Zagreus had never known war.
Achilles was always quick to remind him of that, in training. That fighting, even to the death, was not at all the same. “Be glad of that, lad. War isn’t something to wish on anyone.”
Anyone raised in the underworld grew up on tales of great heroes who won their place in Elysium through glorious battle, enough stories to believe warfare a noble pursuit, yet the haunted distance that entered his mentor’s eyes at the mention of it could convince Zagreus to question. Achilles would never talk about the wars of his mortal days, though plenty of other shades were happy to gossip about his valiant past. Hard to sort truth from legend at that point, though.
When Zagreus started venturing out, slaying his way through Tartarus, he thought perhaps those fights were something akin to war. The frantic melees of each room as shades and monsters swarmed him, trying to tear him apart, surely that was what mortal warriors felt on the battlefield. That adrenaline rush, weaving between the attacks of his foes, trusting his life to weapon skill honed into perfect, unthinking instinct.
As he ventured, he started to learn just how overwhelming messages from his Olympian family could be—the all-consuming euphoria of Dionysus’ messages, the heart-pounding ache of desire from Aphrodite, the feeling of a riptide dragging him into the pressure of the depths as Poseidon laughed. The boons they offered were drenched in their power, intoxicating and terrifying.
When the power before him had coalesced into a crimson sword, a clangorous din of metal on flesh on shouting echoing in his ears, Zagreus had thought himself prepared to touch war for the first time. His training with Achilles, his battles through Tartarus had surely taught him what to expect.
He’d been wrong.
The things he’d expected were there, of course, the battle rush, the thrill of a fight. The smells of viscera, and sweat, and human terror. The taste of copper in his mouth. But he couldn’t have possibly been prepared for the heavy weight of insignificance that came with it. The crushing fear of being one among thousands, sent to kill and suffer and die, just like everyone else. War cared not who survived and who did not. It was a thirst slaked only by blood, and it would drink the lives of all foolish enough to enter its domain.
As Zagreus yet reeled from this brush with war, true war, for the first time, its divinity greeted him warmly. He wasn’t certain what he expected of the God of War—someone brutish and aggressive, perhaps?—but Lord Ares was anything but. Dignified, yet dangerous. A crown of laurels, like shards of black glass, rested atop a swoop of silver hair, framing a handsome face with sharp, strong features. The refined image of the god ran his fingers along the sharpened edge of his sword, and blood, weightless as smoke, curled upward from the surface. His words to Zagreus were perfectly polite, introducing himself as “a fellow student of death,” and yet the barest gleam in his eye spoke of bloodlust, violence.
Ares’ power flowed through Zagreus as he accepted the boon, and Varatha felt lighter in his hands, the weapon itself eager for the next strike. Zagreus pushed on into the next room with a smile.
As his forays up into the underworld lengthened, bit by hard-fought bit, Zagreus found himself drawn time and again to that bellicose power, accepting the blessings of Ares whenever he could find them. There was just something about having that edge of battle thrill coursing through him with each fight. Wherever his blade struck, Ares’ power followed swiftly, finishing off foes in Zagreus’ wake. It was like fighting with an ally at his back, a deadly dance of blood and death as together they sent shades back to dust.
Though he took boons from all the Olympians when he could find them, there was something different about the God of War. Ares seemed to savor the violence Zagreus inflicted, though admittedly he seemed equally enamored with the violence Zagreus received.
After a particularly difficult struggle, flagging from a dozen different cuts and bruises, Zagreus forced himself to straighten to accept the offered power, putting on a strong face. He hadn’t expected Ares to sound quite so euphoric to find him in such a state. “You seem to be upon the verge of death, my friend,” the War God’s voice said, dripping with delight. “I cannot wait to hear of it! The experience of death, time after time! You are one of a kind.”
There was something entrancing about winning Ares’ favor, as though each foe slain were an act of worship. Perhaps it was, Zagreus told himself. After all, he didn’t know much of how that sort of thing worked. Could one god worship another? His father and the Chthonic Gods didn’t have much care for faith and followers, rites and rituals. He didn’t know how it worked for the gods up above. Zagreus had certainly never had anyone pray to him.
