Gods and Mortals

By @Margie

Gods and Mortals

By @Margie

Venus is missing, Pompeii is in danger, Olympus and the Underworld are on the brink of war, and Pliny the Elder, now an old man and a naturalist, is forced to into an impossible conflict to save his home.

Chapter 1

Prologue

The Roman Campground, Xanten, Germania Inferior, the Lower Rhine, 47 A.D.

         Gaius Plinius Secundus sat hunched over his table, his only means of light coming from the waning brazier to his left. His stylus made a scratching nose on the papyrus as he scribbled down his findings of German spear throwing; it was the only break in the silence, apart from the distant laughter of his men wafting in through the slight opening of his tent. Pliny paused for a minute, listening to the sound of comradery and victory. Only just this afternoon, he and his cavalry unit, along with the rest of the army and through the leadership of the new commander Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, conquered the country of the Frisians and the Chauci. It had been a great victory, one worthy of reminiscing through the night.

           Long after the sound of laughter had faded from the night, Pliny kept scrawling his notes of spear throwing, pausing once in a while to double check his research. He had decided to write a book on the German spear throwing on horseback, a military tactic he decided would be beneficial to the Roman army. And since his insomnia kept him up for long hours of the night, he figured it would be advantageous to use the time wisely. His good friend Vespasian would no doubt have encouraged him to sleep, but as he too suffered from the affliction, his urging would have been rather pointless.

           The waning light from the brazier sputtered, and Pliny rose to fetch more oil to keep it alive. He carefully opened the chest that contained the precious commodity; the light flickered once, twice, and then went out. He uttered a short curse and felt along the coarse wood of the chest for the oil, going slowly so as not to knock any over. A sudden bright light blinded him. He let out a surprise yell and fell to the floor, both hands rising up, narrowly avoiding the oil, to quickly cover his eyes; only one thought entered his mind: what in the name of divina Natura is this? It seemed to Pliny as though the sun itself had encased his tent, the light was so bright to him. It seemed to shine forever, but after a minute, the light faded to a small glow.

           It took even longer for his eyes to adjust to his surroundings. He blinked rapidly until the fuzzy images became clear. It was then that he noticed her and his mouth fell open in shock. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen; her skin was as white as the pearls from the Mediterranean Sea, her hair was the richest shade of brown, and her eyes were the most vibrant shade of blue that they put the sky to shame. To match her eyes, she wore a silk garment in the richest shade of blue, with gold threads embroidered throughout the material. On her head was a golden crown that rivaled that of the emperor. Her pale, graceful-looking hands were clasped in front of her and she had an air of maturity and wisdom about her. A warm, golden glow radiated from her being.

           She gazed at him on the floor, and her soft, pink lips curled into a small smile. This action jolted Pliny to his feet. He did not know what to make of this being, for he did not think she was an ordinary woman, standing in front of him. Perhaps my insomnia has finally affected me, he thought, or perhaps it’s the stress of battles playing tricks with my mind. A small thought in the back of his mind suggested something goddess-like, but Pliny quickly contained that. It is simply my mind playing tricks with me.

           “Your mind has never played tricks on you before, Gaius Plinius Secundus. Why should it start now?”

           Her quiet voice flowed through him and he tensed at the mention of his name, but he quickly relaxed. This being was a trick of his brain, and his brain would know his name. Pliny slowly stood up from the floor, wary of the being in front of him. His soldier instincts urged him to draw his weapon but, gazing at the calm figure before him, he felt no danger. Because it’s simply an illusion, he thought decidedly. “The brain is complex, as you well know, since you dwell there yourself. My insomnia has finally bettered me it would seem.” A little part of him was curious and fascinated that he was actually talking to an image created by his brain; how many people could boast that they had conversed with their own brain?

           A small smile graced the beings face. “I’m sure it will in time for it has bettered many men long before you. But it will not betray you tonight.” The smile left her face and seriousness took hold. “I have urgent business to discuss with you. One of the upmost importance that involves, I fear, the fate of the world itself.”

           Pliny did not know what urgent business his brain could possibly be speaking of, though it did fan his curiosity higher. “Speak, being of my brain. Tell me this business that you deem important.”

 Her eyes narrowed a fraction and the glow around her became a little brighter. “I am no being created from your brain, Gaius Plinius Secundus. I am very real, there is no mistake of that. I am Venus Pompeiana and the business that I will impart to you involves both the mortal world and that of Olympus. You would do well to heed my words.”

