She woke with a start, finding Herself lying on cold stone. But it was not the arching, vaulted, echoing ceilings of gleaming Olympus She saw above Her, but formless, limitless darkness.
And it all came back to Her.
Failed! I have failed!
She rose to Her feet. All about Her was darkness. But as Her eyes adjusted, She could see distant specks of light glittering all about Her.
Anger seeped into Her then. Had She not ruled wisely, and justly, for eons? When the other Olympians were causing mischief, torturing mortals at the slightest of whims, hadn’t She done Her best to allay the worst of Her family’s behaviors? Guide the mortals as best She could, impart upon them the wisdom to find their own way?
And then, when Zeus had fallen and the Firmament itself seemed on the verge of destruction, only She had had the strength to grab hold of the reins before the World could careen out of control. Through sheer force of will, She had kept Her squabbling relatives united, to hold back Chaos as it threatened to overthrow the lands and Her people, to focus on the problems besieging them.
And what was Her thanks for saving the world? Deserted by the followers She had worked so tirelessly to lead and protect, Her munificent benevolence so quickly forgotten, in favor of the empty promises of the foreign Gods. Let down by the incompetence of Her fellow Olympians, who could not defeat a simple, single mortal!
And betrayed! Vacillating Aphrodite, her silken gowns all aflutter, shying away from the hard, thankless work that had had to be done to preserve their world, and eventually opening the final door to Athena’s doom. Or even worse, Her spiteful betrayer of a half-brother, stabbing Her in the back one last time, ripping away salvation just as it lay within Her fingers.
Enjoy the fruits of your bloody treachery, Ares! Doomed to live on for only a few years more, mere heartbeats in the timescale of Eternity, your facilities rapidly declining as you descend into the forgotten and lonely death to which you have already condemned Me.
She looked down to see Her fingers clenching. She could feel it still, the smooth hilt of Her sword within Her hand. One last stroke, and She would have saved them all, despite themselves!
And then She felt the blood welling from between those same fingers, as She had grasped fruitlessly at the cold, cruel blade that had ended everything.
The Warrior approached the high, alabaster walls of the ethereal castle, and the dark-haired woman who stood before the closed gates.
“I have been summoned?” the Warrior asked.
The woman looked at the Warrior. “Yes.” She gestured toward the walls. “Even in death, She remains obstinate. Her discipline is too strong; Her mind unyielding. With it, She has constructed for Herself Her own prison, a place of ascetic order where She dwells alone, holding court over none but Herself.”
She pointed at the smooth walls, to the dark, spidery lines which ran irregularly along the otherwise-perfect stones. “But see, bitterness lives within as well, festering within the heart of Her court. Unchecked, it may escape, and take on a life of its own.”
The woman waved a hand in front of her, and the gates quietly opened. She gestured for the Warrior to proceed.
“But why me? Why not you?”
“I have not the power to interfere with Her. Only you have the ability to break this enchantment. For She has long served as patron to those who would be heroes. Fallen as She has, She will not soon forget that.”
The gates closed softly behind the Warrior, and with their closing came a great, suffocating presence that soon blanketed all.
Howling, crying shadows swirled about, lashing through the air, their spidery claws tearing the very fabric of reality. The Warrior’s mind was filled with their terrible cries, distant echoes of the bitter dreams She dreamt.
The Warrior’s silver sword danced amid the chaos, rending the dark demons asunder. Their numbers were countless, but the Warrior’s sword was tireless and true, hewing a path through their cacophony, straight into the heart of the cold citadel.
The intruder approached. She could sense it, in Her dreams.
“Disturb My sleep no more!” She cried out. “Leave Me be!”
Awake now, Her eyes open at last, She rose from the cold throne to confront Her tormentor.
A figure stood at the distant end of the hall opposite Her, hidden within the gloomy shadows.
Reflexively, She waved Her fingers, to cast the darkness away. And was reminded again that She was powerless.
She stood still, bracing Herself. Robbed of Her Godhood She may have been, but She would quail before no one!
Least of all her!
Her features unmoving, Her eyes unblinking, She watched silently as the figure passed from the shadows of the entryway into the dim light of the hall.
But the flickering light did not reveal dark leathers, or that hated chakram clenched in the fist. Instead, silver armor gleamed, emerging from within the shadows, and a slim, silver sword reflected the light back.
“Ilainus,” She breathed.
The single word shattered the shroud of fog which had heretofore enveloped the Warrior’s mind. Ilainus! I am Ilainus!
Her measured approach became unmeasured, her trusty sword clattering, forgotten on the floor behind her, as she raced between the marble columns, toward the glittering, golden figure descending down the dais to meet her.
And as she reached Athena’s side, Ilainus fell to her knees, bowing her head. “My Lady,” she said, choking back the tears which threatened to engulf her.
A gentle hand brushed against her cheek. “Can it be?” Athena breathed.
And then the tears did flow, as Ilainus could only nod silently in response.
Athena’s finger touched one of the tears. “But why do you cry, dear one?” she asked. “Are we not together again?”
Ilainus finally looked up, to see the wondrous glory of Athena’s eyes, searching her own. “I cry to find you here, my Lady. For now I remember that I am dead, and upon my passing, my last wish was to never see you again, that you never join me in death. For you to reign, forever shining, far away from the darkness of this Underworld.”
And then Ilainus saw what she had never seen before, never expected to see. A single, crystal tear welled up from Athena’s right eye. Instinctively, she reached out a hand, palm upraised, to catch it as it fell from the Goddess’ cheek.
“I am no longer She whom you once loved, My most blessed,” she whispered. “For I have no more followers.”
“You still have one, my Lady. Here.” With her forefinger, she tapped the skin above her heart. “Forever.”
Athena’s hand reached out, to cover that same spot, pressing slightly. “And that is all I will need, now. Forever.”
And so did the dead Goddess and Her most beloved finally leave that crystalline court. Hand in hand, they followed the dark-haired woman through the final gateway, never looking back as it closed behind them all. Forever.