“What is your business here, live one?” came a booming voice.
Once I gathered my wits again, I told them, “I come with a task from the goddess Venus, to get this box filled by Proserpina.” I took out the box with shaking hands and held it up for them to see. After a long moment, the staffs raised, and they said nothing more. Spirits spilled past me, and I moved tentatively forward, my heart erratic as I passed through without harm.
Outside of the opening, souls went in different directions, as if they instinctually knew or were being silently guided to their proper destinations.
We were in a giant underground area with tunnels along one side that spilled a constant stream of spirits. It was difficult to see. The only lights were scattered candles along the walls, and glowing stalactites overhead. Liquid dripped down stone walls into guttered ruts that ran along the floors. I spied a long line against one wall where sounds of running water drew me.
As I moved toward the line, a man pushing a cart of wood stepped in front of me and the whole thing toppled. He let out a strangled sound and stooped, then grabbed his back. I couldn’t understand why a spirit seemed to be working down here instead of going to his destination, like the others.
“Please, Miss,” he said, beseeching me. “Can you help? If I bring this to Charon, he will allow me passage.”
My heart squeezed with pity. I wanted to help him, but I dared not set down the cakes. And I remembered what the Tower had told me about not stopping for any reason.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I have to go.”
When I attempted to pass him, he snarled and threw his arms out to grab me. In his semi-solid state, it was enough to make me stagger backward and fall on my bottom, barely keeping the cakes in my hands. To my horror, I heard the clang of a coin falling from my ratty pouch.
His eyes widened with the avarice the Tower had warned me of, and I quickly huddled my body over top of the fallen coin, lowering my face to pick up the coin with my lips. I pushed it into my cheek with my tongue and threw back an elbow to get the soft spirit off me. He fell harder than I had intended, proving to be as frail as he looked, and I tried not to feel guilty.
I stood and ran to the end of the line, my body shaking all over. I carefully transferred one of the cakes into the crook of my other arm and dug down into my pouch. Securing the other coin, I pressed it between my teeth and cheek with the other one. Then I held the cakes like fragile treasures and waited.
My eyes darted all around, not trusting a single soul. Spirits were quick to fill the space behind me, but the line moved surprisingly fast. As we neared the front of the line, I saw the River Styx flowing out through a darkened tunnel, and running along the wall, far down out of sight. It was hard to gauge distance in the darkened space, but the river was wide. The gurgle of the water sounded sluggish, not welcoming.
As I moved forward, I watched souls reach out holding coins to a dark figure as the boat appeared before them. That’s right, appeared. One moment the boat was there, and the next it was gone. Then back again. Two souls away from the front, and I was able to take a good look at the fabled Charon, ferryman of the River Styx.
Though he appeared tall and thin, one shoulder stooping, the magical power in his person was undeniable. He wore a black robe with a hood, but his face was not hidden. His drooping skin held the gray pallor of death, his eyes as deep and soulless as Sadness and Sorrow’s. Every part of me wanted to turn and run from his presence, but I steeled myself to move forward until it was my turn.
I stepped forward when the boat appeared, rocking to and fro. Charon stuck out a bony hand that looked as if he had been submerged in water for hundreds of years. Balancing both cakes in one hand, I pulled a coin from inside my mouth and placed it on his palm.
“Been a while since I ferried a live one.” His voice was like sticks rubbing together. He needed a drink of water worse than me.
Charon’s dead eyes seized mine as he motioned one arm to beckon me onto the boat. I held my breath and stepped past him, sitting on the small seat. I had always imagined his boat would be huge, ferrying many souls at once. Everything about this was bizarre.
He pushed off from the bank with his oar, and I tensed, expecting us to disappear in a blink of an eye like the others, but we simply moved along the river at a normal pace. I shivered as we got farther down the river.
“Pardon me, worthy ferryman.” My words were slightly garbled with the coin in my cheek. “Why did we not disappear like the others?”
He paddled slowly. “Time works differently for those on the river.”
Still holding the cakes, I crossed my arms, chilled to the core. The darkened tunnel had me spooked, giving off the sensation of passing through spiderwebs. When I saw something come out of the water beside us, I was already screaming before I could make it out.