At times, he would pause to pour out an offering of nectar before the bright nexus of power, sending a prayer of gratitude with the sacrifice. “You are a flatterer, my death-inflicting kin,” the smooth voice returned, offering a suitably bloody token in return.
Zagreus found the little vial still in his hand when he next dragged himself up out of the pool of Styx, dripping his way down his father’s great hall. The glass felt hot against his skin, even with his ever-warm temperature. He’d find a place for it in his case after catching up with everyone.
Ignoring the chirped greeting from Hypnos and a biting taunt from his father about yet another “ignoble” death, he made his way to his mentor, looking forward to a friendly face instead.
Achilles, however, blanched as he approached. “Lad, what is that you’re carrying?”
“This?” Zagreus held it up. “Oh, a gift from Lord Ares. He’s been quite helpful out there, after all. I think, despite our conversations being almost entirely one-sided, we might be developing something of a rapport.”
Achilles brow knit with sharp furrows, nausea tinging his expression. “So I feared,” he said softly, before continuing in a stronger tone. “Far be it from me that I should tell you how to conduct yourself out there, lad, but if I might give a warning?”
He paused, reaching forward to take Zagreus’ hand in his own, closing the prince’s fingers around the glass to cover it from sight. “Don’t trust that one. I’m sure powers such as he offers are… seductive, especially on a task such as yours. But War is a friend to none, Zagreus. Remember that.”
“I think you may be right on that front, sir.” Zagreus ran a hand through his hair, straightening his laurels as he did so. “At times I think he’s as pleased to see me dead as my foes. But you’re also right in guessing the power is useful.”
“Too many mortals spend their lives worshipping War until the moment Ares takes everything from them and casts them down here. I was one such fool. I would spare you being another, if I can.”
“Luckily, I’m far from mortal,” Zagreus said lightly, then gave a more serious nod. “I’ll keep your words in mind.”
Achilles’ fond smile returned. “That’s all I can ask, lad.”
Despite his mentor’s warning, Zagreus found his path continued to cross Ares’ out amidst the shifting rooms. Sometimes, after all, he didn’t have a choice in what lay ahead of him. It wasn’t as though he could leave a boon behind, not when he needed every edge he could get.
Other times, though… other times Zagreus did have a choice, and he’d find himself choosing Ares over something else. He felt a twinge of guilt, knowing Achilles wouldn’t like it, but Ares’ gifts were just too difficult to pass over. And sometimes, Zagreus had to admit, he just missed the feeling of it, that rush, the thrill of violence the boons granted.
Seductive was an apt word, Achilles, he thought, reaching his hand into the congregation of power and crimson light to see what Ares had brought for him this time. Perhaps ‘addictive’ might have been another.
That now familiar wave of sensation rushed over him, as Ares’ image manifested before him. “You must know I often hunger for destruction, almost uncontrollably at that,” Ares’ message spoke. “Though I am finding you are able to sate that appetite of mine.”
Despite the volcanic heat of Asphodel, Zagreus felt a distinct chill at that. A god like Ares, sated by Zagreus’ violence. The words seemed to echo in his ears for chambers upon chambers afterward, and not for the first time, he wondered just how much his Olympian family members were able to perceive of him through Nyx’s shroud.
Eventually, he finally managed to defeat his father on the frigid surface, and his trials through the underworld stopped being about escape and instead became a pilgrimage for those brief moments with his mother. They were precious, standing amongst the beauty of her gardens in what seemed to be the only warm place in the mortal world. But her words, her fear that there would be consequences for his visits, were haunting.
Zagreus had never known war, after all, but his mother’s words gave him plenty of reasons to think on the concept. Both Hades and Persephone, in their own ways, seemed to fear that if her situation became known to Olympus, it would be war. And something told Zagreus that a true war with Olympus would involve deaths far beyond the kind that sent him back to the Styx. His thoughts turned over the old tales of his father and relatives tearing their Titan parents apart, scattering the shreds of them throughout all existence. The gods might not die as mortals did, but there was no doubt in his mind that they could be destroyed.
