“The curse of Pandora’s box? What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Alexander said.
I was stood by the window with my arms folded. I looked over at the mountains through the glass and blinked. The sun bounced off the hills magically, the sky was the bluest I had seen it in a while. The clouds rolled over the horizon. “I have no idea,” I replied, still gazing out of the window, “But I can’t imagine it ending well.”
Alexander and I were alone. Phoenix and Eztil had dropped us off at a motel and asked us to book a room for two nights before speeding away in the van.
The room smelt like roses, and was remotely clean. I was impressed with the standard in comparison to other motels we had stayed at. The wallpaper was neat and the plush carpet was stainless, there was no fault with any bathroom appliance and all the electrics worked. The bed was an actual bed, not a single mattress on the floor, and it may have been lumpy but it was big enough for two people at least. The couch matched the curtains and pulled out into a double bed too, there was enough room for everyone. It was quaint and was the best form of comfort we had been offered in months.
Alexander and I had just finished tying hex-bags to the curtain rail, then we placed the rest of the bags around the skirting board so they surrounded us and the room in a circle, masking our position from The Splinters. We had tucked Eztil’s box into a corner, under a spare bed sheet we found in the room, and ignored it.
Alexander was now lying lazily on the bed, the coins by his side, and was scribbling something down on a page in one of Eztil’s books with a pencil. His hands gliding elegantly across the paper, he was focusing hard and the crease of concentration that formed in his forehead caused my heart to flutter like crazy. He kept glancing over to the coins every-so-often, studying them continuously or to make sure they hadn’t moved – I wasn’t sure.
I had never met anyone who was so attractive that everything they did immediately became beautiful, not before I met Alexander. The way his nose wrinkled when he smiled, the way his lips moved when he spoke, the way his hips swayed as he walked, the way his eyelashes caressed his skin when he blinked, the way he licked his lips when he was in deep concentration. Everything he did was beautiful and I found it captivating to watch.
I peeled back the curtain a little more and peered out of the glass, it was so clean I had to look past my rugged reflection. I caught a glimpse of myself, my hair like a bird’s nest nestled on my head my eyes carried bruises underneath them, my skin was shimmering with grease and I could feel that my lips were dry too.
“Alex?” I said softly.
He grunted at me, refusing to take his eyes away from the book in front of him.
“I’m going for a shower,” I stated, it wasn’t a question – I needed a good wash, “Do you need to use the bathroom?”
He shook his head, his fringe swaying from side to side gently.
“Right,” I marched over to the bathroom, grabbed a clean towel from the rack and stripped down. I turned the shower on and waited for the water to run warm. I took a long hard look at myself in the mirror. So much had changed, I was no longer the girl whom nobody really noticed, I was a completely different person now. My muscles were bigger, my frame was stronger, I stood with a profound posture and even though I was covered in bruises from recent battles, I looked healthy, almost happy.
There was a certain glow to my cheeks, a certain life in my eyes. I felt alive, I felt like I had a purpose now. I stepped into the shower and let the hot water rush over me, scolding me lovingly. The feeling of the soap forming foam across my skin made it impossible to stop the smile reaching my lips. I cleaned myself quickly, making sure I had washed every single inch of my dirty skin.
I cupped my hands together to collect water droplets then threw the contents at my face, it splashed against my chin and my eyelids in a refreshing manner and when I opened my eyes everything seemed brighter. I stood under the running water for a while, cleansing myself thoroughly.
I carefully climbed out of the shower and bent down to pick up the towel. My fingers touched the soft fabric and I was pleased to find it was warm against my skin.
That’s when the door opened. “Ivy! Ivy, I figured it out!”
I threw the towel across my body immediately to cover up the important parts and gasped, “Alex!” I squeaked.
He caught sight of me, my long wet hair dangling by my waist in waves, the towel covering barely any part of me, my shocked expression, the water dripping from the end of my nose and my fingertips.
“Get out!” I yelled, playfully throwing a bar at soap at him, I laughed shakily.
I saw him smile, the smile that made my heart melt like butter, as he put his hands up over his eyes, almost like he was tempted to open them and catch one more glimpse of my bare skin trying to unsuccessfully hide away behind a towel.
I giggled, “I’ll be done in a second.”
With that the door closed and I was alone in the bathroom again.
I let out a breath of air, trying to release the tension within me and calm my beating heart. I stepped into some clean underwear and looked at myself in the mirror again. My hair had grown since the last time I had looked in a mirror which had been weeks, maybe months, ago. My freckles were still there on my creamy skin, my eyelashes were still the same mousy colour as my sleek eyebrows and the pink flush to my cheeks wasn’t as harsh as it used to be, it was still there but very faint.
I dressed in fresh clothes. It had been a while since I had felt safe enough to wear relaxing clothes. I pulled a baggy sweater over my head and struggled into a pair of jogging bottoms. I straightened up, took a deep breath and walked back into the motel room.
