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Despoina

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There was a time when Greece knew only summer.

The Golden Age wrapped a gentle hand around humanity, and defined itself in the boundaries of what humans loved best – an era of fields heavy with bountiful harvest, of flora adorned in their prettiest dresses, of blue seas and bluer skies that stretched and stretched and did not end – until one could think that that must be the way of things. That they would not end.

For endings, after all, were only for villains. In this time of plenty and wealth, the concept of endings was reserved for the old, the sick, the wicked.

But what was age but the ripening of grapes on the vine, and what was sickness, but the occasional leaf turned brown? And wickedness! Why, if every choice only bought pleasure, how could wickedness ever be true?

No, such heresy could find no hold in those endless summer days.

Under the great blue sky, surrounded by the majestic blue sea, the land was tilled and farmed. The scythe of Time stayed its hand, and with its protection cities were sown and civilizations sprouted. Greece knew art, knew trade, knew culture. It flourished like its crops, rich with the blessings of its gods.

And it was the gods to whom they owed this great age to.

To Zeus, King of the Gods, Wielder of the Thunderbolt, Ruler of the Unending Skies; they owed that promise of forever. If his skies had no ending, surely his blessing would have none too? On occasion the people heard the rumble of his great laugh from the heavens, and rejoiced under the cooling rains they heralded. To his grace did they owe the protection of the skies, and he was loved accordingly.

To Poseidon, his elder brother, Earth-Shaker and Storm-breaker, Ruler of the Roiling Seas; they owed hunger. Not the hunger that bites and wounds and allows anger to take root no, not that. This was the hunger of the soul. The hunger to learn and to explore and to make Knowledge their willing partner. With the seas before them the people of Greece felt within them that yearning for distant lands and unknown things, and dedicated themselves to intellectual pursuits that would satisfy that deep-rooted thirst for more. To Poseidon’s domain did they owe that wanderlust, and he was loved accordingly.

And finally, to Hades, the eldest, Favoured of Gaia, Guardian of the Underworld, Wielder of the Cornucopia; they owed their fortune. Rarely though were they reminded of his presence, it was to him that they owed the greatest of their debt. For he alone guarded the gates of Hades, and prevented any living soul from setting foot within. With Gaia’s favour he kept the lands rich and undying, and with his Hallows he maintained this protection with an iron fist, silver tongue and golden heart, an unyielding mountain in the face of the legions of Tartarus.

To Hades did they owe their life, and he was loved accordingly. Loved the most.

Such was the Golden Age. The land groaned under the weight of its wealth, and the people did not die. Summer never ended, and though Pandora’s box had long been opened, its contents were kept under control by Hades and his forces. There was peace.

There was a time when Greece knew only summer.

That time is no more. I tell you this tale, child, but it is nought but a tale. If true it was only so perhaps 10,000 years ago, but if you look around yourself now, the truth of things will make itself known to you.

A Golden Age? Perhaps, dear child, perhaps. If that was Gold then what came next was surely Obsidian, for a darker time was never known.

I am old, dear heart, and the tale I tell you now is one that has been passed down over millennia, moulded by the tongues of many ancestors past. I know not how readily those Golden Years trickled away, nor the exact events. We are only human, and it is impossible for us to know the will of the gods. Did we commit some great sin? Taint this world with some unfathomable mistake? Is it on our shoulders that this world is now subject to Hades’ fell creatures?

Whatever the cause, whatever the reason, we know only the consequences. Generations of innocent, left to be damned.

Hades failed in his duties as Guardian, and accordingly, the Gates were opened. From the pits of Tartarus surged forth those dread spirits of Pandora’s box and many more. Chimeras and Basilisks, Furies and Fury; even Death himself unleashed and ascended onto the surface world, free to prey upon our souls.

Without Hades’ protection, or perhaps with his curse, we could do nothing but watch and pray that ours and our beloved would not be the next souls taken. To the gods we prayed; to Zeus and Poseidon to restrain their wayward brother, to Athena and Ares that war would be waged upon the chthonic forces. To any who would listen. To any who would answer.