Then a head. A man! He grabbed my arm in a grip that felt stronger than the old man spirit from before. I struggled, still screaming and nearly squeezing the cakes to mush. I wrenched myself from his grasp. The sudden loss of my arm caused him to fall back into the water.
“Oh, my gods!” I stood, peering around as Charon kept rowing, his eyes straight ahead. In the water, I could make out other bodies. Terror froze me as solid as ice. Hands reached, their mouths open in silent screams, their eyes pleading.
“It is their eternal punishment,” Charon commented.
“Gods above,” I whispered. This was more than a nightmare. This was the true fate for these souls; they would never wake up from the torment. What had they done to deserve it? I shook my head.
As uncomfortable as Charon made me, I decided to stand with my back to him, so I would not be taken by surprise by any more of the dead. It was a good thing, too, because another man, his long hair and beard stringy from the thick water, was able to pull up on the boat side to look at me, his hand reaching far too closely.
“Help,” he croaked. “Please, help me.”
As I stared at his desperate face, my eyes burned and something inside my chest twisted painfully.
“There is nothing I can do,” I whispered.
He wailed as he was pulled under by something beneath him. My stomach lurched, and I fought to remain standing. After what seemed like an eternity, a shore appeared in the distance. I stared, glad to have something to take my attention from the morbid waters. Unfortunately, the view became more unbecoming as we neared.
The shore was filled with souls overlapping one another. To one side stood a massive dark stone castle partially built into the walls of the cave—the palace of Pluto, god of the underworld. A shiver ran through me. Would I meet him? I hoped not.
In front of the castle’s grand entrance, between onyx pillars, was the legendary three-headed dog, Cerberus. He was even larger than I had envisioned, with muscles that bunched in his back and legs like tree trunks. He snapped at souls that got too near. I glanced down at the cakes in my hands with worry. How would one tiny cake suffice all three heads of that beast? And not just once, but twice? Everyone knew the creature would not allow a human to pass within reach without mauling them to bits.
I drew in a cool breath and held it until my chest hurt before letting it out slowly. I had come this far. There was nothing to do now but trust the tower’s advice and keep going. When we pulled up to shore with a light thump, I turned to Charon.
“I will be returning soon. I have another coin for you.”
His scratchy chuckle made me want to cover my ears. “If you say so, mortal.”
I climbed out gingerly, stepping onto the damp sand and rushing away from the waters. When I turned, Charon and the boat were already gone. Panic threatened to climb into my throat, but I swallowed it down and turned to survey the scene. On one side was the castle. On the other side was an ancient soul standing on a raised platform surrounded by countless tomes: the judge. For each soul, he found their name and pointed to which entrance they were to take. The path to the right of his dais was a bright, gleaming archway to Elysian Fields, the heavenly place for blessed souls. To his left was the dark and murky entrance to Tartarus.
When souls refused to go, gray-winged dragons rushed down from jutting ledges in the cave’s wall, and grasped the souls with their talons, tossing them through the Tartarus doorway as the souls screamed. No way was I going near that podium.
I skirted the edge of the water and the mass of souls until I neared the palace. Cerberus’s heads came up immediately as if scenting me. Three pairs of eyes opened wide, and he began a ferocious round of barking, snarling, and howling, pulling on the massive chains that restrained him. I jumped, thinking for a moment he would break his bindings, but he remained secured. I moved closer, muttering useless things to the creature, trying to calm myself.
“I have a little something for you. Good boy.”
When I got close enough, I bent to the ground and unwrapped one of the cakes with a shaking hand. Then I stood and launched it at the dog, realizing why one cake was better than three. The heads began to fight, thrashing at one another. I was completely forgotten.
My feet began to sprint before my mind had even caught up to what was happening. I ran around the beast, my breaths hitched with fear. When I got to the grand, obsidian doors, it took all of my self-control not to bang on them. I knocked politely, if not rapidly, peering over my shoulder at Cerberus, whose middle head was licking its chops while the others snarled at it.