I walked over to the couch and sat down, curling my legs up underneath me.
Alex didn’t even wait for me to get settled, “Ivy, I figured it out. I know what these coins are for.”
“What?” I sat up a little straighter, eager to know more about these strange coins.
“I figured it out,” Alexander repeated.
“Tell me,” I instructed, “What are they?”
“We use them to pay the Ferryman.” Alexander’s eyes glimmered with excitement.
I frowned, confused, “Who the hell is the Ferryman?”
Alexander picked up the book he had left on the bed, “His name is Charon. He guides the souls of the dead across Acheron, also known as The River of Woe, which is the lake that separates the upper level of the Underworld from the lower levels – where Hades lives.”
“So, what do we use the coins for?” I inquired.
“The dead need to pay for their passage across Acheron, they use these,” He picked up the coins and handed them to me, the metal was cold against my skin, “They’re called obols. They were the common Ancient Greek currency all those years ago.”
I stared at the coins resting in my hands and the realization dawned on me, “But Alex,” I met his eyes, “There’s only two coins here.”
Alexander closed the book, his face solemn. “I know.”
“What does this mean?” I demanded, scared of his answer.
Alexander couldn’t look at me. Instead, he stared at the bed spread and began to play with one of the frayed corners. “It means only two of the four of us can travel to the Underworld to fight Hades.”
I was sprawled across the couch, my head at one end and my feet at the other, with my nose deep in another of Eztil’s books. I was reading up on the Underworld and the books weren’t giving me much to go on.
The Underworld itself was described as being far beneath the ends of the earth, many books referenced to it being below Mount Olympus. Mount Olympus is the highest mountain in Greece, found on the border between Thessaly and Macedonia, it has a total of fifty two peaks with altitudes ranging from seven hundred and sixty meters to, the highest point on the Olympus Range, two thousand nine hundred and eighteen meters. Mount Olympus has been mentioned in Greek mythology as the home to the Twelve Olympians, commonly considered to be; Zeus, Demeter, Hera, Athena, Apollo, Hermes, Poseidon, Artemis, Ares, Hephaestus, Aphrodite and either Hestia, or Dionysus.
The Underworld was a realm invisible to the living as it was a world made solely for the dead. It was thought to be surrounded by five rivers; the Acheron, the Cocytus, the Phlegethon – also known as the river of fire, where souls were sentenced to burn in eternal damnation – the Styx and the Lethe. The Lethe was said to contain powers of forgetfulness and when the dead drank from its waters it obliterated their entire earthly existence.
Past the rivers was a gate made from diamonds and guarded by Cerberus. Cerberus was the beast that defended the gate to the Underworld and beyond that gate was Hades’ kingdom of the condemned. Cerberus kept the living from entering the world of the dead and would devour them whole if they tried to pass him. The books said that Cerberus was a mixture of creatures, owning fifty heads of wild dogs and the tail of a dragon. Some of the books even said that all along its back, Cerberus was covered with snake heads. This hellish beast permitted all of the dead to enter the Underworld but allowed none to leave, sentencing souls to be tormented for eternity.
The door to the motel room opened, making me jump. Phoenix and Eztil lumbered in and I let my muscles relax again. In Eztil’s hand was a briefcase, he catapulted it onto the bed beside Alexander where it bounced twice before lying still.
“I got us a few grand,” Phoenix grimaced. She knew we were both hoping for more.
Eztil cleared his throat, “We could not risk getting any more, it would have raised suspicion.”
“We didn’t want the police on our back too,” Phoenix admitted.
“As opposed to demons and Gods we already have chasing us every waking moment of our lives?” Alexander mused, “I’d say the police were the least of our worries.” He crept across the bed and picked up the case, pulling it onto his lap, he looked up at Eztil, “How much did we win?”
Phoenix answered for him and I watched as Eztil’s eyes narrowed slightly, “Twenty seven thousand, around about.”
“That’s what you call a ’few grand’?” I laughed, “Phoenix, that’s more than enough!”
She smiled sheepishly before throwing herself down onto the mattress, exhaling in relief.
Alexander had opened the case he was holding and gawked in awe at the contents, “What are we going to do with it?”
I thought for a moment, running my hands through my, now dry and silky smooth, hair. I had a front and reputation to uphold, I had to remain together. I had to make rationalized decisions, that wouldn’t put any of us in any danger. That’s what being a good leader was about, not showing your weaknesses, not letting people in, not allowing others to hurt you. As a good leader you were meant to build up a wall and hide behind it, hiding what you truly felt inside.
“We could buy a van with air conditioning?” I suggested, amusement in my tone.
“The old van is fine,” Phoenix glowered, “I did the best I could with the money we had, which I’d like to add wasn’t a lot.”
I saw Alexander open his mouth to say, what I could only imagine to be, a sarcastic remark. He never had the chance to. What happened next none of us would have believed, it was the last thing on our minds.
The phone began to ring.