Marble Heart: A M/M Non-Shifter MPREG Romance (New Olympians Book 5)
I’d gotten used to the stench of the Acheron. There weren’t many who could say that, and I couldn’t decide if it was a good thing or not. I hated being down here. Hated the feel of the gray ash beneath my feet, the oily slick of the frigid water of the river… but most of all, I hated that he was down here.
“You can’t keep coming here, Nephew.”
My uncle, Hades, Lord of the Dead, stood on the opposite shore. His arms were crossed over his wide chest and he glared at me with something that felt like pity in his eyes. It made my skin crawl. Centuries ago, I had no use for him beyond his duty as the collector of the shades of the mortal men who fell in the battle and fought in my name.
But now? Now he was the only one who could give me what I wanted. He knew that I hated and loved him at the same time, like some back-alley drug dealer who knew I’d come crawling back for more no matter how badly it hurt.
“Are you locking me out, Uncle?” I asked through gritted teeth. My toes dug into the mud at the river’s edge and the precious offerings the dead brought with them to the afterlife winked up at me from the depths of the Acheron.
“No, you have to make the decision yourself.” I felt the chill of Hades’ words, but brushed them away quickly as though they were flecks of ash from the great volcano.
“I’ve made my decision,” I said shortly.
“Do I need to remind you—”
“No. You don’t.”
Hades shook his head and stooped to draw his hand through the icy water. As he cut a path through the dark liquid, something swirled in the depths; the shades of the dead—centuries worth of souls who could not pay the fare to pass through into the Underworld—swirled like startled fish, and the river parted to allow me to cross. I had waded through Acheron once, that was enough for one eternity.
I walked past my uncle with determined steps. In the past I had stopped to thank him, to speak to him briefly before continuing on into the Underworld. But as the world above had turned, and Olympus had begun to change, I found myself less inclined to pause for pleasantries.
My father and his brothers had turned Olympus into a nursery, and no matter where I went there was a mortal with the glow of ambrosia in his eyes and a child on his hip. I could not escape the shriek of childish laughter, the cries of a newborn babe, or my father, Zeus, harping on endlessly about the prophecy and the defiance of Hera’s curse.
With a jaw set like steel I marched between the jagged obsidian rocks that marked the boundary between Acheron’s floodplain and the gray fields of Asphodel. As soon as my feet touched the faded grass that crept towards the volcanic glass boundary I felt the chill of the Underworld lessen for just a moment. Asphodel was a strange place—muted and pale, as though all color and sensation had been washed away. Persephone had called this place The Undying Meadow, but a painted rock is still a rock. And Asphodel was still the Underworld.
The pale flowers that gave this place its name swayed in a breeze I could not feel, and something like a sun gave light, but no warmth. Everything was still and hushed. Everything was blurry here, smudged and indistinct. Every day of the eternity that stretched ahead blended together in this place, and yet it was the kindest place in my uncle’s domain.
I found him in the hut I’d built for him out of the gray stones that lay hidden just beneath the ashen dirt. Bound together like thatch, the asphodel plants that surrounded me formed the roof and kept out most of the ash. I had crafted him a bed and covered it with the wool from my own sacred flock, but he did not lie upon it, he merely sat, staring into the hearth at a fire that burned with pale flames, but did not consume the wood or stave off the perpetual chill in the air.
He had been beautiful once, my Julio. With mahogany-dark hair and eyes that were a deep blue flecked here and there with golden lights. But here in this place, the ruby sparks that had glowed in his hair when the sun caught it were dulled and the golden flecks in his eyes had all but disappeared. He was a shadow of who he’d been in life.
I leaned against the doorway and watched him for a moment, trying to remember what it had been like to hold him against my chest and how the warmth of his body and the pressure of his bold lips had consumed me.
“Hello?” I said softly.
Julio looked up at me; his clouded blue eyes were sad and haunted and my heart ached. “I can’t seem to get the fire to light properly,” he said. Confusion tinged his words and I came into the hut and knelt by the fire. It would never burn in any other way than it was burning now—burning, yet not burning at all. This was a place of confusion, and there was nothing I could do to correct it. I placed another log on top of the pile and smiled at him.
“There, it will catch in no time.”
Julio just nodded and didn’t reply.
