Prologue: Visions from Beneath
"And a sudden plunge in the sullen swell.
Ten fathoms deep on the road to hell"
The chamber was enormous.
So enormous even, that it's ceiling could not be seen. Rough stone walls, slick with the sweat of moisture, towered up into inky blackness and the only light cast came from torches mounted in dull iron brackets. Strangely enough, the torches produced no smoke, yet burned steadily all the same.
At its base, the chamber was a huge circular pit of blackest obsidian, it's sides carved smooth and polished to a sheen that glinted in the flickering torch light. Above the pit itself, row upon row of chill stone benches ascended up and up to the more natural stone. Each row was arranged in concentric rings growing larger and larger as they continued. To the mortal eye the number of rows was almost vertiginous, seemingly infinite, and somehow crammed paradoxically into a finite space. All the seats sat empty now, a silent audience facing down over a dark throne at the center of the pit.
The throne itself was seemingly cut of a piece with the rest of the obsidian surrounding it, a bleak and brooding thing simply fashioned yet monolithic and starkly imperious at the same time. Its form was a mute testament to its owners power, raw, unadulterated and without ostentation. Beside the throne was an equally simple block of granite and upon the block rested a helm cast of solid bronze. It was anachronistically elaborate, decorated as it was with intricately worked serpents the longest of which stretched from the helm's nose guard to the nape at its base.
Now the room sat almost silent save the occasional drip of moisture from the walls and the hushed voices of two figures seated in plain wooden chairs. Both were gazing into a deep golden bowl that was filled to the brim with water so still it may as well have been glass. The helm and throne loomed large and dark behind them.
"This does not bode well," said the seemingly younger of the two men. He was clad all in leather armour, black as pitch save for a luxuriant cloak lined with crimson velvet that draped over the back of his chair. "How can we simply sit here and not act? Our very fates are depending on this."
The other man, apparently older with a thick mane of silver hair and an equally thick beard that spilled down to his chest, held up his hand for quiet. Without speaking, he leaned forward, his eyes fixed intently on the scene playing out for him beneath the surface of the water.
The image was of a dark haired woman, dressed in leather battle garb and wielding a cruel looking dagger. She seemed rooted to the spot as she lunged for a younger woman wearing silken red robes and standing at the edge of a blazing pit of fire. The younger woman's eyes were tinged with dark intent as the older woman strained with all her strength to reach her, the dagger in her hand trembling as the muscles in her arm pulled taught.
Nearby stood a third woman, similarly clad to the first in leather battle dress. Wild blonde hair framed her narrow face that was carved across by a wide, but malicious grin. The woman was stretching out a hand, her fingers working the empty air in a state of enraptured excitement.
As the whole tableau unfolded the younger girl mouthed something, her words lost to the scrying water's magic and slowly but surely the dark haired warrior with the dagger inched her way forward, edging back the woman in silk until they were both at the rim of the pit. And then out of nowhere a fourth woman appeared, the mirror image of the woman in silken robes. She dove through the air, colliding so hard with her doppelganger that the two were spun around by the sheer force of the impact. The woman managed one last look to her friend with the dagger as she and her duplicate plunged over the rim of the pit into the fiery depths below.
Next to the old man, the seemingly younger man leaned back in his chair and breathed a sigh of relief.
"It's done then," he said simply. "Not the finest of endings but an ending nonetheless."
He began to rise from his seat but the older man waved him back down.
"Be still brother," he hissed "This little drama of ours is not done yet."
The younger man frowned as he seated himself again and leaned back in over the scrying bowl.
The woman with the dagger had dropped to her knees at the pit's edge, her mouth opening wide in a silent cry of despair and misery. Nearby the blonde woman's eyes widened and for the briefest moment there was something else there beside madness; a look of cold and careful calculation. As quickly as it had come it was gone and her already wide grin spread even wider. Her hands raised to her mouth as if to suppress a laugh, and then fell back to her side as if she were not even really trying. Her shoulders shook with mirth as she tiptoed gingerly up behind the other woman. She opened her mouth and began to speak.
The old man leaned further forward. "This will not do," he muttered to himself and passed his hand over the scrying pool in a simple gesture.