The Olympians were assisting him, but he had also felt how quickly they could turn to wrath if given reason, and the ferocity of their responses when spurned. Demeter especially—his grandmother, he reminded himself—could be particularly cruel, and even from the brief messages and frigid power he’d received from her, he was certain she would tear his home asunder if she learned anything to make her think she could bring her daughter back.
War, true war, was still foreign to him. But he was more than certain he would do anything to keep it from coming for his family.
Especially if Ares were going to be on the other side.
A screaming skull, wreathed in green-red flames, screeched from Hades’ hand as Zagreus dashed to the side. A bolt struck his father as he slid in the snow, rewarding his near miss as he struck once, twice, thrice in quick jabs before dashing away once more.
The skull howled for his blood as it flew, but he hurled Varatha in a perfect throw after it, coursing with Ares’s strength. The doom would seal its fate before it could burn itself to the point of detonation. In the space of a heartbeat, the exalted spear was back in his hand once more, and he dashed away again, loosing a bloodstone shaped like one of Artemis’ arrows from just out of reach of one of his father’s swipes.
Hades growled, rearing back for a vicious spin, but Zagres had learned his father’s tells by now. By the time the strike came, the prince was already gone, sliding to a stop well behind Hades’ back. The fight raged through him, and he threw Varatha again, marking his father with the doom as well as the spear pierced him, then returned. They were close to the end, Zagreus could feel it.
Before Hades could turn around to ready another attack, Zagreus dashed back in, driving Varatha home. The spear plunged deep just as Ares’ ethereal sword crashed down from above, and the God of the Dead gasped raggedly and collapsed to his knees. Zagreus stepped back, grinning in triumph as the chaos of the fight gave way to a sudden calm.
“Well… done, boy…” Hades rasped, begrudging respect in his words as he clung to his last bits of awareness.
“See you back at the House, Father.” Deep within, Zagreus thrilled at the words. After everything they’d been through, he still couldn’t believe he and his father had come to an understanding. That one might even say they were on, perhaps, good terms. Only a short time ago, it would have been unthinkable.
A part of him believed Hades might actually enjoy these now-regular trips up to the surface, a break from the parchmentwork and a chance to spend time with his son. Even if it was a fight to the death. Strange, how something like that could be a bonding experience. Though perhaps after all this time with Meg, he shouldn’t have been surprised.
For a while after the Lord of the Dead faded back into the Styx, Zagreus stood and just relished being on the surface. He took a deep breath, the cold biting into his lungs, trying to memorize the feeling of the wind on his skin. He knew he wouldn’t last long, not now that Persephone’s influence wasn’t up here to lend him strength, but that just made him determined to appreciate it while he could.
Things were better now, so much better than he could have hoped. His mother was home, his father was happy—or the Hades equivalent of it at least—for the first time in Zagreus’ memory. They were safer now than ever too, he told himself, as he didn’t need to worry his surface visits would lead the Olympians to discover Persephone at her cottage. He enjoyed his new role, refining the Underworld’s security. He even enjoyed the extra challenges his father’s Pact of Punishment presented. Everything seemed nearly perfect.
Zagreus stood there long enough for his feet to melt a wide circle in the snow, and then he started to walk. He could feel the Styx pulling at him already, and it would only get worse the farther he went. He remembered a wide overlook on the way, perfect to stop and watch the sunrise, but try as he might, he hadn’t yet been able to make it back there again. His wounds ached, mortal-red blood dripping from a few good hits Hades had landed, but he barely paid attention to those anymore.
The river would take him long before bloodloss did.
“For one so newly a victor, you do not seem celebratory, my kin.”
Zagreus spun at the unexpected voice, Varatha appearing in his hand as he tensed and found himself face-to-face with his first Olympian in the divine flesh. Ares stood in the path of melted footprints behind Zagreus, eyeing the escaped prince with a deep curiosity. And something else in his eyes, unplaceable. He looked exactly as he had in the visions Zagreus had received from his power, and yet there was something far more menacing about Ares being so close now in truth.