“Do you know me?” I asked as I straightened. He looked up at me and just like every time, I hoped for a glimmer of recognition in those eyes I had loved, and still loved, so much. But there was nothing.
“No. I’m sorry. Everything is… strange here. I can’t remember what day it is, or the last time I ate…”
“It’s all right,” I said soothingly. “May I sit down?” Julio nodded absently and stared into the fire again as I seated myself on the bed beside him. Everything inside me lurched towards him, and I ached to take him in my arms and press my mouth against his. I had tried that only once, and the memory of his tears of confusion and pain had left a mark on my heart that I knew would never be erased.
“The fire isn’t burning properly,” Julio said absently.
“Just be patient, perhaps the wood is too green,” I replied. His hand rested on the bed between us, and I yearned to touch him. It didn’t matter that his skin would be cold—at least it was him.
“Perhaps… but I don’t remember cutting it. Or what day it is…” He blinked at me suddenly and I felt a pang of hope that he might recognize me this time, but that hope died in my chest as he frowned. “No one else lives around here… who are you?”
“I’m visiting a friend, but I can’t seem to find him,” I replied. “My son sent me with a gift for him, perhaps you can keep it until he comes back.”
Julio shrugged and did not turn his gaze away from the fire, but his hand hadn’t moved. I pulled a small, heart-shaped stone out of my pocket, something Cayden had found while he and Thero had been playing on the beaches of Samothrace. It was warm in my palm, filled with the love of our child and the hope that his future held.
I reached out and took Julio’s hand in mine, turning it palm up so I could place the stone there. “Would you keep it safe for him?”
Julio looked away from the fire and stared at the object in his hand. His fingers curled around it for a moment and then, with a cry of pain, he dropped it onto the soft wool coverlet Thero had woven for him.
His wide eyes were filled with pain and confusion as he cradled his hand against his chest. I reached out and gripped his wrist gently, turning his hand so I could see what had happened. An angry red welt marred the center of his palm and I watched as that too faded, like everything else in this place, and only a smudge remained. Indistinct and undefined.
He pulled his hand away and rubbed his thumb over the spot. “Why would you do that?” he asked.
I scooped up the stone, noticing at once that it had lost all its warmth and felt ice-cold against my palm.
“You should leave,” Julio said dimly.
I should. But I can’t…
“May I come back and visit you?” I asked, just like I did every time.
Julio didn’t answer, he just looked at his palm again and rubbed his fingers over the mark the stone had left behind.
“Your son,” he said suddenly. I paused in the doorway and looked back at him, hope flaring again in my gut.
“Yes? My son.”
“Tell him I’m sorry I couldn’t keep his gift. It was… it…” He stumbled over the words, not knowing how to express what he had felt or what it had done to him.
“I know,” I said softly.
“The fire isn’t burning properly.”
“Be patient. It will,” I said as I turned away. My steps were heavy as I pushed through the Fields of Asphodel and the stone I had brought burned like ice through the folds of my tunic. As my feet touched the volcanic sand at the edge of the Field I turned to look back at Julio’s hut. He was standing in the doorway, looking at me, and then he was gone.
Hades was waiting for me on the banks of the Acheron and I could hear the bark of his tricephalic hound in the distance. “Ready to leave so soon, Nephew?” he asked. His voice held no judgment, but my heart was not so kind.
“I’ll take the stairs,” I growled.
Hades snapped his fingers and the dark cliff face behind us shuddered and cracked as the staircase that led up to Olympus was revealed. Without another word or a backward glance I left him there on the bank and ascended to the bright marble world of my father’s palace. Olympus. Full of noise and drama. Everything I hated.
The stairway opened into the throne room, and as I stepped through the back of my uncle’s black basalt throne the noise I’d been trying so hard to avoid hit me like a sharp west wind.
A child’s cry cut through the stillness of the space my father had created and I did my best not to cringe. I had not felt this way when my own child cried… perhaps it was just because of—
Zeus’ voice echoed over the crying child as he emerged from the nursery and strode towards me.
He embraced me tightly, but I pushed him off after only a moment and straightened my tunic. My father didn’t seem bothered by my reaction, but he wrinkled his nose and sniffed dramatically. “You’ve been in the Underworld,” he said. “I can smell the Acheron on you. Like a wet dog.”
