Maxwell was your average millennial corporate lackey. That’s to say he was slick, functional, and absolutely miserable. Since before he could think for himself, Max’s dad has been grooming him to be a sociopathic money making machine. He was enrolled in boarding school at only 6 years old, and he essentially found himself in one abusive situation after another until he went off to college.
This monotony of terror in his childhood was broken up by another terrifying realization when he started to go through puberty, and he lost the lithe, smooth frame that he had appreciated as a child. His face grew scruffy and his shoulders broadened. To his eyes, he looked a little less and less like himself every day until the young man with a five o’clock shadow staring back at him every morning in the mirror was completely unrecognizable.
It wasn't all bad though, he graduated top of his class from his boarding school, found a nice university which could teach him business management with only a decade or so of crushing debt, and he found a very lucrative position at the same company as his father, all three of which made his father very proud. Max could tell that his dad was proud because instead of his usual distasteful scowl he said the words “good shit, whats next” after each event.
‘What's next’ after getting his new job ended up being a long line of indistinguishably boring days, where he tried to make money for the company and not have a mental breakdown from the stress.
It was one such boring day, where Max found himself picking through a mediocre chili dog, and thinking about how his life had led him to this moment, that the course of his life would change forever.
“Change?” a man barked just inches away from Max's head, startling him out of his reverie and causing him to drop what remained of his lunch onto the frosty pavement. “Got any spare change?” The man croaked again.
“Uh, yeah” Max said as he dug into his pockets. If there was any time he was happy to have paid the hot dog vendor in cash, it was today. The man appeared to be homeless which was all too common a sight in New York. Max didn't have anything against homeless people, but his social anxieties always caused his memories to flood back to his one bad experience with a man who had developmental disabilities, and no healthcare. The man had been having an episode, and unfortunately, Max had a front row seat to the confrontation between him and a NYPD officer who beat him senseless.
“Hope that helps sir, sorry I don't have more on me” Max said, giving his change of roughly thirteen dollars, that he had received after paying with a twenty dollar bill. Seven dollars for a chili dog was robbery, but that was commonplace in this city as well. Max’s dad would have called this donation frivolous and stupid, but Max didn't see the harm. Everyone at the company pulled down a comfortable salary, and between the bonuses, and never going out to drink; Max had more than enough. The poor man probably needed it more than he did, he reasoned.
“I certainly do,” the man said animatedly, not making any sense. “I’m the Oracle and I don't have to make sense!”
Max’s stomach started to swirl at the man’s antics, and he started to regret not following the number one rule all New Yorkers seem to follow; ‘don't pay attention to anything going on around you.’
The man seemed to sense his uneasiness “it's okay, don't be afraid. Seph will reach out to you, once she's good and ready. Just make sure not to mind the gap.”
At this point Max was completely confused and a little startled, so he just said “hope you have a great day sir,” and made his way back to work early.
Work had picked up since he had gone to lunch, and the interaction was soon drifting to the recesses of his mind. Max couldn't quite figure out what the old man had been trying to tell him. Best not to dwell on it he reasoned.
“Max, where's the report on the, uh, Viagra deal?” A tubby man bellowed at Max. Recognizing his boss coming around the side wall into his cubicle Max prepared a response. .
“Vilongo sir, they are an energy company. I haven't completed the report because the attorneys are still trying to settle on a-”
“Don't tell me what I know, you punk” the man interrupted “this is just another excuse to slack off, which is oh-so typical of you millennials.” The words were laced with venom “you prepare that report, and you do it now! You'll have more than enough time if you stop twittering your buddies all day.”
Max didn't have Twitter, nor the resolve to correct his supervisor’s verbiage, so he simply replied “understood sir, I’ll have it on your desk ASAP.” He meant it too, in the age of information and digital technology, Max’s supervisor demanded that work be printed out on paper, and physically put on his desk for review. After reading it, the portly man’s secretary would make annotations if necessary and scan them back in, so they could be sent where they needed to go. The flagrant waste of paper and time made Max cringe a little every time he had to do it, but it was better than starving.
As the reports were printing, Max prepared himself for the inevitable ass-chewing that would accompany their turn in when his supervisor realized that the report didn't include the resolution to the attorney’s squabbling over proper division of assets. Instead he was caught completely unaware by an ass-chewing from a separate person.
“Boy! What's this I hear about you twiddling your little buddies on company time? '' The voice of Max's father rang out across the office in its usual chilling fierceness.
Max waited till his father had come closer before attempting to explain at a lower volume. “Father, I wasn't tweeting, I don't even have a Twitter account. I wasn't on my phone either, I was working on-”
“Oh! So your supervisor is a liar?” Max’s father groaned at maximum volume. “I get it, the world is just out to get you, huh?”
This wasn't an unusual interruption to Max’s work day, in fact he’d had a similar interaction earlier that day with the usual suspects. In a desperate attempt at conflict resolution, Max gave in and let the bullies use him as a doormat. “Understood father, I will focus on my work, and I won’t get sidetracked.”
“Likely story” his father bellowed, once again trying his hardest to bemoan at his customary maximum volume. “You've been dumber than a bucket of stones your whole life, boy. You won't stop chasing butterflies because of one stern talking to. I’m gonna recommend some harsher repercussions to Mr. Fairchild when I see him next.”
His father would likely see Max’s Supervisor; Mr. Fairchild sooner rather than later, as the two were classic cohorts in stirring shit up at the office.
“Understood, sir” Max said curtly, waiting for his father to leave before resuming his collating. Max knew better than to argue or second guess his father, it was a sure way to double or triple the backlash he would face.