Yet still we saw; fields once golden turned barren, and rivers once clear run red. Disease curling its sickly grasp around our souls, Famine taking the life from our blood. And still the fires in our temples were kept alight at all times, as sacrifice after sacrifice was offered up, in hopes that we could somehow satisfy the gods.

There had been tales, before then, of cruelty by the hand of Zeus, occasionally Poseidon, but they were but rare incidents. A small price to pay for the maintenance of the Golden Age. One life for many - just another blind eye to turn. The gods could afford to be cruel occasionally, in that endless summer – who could stop them?

To think however, that this could be the fault of the only god who could be trusted, who had never lied or hurt humanity, not once. Many did not believe it, in the beginning.

But as the centuries passed, and only the demigod offspring of the surface gods managed to slay the fell creatures, and Hades himself remained ever silent, that faith was lost. Greece rebuilt itself, without his protection and favour, and repaid that silence in turn. No longer were temples built in his name, and no longer was his name whispered with the reverence it had once held. Ironically, Hades had fallen.

But he was not forgotten. There is such a fine line between love and hate, but the subjects of both will always occupy our heads and hearts more than any else. We will never forget Hades and his negligence, his abandonment.

You must never forget, dear heart.

-

From the shadows, a figure holds the dripping head of a fell beast in one hand, blood-stained glaive in the other. It is a figure draped in cloth made of the folds of Night, embroidered with the likenesses of foxglove and lily, as deadly and beautiful as both.

Around him the grass is drenched with the bodily fluids of the beast, pitch black stains even with moonlight glowing through the boughs of the trees. The two figures on the other side of the tree - a boy and his grandmother - are unaware of his presence. It was a silent kill.

Noiselessly his lips form the words to a prayer, and with a curl of his fingers, the corpse dissolves into the earth, and the little white heads of a dozen daisies spring forth in its place. The glaive vanishes too, its purpose fulfilled.

The cloaked figure does this all with a gravity that belies his devotion to finishing the job right, but his mind is alight with thoughts that are not entirely related.

He mulls over the old lady and her story, tucks his memory of it away with the thousand other tales he has heard on the same subject. They are all variations on the same event, with embellishments and exaggerations added as required for the consumption of the average mortal soul. Her tale is among the more modest, if he is to categorize them.

A thousand tales, but none come close to telling him the truth. It is impossible for humanity to know the will of the gods, echo her words in his head; but he thinks to himself – do even the gods know their own will?

10,000 years, since the opening of the Gates of Hell. Shen Wei knows he is a young god, in comparison to the pantheon, but even to them, such a period holds a certain weight. 10,000 years of fell creatures and nightmares surging into the land of endless summer.

Ye Zun, with his powers over the land, has done his best to ensure there is still harvest to be had, and to preserve the agriculture for the mortals that pray to him in droves. But it is still only just enough. The cities remain standing, and there has not been a mass death since like the one which signaled the opening of the Gates; but Greece will never be the same. There is a feeling, now, of brittle bones and work-never-done that marks humanity in the set of their backs and the hollowness of their gaze. A deep-rooted anger in their blood, where there was only joy and pleasure before.

It saddens Shen Wei. He knows that there are those in the Pantheon who could care less, so long as their sacrifices continue to make their way onto the altar, but Shen Wei has always been a god that lives and breathes as one with the people.

He remembers clearly his early days as a newborn god, when his only duties were to supplement Ye Zun’s harvests with his blossoms. When all he represented could be found in the simple pleasure that humanity found in exchanging his creations. Before he learned to wield the glaive as well as he did the rake.

Memories are all he has to hang onto now. Of brighter times, kinder times. Hazy remembrances of golden fields and sun-kissed, golden skin. The taste of honey and sweat. A mountain god and his pomegranate seeds.

Ignoring the sudden ache in his chest, Shen Wei takes one last glance at the two figures, before he steps into a blackness in the shadows that wasn’t there before, and vanishes.