Her voice was like that of thunder; it reverberated throughout his whole body, to his very soul. He gazed at her, at the intensity of her look and the urgency of her words; rationality was firmly on his side. Despite his unyielding stance, he would placate the apparition and listen to the message. “Then heed them, I shall.” Pliny seated himself once more at his table, his full attention on the so-called goddess. “Tell me, o goddess, the business that has plagued your mind.”

Her expression cleared, but her vibrant blue eyes still bore into his own. She regarded him for a few seconds, then gave a little nod. “Something is brewing in the Underworld. An unseen danger is approaching. What, I cannot say for certain. But there have been rumors abound that have reached my ears. Rumors that cause me great alarm.”

Worry creased the smooth skin of the goddess’ face; even her eyes held a sort of uneasiness. It must be something paramount to have this effect on a goddess, he thought. He leaned forward in his chair, arms resting on his knees. “What do these rumors entail?”

“A city that is very dear to my heart: Pompeii.”

His eyebrows knitted together in confusion. He had heard of the port town in the west of Italy. He knew of many people who went there for the weather and culture. Why it would be in danger was a mystery to him. “What importance does it hold for these rumors?”

“Alas, I do not know the details. Of the whispers that have reached my ears, Pompeii will be the center of something prominent. Something that will impact both the mortal and immortal world for centuries to come.”

Pliny stood up and began to pace back and forth, his hand rubbing his jaw in contemplation. He turned abruptly back to the goddess. “You have heard from these rumors that Pompeii will experience an event that will have a great effect for both our worlds. But, my lady, rumors are simply rumors. They have no basis of fact. Is it possible that someone is simply causing trouble?”

Venus Pompeiana shook her head assuredly. “No, I am sure that this is more than just rumors. My sources tell me something will happen.”

Pliny furrowed his eyebrows. “Who are these sources that you receive so much of your information from?”

“The erotes and the fauns know more than believed.”

A look of surprise flitted across his face. He would not have expected a goddess, even one from his own brain, to trust the word of an erote or a faun. Though Pliny himself did not particularly believe in the latter and former, he agreed with the publicly viewed belief that they were one of the least trustworthy beings.

The goddess must have had an idea of what he was thinking, for she was quick to set aside his doubts. “I know the creatures are widely believed as mischievous, deceitful beings, but trust me, Gaius Plinius, I have no reason to doubt them.”

He was not satisfied with her answer, but thought it best not to mention it. He began to pace again, running a hand through his curly, brown hair, cropped short to military style. A summary of all the information he was presented with until now circulated through his mind like the rapids in the Rhine. All of it was unbelievable to him; his first assumption that she was an illusion manifested by his brain was still placed in his head, but doubt had now crept in. For Pliny could not think of a reason that his brain chose Venus Pompeiana as a mirage. And what of the things she said; that Pompeii was on the verge of danger, that something was brewing in Hades itself, and Olympus had the first stirrings of unrest? Then the most important question of the conversation entered his mind.

Pliny turned to the goddess, who was gazing at him patiently. “What role would you have me play in this?”

She gave a small smile, a hopeful smile. “I need you to help me discover what is going to happen in Pompeii. You are a very intelligent man with connections, Gaius Plinius. I am sure you will have no troubles unearthing which mortals are involved in this. I will keep my eyes and ears open to the Underworld and Olympus; someone is bound to make a mistake.”

A look of confusion had crossed Pliny’s face while she had been speaking. “What mortals? You made no mention of mortal involvement in this matter.”

Her blue eyes bore into his. “Mortals are always involved, Gaius Plinius, and they have been since creation. Many of the problems in your world is attributed to the nature of the gods, but you forget that where a deity is involved, a mortal is as well. This event will be no different, which is why I need you to go to Pompeii. I am sure you will find the conspirators of this plan.”

Pliny was quiet for a long moment. He prided himself on his rationality and it dictated at this moment that going to Pompeii was an absurd idea. He could not simply abandon his post (he had just been promoted after all and he had duties) and travel to the coast of Italy; not to mention, the more he thought of it, the more decided he became that the being in front of him was purely a figment of his brain. None of this made any sense; his brain was most assuredly overspent because of the insomnia; he must make a better effort of sleeping.

