Promise of Shadows
I MOVE MY SHOVEL, PUSHING the mud back and forth at a glacial pace. Next to me, my friend Cass moves just as slowly. They have a saying down here in Tartarus: There’s no need to hurry when you’ve got forever to get the job done. The saying is just one of many. It’s easy to be clever when you’re staring eternity in the face.
I’ve just dumped a load of dirt on top of my steadily growing pile when Cass speaks.
“I think you got a visitor,” she says, looking past me toward the guard shack at the far edge of the plain. We work on the line with a few hundred others, digging a ditch the same way we have every day since I got to the Pits. The lowest point in the Underworld, the Pits of Tartarus is a bleak place. A muddy plain edged by a forest of black trees, the sky a constant twilight, it’s a place reserved for criminals and lowlifes. All we do here is dig, moving the mud into long rows. I’m not sure why we dig all the time, since no one ever tells us anything except when to work, when to rest, and when to eat. I’m not even sure the work serves a purpose beyond keeping us from killing each other, and we still manage to do that just fine.
Cass elbows me hard in the side, and I wince. My ribs are still
bruised from our most recent attack. A couple of Fae who thought kicking me to death would get them out of Tartarus or at least get them some respect. Thanks to Cass, all it got them was dead.
She nudges me again, and this time I groan. “That hurts.”
“It’s the Messenger this time,” she says, jutting her chin toward the figure at the far end of the line. “They’re getting serious.” I don’t look up. The last thing I need is the guard taking his whip to my back.
Panic rises, tightening my chest. I take a deep breath and force it down. I cannot freak out. “You don’t know that he’s here for me,” I tell Cass. The words are more for me than for her. One of the guards, who are all minotaurs, starts to move in our direction, and I lower my voice. “If he’s here for me, they’ll let me know.” I hold my breath until the half-bull, half-man creature heads back the other way. I don’t want to get in trouble for talking. Cass doesn’t really mind the punishments the bulls hand out. I do.
I’m not as strong as she is.
The bull’s voice echoes across the plain, carrying down along the line of prisoners toiling in the dirt. I keep my head down and my shovel moving, not bothering to acknowledge the shout and buying some time to compose myself. It starts to rain, and I sigh. It’s the least of my problems, but the downpour gives me something to focus on besides my visitor.
Rain in Tartarus means a lot of different things. Today it’s a fine mist of excrement falling from the sky. It’s like having an outhouse
upended over your head. Cass keeps telling me that at some point I’ll get used to it, but she’s been here longer than anyone else. There’s no time in the Underworld, but from what I can tell of her penchant for togas, she’s been here a while. Like, centuries. I don’t think I’ll be kicking around here that long. Too many people want me dead.
And the weather sucks.
The best way to keep the muck out of my eyes and mouth is to keep my head down and wait until it passes. I’m a smart girl, so that’s what I do. Deep down, I’m hoping that the guard won’t call me again.
“Mourning. Zephyr Mourning. Get your lazy carcass down here, Godslayer.”
I wince at the tone in the guard’s voice. I’ve waited too long to answer, and now I’m in for it. The bulls down here are no better than the prisoners, just as violent and rude. What do you expect from a minotaur? I’m not very good at taking a punch, and I have no desire to provoke the guard any further, so I plant my shovel in the mud and jog in the direction of the shout.
I slow down to a walk when I see a familiar figure walking beside the bull, a whip-thin man with a shock of white-blond hair. The “Messenger” Cass called him. But she’s old school, and most vættir these days refer to him by his given name, Hermes. The Messenger of the Gods. He carries an oversize golf umbrella and picks his way around the larger muck puddles. The wings on his ankles flutter in agitation. His blue eyes glow in the constant dusk
of Tartarus, their metallic blued-steel sheen denoting his Æthereal blood and causing the other prisoners to subtly shift away from him. There’s too much shine to them for him to be anything but Exalted, and even the dumbest vættir knows better than to cross paths with one of the favored sons and daughters of the universe. Their powers are so vast that they are gods among gods.
Still, all the æther in the universe can’t keep the rain from splattering Hermes. His impeccably tailored dove-gray suit has several dark spots. It serves him right. Only Hermes would wear couture to hell.
A few feet still separate me and Hermes when a fight breaks out on the line. A couple of Fae grapple, their wrestling match carrying them right into our path. The scent of their rage pushes away the stink of the rain, and for once I’m grateful for my ability to smell emotions. Their anger is the acrid aroma of burning flesh, which is better than the bathroom scent of the rain. Whatever they’re fighting about, it’s clear that the Fae hate each other. This is more than a normal Tartarus scuffle.
