The centaur galloped toward them at full speed when Hades and his team pulled up in front of Tartarus. Based on the agitated gesturing on the part of the centaur, he was under the impression Hades intended to take the gods on a tour through the pits of hell.
"My lord!" the centaur called. "What brings you, my lord?" He came to a grinding halt, his hooves digging into the dirt and showering Hades' chariot with gravel.
Hades recognized the centaur as the one who reported the rogue centaur, but for the life of him, Hades could not remember the centaur's name. "Greetings to you. Pardon my rudeness, but I cannot recall your name."
"I am Essex, scout for the western herd. Are you here to inquire about the rogue? I can tell you, he has not been seen since my visit to the palace."
Essex made a show of surveying the group of gods with Hades, and when Hades turned to introduce his companions, he found them all confounded by the rocky monolith they had landed in front of. If the mortals got anything right, it was Tartarus, the bastard child of the underworld. Built into the western mountains, a jagged peak rose above the rest, marking the entrance to the pits of hell, as some liked to call it. A fiery quagmire of a river flowed around it, accessible only by a stone bridge or a very brave enchanted horse. Of course, the wide-eyed gods may have been zeroing-in on the two mountainous hellhounds guarding the entrance.
"My compatriots and I have come on a hunch we might find a fellow god nearby." Hades informed Essex. "I believe he has been disguising himself as a centaur to roam freely about the underworld, possibly as the rogue you sighted. If you say you have not seen him in several turns, I have to suppose he made an attempt to enter Tartarus. I would like to investigate. See if he has managed to get past the sentinels. If you don't mind remaining here with my friends..."
"Of course, my lord. I am at your service. It may help you to know the hellhounds have been acting strangely."
"Oh? Can you offer context to your description of 'strangely'?"
"They have been more docile during feeding time and seem preoccupied with the entrance, scratching and sniffing as if they are keen to enter."
Hades scrubbed his chin, feeling more certain about Ink's plight by the minute, although he did not relish a long search through Tartarus. Not only did it play host to all manner of foul creatures, there was very little ventilation. "Thank you, Essex. I will do my best to return in a timely manner."
Lisbon reached out to grasp Hades by the sleeve, looking anxious and a touch pale. "How will you get past the hellhounds? Do you know them well?"
Hades smiled and patted her arm. "Rest easy, Lisbon. I have my methods. In fact, someone will need to hold my clothes. If you don't mind doing that for me."
Swiftly and unabashedly, Hades disrobed and handed over his garments to Lisbon. Then he proceeded toward the hellhounds in the nude. As he walked, he recited the mantra that allowed him to transform into a dog, and before he had spanned the distance between his hunting party and the end of the bridge, Hades took on the form of a large chocolate Labrador. While his head only reached as high as Cerberus', his bearing was just as strong, but more importantly, he appeared to the hellhounds in a form they recognized and abided.
Approaching in a slow but unyielding stride, Hades held the gaze of the towering beasts, which always proved challenging since there were six pairs of eyes between them and each set glowed as orange as the flames of his chamber fire. He stopped when he reached their paws, which stood nearly as tall as he did, and he allowed both hounds to sniff him. This tended to include a fair amount of slobber, which smelled of rotting vermin, but the ritual had to be carried out before he could gain admittance.
Once the formalities were dispatched, Hades was able to slip between their paws. The next obstacle was a huge granite boulder standing in front of the opening, although there was really no trick to gaining access. One only needed to touch it with his or her palm to trigger the magic. It was getting out that proved problematic, at least for anyone other than himself. To date, there had only been one god and one centaur to test this theory. Needless to say, they proved the point with their lives.
A rush of hot, sulfuric air escaped as the boulder scraped across the ground. The effect was similar to having the breath of a hellhound on his neck, and Hades fortified his lungs with a deep inhale of fresh air before stepping into the dark cavern. A moment later, he was listening to the boulder slide into place behind him.
The sounds that welcomed Hades would have frightened the surest mortal, as well as most gods, and knowing exactly which fierce creatures were responsible for the blood-curdling screeches never failed to elicit chills from Hades' bones. Apparently, Ink was among those gods who feared very little, and it didn't take Hades long to locate Ink's body propped against the rock wall just feet from the entrance. While Hades was grateful he didn't have to journey further into the pit, the condition of Ink's body told him he may have arrived too late.
Blood and dirt stained Ink's tattooed skin, and he was sporting numerous gouges. Hades guessed those were inflicted by one or more of the inmates of Tartarus. Ink had used his shirt for bandages, and a large wad had been wedged into a stomach wound to stave the flow of blood. But what Hades noticed most was the emaciated condition of Ink's body. He was surely suffering from malnutrition.
Remaining in his dog form, Hades brought his muzzle close to Ink's mouth, sniffing for a respiration. His senses were keener in his canine form, and the scent of bile gave him hope that Ink was still using his lungs. Hades noticed a sack lying next to Ink made from the tarp material stolen from Hades' shed. Ink must have used it to carry food and possibly his clothing. If Ink had been changing forms during his adventures, he would have needed to keep his clothes intact. Whether Ink had appeared as a centaur or a dog to get past the hellhounds was irrelevant. The young god had seriously misjudged his knowledge of the underworld when he attempted to enter Tartarus.
After tossing the empty satchel over Ink's shoulder, Hades took the waistband of Ink's jeans between his teeth and dragged the god's limp body toward the cave opening. Two huge muzzles lowered to investigate the movement beneath them as Hades hauled Ink free of the foul air of Tartarus.
"My lord! Is this the god you speak of?" Essex called out as he led the group of curious gods to the end of the bridge. "Is he... deceased?"
Hades transitioned into his human form, lifting Ink into his arms as he continued his trek across the bridge.
"No, but he is nearly there. We must get him back to the palace, and we need to get word to Lexi. I believe she will be able to revive him."
Del stepped forward, eager to participate. "If you will give me a horse, I can locate Lexi and bring her to the palace."
Hades nodded as he accepted his clothing from Lisbon. "Thank you, Del. I expect she and her group have not gotten far. They may be in the minotaur forest. Do you have a scroll?"
Del pulled the parchment from his pocket and unraveled it.
"Good. Familiarize yourself with the map, and take Spartan. He has a keen sense of knowing where to go, if you tell him your intention."
Lisbon knelt next to Ink, brushing strands of matted hair off his forehead. The god still had not responded to the attention he received, which did not bode well, even for a god. "I will take care of Ink, Hades, if you will drive the chariot," she said. "I have been told my gift of song has healing properties."
Hades knew this to be true. He only hoped their belated rescue would not be in vain.
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Lexi's Promise [Bk 3]Romance
Let's say you found true love. And say you had eternity to spend with that lover. So what if he was the god of the dead and you had to manage his dysfunctional family. You would count yourself lucky, right? LEXI'S PROMISE is the final chapter...