He had been silent too long; Venus Pompeiana had seen the look in his eyes. Something that Pliny couldn’t quite place passed over her face. “I see that my words have had no effect.” He opened his mouth, but she held up one hand to stop him. Her eyes flicked to his desk, at the research he had done on German spear throwing, and the book he had been in the process of writing. Her eyes went back to Pliny. “Mars will be quite upset if your research is published. For your own protection.” She snapped her fingers and white-hot flames scorched the pages until nothing remained. It had happened in a matter of seconds that Plinius had had no time to react.

He stood there in shock for a minute, finally tearing his eyes away from the charred remains to gaze at the being in front of him. She inclined her head in his direction. “Until next time, Gaius Plinius Secundus.” Once more, a bright light filled his tent, lasting longer than it did the first time. When the light finally dissipated, Pliny collapsed to the floor, his body making a loud thumping noise. There he lay until the early morning, when a gentle shaking of his shoulders brought him back to the world.

Vulcan’s Workshop, the Phlegraean Fields, Naples, Italy, 62 A.D.

         Smoke, sulfur, and steam billowed from the treacherous rocks, curling into the air like creatures intent on sucking the life from all those who draw near. The stinking air was suffocating unless a mortal had divine help, and the ground continued to shake as though a beast was pounding on the earth, striving to be released from its cage. There were beasts below, but not in cages. The cyclops were forging armor, weapons, crowns, jewelry, anything requested by the divinities. Hammers clanged on metal and the air was thick with black smoke. Huge, black pots of boiling water hung over fires, attached to the ceiling with chains created from fallen stars. Lava poured from little falls on the volcanic walls, and a river even ran down the center of the workshop; there was no bridge, to get across would require to walk on the lava, a feat cyclops could accomplish without fail as they were immune to the effects of fire. 

           The shakes that caused the ground above to move was the result of the hammering of the metal; it was powerful and loud work. But the greatest earth shakes were caused by the god Vulcan, locked away in his workshop, working on new lightning bolts for Jupiter. His powerful muscles rippled across his scarred back as he brought the hammer down with an immense force. Sparks of electricity flew in his face, but Vulcan was unhindered by them. They caused him no pain, though he wished they did. This job was doing nothing to quench his worries; he pounded with an even greater force on the bolts, making them so perfect Jupiter would have no complaints. The force caused rocks above to cascade onto the fields, for fissures to crack in the earth, but Vulcan paid no mind.

           He strove for an answer in his work, but none came to mind. He pounded once more; the bolts were perfect. Vulcan laid the hammer on the metal table and flung his leather apron next to it, limping over to his chair in the corner and collapsing on it. He rummaged in his pocket and withdrew a flask of wine; he had a liking for the mortal drink. He took a swig, reveling in the burning sensation the drink made as it ran down his throat. Wiping his dirty, sweaty face with his hand, he finally allowed his worries to run rampant in his mind.

           Images of his love, Venus, flowed into his head; his heart constricted. He recalled her smell (it was sunlight, the ocean, the flowers all combined), her touch (so gentle and soft that it made him feel not so clumsy and awkward), her smile (outshone anything Apollo could have ever hoped to achieve), and her lips (when they brushed against his, he could feel their love course between them that he never wanted to stop). Small tears began to glide down his face, but he did not wipe them away. Instead he welcomed them; it meant that his heart was still working, even after all these years of searching.

           Fifteen years Venus had been missing, fifteen years his love had been lost. The search for her had yielded no answers, no clues. He still remembered the day all of Olympus had realized she was missing; it had been Jupiter’s birthday celebration, an event no god or goddess would have dared to miss. Jupiter had been in an outrage; he thought she had purposefully decided not to come, but Vulcan knew better; something in his heart screamed she was in danger. He had been about to return to their house when her children, the Erotes, had come swooping into the dining hall in a great panic.

           They had tumbled and collided into each other as they raced to where Jupiter sat ; it had taken a full minute before the words came out; their mother had been about to leave for the celebration when a darkness had suddenly consumed the room. Weaves of black smoke had wrapped themselves around the goddess like chains; the Erotes had immediately flown to her aid, but to no avail. Part of the smoke broke away from the center mass, and like a massive hand, had swatted them away with such force that when they had awoken, she was gone.