“Lord Ares,” Zagreus said, his pulse suddenly pounding in his throat. “I wasn’t expecting you—or anyone, really—to be here.”
Inwardly, Zagreus’ thoughts raced. If Ares was still here when he died, he would realize Zagreus was never going to make it to Olympus. Once that was known, the Olympians would start to question what he’d really been doing, and he was certain, if they put their power to discovering what was truly happening, it was only a matter of time before they uncovered the truth, Nyx’s protection or no.
“Of that, I have no doubt.” The crimson eyes flicked up, locking onto Zagreus with a dangerous expression. “Ah, even with you standing before me, your mother’s power clings to you. Yet it is refreshing to be able to see you clearly for the first time, my kin.”
Zagreus felt a small surge of panic at the mention of his mother before he realized with relief that Ares was speaking of Nyx. He decided to play it safe, for now, stay polite. “I am honored to meet you in truth, as well, Lord Ares. If I may ask though, what has brought you here?”
Ares’s expression grew distant, contemplative. “You know, I recall the first time I felt you kill something truly alive. Nothing more than vermin, of course, and then half-feral satyrs, but there is a vast difference between scattering a shade and killing something living and breathing.”
He took a small step forward, and Zagreus unconsciously stepped back. A little smile played at Ares’ lips to see it, and Zagreus wondered if this fear he felt was something supernatural, an aura around the War God perhaps. Or was it instead simply that Zagreus knew what was at stake here.
How near War truly was to him and those he loved in this moment.
“I took that as a good sign, how near you were to finally breaking free,” Ares continued, his tone casual but his bearing anything but. “And then I would feel you die again, presumably to start over. But then something changed, didn’t it? You see, I felt you killing shades, and then satyrs, and then nothing. You didn’t die. But then it started again a short time later, shades again, then the vermin, and then… nothing once more. As it continued, I wondered, perhaps it wasn’t that you were not dying, but rather that you were simply no longer dying in battle. Something within the domain of your brooding Thanatos instead?”
Another step forward, and that cruel smile spread. “I doubt the others had any knowledge of this, but I am, as you know, uniquely attuned to such things. Though I’ve wondered if Hermes knows more than he’s telling. Regardless, my curiosity got the better of me, and I wondered what I might find, were I to visit the entrance to the Underworld myself. Imagine my surprise.”
Zagreus forced a winsome smile—the kind that usually got him in trouble—and forced down that choking, cloying terror that clawed within him. The safety of his home depended on him finding a way to talk himself out of this. “It’s a funny story, actually. The surface world is a more treacherous place than I expected, and I’m so unfamiliar with it all. After being weakened by the fight through my father’s realm, something or other always seems to finish me off up here.”
As though mentioning the weakness summoned it, a wave of Styx-sent enfeeblement and nausea washed over him, but he didn’t dare let it show.
Ares narrowed his eyes, and stepped forward again. Striking distance. “‘See you back at the house,’” Ares quoted. “Odd words to a slain foe, Zagreus. And what was that your father said as he fell? ‘Well done,’ was it? How strangely cordial.”
Zagreus laughed, trying to hide his panic as he realized just how long Ares had been watching. “Well, you see, there’s a simpl– urghhh…” The groan slipped free with an involuntary shudder as the Styx’s claim wracked him again. He felt like a pierced wineskin, vitality leaking from wounds he had no way to staunch.
Ares crossed that final bit of distance between them in his moment of weakness, pressing the edge of his sword to Zagreus’ throat. “And what might this be? I can feel this isn’t from your wounds. Have you been poisoned, somehow?” His eyes widened just a fraction as it clicked. “Or does the surface not agree with your nature? An answer for your unviolent deaths, it seems. How many times have you done this?”
The wind sharpened against the clammy sweat on Zagreus’ skin. He mustered what strength he had to glare fiercely over the blade. “You cannot tell the other gods, Lord Ares. You cannot–”
The blade pressed closer, forcing Zagreus to flinch back. “Oh, but don’t you think they deserve to know that dear Zagreus, of whom we’ve all grown so very fond, has been deceiving us all this time? How you’ve taken our favors without ever intending to join us?”
