At a run, Nash soon caught up with the other two. “It’s the danger of the underworld, Nash,” Dio said, giving him a sympathetic smile. “You go there for the sake of one person, but you meet so many who seem deserving. The only reason I’m even going along with this is because of the stakes involved. Sad though the boy’s death was, Dean Constantinou is not the one we are coming to save. The town is.” He shook his head. “We will be lucky indeed if Hades allows us to take one soul from his care. Asking for many would be an insult. Particularly those souls who wander through Tartarus.” Nash sped up, until he was walking alongside Cassandra.
“You couldn’t have warned me about that?” he asked, an eyebrow raised. She shook her head. “Cassandra, you’re behaving a bit oddly here. What’s the matter?”
She turned her head towards him. Her gaze was hollow, her face crestfallen. “It’s just… a tough place to be.” She was lying. “That’s the last of the major issues, okay?” That was a lie too. “Let’s just keep going. We’re almost to the mouth of Tartarus, and from there, we’ll make our way past the three judges. We’ll need to talk our way past them. They’re meant to judge the souls who come before them, and determine whether they belong in Tartarus, Elysium, or the Meadows of Asphodel. We need to show them we don’t belong in Tartarus.” She sighed softly. “Then, we can find Dean, and leave with Hades’ permission. I hope.”
She waved a hand towards the path ahead of them. A broad, black swath of marble arched up towards a distant light, ashy and gray. The path was steep, and the marble was slippery, but they managed to climb it. The broad avenue lead out of the mouth of a cavern. That word was more apt than Nash had expected; great diamond teeth ringed the edge. There was also the occasional exhalation of breath- a hot, wet wind that rushed past them from behind, leaving the skin clammy.
When they finally stumbled into the light, it was a strange mixture of relief and despair. The fields were covered in fog, thick and cloying to every surface. A grove of trees, bare and skeletal, were barely visible in the distance. It was a barren landscape, really. Without life, or warmth. Except for the asphodels.
They were beautiful. A stalk rose from the ground, covered in dozens of white blooms, small at the top, larger near the bottom. There were countless numbers of them in the meadows, waist-high, filling the air with a delicate perfumed scent. They rustled as though blown by a breeze that Nash could not feel, and the scent of the flowers filled the air. The three of them stood for a moment, transfixed by the lovely moment in the middle of the gloom and gray. Shades walked through the flowers, their bodies little more than partially transparent silhouettes.
Standing by the base of the marble path, where it met the silty earth of the Asphodel Meadows, were three men. They wore great masks, obscuring their face; one of a bull, one of a dragon, one of a wolf. They stood in dark robes, their arms crossed. As Cassandra approached, their eyes lit up, bright and fierce. “Halt!” shouted the dragon-masked man. “I am the Judge of the Asiatics. I ask you to look in my eyes.”
Cassandra stood, her back straight, and the judge stared into her eyes. “Cassandra. Seer of Troy, woman of sense, and the one who knows what is truly there, even when she is not believed. You are welcome to Elysium and all other places within our bounds. I trust you have not been assaulted by the base inhabitants of Tartarus?” he asked, his voice firm and proud, as she bowed at the waist.
“I have not, King. Thank you, I shall pass with your blessing.” She bowed, and Dio stepped forward next.
“Halt!” shouted the bull-masked man. “I am the Judge of the Greeks. I ask you to look in my eyes.” Dio nodded, and he did the same. “Diomedes! Chosen hero of Athena, the man with the strength to wound two gods and the wisdom to let them escape! I am glad to see you again, and to know you still walk the earth. As always, you have the right to pass here. I trust that no inhabitant of Tartarus was fool enough to stand in your way!”
“No, Minos. It is good to see you again, wise King. I trust that your judgments remain as fair as ever.”
The three judges stood silently as Nash approached. The last one spoke from behind a mask like a leering wolf. “I suppose you are of my people.” He locked eyes with Nash for a moment, and Nash felt as though someone had used a melonballer to remove everything inside of his skull in a single brutal movement, his head spinning as he grew woozy. The judge was silent for a moment, as though trying to digest a difficult meal. Then he spoke. “Silas Nash. No glory, no great faith. Some hubris. Some wroth. But not enough of either to condemn you to Tartarus. You are welcome, so long as you remember your place. You are, and always shall be, a simple shade.”