           Vulcan had listened with his heart in his throat; when they had finished, he had raced from the great hall, hooked up his metal chariot, and flown back home, his heart pounding so hard he thought it would explode and pieces would fall thousands of miles to the sea below. In his mind, hope and denial had run rampant, but when he arrived, they both shattered. He searched every inch; his beloved wife was nowhere to be found. Jupiter had ordered every deity to search the world, but to no success; the goddess Venus Pompeiana had vanished without a trace.

           Vulcan searched night and day without rest; his cyclops workers aided him in his hunt. After a year, Jupiter ended the investigation; the deities could not continue to invest their time, they had duties to attend to. Vulcan was furious, but Jupiter stood his ground. He ordered the less important immortal creatures to continue the search for Venus, but Vulcan knew this would not amount to anything. He continued with his search during the hours he was not in his workshop but hope had nearly drained his heart.

           He stood up once more to his workshop table; his hands needed something to do. He placed Mars’ new armor on the table behind him to so he could have space to work. Despite his turmoil, he was proud of the way the armor had turned out, even if it was for the war god; it was magnificent. He began to busy himself with a new request; he did his best thinking when he was working. It did not register in his mind when Mars entered his workshop; he was too preoccupied in his thoughts of Venus.

           “Who knew you still had it in you to fashion something like this? I would have thought the kidnapping of your dear wife would have drained any talent you had.”

           The sneering, booming voice broke through Vulcan’s contemplation. His shoulders tensed and he placed the hammer and tongs he had been holding on the table; whenever he talked to Mars, he always felt like bashing his face in. He turned to the war god, who was sitting in Vulcan’s chair with his feet propped, already clothed in the new armor. Cold, silent animosity rolled off him in waves; Vulcan clenched his fists, burning heat radiating towards Mars, who didn’t even blink. “You have your armor. Now leave,” he said, a hint of warning in his voice.

           Mars smirked and languidly stood up, strolling past the fire god to look out into the massive main workshop area, where the cyclops were busily finishing other deity requests. “Aw, look at the ugly brutes,” he said with a mocking tone. “Trying to compensate for their looks. Well, you would know all about that, wouldn’t you, Vulcan.” He shot a snakish smile over his shoulder.

           Vulcan breathed through flared nostrils, silently counting to ten; Venus’ gentle voice flowed through his head, reminding him to stay calm. “I won’t tell you again, Mars.” He turned back to his table and picked up his hammer and tongs. He could feel the war god’s eyes on him, silently fuming for being dismissed.

           “I saw her you know. Before she disappeared.”

           Vulcan froze as the words penetrated his heart. He slowly faced Mars, who was leaning against the heavy, metal door, a manipulative smirk carved into his face. “What are you talking about?” His voice was steady and calm, but inside he was chaos.

           “She was in Germania Inferior where some rather bloody battles were playing out, so naturally I was there as well. The more blood, the better, as I always say.” His smirk turned into a deadly, bloodthirsty grin. “It was after a particularly bloody battle that I noticed she was there. She thought she was doing a good job hiding from me, but you can’t conceal yourself from the war god on a battlefield.” He looked entertained at the very thought that someone could. “So then,” he continued on, “I thought to myself, why would the goddess of love be sneaking around in a Roman camp? Naturally, my first thought was that she couldn’t bear to look at your face any longer.”

           Vulcan gripped his hammer tightly, resisting the urge to murder. Mar’s words were causing a fire inside him, but Vulcan kept it contained, though he didn’t trust himself to speak calmly. An evil glint appeared in the war god’s eyes as he observed Vulcan. He knew the effect his words were having. “She entered one of the praetor’s tents, a rather promising military commander, Gaius Plinius Secundus. Whatever her business with him, she clearly wanted it to be just between the two of them; I couldn’t hear anything.” An annoyed look flashed across his face.

           Vulcan was processing this news as soon as the words left the war gods mouth. Venus had gone to Germania? Why? He had no recollection of her saying anything to him. And what of this praetor? What business had she with him? Numerous thoughts crashed through his mind with one being prevalent above the rest. Vulcan counted to three before he spoke. “You had this information for fifteen years, and you never said a word?” His words, wrapped in danger and anger, sliced through the air.

           Mars straightened, one hand causally placed on his sword. He still retained his smirk, though it had tightened. “Well, I mean, one can only guess what she was doing in there. Not surprising, though. She did make the poor decision of marrying you.”

