Chapter 21: Optimism

Silas Nash crawled through the darkness for an unimaginable length of time. The rough stone under his hands gradually smoothed, until it resembled glass more than anything else. In the distance, he could hear a distant thumping that reached right into his bones and shook them. It grew louder with each move forwards, making his stomach clench each time. He started counting seconds, and realized it was happening regularly, once a minute.

The darkness ended, and he immediately wished it hadn’t. He stood up slowly, the tunnel expanding into a large cavern. Nations could fit in the vista that sprawled across the cavern floor. Dio stood beside him, while Cassandra stepped forward, her eyes closed, lost in concentration.

Crupky had told Nash that Tartarus was both a place, and a person. A Titan, the peer of creatures like Gaea, Chaos, and Uranus, it was vast beyond measure. The cavern was made out of black marble, small streaks of white shot through like veins. In the distance, hundreds of miles away at least, barely visible through the haze of Tartarus’ air, were a rack of ribs. They reached from the horizon up to the distant ceiling, curved in a great arc. They were bright as diamond, and glittered a vile red.

Against the roof of the cavern, a red sun was planted in the black basalt. Its light barely illuminated the thick black marble, absorbed by the depths of the stone, creating a strange and sickly twilight. “God have mercy,” Nash whispered.

“When you find yourself in this place, the Gods have no mercy left,” Dio said, his voice soft, awed, as he stared around the depths. The sun contracted and expanded, with a sound like the world’s largest bass drum being struck. The sound echoed through the cavern, as a wave of red raced out from the sun, pouring across the white veins of the marble. It reached them, a great wave of red, in seconds. Then it was racing off into the distance, temporarily lighting up the landscape. It was Tartarus’ heart, still beating.

Dio turned to Cassandra. “Do you know which way to go, Seer?” She nodded slowly, and raised her arm, pointing in a direction that was not particularly distinguishable from every other direction. Nash considered asking if she was sure, but he certainly didn’t have a better idea. The three of them began to walk.

The footing was unstable. The black ground was almost impossible to see, and while Cassandra and Dio both walked with confidence, always seeming to know where they were going to put their feet next, he had to deal with a great deal more uncertainty. He felt a whisper of air, and his footing became more sure, as Ariel appeared next to him. “Well, well, Nash. Seems you’ve found yourself in another cheerful place. Do you ever question the choices you’ve made in your life when you find yourself in a situation like this?” she asked, lightly, a smile on her face. He rolled his eyes. No need to talk to himself in front of the other two. The walk was disturbing enough as it was without him behaving insane.

“You remember what she said, yeah? About your goal. About passion. So, what are you fighting for, Nash? What are you going to do after you finish all of this? Maybe go back to the FBI, go back to arresting people for drug-smuggling? You’ve tasted the kind of things that are out there. Gods, monsters, and heroes. Do you think that you’ll be satisfied with kingpins and informants after that?”

Nash didn’t answer.

“Or perhaps you’ll settle down, hmmm? Maybe marry Doctor Smith? Nice young lady, and she’s a doctor. You could live your life with her, have some kids.” She studied him. “Everyone’s searching for something, Nash. Some people want peace and safety, and Zion is designed to provide that. Some people want to help others, and you’d get plenty of chances to do that if you stayed here. Or maybe you’d go out there, and forget it all happened, and settle back into your life?”

He still didn’t answer. “I gave you the power. It’s yours, now. This kind of gift has no strings attached, besides the big one. You can do whatever you like with the abilities I’ve given you, but your decisions have a great weight now. You know the old adage about power and responsibility.” She tilted her head. “You’ve been running to keep ahead of the end. When this settles, what are you going to do with your life? That’s what we want to know. What is going to guide you? Personally, I think romance would be a nice thing. You deserve a little love in your life. You could use someone to keep you on an even keel. And of course, it would give me and the others something to watch.” She began to fade, as the wind died down around him.

“Just promise me one thing, Nash. I didn’t give you this power to sacrifice yourself. Come back, alright?” With that, she faded away, leaving only the phantom sensation of a kiss on his cheek. He sniffed the air, and his nose wrinkled at the unmistakable roasted pork scent of burnt flesh.