In a flash of movement, Ares’ blade withdrew, replaced by a hand wrapping around Zagreus’ neck and lifting him off the ground. Ares’ grip was as unyielding as granite. He tried to make a strike with Varatha, but the spear wasn’t designed for such close quarters, and Ares batted the feeble attempt away. He let the prince dangle from his grasp for a few moments, chuckling to himself, and then effortly tossed Zagreus across this clearing in the trees.
Zagreus tumbled through the snow, feeling altogether like one of Cerberus’ much-abused chew toys between his lingering wounds and the blood weakness consuming him. As he rolled to a stop against a gnarled tangle of roots, he heard the snow-crunch of Ares walking towards him again.
“You wish my silence on this matter?” Ares said, clearly delighted at the whole situation. “Best me then, and you shall have it. Let us see if you’ve learned anything from the gifts I’ve offered you all this time. Though I wager you’re not feeling particularly fit, are you?”
Zagreus called Varatha back to his hand from where it had fallen, and started to slowly push himself upright again. He was still on hands and knees when he suddenly had to throw himself sideways, rolling into a crouch a few feet away as Ares’ sword came down where he’d lain.
Ares grinned at him as Zagreus attained his feet, Varatha held wardingly before him. “So there is some fight yet in you, my kin. At the very least, you ought to be grateful for the battle death I shall grant. This wasting illness upon you is most unbecoming.”
“Lord Ares,” Zagreus said, backing away, already breathing heavily. “I do not wish to fight you. This is all a misunderstanding, I assure you.”
“Oh, we are rather beyond words now. But fret not, we will be finished quite swiftly. I suggest you relish this fight while you can.”
Zagreus dashed back as Ares came in for him again, instinctively swiping with Varatha’s blade, but missing widely. The familiar spear felt like a stranger in his hands, twice as heavy as it’d ever been. In the space of a heartbeat, Ares was behind him, throwing a rift of bloodied blades at Zagreus’ back. He dove ungracefully to avoid it, rolling and barely getting Varatha’s haft up in time to block the next sword strike from above.
Ares was right, he was far from fit for this contest. Already wounded from his earlier battles, and now enervated by being above ground too long. Ares was perfectly hale and relentlessly eager to see him slain. Zagreus knew he was fast enough to stay away, avoid being hit, but he was bleeding strength by the second. He might not stand much of a chance in this fight, but he wasn’t going to go down without at least bloodying Ares for it.
Out of habit, he threw Varatha, his safest option from afar, but the weapon swerved off-course, Ares catching it as it flew to his hand as faithfully as it had ever returned to Zagreus.
“Did you forget who blessed these throws of yours this time?” Ares laughed. “You aren’t foolish enough to think I’d let you use my own power against me.”
Zagreus growled and called Varatha back, snapping it out of Ares’ hand. Up close and personal, then. He’d need to keep a very particular distance: out of reach of those swords, but close enough to jab his own attacks in.
After only a few exchanges, it was clear Ares was toying with him. Zagreus fought sloppily, throwing himself into attacks to make up for his swiftly dwindling strength, and Ares parried each cleanly. Rather than taking full advantage of openings Zagreus left, Ares returned him little nicks and shallow slices, clearly enjoying showing off how perfectly in his power Zagreus was.
Frustrated, Zagreus lunged forward, desperate to land a hit, and Ares cracked him across the head with the flat of his blade. The world spun in a sickening lurch, and from the ringing in his ears, he thought for a moment that Thanatos had come to aid him. He tried to find his feet again, but instead stumbled sideways, his balance reeling from the hard hit.
Ares stood back and watched him struggle to stand, like an artist stepping back to admire his canvas from afar. “I must admit, you fight quite valiantly, my kin. It has been too long since I have allowed myself an indulgence such as this.”
