’t,” Shakti said. “It wouldn’t be enough of a challenge for you.”
A smirk played across the Lord of the Afterlife’s face.
“It would be no challenge at all.”
“Then maybe we can make it more interesting.”
Now Hades grinned.
“What do you have in mind, my niece?”
“We need PhoenixHawk to return with us. I would wager ourselves against that need that we can win him from you.”
“You will all come to me in time,” Hades said. “As you stated, I am patient.”
Shakti scoffed. “What fun is waiting? Where is the challenge?”
“But you offer nothing that I will not have in time.”
“We will offer ourselves into your service, should we fall. Instead of just having us as guests, you will be able to add us to your hordes.”
Hades leaned on the cane directly in front of him, both hands upon the pommel.
“You would give up an eternity in Paradise to win this one back from me?”
Hades looked at the others of the group. All nodded in agreement.
“What is to stop me from simply sending all of my hordes against you at once? You are gifted, but numbers would overwhelm even you.”
“Where is the challenge then? What is the fun if you have no possibility of losing?”
“And,” Artemis said. “You wager with my daughter’s eternal soul. Thou knowest not to trifle with me.”
Hades nodded, considering the proposition.
“Done,” he said. He spread his hands, a mist surrounded the group, then dissipated. When it was gone they stood at the foot of the mountains they had seen in the distance. The towering giant before them climbed high into the clouds, a path of carved stairs running up to a stone archway leading into the interior.
“You stand before Mount Olympus. High upon the peaks dwell many of the Gods. It marks the boundary between this realm, and my own. Follow the path into the interior, make your way to the gateway on the other side, and you will have won the right to claim your prize. Should you fall within, you will join those who come at my bidding.”
“What will we find inside?” Guido asked.
“My challenges. The hallways can be whatever I wish, and it may not seem to you that you remain inside the mountain, but know that you are still within my realm. Aside from that, it is for you to discover what lies inside. Should you prove up to my challenges, I will see you on the other side.”
Hades nodded and disappeared.
“You must work as one,” Artemis said. “Thy fate lies in thine own hands. Hades’ challenges will test you all, but can be overcome. Remain true to thy selves and one another, and thou shalt make it through. I, too, shall see thee upon the far side.”
Guido unslung his assault rifle.
“Let’s get to it,” he said, then moved off, the rest of the group hurrying to catch up.
TO CHAPTER 10 >