They didn’t see the wheel until they were nearly on top of it. It was a thin rim of wood, fixed with great spokes the same color as those distant ribs. It was miles across, at least, and reached right to the roof of the cavern. It turned at a sedate pace, and the rim was covered in a thick, sticky tar. Someone had set the tar on fire, and it burned insatiably, without consuming the wheel itself. The heat was intense even from where they were standing. The great circle rotated slowly, barely any faster than the walking pace that Cassandra was setting. And hanging from it was a man. His skin was burnt black, cracked and revealing oozing red beyond it, and he shifted constantly, his teeth gritted together.

His back was against the wheel, pressed against its outer edge. His arms and legs were bent backwards, manacled together against the wheel by glittering black-diamond cuffs. He opened his eyes, and his expression of agony changed into a broad grin. “Ah! What luck. Do any of you think that you might be able to break these manacles?” His voice was rich and warm, with a distinctive Greek accent.

Cassandra turned towards him. “Ixion. Kin-slayer. You are here because you slew your father in law in a fit of rage, which would have been sufficient to curse you to Tartarus for eternity. When Zeus showed you mercy and invited you into his house, you made advances on his wife, and tried to sate your lusts with her.” Cassandra spake. That was the only way to describe it. There was enough judgement in it to burn Sodom and have enough left over to damn Gomorrah with it. Dio visibly narrowed his eyes at the man’s name. To Nash’s surprise, the burnt figure simply laughed.

“Well, I will admit to killing my father in law. I promised him wealth for his daughter’s hand in marriage, and took a little longer than I should have to pay, so he stole my finest horses. I invited him to a feast, and in a fit of pique, threw him onto a bed of burning coals. And people say step-mothers are hard to live with! For this, I was labeled kin-slayer, and condemned. An interesting irony, considering how Zeus seized his crown. But as you say, Zeus did not condemn me to Tartarus for that act. No, he condemned me because I dared to find his wife lovely. An act he certainly was never guilty of!”

The burnt figure twisted a hand, and a key appeared in his fingers. He inserted it into the manacle, and they opened. He deftly bent himself over, freeing his feet, and dropped lightly to the ground, beginning to walk with them. “I hope you do not mind that I walk with you, but I must reattach myself soon if I wish to escape. Otherwise, I shall have to wait eighteen days for another chance. ”

“How in the world-” Dio asked, his eyes wide, staring, shocked, at the figure. “You’re meant to be chained to those, trapped! If you could escape any time you wanted-”

“Ah. You have put your finger on the problem. Yes, I am free to wander Tartarus whenever I wish. But the great wheel carries me out of Tartarus, and into the world of men. While I am here, I can free myself with the key at any time.” Ixion walked alongside them, keeping pace with the manacles. Already, his flesh repaired itself, growing flush and healthy, the nauseating scent fading. “But under the light of the sun and the moon, the key disappears. If I could break the manacles, I would be able to ride them to the sky once more, and be freed. Under the sun, I feel almost as though I could break them myself, and return to the world.” He sighed softly.

“Why?” Nash asked, frowning. “Is it so awful here that you’d torture yourself like that just to escape?”

Ixion was silent for a few moments as they walked together. “I have done many shameful things. Of that there is no doubt. I regret laying with the cloud that Zeus conjured. I regret slaying my father. But I do not regret loving Hera.” He stared up at the roof of the cavern. “She is the definition of fidelity, always faithful to a husband who dallied with anyone who he could get his hands on. She is faithful to the end, and does not act against him. She is treated as a cruel antagonist by storytellers, who explain of the anger she takes out on heroes and women unlucky enough to attract Zeus’ attention. But when I lay my hand upon her thigh, she did not shy away. She embraced my hand in hers. She had not been touched since she bore Zeus his six children.”

“A likely story,” snorted Dio, his hand on his spear, watching Ixion with a tensed arm.

“Believe me, or do not. Hope is a prison, and a torture, for it binds me to the wheel for eighteen days while it burns my flesh. But hope for love, that is a shield that makes the pain bearable.” Ixion smiled towards them. “I do not expect you to think better of me. It is a shameful thing to desire another man’s wife, and to think yourself a better lover than him. But I am accustomed to shameful things. The determination to prove my love, that at least I can be proud of.”

With that, he took out the key. Carefully, with a painful looking movement, he locked his feet once more into the manacles, and then his wrists, they key sliding back into the manacles with a smooth click. The scent of burning flesh filled the air, and they did their best not to look at him as the wheel carried him upwards.

Heather was beside him, Nash noticed. She was watching the man, being carried into the sky. “Fidelity is a terrible thing when it’s unrequited.” She shook her head. “What do you think, Nash? Would you do all of that for love? If, say, one of us were trapped in this underworld, what would you sacrifice to save us?” She smiled. “Don’t answer that. It’s a silly question, really. Why on earth would any of us be stuck here?” She laughed softly. “Tell me, Nash, have you ever wanted to have children?”