Assuming his usual coping mechanism, Max closed up from outside interaction, and coasted on his work. He didn't really pay attention to what he was doing, simply running on autopilot while he let his mind wander to a place that didn't have all these problems. In his mind he was free, bodiless, and floating through all the good things he could possibly imagine. It was like meditation for him, but instead of just letting things wash off him, he simply shut out the world entirely. His supervisor screamed at him again, as he had predicted, but Max barely registered what was being said and simply took his punishment.
Before he knew it the day was done, and it was time to power down his PC. Max always left work late. Most people assumed it was because he was trying to impress his father, but in all honesty, Max just didn't want to have to make excuses not to go out and drink with the ‘other bros’ after work ended, and actually completing work in relative silence was a good excuse.
As Max made his way out of the building, the brisk night air hit him like a wall. He pulled his coat tighter for the inevitable journey back to his apartment. His work and his apartment were close enough to be situated between subway stops, but far enough to make the few blocks grueling in the fall air. The night sky was crisp as the wind bustled through the buildings, and it was cutting through his inadequate suit jacket. Fall was settling in and Max was cursing himself for not starting to wear his overcoat, when a construction worker called out from behind him. “Hey, mind the gap!”
That phrase brought back his memory of the interaction with the man he had spoken with earlier, and he whipped his head around to find out what he was talking about. Unfortunately, out of habit he kept on walking and slipped into the gap that the construction worker had tried to warn him about. With a sickening crunch his head slammed down on the pavement and the world went black.
Several months earlier
Seph was doing what she always did these days. Reading a book in her garden, willing time to move faster until Hades got done with whatever underworld nonsense he was up to at that point. ‘The Underworld’ was such a drab name for their kingdom, and the implications of being lower, darker, and lesser than the other kingdoms had always irked Seph, as their matriarch. In truth, the underworld was quite beautiful, in a natural earthly sort of way. It was an extension of her domain as queen, and while it was admittedly threadbare immediately after her marriage to Hades, she was quite fond of how she spruced up the place.
Generally, when one thought of the dark cold underworld, they were really thinking of Tartarus, which was where they housed the wicked, who’s souls needed to be punished for eternity, and the Titans. Tartarus gave the rest of her kingdom a bad name, as far as she was concerned, and it was every bit as dark and awful as its reputation.
It was packed to the brim these days, with corporate assholes, the wealthy and the otherwise abhorrent ‘ruiners’ of the living kingdoms. The mortal elite were becoming increasingly less empathetic, and frankly rabid in their desire to destroy their home and each other in exchange for riches and power in life.
The agreement that the old gods had made, to abandon the mortals in their plane and leave them to their own devices was rapidly becoming less stable in practice. It had only been a few thousand years, and the mortals had already done such immense damage to their world, that the gods and mortals alike were beginning to wonder if it was too late to salvage it.
It was on this particular day that Seph’s favorite chthonic nymph, Melinoë came to visit and assumedly to gossip. “Melinoë, my beautiful daughter, what gossip have you brought for me today?” Knowing her daughter's antics, she closed her book, with the firm understanding that Melinoë would live up to her reputation as a bringer of nightmares and madness, with some truly salacious gossip.
“Oh mother, you wound me” Mel said melodramatically, before bursting into a fit of giggles and falling into the soft mossy bed that Seph had made in order to be comfortable as she read. “You know, sometimes I come to visit, just to see your lovely face, and not to spread rumors” she continued, trying to be serious, “which is a shame, because today I have something especially juicy, and the best part is- that it's true! But fear not mother, I wouldn’t dream of boring you with such trivialities.”
Ever the drama queen Seph thought with a smile, before caving. “Alright, kiddo. Lay it on me, what have you heard?” Seph laughed, pulling Mel closer so that they could whisper conspiratorially.
“Okay, so I heard this from Nyx, who overheard Styx as she spoke to Zeus...” Mel began, as she played with a tassel from her saffron robe “...and he was talking about how he needed to make sure that you and dad never found out about his violation.”
“Yeah, so get this. Apparently, Zeus decided to let Ares break the Agreement. Said something about there being too many humans, and that's why they were destroying the planet. He kept going on and on about how ‘a little war would bring those numbers down and bring the world back into balance.’”
“Wait- What?! Mel, please tell me this is a joke! Murdering millions of mortals is not going to fix this issue, the masses aren't the problem. The ones killing the world are the rich and powerful mortals, who likely wouldn't fight in this war, anyway!”
“Well, he said billions, but what’s the problem? I thought you’d be happy. More mortals dying means the underworld grows stronger. Plus, if Ares breaks the agreement, there's no reason that everyone else can't break it too! It could be like the good old days, with excitement, and fun! You do remember fun, don't you mom?”
“Mel, this is serious. There is a balance in play here, and they might just tip it the wrong way if they go unchecked. The world is an ecosystem, and it can't just be shifted in one direction without consequences. If they get completely enthralled by war, without love, empathy or anything else to balance it, they could destroy the planet. Literally. I need you to think hard, what else did they say?”
“Um, just that they were going to take their time and push things slowly. That was one of the things they were worried about, the influx of dead tipping you off about their plans. The plan was to try and sow distrust between the major factions, and get them fighting for resources.”
“Those pompous motherfuckers, they know nothing of the delicate balance we face. Alright baby, thank you so much for coming to me with this. I need you not to mention a word of this to anyone else until I’ve discussed it with your father. If the agreement has truly been broken, then we will need to find our own mortals who can fight back against the tide.”