Suddenly the blonde woman's voice filled the chamber as if she were standing at its center and speaking aloud to the row upon row of empty benches. "...seeing poor dear Gabrielle sacrifice herself makes it all worth while," she said, her voice so earnest in its revelation that it was like a knife to the heart. "It finally gives me a reason," she continued, "for living and I have you to thank for it Xena!"
As she finished speaking her voice broke into another round of abrasive, giggling laughter. The bearded man raised a hand to his brother's shoulder but still did not take his eyes off the bowl. "Brace yourself Hades," he said. "You will need to be prepared."
Hades eyed the bearded man suspiciously. "For what?" he asked.
"A death," his brother replied.
With a furious cry, the dark haired woman, Xena, rose to her feet and span on her heel, the vicious dagger she still clutched flashing wickedly in the room's dim light. It caught the blonde woman square in the gut and she gasped in surprise as the wind was driven out of her. Xena's face quivered between both anger and anguish, her lips trembling and her eyes shining wetly as she looked down at the blonde woman dying on the end of her blade.
"No more living for you." her voice croaked.
The blonde woman shuddered in pain as her life began to ebb away, and then slowly, almost lovingly, she reached up to touch Xena's face. Within the pool, a distant rumbling sound could be heard. It quickly grew in volume, and as the volume increased tremors began to rock the image in the pool. Suddenly the water itself began to ripple and the chamber in which the two men were sitting began to shake as well. The sound of stone cracking and grinding filled the air, growing louder and louder as the severity of the quakes continued to build. The older man and Hades were on their feet now, their chairs turned over in urgency, the scrying pool all but forgotten as it spilled water over the edges of the bowl.
"Now Hades!" the bearded man bellowed over the roaring stone. "Do it now!"
Hades closed his eyes and flung his arms wide, his cloak billowing behind him as a shadow with no apparent source fell across him. The quake was reaching its crescendo now, and with each vicious twist and turn of stone, the chamber cracked and smashed. Narrow fractures spread throughout the obsidian walls of the pit and even over the bleak throne at its center, while a particularly vicious quake tipped the scrying bowl from its pedestal, the clear crystalline water cascading across the cracked floor.
Throughout it all the bronze helm beside the throne never so much as trembled.
Suddenly Hades' eyes shot open, a look of terror flashing in them, and he let out an unbridled cry of pain. The air around him suddenly changed, stretching and shifting into the screaming visage of the blonde woman from the scrying pool. She hovered for a brief moment before seeming to stream in toward Hades' open mouth, the incorporeal image of her knifing through the shadow like the light of a blazing fire cutting through the blackest night. Then, in an instant, the shadow lifted and the air around Hades tightened, and cracked like a whip, hurling him across the chamber to crash against the throne. He slammed against its high back with such force that he was carried straight through it, the back exploding in a shower of black fragments and crystalline dust as Hades himself hit the floor with the heavy crunch of bone on stone. His body slid for several more feet before finally coming to a stop. As it did so the quakes subsided as quickly as they had begun, and all was once more reduced to stillness and silence.
Hades lay motionless for long minutes before finally rolling onto his back, his breath coming in short, sharp, ragged gasps. The old man was at his side in an instant, somehow seeming to never occupy the intervening space between them.
"Brother! What was it?" he said, kneeling and helping Hades into a sitting position. "What did you see?"
Hades struggled to answer, his breathing still ragged. Suddenly he broke into a series of hacking coughs as his breathing began to return to normal.
"Your concern is touching Zeus," he managed between laboured breaths. "I think I see now why Hera loves you so."
The jibe was meant in jest but Zeus still grimaced. "This is hardly the time for cheap shots," he spoke sternly.
"No argument from me there," Hades replied. "Now help me up and I'll tell you what I saw."
Zeus wrapped an arm around Hades' waist, hefting him as if he weighed no more than a feather. It was a display of strength that would have been impressive in a mortal man seemingly half his age. The two picked their way back through the rubble of the ruined throne and over to the overturned chairs they had been seated on before. Zeus quickly righted one and eased Hades down into it, the seemingly younger man giving a groan as he settled himself back into the seat.