The Fae are more intent on their fight than on the Æthereal walking toward them. They go down a couple of feet away from Hermes, landing in a deep puddle. The contents splash up and across the legs of Hermes’s pants, soaking them with crap and mud. I swallow the hysterical laugh that threatens to bubble up.
This can’t end well.
Everyone freezes for a moment, even the fighters on the ground. They’re all waiting for Hermes’s wrath, for the outpouring of æther
that follows any Æthereal temper tantrum. But this is Tartarus, and there’s no æther here. Hermes is as powerless as the rest of us.
That doesn’t stop him from closing the umbrella and swinging it at the nearest Fae. The fiberglass snaps as it catches the slim man across the face, snapping his head back with an audible crunch. The other Fae tries to scramble away, but Hermes is much faster. With one hand he hauls the Fae up by the scruff before slamming him face-first into the soft mud. Then, with the detached expression of a man buying groceries, Hermes holds the flailing Fae down until he no longer moves.
Bile burns the back of my throat, and it’s hard to breathe. I push down the fear that makes me want to run away, to keep running until I can forget the coldness in Hermes’s eyes as he killed a man.
Cass appears next to me with a sigh. Even though I can smell the mixed fear and relief from the rest of the vættir, I get nothing from her. Cass’s emotions are always a mystery. “Great, now I’ll never get that food ration he owes me.” She’s serious. Cass never jokes about anything.
Life is cheap in Tartarus.
A couple of bulls run over to haul away the two Fae. Their bodies will be thrown beyond the tree line so that the unseen things that live in the woods can feast on them instead of on us. I relax so my expression doesn’t reflect the horror I feel. Hermes straightens, tossing away his ruined umbrella. “Hey, Zephyr,” he says as he adjusts his suit.
Cass slides back into the work crew as I cross my arms. It feels
like a lifetime since I last saw Hermes. Time passes differently in Tartarus, so I have no idea how long it’s actually been. A month? A year? Some days it feels like it was just yesterday that I landed here. Others, it feels like I’ve been here my entire life.
No matter how long it’s been, I can’t forget that he’s the one who put me in Tartarus. I thought he was more than just my sister’s boyfriend. I thought of him as family, the big brother I never had. And he turned me in to the Æthereal High Council. That’s what I get for trusting an Æthereal.
Never trust the gods.
Reminding myself of his betrayal centers me. “Hey, Hermes. If it isn’t my favorite psycho . . . pomp.” My voice is even. I’ve learned a few things down here, especially from Cass. I won’t let him know how his presence fills me with a burning rage that blurs my vision and makes me want to scream.
He gives me a wide smile, his chiseled cheekbones looking even sharper. “Funny. Did you think of it yourself?”
I sigh, feigning boredom. “What do you want? Can’t you see I have a very important ditch to dig?”
Hermes’s lips twitch. At least he still appreciates sarcasm. He clears his throat. “I’m here to speak with you on behalf of the Æthereal High Council.”
I shrug. “Okay.” I’m not sure what else I’m supposed to say. I was never important enough to garner the High Council’s notice before they sent me to Tartarus. Not many of the vættir are. We’re second-class citizens, lucky to avoid the gods’ notice.
“This is a private interview,” Hermes says. He eyes the nearest bull. The minotaur straightens, steam puffing out of his bovine nostrils as he snaps to attention.
“You may use the nearby gatehouse, Exalted, if it suits your needs.” The minotaur executes a clumsy bow, muck flying off one of his massive horns and landing on Hermes’s pants.
Hermes sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose before he remembers that his hands are covered in crap. Rage tightens his mouth as he gives the half-man, half-bull creature a limp-wristed wave to lead the way. We follow the guard to a nearby outbuilding in silence. Only the set of Hermes’s shoulders belies his utter disgust.
This would be hilarious if I wasn’t sick with dread.
We make our way through the steady rain to the gatehouse, where the bull remains outside while we go in. The room is small. It’s little more than a shack, really. Rough-hewn boards keep out the storm, and the floor is made of hard-packed earth. Dark fire flickers in the hearth, casting no light but warming the room nonetheless. A rickety table and chair lean against the wall opposite the fireplace, and a handful of pixies sealed in glass globes cast the only light in the room. The pixies emit a sickly yellow glow when they see us, one of them tapping on his prison insistently.
“Hey. Hey! Let me out before the bull comes back. I’ll pay you.” I ignore the bug. Anyone foolish enough to try to bribe me must be new to hell. He must not know who I am, or that I don’t care about his money, because there’s no way I’m ever leaving Tartarus.