Nash stepped past the judges, looking vaguely annoyed at his companions, who couldn’t keep the smiles off their faces. “You know, I did beat up two goddesses. I thought that would be worth something,” he grumbled, as he joined the two of them.
“Maybe you just didn’t feel very proud of it,” Cassandra said as she patted him on the shoulder. “You don’t strike me as the kind of person who has a very Greek mind-set. The underworld is suited to the morals and ethics of the society it belongs to. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be unworthy, here.”
Dio nodded. “There are worse fates than winding up in the Asphodel Meadows. They are given a dark reputation for a place full of senseless shades, but I am given to understand that it only appears that way to the living. They live a pleasant and cheerful enough life here in the meadows; There is darkness and gloom, but there is life, too.” He brushed his fingers across one of the asphodels, and the fragrant scent filled the air.
“Yeah, you two can afford to be magnanimous about it. I noticed they were kissing your butts pretty hard,” Nash grumbled, but he smiled all the same. Out of Tartarus, the oppressive memories were fading. It had been painful to confront that place. Letting his mind scab over again was a rare pleasure. He looked around. “How do we find Dean, though? Do we know where he’d be?”
Cassandra shook her head. “Even I cannot see that. It is a terribly large place, the Asphodel Meadows, and though he is most likely here, we could search for a long time and not find him. No. There are two beings with an absolute knowledge of the underworld. Hades, and Persephone. We will not be able to remove Dean from this place without their permission, anyway. We may as well present our case to them. And Silas…”
Cassandra looked slightly pained. “It may be best if you don’t talk to them. They are Gods, and they are incredibly old fashioned. They respect Heroes and Monsters, like me, and Dio. But they consider humans, normal humans…” She winced. “They basically think of them as living props.” Nash was quiet for a moment, and then sighed.
“Yeah, I get it. When dealing with someone who holds all the cards, you have to play their game. Let’s just get this over with.” He shook his head. “How do we find them?”
“Well, that part is fairly easy, at least.” Cassandra held out a hand, and pulled it through the mist. The fog bunched to the side like a curtain, to reveal a great palace. It sparkled like the most tastelessly expensive jewel in existence. “The abode of Hades. Carved from a single great ruby.” Black and red glittered ferociously despite the pallor. Cassandra held the fog aside, gesturing for Nash and Dio to step through. They did so, and she dropped the curtain of fog behind her as they made their way toward the castle.
“Hades. God of the Underworld. His is the domain of wealth; The word plutocrat comes from his name. All the mineral wealth of the earth belongs to him, by right.” Cassandra explained. “His personality is not widely known, because he was one of the most diligent of the gods. He did not leave his realm much. He is not the villain of the Greek Pantheon, and in fact, is one of the least likely gods to torment those who don’t deserve it. His wife, Persephone, is also his niece, being the daughter of Demeter, his sister.”
She looked over her shoulder, and caught Nash’s raised eyebrow. “Gods do not have the mortal frailties that make incest a taboo. That, and they are gods, so they tend to be jaded.” She smiled as Nash’s other eyebrow raised. “And don’t refer to it as the Rape of Persephone. He knows what the modern day meaning of those words are. He would probably not be pleased.” She followed the path, and lifted a great gold knocker, riveted into the ruby gate. She brought it down, twice, and the echo of the metal against the stone rung through the air. It took nearly a minute for the sound to die down.
The door swung open. Inside stood a tall man with black hair, bronzed features, and a broad smile. He was wearing a KILL THE COOK apron of uncertain parentage. He also wore slippers. “Ah, lovely, visitors! And living ones, too! Please, come in, come in!” The tall man waved them in. Cassandra and Dio seemed bemused as they were ushered in, Nash following after with an amused expression.
Within, they were led through the halls by the tall man. They looked about as one would expect the abode of the lord of the underworld to look. Writhing faces, spectral figures pawing at walls from the far side, the distant wails and screams of the damned echoing out from beneath them.