"It has been a long time since I ached like this," he said, raising his arm and rotating it in its socket. The shoulder joint cracked loudly. "I dislike it intensely."
Zeus gave a low grunt.
"I fear that a few aches and bruises may be the least of our worries. Were our suspicions correct?"
Hades paused for a moment then nodded. "They were."
Zeus raised a hand to his chin and rubbed his beard thoughtfully. "Interesting."
Hades' eyes widened at that. "Interesting!?" he spluttered. "Gods perishing, the natural order of all things tilting toward chaos, the boundaries of my realm fraying at the edges, and all you can say is that it's interesting!?"
Zeus eyed him levelly. "Would you rather I said it was terrifying?"
Hades regarded his brother for a moment, and then snapped his gloved fingers. "You have a plan!" he said.
A slight smile lit at the corners of Zeus' mouth and he nodded. "Have you ever known me not to?"
"I suppose not." Hades leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest, his breathing coming more easily now. "So what is this plan of yours?"
"Quite simple really," Zeus said.
Hades frowned. "Go on."
"A champion. A chosen of the gods.”
Hades cocked an eyebrow at his brother. "A bit old fashioned don't you think?"
"We are an old fashioned people," Zeus replied. "And besides, the idea may be old, but my choice is, how shall we say, unconventional."
Hades leaned forward, his interest peaked. "Who did you have in mind? Xena? Forgive me for saying so brother, but I doubt she will be in any fit state to help us at present."
Zeus shook his head.
"Hercules then?” Hades suggested. “Or that scruffy friend of his?"
"Hades," Zeus admonished "You always come to the simplest solution. The most predictable solution. You should know me well enough to know that I would never involve my son in this. The danger is too great and the world will have need of him after all is said and done. Besides those we are moving against would predict it. Try a little more imagination on for size."
Hades frowned. "Not that tinpot wearing fool who travels with the warrior princess?"
Zeus fixed him with a level look as if to say 'seriously'
"That salesman friend of theirs then? The one who called himself Lord Seltzer?" Hades said, grasping at straws.
"By Olympus no," Zeus laughed.
"Then who?" Hades said, a perplexed look on his face.
Zeus cast a glance toward the spilled water from the scrying bowl. "The one who started all this,” he said. “The one who first shed the blood of a god."
Hades eyes widened as Zeus spoke. "You can't mean..." His voice trailed off as Zeus nodded.
"Oh but I can," the King of the Gods said with knowing smile, "and I do. She started this. It seems only fitting that she be the one to bring it to a close."
"But the dagger... she's gone. Like the one she killed."
Zeus laughed at that. "Really brother? You think I don't know how much you've wanted her back in that prison of yours? There are few who've escaped your clutches once and even fewer who have done so twice. It's a point of pride and the viewpoint of any good jailer to reclaim their wayward charges."
He crossed to the other up turned chair and righted it, before settling himself across from Hades. "We need her brother. Our enemies will not expect her and I know that you have her."
"Say that what you are suggesting is true," said Hades defensively. "Say that I did pull her to me and have locked her away down among the deepest pits of Tartarus. Why then would I offer her up to you? The woman is a danger to all things that live and breathe. She has no morals and no heart. She is more than deserving of her punishment here, and believe me, I will make sure it is a punishment that is most severe."
"That is where you are wrong," Zeus said. He leaned forward earnestly as he did so. "She can be so much more than you imagine and she has a heart, buried deep though it might be. Without one she would never have felt so much pain so keenly."
Hades let out a low deep sigh and tilted his head back to regard the total blackness that hung above them both. "The odds aren't in our favour are they?" He said.
"Not in the least. But then they never were."
"And she is our only hope?"
Zeus nodded. "And a slim one at that," he said.
Hades gave him a bitter look.
"Slim indeed," he said, his voice deadpan. He scrubbed a hand over his face and let out an exasperated groan. "Very well. I will have her brought here."
He straightened and strode purposefully to his ruined throne, turning and seating himself in its remains, once more every inch the Lord of the Underworld.
"I warn you though, should she fail in this, she will be mine to toss to Cerberus as a dinner time treat."
Zeus gave the barest of nods. "Should she fail, there will be little of your, or for that matter any of our domains remaining," he said grimly.