Godslayers don’t get parole.
I try to scrape as much of the sludge off my face as I can, before I see the well in the far corner of the room. The water has the same sulfurous rotten-egg smell as all the water here in the Pits, but at least it doesn’t smell like an outhouse in August. There’s a grate near the well, and I upend the bucket over my head while standing on it. I repeat this two more times before I’m satisfied I’ve gotten the worst of the mess off. No sense in trying to get completely clean. This is Tartarus, after all.
I hold a full bucket out to Hermes. He shakes his head in distaste before thinking twice and dipping a lemon-yellow pocket square into the water. He gingerly wipes the dark streaks off his pale skin. I dump the rest of the water over my head before tossing the bucket back in the corner.
“The Underworld seems to agree with you,” he remarks as he starts to put away the handkerchief, thinks twice, and throws it on the sad-looking table.
I squeeze the excess water out of my blue, ropy locks and snort. What does he see? The front I keep up so the weaker inmates won’t mess with me? Just because I’ve learned how to hide my fear doesn’t mean I’m not scared. “It’s hell, H. I don’t think it agrees with anyone.”
He purses his lips. “No æther, which means no real magic, it’s perpetually dark, the sky rains excrement, and there are monsters waiting for a chance to devour the unwitting. I honestly don’t see what your problem is.”
His sense of humor is still as dry as the Sahara. It’s too bad I don’t find him funny anymore. I extend my talons and growl. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t turn your face into confetti, Betrayer.”
Hermes’s blued-steel gaze flashes. “Because it’s the last thing Whisper would’ve wanted you to do.”
Agony arcs through my chest, and I look away so he won’t see the pain of my loss in my gaze. Whisper. I can’t think of my sister without remembering the last time I saw her, her chest a gaping wound, her blood soaking into the concrete of the patio. She was my best friend and now she’s gone. My talons slide back under my fingernails. I wasn’t really going to attack him, anyway. “She loved you, you know. Even though she knew you’d eventually leave her.”
He clears his throat and looks away. I’m glad that I’ve managed to make him uncomfortable. Some of the water from my hair has managed to find its way into my mouth, and I spit onto the floor. “You didn’t come here to discuss my sister. What do you want?”
He sighs. “Still just as ladylike as ever. The High Council has sent me down here to inquire how it was that you managed to kill an Æthereal.”
I smirk. This is the third inquisitor the Council has sent down since I got here. The first two left with nothing, and Hermes will too. Just because he used to screw my sister doesn’t mean I owe him anything. “Just lucky, I guess.”
His lips thin in irritation before he sighs. “I bear this message for you.” He takes a shining white rock from his pocket, and I
take a step back in surprise. He holds an æther stone, a magically charged rock that would fetch a good price in the Pits. Before I can ask what he plans to do with it, he drops it on the ground between us. Light surges upward and snaps into sharp focus. I can’t help the hitch of breath in my chest.
Standing before me is a too-real image of my mother. The last time I saw the form before me, she was leaving for a battle, her claymore propped on her shoulder. Ruby-red hair knotted into locks that reached her waist, skin the color of midnight, and wings of deepest red and black. “Blood on coal,” Whisper used to call them when we’d watch her fly off to battle. I know that it isn’t really her. She’s dead, her shade somewhere in the Elysian Fields, enjoying eternal happiness. The projection is the Æthereal equivalent of Princess Leia’s plea to Obi-Wan. Still, I can’t stop myself from reaching out to her like I’ve always wanted.
My mother’s voice cuts through my mind after all these years, an unwanted phantom. You’re the daughter of an Æthereal, Zephyr. Try to stop being such an incredible disappointment. I can even see the way her dark face would scrunch up at me, as though I was the one problem in her life that she couldn’t solve.
The memory is the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from the woman gazing at me lovingly from the projection. “Zephyr, I know you probably aren’t happy to see me, but I need you to answer Hermes’s questions. It is of the utmost importance that the High Council be able to understand how you killed Ramun Mar.”
I swallow dryly. Who is this woman? There’s love shining in
her eyes, and she seems gentle and affectionate. This stranger is nothing like my mother. That Mourning Dove once flew me up to ten thousand feet and then dropped me, all to teach me how to fly.
“There’s no room for mistakes in battle,” she called as I fell, screaming until my sister, Whisper, flew up to catch me. It’s amazing I ever learned to fly after that terrifying introduction to the sky.