“Why do you spend so much time there? I would never have guessed you would be interested in what happened to the shades of the mortals who died for your glory.”
“As little as you cared for the mortals who died for your vanity,” I retorted.
“Careful, boy.” Zeus’ expression was dark, but I was in no mood to care. “You know as well as any other that I was wounded by each of their deaths… but it was Hera—”
“Do you know what happens to them? The mortals who don’t pass the test?” I interrupted him. “They don’t go to Acheron with the other lost souls. They disappear… entirely. They don’t go to the Underworld, they don’t pass on. They’re just dust in the mortal world. This curse doesn’t just affect you, Father, or us. Every mistake isn’t just a lost life, it’s a lost soul.”
Zeus glared at me and I wondered if he’d ever thought about anything but his own pleasure for any length of time.
“That is why it’s so important to find our sparks,” he said. “It’s the only way this curse will be broken.”
I laughed sharply. “Broken? Do you really think that Hera will be so easily distracted? What will you do? Take your brothers and Hermes and march your playthings and your children to the foot of Hera’s throne and show her what you have done?”
“Silence!” He roared the word and the power of his voice reverberated through the halls, echoed against the marble columns, and made the floor beneath my dirty feet shake. “It is not what I have done. It is what we have done.” He shook his head in disbelief at my hard words. “Of all my sons, you were the one I quarreled with the most. Even now, through all of this heartache and danger you still defy me.”
It was my turn to glare at him, now. “Defy you? Is that what this has become? A test of loyalty?”
Instead of answering, Zeus swept his hand over the great marble cistern, parting the clouds that curled over the sacred waters it housed—our window to the mortal world. But all I could see were waves crashing against a rocky shore, and the rest was shrouded in darkness.
“I don’t have time for show-and-tell. If you want to talk to someone about waves, go talk to your brother,” I snapped.
“Have you spoken to your mother?” he asked suddenly.
I stared at my father incredulously. “What could I have to say to her?”
“This is the island of Delos.”
“Are you even listening to me? All you care about is this prophecy. What about what I want? What if I don’t want to help you ‘rebuild Olympus’? Hermes has fallen into line, and Hephaestus is running around with children on his shoulders like some kind of puppy. Let them fulfill the prophecy.” I couldn’t keep the snarl out of my voice and Zeus finally looked up and met my eyes.
“Hermes chose a side,” he said. His voice was dangerously quiet. “I could forgive his neutrality. For a time. But now that he has brought Noah to Olympus, the line is drawn. How many of my children will betray me, Ares? Eris struck out against Hades’ spark… and succeeded in killing him. I’ve been told that she fled the island sanctuary for fear of retribution from her own sisters. We are winning this war. But I need you by my side, Ares. What war can be won without your interference?”
He was flattering me. As though I were a child.
“This isn’t a war, Father,” I said.
“How can you say that? Your mother has attacked—”
“Hera attacked you,” I said darkly.
“She attacked all of us.”
“Your definition of battle is very different than mine.”
“Be that as it may, it looks very ill for the Lord of Swords to stand by while his family is threatened by a malevolent force.”
I raised an eyebrow. “I’ve heard many an ancient king speak that way, Father. Melanthes, Agamemnon, Darius, Agenor… ‘If you are not with me, you are against me,’ they cried as they sacrificed their prisoners and their bulls on my altars. Is that what you’re trying so hard not to say? Do you think I’ll turn on you as Eris did? Your own daughter, my sister, poisoned against you by her mother…” I stepped closer to Zeus and kept my voice low. “Do you worry for your mortal, father? For this new daughter? Do you love her better than the others?”
I could feel my father’s rage crackling around me, and I knew I had gone too far. But I had to push him away.
“That’s what I thought,” I said. My father’s eyes blazed with anger, but I wasn’t going to sit through another one of his angry tirades.
I closed my eyes and willed myself to the only place in the mortal world that felt like home to me.
Samothrace. And my son.
The clouds above me were dark, and when I looked over my shoulder I could see jagged flashes of lightning as they struck the ocean’s surface. I smiled at the impotence of my father’s anger and began the climb along the rocky beach towards the ancient olive grove that held my most precious possession. We were safe here, shrouded from his sight just like the island of Delos, and I would do everything in my power to keep it that way.