           The fire inside him became a furnace. With a roar, Vulcan leapt with surprisingly agility towards Mars, who swiftly unsheathed his sword. Hammer and sword clanged together, but they were both suddenly thrown to opposite ends of the room by an explosion so powerful it shook the whole of the Phlegrean Fields.

The Underworld, Lake Avernus, Phlegraean Fields, 62 A.D.

         General Sulla brought the golden goblet of wine to his lips. The tasteless liquid ran down his throat and he placed the drink back on the marble table in front of him. The lush, green trees around him provided shade from the pseudo sun in the sky and high-pitched laughter rang across the plains, grating into his ears. He looked in disgust at the small gathering; some were lounging in the too-green grass, others were draped over lavish couches, popping bland fruit in their mouths as they watched the overacting performance of the pantomimes in front of them.

           He detested the long dead ones; they knew better than to believe Elysium was anything like the living world. He knew they noticed the too bright colors in the nature around them, the tastelessness of the beverages and food, and the silence; no wind flowing through the trees, no singing of birds. The sun itself gave no warmth, though everyone in this accursed paradise overlooked that fact.

He himself had believed the entire illusion when he had first entered the realm; but he had not risen to the highest ranks of the Roman military without using his brain. He had quickly seen through the guise of this so called Isle of the Blessed and soon, he would be out of this hell-hole and rejoin the Roman Empire; the thought filled him with satisfaction and anticipation.

           More high-pitched laughter broke through his thoughts. He curled his fists and shifted in his cushioned seat; oh, how he hated that sound. If this was the land of the living, he would order their tongues to be ripped from their mouths and shoved down their throats. His cold, grey eyes roamed over the long dead ones, willing their tongues to latch to the roofs of their mouths. A movement to his right caught his eye; six large, black pairs of wings were flying in his direction.

He quickly slipped into a more lounging position and forced a benign smile on his face. The Eumenides landed three feet in front of him, their pungent stench wafting into his nostrils; it was the only scent the dead could smell in the Underworld. The three goddesses stood in front of him; in their left hand they brandished flaming torches, in their right hand, whips. Their long, black robes fell to their ankles, and instead of skin, their feet were made of brass. The writhing green snakes in their hair reared and hissed, and cruel, gleeful, and maniacal snarls were splayed across their faces. Their yellow, mad-ridden eyes bore into his own; the General didn’t flinch or cower.

He reached for the goblet, filled once more with wine, and raised it in a salute. This was not his first encounter with the magnificent creatures; he actually enjoyed their little talks. If they weren’t so loyal to that pathetic Pluto, he would have persuaded them to work for him centuries ago. He took a sip of the drink and let the goblet dangle from his hand. “And to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit, O Kindly Ones?”

They snarled at the pacified mention of their names; their snake hairs hissed more loudly. “Not happy with your place in Death, cheater? Are you not satisfied with the reward Lord Pluto bestowed on you?”

Though there were three of them, they spoke as one. Their rasping, whispering voice sounded like the screeching of metal. The General gritted his teeth behind his smile. “Why would I not be thankful for my good fortune? After all, I am in the Elysium Fields.” Here he gestured with his free hand to the wide expanse of the paradise; he noticed the long dead ones had disappeared.

A short, screech of laughter erupted from the goddesses. “Do you think us blind, cheater? Your words weave your lie, but your actions unravel the truth. You wish to be in the land of the living. You wish to evade your true fate.”

At this, he narrowed his calculating eyes slightly. He knew what they were speaking of; when he had been alive, he had ordered the deaths of thousands of his Roman enemies; the “purge” many of the public called it. To him, it had been a simple execution of adversaries to his Rome, but to Olympus, and to the Eumenides, it had been mass murder. He still remembered the day of his death; he had just ordered the strangulation of one of his officials, a corrupt man who deserved a worse fate, when he had felt intense pain in his stomach and the iron taste of blood in his mouth. He had crumpled from his chair; before passing out, he glimpsed through his pain filled vision the cause of his suffering; a man dressed in a flowing purple garment, with a crown of ivy leaves, and holding a thyrsus. His black, sadistic eyes gazed into the General’s own and the General recognized the figure of the wine god, Bacchus.