The message plays, but I’m finished listening to the lying image before me. I fight back angry tears before I kick the æther stone toward the corner. It falls into the well with a wet plunk. I fight to keep my words steady. “If you think that’s going to get me to talk, then you don’t know me at all.”
“Do you think that’s what your mother would want?”
I turn around once my eyes have stopped burning, the threat of tears avoided. “That woman doesn’t exist. Never did. I don’t know how you did it, but it’s a pretty sad attempt to get me to talk. Why don’t you just tell me what you want from me?” The words come out as a plea. I bite my lip, my eyes sliding away from his all-too-knowing blue ones.
“Aw, Peep,” he whispers, and the pet name cuts through me, the pain sharper and fresher than the ache of his betrayal. He reaches for me but at the last moment draws back, and I know he’s thinking about our last meeting.
He’s remembering that I might not have been caught by the Æthereals if he hadn’t tricked me.
I hate him even as I love him with all my heart. He made my sister so happy, and that made me happy. Deep down I’d always
hoped he would stay with Whisper, marry her like people do on television. I had this idea of a huge wedding, one that everyone in the Aerie would attend. There’d be cake, and I’d be Whisper’s maid of honor. It would be just like a movie.
I made the mistake of telling her that one time, and she just laughed, the sound high and brittle like glass breaking. “Zeph, you know that Æthereals don’t marry vættir. Especially not Exalteds like Hermes. I’m just grateful for the time that we have together. One day you’ll understand that.”
Hermes sighs and leans back against the wall of the gatehouse, drawing me out of the memory and putting a physical distance between us that’s a match for the emotional one. “The High Council needs you to cooperate because a war is brewing over you, kiddo. The kind of war that the vættir might not survive.”
“Why me? What did I do?”
A bark of laughter escapes from him. “What, besides kill an Æthereal? No big deal there, Godslayer.” He shakes his head, a small smile playing around his lips before he turns serious again. “You killed one of the unkillable. People want to know how. They want to know if it can happen again. And if they’re next.”
I smile tightly. “Sounds like Hera’s been working overtime.” At my trial she’d advocated for my death more than any of the other gods.
Hermes nods slowly. “That’s putting it mildly. She’s been on the warpath since you were sent here last year, and things are only getting worse.”
The air whooshes out of my lungs. I feel like I’ve been punched.
“A year? I’ve been here a year?” I imagine all the things I’ve missed in a year. If I’d been in the Mortal Realm, I would’ve finally gone to high school, a real school with norms. Homecoming, prom, football games, all the things regular people get to do. That’s what I would’ve spent the last year doing. Not digging ditches and fighting to stay alive.
After I failed my Trials, I thought a normal life was finally in my reach. Harpies who cannot pass the Trials are either given menial positions or expelled from the Aerie, forced to spend the rest of their lives trying to blend in among the norms, full-blooded humans. Most Harpies dread the modern world and opt to work in the Aerie’s laundry or kitchens, but I dreamed of the day when I’d no longer have to live in the Aerie. Freedom seemed like a blessing, not a curse.
But then I accidentally killed an Æthereal and ended up in Tartarus, ruining all my plans. And now I find out that I’ve lost a year in what felt like a few months.
Hermes’s eyes dart away from mine, and he shrugs in response. “Time passes differently down here.”
“You think?” I begin to pace as his words sink in. I’m finally realizing that my imprisonment is permanent. I’m not going to go to high school, or college, or anywhere else in the Mortal Realm. I’m going to be forever stuck here in Tartarus, covered in sludge and pretending to be brave. A year has passed, and I feel just like I did the last time I saw Hermes. Desperate, confused, and incredibly lost.
I stop pacing and cross my arms, trying to school my face to blankness. Arrows are useless without a bow. It’s an old Harpy saying. No sense wallowing in might-have-beens. “Are we finished?” I snap.
Hermes startles, my sharp tone unfamiliar. “What?” he asks in surprise. I’ve never raised my voice at him. I’ve always given him the deference that the Exalteds demand, even as he snuck into the house late at night to meet with my sister. But now I’m not thinking about class structures and the proper forms of address, or even the way my sister lit up when she saw him. I’m just thinking about the year of my life that I lost.
“Are you done with me or what? I have to get back before someone steals my shovel.”
His expression goes from shocked to sad, and I have to turn away from the pity on his face. “What happened to you, Peep? You’re different. I almost didn’t recognize you when I arrived. You’re rougher now.”
I sigh and sit in the room’s only chair, leaning my head back against the wall’s rough wood. “Tartarus happened to me, H. That’s all. Just Tartarus.”