All of this contributed to the surprise when they reached their destination, stepped through an ominous gate, and into an adjoined kitchen-dining room straight out of the 70s. The walls had a faux-wood paneling, cheery orange-and-yellow wallpaper, and a set of plushy upholstered chairs around a dining table. A beautiful young woman, slender and with skin the color of milky coffee, was standing at a counter, rolling dough out into small crescents. She wore an apron and a marked absence of anything else. She turned, and flashed a warm smile. “Ah, darling. These are the mortals?”
Hades embraced his wife tenderly, spinning her and planting a kiss on her cheek. “Would you mind making a bit of coffee for them, Melindia? And do we have any of those honeycakes we made when that nice Orpheus fellow last came to visit us?” he asked, smiling warmly, as he took a seat at the table. She nodded, and bustled in the small kitchen. Hades turned to the three of them. “All food from the surface, of course. I’ve never been one to rush people into their tenancy in the underworld; You’ll all be enjoying my hospitality eventually.” He smiled cheerfully. Cassandra coughed, as she stood very stiffly.
“Oh mighty Hades, lord of the Underworld, he who chains the vile; We have come to ask you for a favor. A mortal has passed from the world too soon, and it threatens to cause chaos. Zion is poisoned by War. It will crumble if we do not return him to life, and with it, so too will the borders between the world of humans and the world of monsters. War will sweep over the lands, Conquest shall ride roughshod, Famine shall gnaw, and Death will reap a great harvest. The Horsemen are behind this. We seek your aid, to bring the mortal back to life, and are prepared to pay whatever price you deem necessary.”
Hades was quiet for a few seconds. “And?”
Cassandra faltered at this. “And… We need your help, my lord Hades. We know that you are not bound to provide it, but the world will burn. Surely-”
“Do you see this apron I’m wearing?” Hades asked, his head tilted. “I wear it because mortals believe I am a monster. Their fear of death makes them mistake me for the one who deals it, and they think poorly of me. I wear these silly things so that those who die and come to my land may know that I am not so bad as they think. I wear this so that I can put a smile on the faces of the shades who come to visit me. It is not a dignified outfit, but it makes them laugh, and so, they feel a little bit safer knowing that I hold their fate in my hand. But their hatred and fear are still a constant.”
Dio blanched. “But my lord, you wouldn’t allow the world of humans to fall, simply for the sake of your own vanity-” The man quailed under the fierce gaze that Hades delivered to him. There was a ringing silence in the room as Hades tapped his fingers on the table. Dio bowed his head. “I am sorry, my lord. I have worked for decades to preserve my city. It matters to me.”
“I am aware. And no. I would not do anything that would destroy humanity. While humans may have their misguided ideas about me, I am understanding, and I do my thankless job. But humans have forgotten who I truly am. Persephone and I are bound here, beneath the earth, by the power of the cities. When the third city arose, we Gods lost our place in the world. Ever since, we have been forced to work through intermediaries, and watch as faith diminishes and dissolves.”
The cheerful smile was gone. Hades brow was dark, as he leaned his head forward, resting his head on his chin. “I am tired of being forgotten. I would savor the chance to walk under the open sky again. It will mean great difficulty for the world, and many may die because of the changes. But humans die in droves all the time. I am there to take care of them, no matter the cause of their death. I would have them remember all that I give for them.”
Persephone arrived at the table, carrying a large pot of coffee, and a few cups. She poured out cups for everyone. Nash accepted it gratefully. It was Turkish. He took a deep breath of the hot coffee, and sipped at it, watching as Dio and Cassandra exchanged a quick, whispered conversation. “Would you entertain a wager, my lord?” Dio asked, hopefully.
“No, I don’t think so. The only things you three have to offer here are your lives, and those are of little interest to me at the moment. As I said, I do not want humanity to die out. If the monsters return to the world en masse, heroes will be needed, and people of vision. You can ill afford to be trapped here in the underworld. That would simply make matters worse.” Hades sipped the coffee, rumbling pleasantly and smiling at his wife. “I know that you have come a long way for this. I know that you are banking your future on it. But I have trust in humans. You have a great deal of spirit. Even the worst of you are nonetheless filled with hope.”