It was only after he entered the Underworld that his cause of death had been revealed to him; chronic alcohol abuse. The very thought filled him with anger; he, a Roman general and ruler, buried with the public notion that he had been a slobbering drunk instead of what had really happened; that he had been murdered by Olympus, by a god they all worshipped and revered. His only satisfaction from his death was that Pluto had sent him to Elysium, instead of personal torment. It was a reward for having sent thousands of souls to his realm, a fate that greatly enraged the Eumenides, as they enforced the proper order of things and the General not paying for the murders of fellow Romans was not the proper order.

The three goddesses bared their fangs and their snake hairs hissed as they awaited his reply. The General relaxed; soon, he would be out of this infernal abyss and away from the ever annoying presence of the Eumenides. In fact, once his plan was carried out, they would be working for him, a thought in which he took great delight. “My true fate is my reward. Or do you disagree with your master’s judgment?”

They hissed loudly and brandished their whips; one of them flicked theirs close to his face, but he did not react. “Lord Pluto is always right,” they rasped at him in anger.

The General cocked his head confidently. “Then perhaps you should return to your duties. I wouldn’t want Lord Pluto to be displeased with you.” He took another sip of the wine.

In a flurry of anger and rage, they rose as one into the air, but hovered in front of him. “This is not the end, cheater. We will have what is owed us.” They screeched once at him and, beating their wings, left to cause torment to some poor souls.

The General watched their retreating figures and took one long sip of the wine. “Yes, I will,” he murmured to himself. A small noise drew his attention to the tree above him. A small, black raven was perched on a branch, a necklace of dark flowers around its neck. He grinned and placed the goblet onto the table. “It’s time?” The raven bowed its head in agreement. The General stood up from his chair and fixed his robes, then purposefully strode forward. The raven leapt from the branch and glided along beside the General.

He walked to the farthest edge of the Fields to a small river past the gates; he noticed small groups of fishes gliding silently in the waters. As usual, Charon stood waiting in a long, wooden boat, a pole in his hand, his empty eyes appearing to look right through the figure in front of him. The General climbed in and the raven perched on the front edge as Charon guided the boat along the river. He didn’t know how long they were on the river; there was no time in the Underworld. He knew they had completely passed through the Fields when the water became darker and devoid of all life.

The air itself became colder, darker, and heavier; the General could hear faint screams all around him. Numerous glows of fire were spread all over the area; caves stretched so far back that Jupiter himself would become lost; caverns reached so high to the sky that the Eumenides would never be able to reach the top. The dark mountains loomed over the little boat and despite himself, the General shivered. They passed between two large ledges and through an opening in the rocks, the General could see the House of Pluto in the distance. Its multiple black turrets pierced the sky and the House itself was set above everything else, like a cold, cruel master. He could see the Eumenides circling the House, and despite being miles away, their screeches still reached his ears. Soon, he thought, it will be mine. No one will be able to stop me; not even Venus in her prison cell.

The raven suddenly squawked; they had entered the river Styx. The river became rougher, shaking the boat enough that the General had to grip the sides. As the boat glided farther along, the river expanded and the waters became more torrent. Little waves began to crash into the boat, but the General was not concerned; it would not sink. Charon guided the boat to the massive black rock in the middle of the river, gently docking at one of the outcroppings.

The General stepped onto land, anticipation spreading throughout his chest. Without a backwards glance at the ferryman, he walked quickly to the small cave entrance and to the figure waiting for him just inside; the raven glided ahead of him, eager to return to its mistress. Charon watched the retreating figure, something starting to glimmer in his empty eyes.

The General entered the cave and his eyes immediately lightened on Proserpina, who rushed forward and embraced him. Strands of her black hair tangled in his mouth and he resisted the urge to spit them out; instead he squeezed her tightly, an action he knew she would love. She pulled back, looking into his eyes with her black ones, adoration and salvation radiating from them. He resisted the urge to smile; she was like a mouse welcoming a snake into its home. He brushed a strand of hair away that had fallen into her face and she leaned into his touch; he knew she liked it when he did that. “How are you, my love?” He gently murmured to her. He wanted to begin the ritual immediately, but he had to keep up his act; an annoyance, but it would be worth it in the end.