He considered the question for a while. He’d thought about it, certainly. He couldn’t imagine it, though. He’d never met a woman who was right for it. And he could still remember his own mother. The way that she had raised him. He didn’t want to damage a child, the way he had been damaged by his own mother. The idea of passing that same damage on to some innocent made him sick inside. And so he shook his head. This seemed to make Heather quite sad. “That’s a real shame, Nash. I think you would make a wonderful father.” She smiled wanly.

“My lover wanted children. But he died before I could give them to him. And now, the only thing left of him is his memory.” She leaned over, and kissed him on the cheek, gently. “You deserve to exist, Nash. I believe that you will make the world a better place with the power I’ve entrusted in you.” She smiled, and then was gone.

Water splashed around his shoes. They were walking through an ankle-deep pond. Overhead, a tree hung across the water. Its branches were filled with rich, juicy looking plums. Dio’s eyes opened wide. “It’s… a celestial plum tree. They’re real. Not food of the underworld.” He seemed struck. “I never thought I’d see one here.” He reached up, and the branch pulled away from his hand.

“It’s no good, you know.” The voice was gravelly, parched. A man stood in the pool of water, staring longingly at the fruit. He was naked except for a loincloth, and his stomach was swollen. His arms were spindly, and Nash was reminded uncomfortably of a famine victim, their body stretched tight by hunger, stomach paradoxically seeming full even as it emptied. “If it were that easy, I would be long free of this place,” he growled. He sounded as though he hadn’t had anything to drink in a very long time.

“You are Tantalus. Slayer of your son, you butchered him like a prized head of cattle. Then, you stole the food of the gods, and gave it to your people. Your name is atrocity, and your punishment is just,” stated Cassandra, although she seemed slightly less sure of herself, this time. Tantalus burst out laughing, and began to walk with them through the pool.

“Oh yes, the storytellers thought that sounded better. That, of my own volition, I butchered my son and served him to the gods. As though I was a madman.” he snorted, looking at the pool suspiciously. “You know, the last time that I wandered away from this pool, one of the plums fell into the water. I arrived back just as another lost soul rushed forward, and ate of it. He rose back into the world, life restored to his body. It was maddening. But it also showed me that my waiting here is not for naught.”

“Your hope of freedom deserves to be for naught,” growled Dio.

“Perhaps. It is true, I slew my son, and served him as a meal. I was invited to the table of the Gods, alongside Zeus himself, and asked to bring a dish that would be worthy of the meals of the Olympiad. I worried for many weeks about what I could possibly make. Then, a spirit whispered to me, telling me that Zeus would accept only the sacrifice of that which I loved most. My son. I saw the horror in my boy’s eyes before I took his life, and made a stew with his flesh, because my god had demanded it of me.” His eyes were hollow.

There was a soft choking sound from Cassandra, but she kept her eyes on the way forward.

“When I set the meal down, and explained what it was, the gods refused to touch it, save Demeter. And as I watched their disgust, Poseidon passed Zeus something sparkling when he thought my eyes were elsewhere.” He snorted. “They restored my son. But my boy looked at me with such hate in his eyes. My god sacrificed my firstborn’s love for me, for the sake of winning a bet.” His eyes grew hard. “So I stole Ambrosia and Nectar from the gods in a fit of pique. And they called me cannibal, and kin-slayer. But I know that Zeus wished me to do it.”

“That does not make your crime right.” Dio said, his expression stormy. “The gods are capricious, but Zeus had a plan. Your son was restored. You were made whole. You could have restored your faith in your god, and your son, but you threw it away.”

Tantalus stared at the man. Fire burned in his eyes. “I know you. You wounded the gods, and were protected only because another god supported you. Have you never hated them for the power they wield over us?”

Dio shook his head. “The gods are not things to hate. They act according to their nature. Hating them is like hating a storm. Pointless, and dangerous.”

Tantalus snarled, eyes angry. “The gods have choice. They simply choose not to change, because they do not know fear.” He shook his head. “I do not eat the food of the dead. I wait here, knowing that it may never happen, that the fruit and the water will forever remain out of touch. Because if I escape, I shall have my revenge. I shall take the life of Zeus, if I can have it,” he hissed, his teeth gritted, and turned away from them, walking back under the tree.