“That reminds me. Did Zeus use Tantalus to win a bet?”
Nash looked around to see who had said that. Cassandra, Dio, Persephone, and Hades were staring at him. Oh. He took a deep breath, and plunged on. “Pardon me if I am overly forward, Hades.” He held out a hand. “Silas Nash. Neither hero nor monster. Just a prop.” Hades reached out, and grasped his hand firmly, and they shook once. “I don’t mean to show disrespect. But the story Tantalus offered was… compelling. It reminded me a great deal of the book of Job. When it comes to humans, the gods can be very callous. After all, if the gods made us, that gives them the right to unmake us. Even if your plan would result in the death of countless humans, guilty of nothing more than being ordinary, it would mean your freedom. And that’s an easy trade to make for a god.”
Hades eyes narrowed, and Cassandra was making a violent cutting gesture across her throat, trying to stop him. “Perhaps.”
“Do you think that it would be just for a god to test a human’s love for them against their love for their child?” Hades’ eyes were red, like embers, as the god leaned forward.
“I think… that in Tartarus, there are only a handful of people who are there because I wish them to be. There is hope, even for those in Tartarus. They must simply wish for the right things. It is not a horrible place to be. You will notice, there are no guards there, no wandering horrors. The only chains are the ones inside the prisoners minds. If they could give up on what drives them to repeat their crimes, they would be free. Do you doubt my judgment?”
“I’m sure I’m not in a position to do so. But I do doubt your motives, Hades. I was introduced to the Eleusinian Mysteries. And I learned something about you.”
“Really.” Hades said. Cassandra had her face in her hands. Dio was trying not to make eye contact. Persephone was watching her husband, with a curious expression on her face. “Was it the depths of my patience?”
“In a manner of speaking. They might be here to save a city. I’m here for something much less lofty. Dean Constantinou died because he loved his girlfriend with all of his heart. She’s risking her life to keep his body safe for his soul to return, as we speak. The two of them fell in love, knowing that it would mean he would die. They live the story of the White Snake. It’s a romance with something that’s supposed to be dangerous, and frightening. It’s the story of a young man who would die for the woman he loves, even if he knows she’s a monster. And in that story, the young man is brought back, and reaffirms his love.”
“I know the story well,” Hades said, his expression inscrutable and dark.
Nash picked up one of the small, round cakes, golden, sweet and sticky, and bit into it, washing it down with his coffee. He chewed, allowing the tension to build while he picked his next words carefully. “I believe that is the kind of story that you love, Hades. There’s a reason that you call Persephone ‘Melindia’.” ‘Honey’. That had put a smile on his face.
Hades stared for several long seconds. The entire room seemed to hold its breath. But Nash could see Persephone was giggling behind her hand, her eyes full of laughter. “I’m sorry, Agent Nash,” the brown-skinned woman said, smiling kindly. “My husband would sometimes prefer to be thought of as a tyrant than a romantic. But he simply cannot help himself.” She leaned over, and kissed Hades cheek, and the man flushed deeply, his arms crossing tightly in front of him, a slightly petulant expression on his face. But he couldn’t stop the smile spreading across his dark face.
“I know that it’s asking a great deal of you. To ask you to stay locked here, away from the world of mortals, for the sake of a pair of young lovers.” Nash admitted. “But-” Hades held up a hand.
“I could not allow my selfishness to divide a pair of young lovers. I will help you. Eat your cakes, drink your coffee, and then, we will go to see the young man. Persephone, has he eaten anything of this world yet?”
Persephone shook her head. “No. Honestly, I have become rather worried. He was withdrawn when he arrived, and he has only grown more so. He’s refused to interact anyone, stuck in his own memories. I fear he has some regrets that are making it difficult for him to let go.”
Hades frowned. “I must warn you, this is not a rare response. There are those who fall into catatonia in this world. None of the three of you knew the boy very well, and it may be that you will find him and he will be unable to hear you. I do not wish to raise your hopes unduly. And even then, there will be a price.” He sighed. “There is always a price.” He stood up. “You.” He pointed towards Dio. “You must do nothing.” Dio frowned. “You.” He pointed towards Cassandra. “You must act on your instincts.” A momentary look of pain drifted across Cassandra’s face, and was then replaced by a determined expression. “And you.” He pointed towards Nash, and Nash swallowed. “You must have faith.”