Zagreus threw himself into it once again, and Ares met him, smiling all the while. Ares seemed to have a preternatural sense for how Zagreus moved, where he intended to strike. Even at a full dash, Ares never lost track of him, a perfect warrior in every sense. Zagreus zipped to the side but his leading leg’s strength gave way at just the wrong moment, sending him faltering forward, but even as he fell, he wrenched Varatha up into an underhand swipe and finally, finally, managed to land a hit.
The strike traced a smooth line up the bare skin of Ares right arm, shimmering ichor starting to flow from the wound. A chaotic strike seemed to bypass Ares’ sense for how he fought. He remembered Achilles’ warning that often, an untrained opponent could be the most dangerous, as it was impossible to predict what they would do. A tumbling strike, it seemed, could be the same.
Ares stepped back, surprise on his face. He touched the slice, staring as if in disbelief when his fingers came away wet. “How unexpected. You are not one to be underestimated.” He dipped his head in a conciliatory bow. “A fair hit.”
It was nothing, Zagreus knew. The kind of minor injury that would barely slow a mortal, much less a god. But that brief moment of respect, that surprise on Ares face when the hit landed, something in Zagreus thrilled as though it were a grand victory.
The reprieve was short lived, and from the moment Ares engaged him once more, Zagreus knew he didn’t have much longer. He managed to land one another attack, piercing Ares’ shoulder, but his strength was almost entirely spent, and a new look had entered Ares’ eyes. The anticipation of a kill.
It happened so quickly, as Zagreus tried to feint left, but Ares, of course, didn’t fall for the maneuver. Before Zagreus could re-adjust, Ares’ hand clapped down on his shoulder to hold him in place, and with one smooth motion, the gleaming sword ran him through. Agony blossomed through Zagreus as Ares pulled him in closer, drawing him up to the hilt with the blade slipped between his ribs.
This part of the process, at least, was familiar. At this point, he’d had more violent deaths than he could count, ever varied but never entirely unexpected. Dying never got easier, but it was, at the very least, something he now knew well. Varatha slipped from his fingers, disappearing before it hit the snow, and his pained gasp gave way to a jagged cough, a wet sound that told him Ares had pierced his lung. He could taste the blood in his mouth.
Ares breathed out slowly, with the barest shiver of pleasure. He held Zagreus in that facsimile of an embrace, as blood flowed down the hilt and onto Ares’ hand. For a few heavy heartbeats, they were both still, intimately close. And then Ares closed his eyes and leaned in, his face mere inches from Zagreus’ skin and inhaled deeply.
“So that is you, after all,” Ares said softly, marveling. “I had thought, at first, that you merely carried remnants of other fights, clinging to you still, but this is stronger. Innate. Incarnate. The scent of blood rests beautifully upon you, my kin.”
With a sickeningly wet lurch and another surge of hot pain, Ares yanked his sword free, tearing a new gouge through Zagreus. The War God shoved him backward, and Zagreus collapsed in the snow, trembling hands instinctively pressing into the warm mess of the wound. It didn’t hurt nearly as much as it should have. His senses were fading.
Ares stood over him, as dignified as ever, and raised his sword to catch the scent of Zagreus’ blood once more, now wisping off the edge as the other blood had before. “It has been far too long since I had a partner quite so satisfying, I must admit. I shall keep your secret to myself, that I might continue to enjoy the violence you wreak. Whatever your reasons, your ever-faithful bloodshed may sate my curiosity for now. And of course, I know where to find you now, should I have need for another… personal correspondence such as this. Savor your death here, my kin, for I know I shall. We shall see one another again soon.”
Shock and relief rushed through Zagreus, and with it, that familiar little thrill of a challenge. Ares would keep his secrets? And… wished to fight him again? He would find Zagreus far more prepared next time. A new chance to prove himself against a worthy opponent. It would take time and practice, as these things always did, but the idea was intoxicating: their positions reversed, Zagreus triumphant, striking down the God of War.
As he lay his head back in the bloodied snow, eyes slipping shut, the last thing he felt was the small smile crossing his face and the waters of the Styx closing over his head once more. Then he was submerged, and everything went dark.