They watched as he studied the tree, and then leapt, his arm lashing out like a snake. The plum lifted out of reach just moments before his fingers could wrap around it, and he fell into the water, which surged away from him, leaving the starved man lying on the stone, cursing profusely. They walked for a long time.

Gene was keeping pace next to him. She studied him silently for a moment, as though asking a question. He didn’t respond. She nodded, and they kept walking together, as Nash stared down at his hands.

“It doesn’t seem fair, does it?” asked Nash, as the low bass beat of the heart began to get to him.

“They earned their fates here with their actions. If the god’s reasons for trapping them in Tartarus were fickle, then they were still right in what they did. They were kin-slayers, murderers, cannibals. The gods did right, even if that was not their intention.” Dio’s head was lowered.

“Do you think he was telling the truth about what Zeus did?”

Dio was silent for a very long time as they walked. Finally, Cassandra spoke. “I think that he thought he was telling the truth. So it doesn’t matter much what we think, one way or another.”

Nash considered this. Something inside of him rankled at what had been done to the men. Then he screamed as a boulder rolled past them, nearly man-sized, completely round, and at high speed. It slammed into a large outcropping of diamond bone further down. A man ran down the hill. “Damn! Are you all alright?”

He was slender, although he had the kind of wiry strength that suggested an incredibly strenuous workout. He wore nothing but a sash and a tight loincloth of white fabric, and placed his hands on his hips. “Ah, visitors! Sorry about that. I don’t suppose you would give me a hand pushing that, would you?” he asked, a winning smile shining on his bright teeth, reaching all the way to his eyes, surrounded by wrinkles.

“You.” Cassandra said, her eyes narrowed. “Murderer. Hospitality-breaker. Tyrant. Secret-teller. So in love with your own cleverness.” Her voice was becoming less… her. The words took on a strange, echoing quality in the darkness. Nash was beginning to worry about her. Being here was doing something to her, and it didn’t seem entirely pleasant. The man gave a smile so innocent that it was practically virginal, an expression of ‘Who, me?’ on his face that would put the most glib scoundrel to shame.

“Come, now. We both know, seer, that those days are long behind me, and not my true crime in any case. Yes, I was a tyrant. It was a waste, and I was a terribly foolish man to hold onto power so desperately. But Zeus had me bound in Tartarus because I told a father where Zeus had stolen his daughter away to. He did not like that I acted as though I were his equal.” The strange man smirked. “But then, I was never his equal, per se.”

Dio growled, and reached out, grabbing the man by the throat. “Your foolish pride has cursed you, again, and again. You who chained Thanatos. You who mocked Persephone. Your punishment is well deserved.” The man made a choking noise as he was lifted into the air, but the grin never left his face.

“Oh, yes! I did indeed do all of those things, for just a few more short days of freedom! Three times, the gods dragged me back, twice I was taken here! And given the impossible task, at the end of it all, to roll this boulder to the top of this mountain.” He wriggled free of Dio’s grip, a grin on his face, as he ran down the hill to where the burden waited against an outcrop of bone. Soon, he was pushing the massive stone up again. His strength was impressive, rolling the massive orb up along the hill next to them, keeping pace despite the impossible size of his burden.

“Zeus thought himself immensely clever with this, giving me a task that seemed easy but was seemingly impossible. But Zeus is no clever trickster god, as anyone would know.” Dio’s face turned scarlet, and the stranger rolled his eyes at the cop. “Oh, do threaten me. As though it would do you any good,” he sneered.

“Can you not let us walk in peace?” Dio asked, growling.

“Wait.” Nash frowned. “What do you mean?” Despite himself, he was curious. The man did not seem like a broken prisoner condemned to an eternity of suffering.

“Ah! So glad you asked. Indeed, every time I roll the boulder to the peak, it rolls back down, and I must begin again. An impossible task. But every time the boulder rolls down, it wears away just the smallest fraction of the mountain top. Time and again, I push it up, and it rolls down. But each time, the flat space at the top of the mountain grows a little bit wider. I have all eternity in which to work. And eventually, I shall be freed. Zeus thinks that he is clever, but he is not as clever as I.” The man gave a broad grin. Nash stared at him. It was a compelling idea, but the flaw became apparent immediately.