Nash raised an eyebrow. “That doesn’t sound like much of a price. What happens if I don’t, exactly?”
“Then the boy will die again, and everything will go horribly wrong. The same will happen if any of you fail to pay the price I have named. You will know when you must pay that price. And now…” Hades stood. “Let me take you to meet the boy.”
The five of them walked. Persephone and Hades were hand in hand. Nash and the other two walked slightly apart from them. Nash was troubled by what he had been told, but obviously not as much as Cassandra or Dio. Dio had a stormy expression on his face, and Cassandra was looking downright tormented, her arms around her, squeezing herself tightly. He moved a bit closer to her. “You alright, kid?” he asked, his voice soft. “Being an adult not quite all its cracked up to be?”
“I’m fine,” she lied. “It’s what I have to do, and it’ll probably all turn out alright. What else matters?” He walked alongside her for a couple of minutes.
“It means a lot to me that you accepted me, you know,” he said. “I know you had reason to not believe in me when I started out. I owe my life to you, Cassandra. Whatever you do, that won’t change. Alright? Whatever the price Hades set for you entails, I’ll help you. I believe in you.” He smiled. She returned the smile, and he could see how little she believed him. That was fine, though. He believed in her.
“Thank you, Silas,” she whispered. He looked over towards Dio, and stepped closer to the man.
“It’s none of your business,” Dio grumbled, his voice low, a frown on his face.
“Yeah, but it might help you to talk about it anyway.”
Dio shook his head. “It is something you learn. No matter how powerful you are, sometimes, the most important thing you can do is nothing. So it was when I wounded gods. I could have slain them, but that would have caused worse consequences down the line. I had to allow them to flee, to do nothing as an opponent fled me. That is the way of things, sometimes.” He looked at Nash. “But it is difficult not to act. For a man like me, it seems so much easier to act and think that I was not strong enough, than to not act, and be tormented with the idea that I could have done better had I only tried.”
“Funny. I had the opposite problem. I acted when I should’ve done nothing.” Nash smiled- Come and get me– and his head ached for a moment. He could barely remember what had happened in the pit of despair that had been Tartarus’ depths. But it gave him a horrible sick feeling of foreboding.
Dio sighed, drawing Nash out of the momentary reverie. “Hades is a place where we are forced to confront dark things. It is a place where we learn our true mettle.” The man gave Nash a smile. “It can be a deeply disheartening experience.” The asphodel rustled around them as they continued walking. Then, the fog parted around them, revealing a small clearing. There was a little bit of true sunlight, here, glittering down on the flowers.
“This is not Elysium,” explained Hades. “But it does offer a path to that place. It is not unusual to find spirits in these places. They warm themselves in the sunlight.” He waved. A single spirit stood in the middle of the beam of sunlight. It was transparent, barely visible. “He has not eaten. He barely even exists anymore. I must admit, I do not know if you could even bring him back to his senses, let alone convince him to return to the world. He is in pain, forgotten, and alone. These things are not a condition of his existence here. He died with deep regrets.”
Hades stepped aside, and the three mortals examined the shade. It was the outline of a person, more than anything else. Nash looked at the other two, and stepped forward. He opened his jacket, and took out two items. One was the ring that he had been given by Megara. The other was the pink book. He stepped closer to the shade.
“Dean?” The spirit didn’t move. It didn’t respond. It simply rocked from side to side. “Dean. I’ve got a couple of gifts for you.” He held up the silver ring. “This is from your step-mother. Megara Drakos. I know that she was sometimes cold, and distant. That she argued with you about who you loved. She was harsh with you. But it was because she loved you. Your father’s love for you was enough to shake her out of a self-destructive spiral that had lasted for thousands of years. She swore that she would do anything within her power to save you. She was willing to tear down the city to bring you back. And she gave me this ring, because it belonged to one of her children. She wanted you to have it, as a reminder that you were hers.” He pressed the small ring into Dean’s palm. The spirit let out a ragged little shudder, shoulders shaking violently.
