A Touch of Ruin (Hades & Persephone #2) - Scarlett St. Clair

PART I

“Fate's arrow, when expected, travels slow.”

― Dante Alighieri, Paradiso

CHAPTER I - A TOUCH OF DOUBT

Persephone walked along the bank of the river Styx. Jagged waves broke the dark surface and her skin tightened as she recalled her first visit to the Underworld. She’d attempted to traverse the wide body of water, unaware of the dead inhabiting the depths below. They’d taken her under, their fleshless fingers cutting into her skin, their wish to destroy life provoking their attack.

She thought she would drown—and then Hermes had come to her rescue.

Hades had not been pleased about any of it, but he’d taken her to his palace and healed her wounds. Later, she would learn the dead in the river were ancient corpses who had come to the Underworld without coin to pay Charon’s toll. Sentenced to an eternity in the river, they were just one of many ways Hades protected the borders of his realm from the living who wished to enter and the dead who wished to escape.

Despite Persephone’s unease near the waterway, the landscape was beautiful. The Styx stretched for miles, soldering to a horizon shadowed by sable mountains. White narcissus grew in clusters along its banks, ignited like white fire against the dark surface. Opposite the mountains, Hades’ palace haunted the horizon, rising like the jagged edges of his obsidian crown.

Yuri, a young soul with a thick mane of cascading curls and olive skin, walked beside her. She wore pink robes and leather sandals—an ensemble that stood out against the shadowy mountains and black water. The soul and Persephone had become fast friends, and often went on walks together in the Asphodel Valley but today, Persephone had convinced Yuri to stray from their usual path.

She glanced at her companion now, whose arm was looped through hers, and asked, “How long have you been here, Yuri?”

Persephone guessed that the soul had been in the Underworld for a while based on the traditional peplos she wore.

Yuri’s delicate brows drew together over her grey eyes. “I do not know. A long time.”

“Do you remember what the Underworld was like when you arrived?”

Persephone had a lot of questions about the Underworld from antiquity—it was that version that still had its claws in Hades, that version which made him feel ashamed, that version which made him feel unworthy of his peoples’ worship and praise.

“Yes. I don’t know that I’ll ever forget.” She offered an awkward laugh. “It was not as it is now.”

“Tell me more,” Persephone encouraged. Despite being curious about Hades’ past and the history of the Underworld, she couldn’t deny that part of her feared uncovering the truth.

What if she didn’t like what she found?

“The Underworld was…bleak. There was nothing. We were all colorless and crowded. There were no days and no nights, just a monotone of grey and we existed in it.”

So, they really had been shades—shadows of themselves.

Persephone recalled when she’d first visited the Underworld. Hades had taken her into his garden. She’d been so angry with him. He had challenged her to create life, but his realm was beautiful and lush, full of colorful flowers and lively willows. Then he had revealed it was all an illusion. Beneath the glamour he maintained was a land of ash and fire.

“That sounds like punishment,” Persephone said, thinking it terrifying to exist without purpose.

Yuri offered a faint smile and she shrugged. “It was our sentence for living mundane lives.”

Persephone frowned. She knew that in ancient times heroes were usually the only ones who could expect a euphoric existence in the Underworld.

“What changed?”

“I do not know for sure. There were rumors, of course—some said that a mortal Lord Hades loved died and came to exist here.”

Persephone knit her brows. She wondered if there was some truth to that considering Hades had a similar change in perspective after she’d written about his ineffective bargains with mortals. He’d been so motivated by her critique, he’d started The Halcyon Project, a plan that included the construction of a state-of-the-art rehabilitation center that specialized in free care to mortals.

An ugly feeling crept up her spine and through her body, spreading like a plague. Maybe she hadn’t been the only lover who inspired Hades.

Yuri continued, “Of course, I tend to think he just…decided to change. Lord Hades watches the world. As it became less chaotic, so did the Underworld.”

Persephone didn’t think it was that simple. She had tried to make Hades talk about this, but he avoided the subject. Now she wondered if his silence was less about