“You’ve pulled these tricks twice. Right?” The stranger nodded, grinning cheerfully. Nash wondered how long he’d been without someone to listen to how clever he was. “So. What’s to keep the gods from just slamming you in here again, after you’ve escaped?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

The stranger grinned. “Oh, I expect they will force me back into Tartarus, and give me some new, grand torment to show how hopeless defying the Gods is. And I shall come up with a way to break free from that, as well.” He tapped the side of his nose, continuing to push the boulder with his other hand, as the two of them kept walking. “The gods believe that they are better than us. That we are merely a tool. But I know the truth. The gods are only what people think of them. And most people are not nearly as clever as they think they are.” He grunted, as he pushed the boulder carefully around a particularly large hump of stone. “Whereas even if I were half as clever as I think I am, I would still be the cleverest of all men.”

“It doesn’t sound worth it,” Nash said doubtfully.

“Doesn’t it? I am forever a reminder to people that the gods can be fooled. My simple existence embarrasses them, and yet, try as they might, they cannot erase my name from history. And when I am finished, the name Sisyphus will ring through the ages once again. I am the symbol of hope. Some people think of hope as a torment, a trap for the unwary, luring people into harming themselves for no real gain. I say that hope is a strength that allows us to overcome any obstacle for the most slender of chances. And who knows? Perhaps this time, when I escape, they will not be able to drag me back. Ah! Nearly there.” He sped up, pushing the boulder up quickly past them, running up the slope, shoving it upwards. There was the sound of crunching rock, a rumble, a curse, and the sound of a boulder rolling downward very quickly.

“He is a fool, defying the gods. He could live without pain if he was not so obsessed with his own success.” Dio said, shaking his head as they neared the top of the ridge.

There, at the top of the mountain, they found a place where the rock was worn smooth A circle, three feet wide, was visible. It was cupped in the middle. It was very nearly large enough to hold the boulder in place. Dio didn’t speak. “Looks like he might have a genuinely good chance,” Nash suggested, innocently.

“And what good will that do him? He cannot change who he is. He, and all others like him, are here for a reason. They have earned their punishments. Would the world be a better place with that clever a man, with so little empathy, running through it? Things are safer as they are. Do not weep for scoundrels, Agent Nash. They seldom show any gratitude for it.”

Nash didn’t answer. He just wondered if they had learned anything from their imprisonment. Ixion and Tantalus, maybe not- They seemed determined to repeat their mistakes, even if they escaped. But Sisyphus… He peered down the slope. A long bridge was visible. “Are we getting close, Cassandra?” Nash asked, frowning. Something was lighting the bridge from beneath.

“Yes. Quite close, now. We’ll find the exit from Tartarus ahead, lit by the guide-light.” Cassandra’s voice was soft, and a little bit sad. As they approached the bridge, the mysterious source of its lighting became obvious. The bridge was formed of the same black marble as the rest of Tartarus, and vast pillars held it aloft above a colossal river of flames. The fire licked at the pillars, and a roasting heat filled the air. They approached the black stone, and stared as the hungry fires licked up in great waves and flickers.

Relucantly, they stepped onto the stone bridge. Dio took the lead, and Cassandra walked just ahead of Nash. “I’m really sorry, Silas,” Cassandra said. “For everything. You know? I treated you really unfairly, judging you because I was scared of the way you looked. I hope things turn out alright. You deserve that much.”

Nash raised an eyebrow. “Is there any reason you’re telling me this?” There was a sound of cracking, and suddenly, the bridge lurched beneath his feet. There was the sound of crumbling mortar, and he dropped. He saw a flash of Dio turning, reaching out for his hand, the touch of fingertips against fingertips, and then he tumbled and rolled, down into the scorching flame. He closed his eyes tightly and braced himself for the pain.

Silas Nash started up out of his bed. It was the one shaped like a race car. His mom had bought it for his last birthday. The young boy sobbed a bit, as the door opened. His mother stood there. She was tall, and pretty in a run-down kind of way, a concerned look on her face. He was five years old, and when she embraced him, he almost felt safe again. “What’s wrong, son?” Carol Nash asked, her tone soft, gentle. It had been so long since he had heard her speak in that warm, tender tone. She rested her forehead against his, holding him gently. He tried to remember what had happened. The fear, the fury, the strange memories. Only one thing was still clear in his mind from the dream. A flash of red hair, and strange eyes.

“I… had a dream. About this woman. She had red hair, and a red dress, and-” His mother’s grip tightened. “Mom? What’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry, son.” Her voice was soft, barely a whisper. She held him, whispering a rhyme until he fell back into sleep, his eyes closing in the comforting embrace. She was awake for a long time after that, staring out of the window.

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