“Mom?” The shade whispered, rocking slightly, fingers tightening around the ring. The blackness faded, revealing just a hint of color, providing contrast and definition to the shadow. The handsome young man’s features resolved. “She’s not my mother.”
“Dean. She was willing to fight for you. She would do anything to preserve you. She loves your father, Dean, and she loves you. She’s not the person who gave birth to you, but she’s your mother, through and through. She treated you the way she did because she worried for you. She wanted to protect you, and she didn’t know how to do it.” He took a deep breath. “Your mother is Echidna, the mother of monsters. Your father is Heracles, the hero of heroes. They have both lost the people they loved, time and again. They don’t deserve to lose someone again.” Something burned inside of him, like an ember caught against his heart, scorching at his soul. He hefted the book.
“And they’re not the only ones who care about you. Your death shouldn’t have happened. It was the work of someone who wanted to destroy the city. The world isn’t ready to leave you behind, and neither are the people who love you.” Nash pressed the book into Dean’s hands. “Isabelle is in love with you. She wrote these words for you. She was frightened of you being hurt. That was why she pulled away. She really does love you, Dean. You need to come back for her.”
“Why.” The shade whispered, weakly. His eyes were hollow, his cheeks drawn. He was more visible, now. Wearing a jersey and a pair of shorts that hung loosely on a body that looked emaciated with hunger, his movements shiftless. “She’ll move on. It didn’t matter.”
“She’s not going to move on.” Nash looked from side to side, and leaned closer. “She promised me, Dean. If I can’t bring you to her, she’s going to come to you. She’ll take her own life, Dean, because she wants to be with you, no matter what the cost is to her.”
The boy’s head turned up sharply. Color returned in a flash, and solidity. Dean’s eyes were angry, brown and full of sudden fury. Hands reached up for Nash’s lapels, and possessed with sudden strength, Dean yanked Nash up off of his feet, holding him in the air. “She can’t! You can’t let her!”
Nash stared down into the young man’s eyes, toes barely grazing the ground, keeping cool despite himself. The young man was strong. “I’m not going to stop her. No one else will, either. This is the choice, Dean. If you don’t live, she has to die to save everyone. And she’ll do it. If you want your girlfriend to live, you’re going to have to damn well tell her to live yourself, kid.” There was no sympathy, no gentleness in his voice. The young man stared at him for a long few seconds, and then looked around, at the others, looking slightly surprised.
“Cassie? Mister Dio?” he said, looking slightly surprised. “You came here for me?”
“Get over yourself. I’m here because a lot of other people are going to die if we don’t get you out of here.” Cassandra said, looking quite annoyed. Then she smiled a little bit. “But I really would be a lot happier if you were alive. The town is kind of going nuts without you. Don’t let that go to your head, though.” Dio simply shrugged, and grunted.
Dean looked down at the ring on his hand, and the small pink book. He rubbed his eyes with his sleeve, and then grinned brightly. “Let’s get out of here. I can’t wait to see everyone again.” His voice was slightly strained, but his smile was bright as the sun.
Nash looked towards the god of the underworld. “Hades, is there a path out of here that’s closer than the way out through Tartarus?”
Hades nodded, and swept a hand. A grand sweeping path appeared, looping and long, composed of silver light, and ascending to the endless grey sky. A great spiral ramp, leading into the light. “Just follow this. And remember, as I’m sure you’ve been warned. No matter what you hear, do not look back. The only way to escape me is with confidence.” Nash nodded, and stepped onto the path, beginning to follow it. He kept his eyes forward, as they began to walk. All four of them were quiet, as they ascended into the sky, Nash in the lead. Five minutes passed, and soon, the ground was out of sight, as they kept walking. There were occasional low moans from behind them, but Nash didn’t look back. He was confident that there was nothing behind them that could hurt him.
“Nash?” It was Cassandra’s voice. He didn’t turn to face her.
“Yeah, Cassie?” he asked, a little humor in his voice. They were almost out. Everything was going to be okay.
“Sorry for what?”
The fist caught him in the side of the head with shocking force. He pinwheeled off the side of the path, and fell into the gray mist. There was a sickening crunch as he struck the ground, and everything went dark.