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Hades dressed in his work clothes and made for the shed. Kade had offered to stay in the underworld another day, and Hades took advantage of the extra pair of hands. Lexi mentioned they needed to equip the nursery with a crib, and Hades had challenged himself to build the damn thing, but he couldn't fell a tree alone. Due to the approaching dark, he and Kade made haste to hitch up his two strongest horses to the utility sleigh for a trip to the minotaur forest.

"I noticed a couple more items missing from the shed," Kade said as they packed the sleigh. "It looks like Ink helped himself to an ax, so were down to one. The heavy-duty tarp is missing, and he also made off with most of the rope."

"Damn. We needed that rope to tie up the lengths of wood." Hades walked to the shed with Kade on his heels. "I keep extra leather for chariot repairs. We'll use that and hope it holds. Sounds like Ink is preparing to build himself a bunker. That should make it easier to locate him."

"Unless he's making something portable. A nomad is harder to track down."

Hades shook his head as he rummaged through a cedar chest full of scraps. He didn't relish having an unpredictable demigod camping out in his domain, but his time would be better spent focusing on the task at hand. Once the sleigh was loaded, Hades and Kade climbed on board and took to the woods. The northeast end of the minotaur forest boasted the finest oaks, and it was far enough from the encampments that they shouldn't attract attention.

As the two entered the woods however, a chill brushed across Hades' arms that had his hackles up, and he kept a vigilant watch on the landscape as he and Kade searched for the perfect oak. Hades wanted to present Lexi with a gift as grand as the one she was presenting him.

"What about this one?" Kade pointed to a sprawling tree with branches stretching as far as a full grown hydra.

"The trunk is not straight enough. But, it is a fine specimen. There is a smaller oak a few paces in that direction." Hades gestured as he walked toward a tree with fewer limbs and a thick trunk. Perfect for a project requiring strict, rigid lines. It had been some time since he built a nursery bed, but his memory of that endeavor had not quite failed him. When Hades reached the tree in question, he held his ear to it, listening for sounds of wildlife. He hated to cut down a tree that served as a home to the fey or other woodland inhabitant. The only sound he received was the breath of the tree, and he extended his time there, communing with the tree and speaking his wishes to it.

"I believe Gaia has chosen this tree for us," he said, finally. "Let's begin while we still have the light."

As Kade retrieved an ax from the sleigh, a harsh crackling of branches broke the forest silence, and two minotaurs emerged from the underbrush. Hades recognized one as Lars but the other was unknown to him. He straightened his shoulders and greeted the pair with the authority of his position as lord of the underworld.

"Pleasant day, Lars."

Lars clicked his greeting, introducing his friend as Cole, and Hades responded with a polite nod. During the awkward greeting, Kade remained as still as a doe, the ax clutched tightly in his hand.

"Lord Hades, may we be of assistance?" Lars grunted his question at Hades but his gaze darted to Kade as he spoke.

"We want to fell this tree for a bed. It will be for the babe Lexi is carrying. Our resources are limited. Your strength may be of great help."

Lars bowed his head and directed his enormous hand toward Hades. "Congratulations on your offspring and your upcoming union."

Hades shook Lar's hand, feeling sobered by the experience and the strength behind the young leader's grip. "Lexi is fond of you, Lars. Your allegiance with the gods is crucial to the health and peace of mind of the inhabitants of our world, not to mention the peace of mind of the goddess who will soon be queen."

Hades hoped a few of his sentiments had come across, but it was hard to tell because soon after the cordial exchange, Lars and Kade became locked in a staring match. Lars' gaze was hard and scrutinizing, while Kade wore a wary one. Was there a protocol for introducing someone to his father's murderer? Hades chose to hold his tongue and react when the situation deemed it.

With his eyes still on Kade, Lars jerked his head toward the oak. "You have chosen this tree?"

"Yes," Hades replied.

"It is a good choice. Let us take it swiftly and mercifully."

Lars reached behind his back and pulled an axe from a loop in his leather belt, which caused Kade's hand to flinch. When Lars' comrade, Cole, unsheathed his axe, an ominous mood descended upon them. It lingered only a moment, but it was long enough to take Hades back to a time not so long ago when minotaurs would not have brandished an axe in a show of comradery.

The four quickly got to work, replacing the ominous mood with the distraction of labor. They made short work of felling the tree and cutting it into portable pieces, and once the sleigh was loaded and secured, Lars approached Hades with another handshake.

"I am glad we could help you," Lars said in his rough dialect.

"Thank you, Lars. You are always welcome at the palace."

"And you are welcome by the herd, your grace. May I speak freely?"

"Of course."

"Our Lady Lexi has a gift greater than the others who have come here. She extracts her powers from nature. The entity you call Gaia. Lexi doubts this. She is humble. She helped plant seeds to replenish the pomegranates lost to the rogue god. Soon after planting them, the trees sprouted from the ground and grew to produce buds."

Hades swallowed as he listened to Lars' confession. What kind of gift was this? "How soon after? A few days?" he asked.

Lars looked confused for a moment, then he seemed to understand Hades' question. "She planted the seeds this morning."

Hades exchanged a look with Kade, who appeared just as shocked as he was. Why hadn't Lexi told him about this? Was she unaware of it herself? "Thank you for sharing that good news with me, Lars. Lexi has captured my heart, as well as many others, and I will do everything in my power to nurture her unique gift."

With a mutual bow, they went their separate ways, Lars and his comrade tromping deeper into the dense forest, and Hades and Kade urging the horses back to the palace. Kade eyed Hades during their journey home, offering his mute judgment of the events. When they finally reached the shed, Kade broke his silence.

"You're scared, aren't you?" he said, resting his hand on Hades' back as they unloaded the wood from the sleigh. "You're afraid Lexi is going to leave you and move to Olympus."

With a painful sigh, Hades nodded as he leaned against the shed. "How can I measure up to her, Kade? She has the gifts of Gaia. She is meant to be among her disciples."

Kade gave Hades' shoulder a firm squeeze. "No, Hades. She is meant to be with the one she loves."

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