Tears began to shine in her eyes and she gripped his hands tight with her own. Her red lips trembled. “I need to leave. Now. I cannot take him anymore. He was much worse this time, after I returned from above two evenings ago. No more. I will not take his abuse anymore. Come, my love, everything is prepared. My mother awaits our arrival above.” She led him deeper into the cave and his anticipation grew. He could feel the taste of his success in the air. He was so close.

They exited the cave to a small, rocky clearing. A large, black and gold pot hung from a metal frame over a small fire; beside it stood a black table with a kylix of wine and a vial of golden blood. They approached the pot; boiling water and steam hissed in their faces. The General observed the materials. “We have everything we need?”

Proserpina nodded her head eagerly. “Wine from your murderer; a gift to Pluto from Bacchus himself. My mother’s blood, as she is the one performing the ritual above. Once we begin, all that will be left to add is our own blood.”

He inclined his head at her words. “And once the ritual is complete, once we are out of this hell-hole, we will be where I requested?”

She nodded in assurance and gave him a comforting smile. “Right at the base of Mount Vesuvius, and just one snap of my fingers from your precious Pompeii.” 

The General let a small, triumphant smile spread across his face. Proserpina beamed at him. Annoying and insufferable as she was, he had to admit she had come through on her word. He took an exultant breath; it just a few moments, he would be standing on earth, feeling the wind and the warmth on his skin. After one hundred and fifty-six years, he would be alive again. And he would take back his city, and the Empire, and with Proserpina and her mother’s blind help, the Underworld. And why stop there? The General had plans; very important plans. But for now, he would begin with his Pompeii.

“How soon will your mother be ready?” He couldn’t keep the eagerness and impatience from his voice. Proserpina closed her eyes and tilted her head up. Her mouth moved silently, forming words that the General couldn’t make out. He had been a little surprised when she had first told him she could communicate with Ceres, even though she was in the Underworld, but his doubts had soon vanished.

She opened her eyes and looked at him. Her red lips curved into a smile. “She’s ready. Let us begin.”

She stepped to the pot and began to chant; the water boiled furiously and the fire roared. She picked up the kylix of wine and poured it into the pot; purple steam hissed into the air. She grabbed the vial of her mother’s blood and let it flow into the water; a golden mist rose into the air; the General smelled flowers. Still chanting, she withdrew a knife from her silk garment and thrust her arm over the pot. Pressing the knife to her wrist, golden blood dripped into the water; like before, golden mist rose from the water; this time, the General smelled fresh grass.

She beckoned for her him to stand next to her. He complied and rolling up his sleeve, he thrust his right arm over the pot. She pressed the knife to his wrist; drops of blood plopped into the boiling water; black smoke rose into the air and quickly dissipated. Proserpina spread her arms and chanted louder. Hazy, white light began to appear in front of them. The General narrowed his eyes. As the light slowly became clearer, he realized they were huge open doors; sudden gusts of wind blew around them, whipping their garments into the air. He took a step back in surprise, but quickly recovering, he began to walk forward, excitement full bloom in his chest.

Proserpina flicked her eyes at him. Something that wasn’t love or adoration glittered there. She stepped away from the pot and followed him; the doors of the Underworld were almost solidified. A loud, deafening screech tore through the air; Proserpina’s voice came to a sudden stop as they both whirled around behind them. The Eumenides were flying straight towards them, torches blazing, whips cracking, fangs bared as they swooped towards their targets.

The General let out a furious yell and leapt towards the doors, which were slowly disappearing. Proserpina raced after him, but she was suddenly yanked back into the air and crashed in a heap on her back. She quickly regained her footing and whipped around; a pair of furious, cold, pitch black eyes burned into hers. “Pluto,” she whispered with dread.

The General had almost reached the doors when the Eumenides descended on him. He collapsed to the ground as they attacked him, brass claws digging into his skin, whips bringing drops of his blood to the surface. Their gleeful screeches drilled into his ears and he watched with anger, frustration, and despair as the doors to the Underworld disappeared.

There was a sudden loud whistling noise and the pot shook in its metal frame. The wind blew furiously around them all and it lifted the pot in the air. Sparks and smoke shot into the air and the pot itself began to shake uncontrollably from the unfinished ritual. It suddenly stopped vibrating and hung still in the air; the wind itself stopped blowing. Then, with a loud, god-like bang, it exploded in the air, creating an earthquake so powerful it was felt both above and below by immortals and mortals alike.  

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