TWENTY - Tour of the Underworld
TOUR OF THE UNDERWORLD
Leaning against Hades’s office doors, Persephone watched as he distractedly read over what looked to be a stack of reports. His eyebrows pulled together in concentration as the words seemed to be telling him something he was unhappy about.
Deciding it was time to take him away from his work, she interrupted him. “So? How do I look?” she asked. She had dressed in red just as he had asked, though it was such a dark shade of red she had almost thought it back. It was a tight-fitting dress that showed off all her favorite curves differing from the normal flowing dresses she had become accustomed to. While it was a tight fit she had picked it because of how comfortable and short it was. She did not know what this tour would entail and had reasoned a long and constricting dress would simply not do.
Hades’ eyes held a dangerously lustful look that told her the dress had quickly become a favorite. Without looking away from her he walked through the room and captured her within his arms. He held her tightly as he whispered “Like a queen men would die for.”
Once they left his office Hades led her through the mass of halls he seemed to know well. She could not tell in what direction he was headed because instead of descending the front grand staircase that led to the front doors he headed towards the back halls and exited on the opposite side of the castle. Arm in arm the pair walked through the part of her garden she seldom saw but always loved. This part was wilder and less maintained than the others and that in itself was its beauty.
He soon brought her out past the garden and towards a river she had only seen from a distance. If she was being honest the river had peaked her curiosity in the past, though she had never been brave enough to venture that far from the castle while she was alone. Part of the river glowed red and steam lapped at its surface, making it different than any river she had ever seen. From where she and Hades stood she could feel the heat rising off of its waters. Further down she could see the violent river meet its counterpart, a cool and crisp river that followed its own path.
Before they got too close Hades stopped them by pulling Persephone’s hand back. She turned with concern only to see Hades’ face had become stern and serious. “I’m showing you this only because I do not want you to come here. It is dangerous.”
“The river?” Persephone asked, laughing at the notion as she turned to see what harm there could be. Sometimes she wondered if he had forgotten she was a goddess. Immortal since her birth.
“Persephone,” he said, turning her to look back at him. “The river is dangerous, as are many things in the Underworld. Do you understand?” he asked.
She nodded in response, suddenly understanding what he was trying to tell her. What he was trying to warn her about. Concern found Persephone as she began to realize she knew nothing of the Underworld. Things here were much more dangerous and unknown than she had previously expected.
“This is the Phlegethon river, also known as the river of fire. If you follow it deeper you will see it pour into the mouth of a cave, once inside you will be led into Tartarus, the dark abyss. That is why I do not want you to come here. This is as close to that cave as I want you to be.” he explained, she nodded understanding his warning. Tartus was the darkest side of hell. The place where all evil beings were kept. Hades’ own father, Cronus, was held there. A shiver ran down her back realizing that Hades had lived so close to the man he despised so feverishly. What was once his father’s domain was now his.
“What is on the other side?” she asked him. There was a gray mist and darkness she had rarely seen in the Underworld. The darkness seemed to keep to the other side of the river as if there was an eternal night just to the other side of the river bank.
Hades followed her gaze to see what she was looking at, “It is the Field of Punishment.” he answered. There was a silence that followed his words, they both needed no further explanation to know what was transpiring in front of them. There must have been some type of magic protecting her from seeing into the fog for she could not see or hear any souls but could still sense their presence.
“I don’t think I would mind if we skipped this part of the tour,” she told him, meaning every word. She had no desire to know what was happening so close to her home. She considered building a high wall of trees when she returned so she would never again have to see the red hot river.
“The Fields of Punishment were never on the tour, I don’t want you there, ever,” he said. His words should have made her angry and want to prove him wrong. Yet she still could not swallow the lump in her throat. “You do not have to feel sorry for them. There is not an innocent one among them,” he told her, his face showing no emotion, like Medusa herself turned him into stone.
“Innocence or not I feel sick just thinking of it,” she admitted to him as he graciously led her farther away from the dreaded grey mist. “Is all the Underworld as dark as this?” she asked, wondering what the rest of the day would entail.
“The Underworld is not all darkness and death. There is also rebirth and eternal happiness for those who lived a pure life. Just down the river is something I’ve always wanted to show you.” he told her after placing his hand protectively on her lower back. They followed the river until it parted around a beautiful widespread field dotted by shady groupings of trees. She could see the far-off cluster of souls as they dined and walked in the evergreen fields.
“I knew this would be your favorite,” Hades said, watching her as her smile stretched across her face. The sight in front of her was more beautiful than she ever could have imagined. A true paradise for the souls who dwelled there. If only her mother could see this, then she would understand the beauty the Underworld held.
“The Isles of the Blessed?” she guessed. She had heard sonnets of the place but had never thought to seek it out, never realizing what she was missing. While the legends described the land as a place untouched by sorrow it was also abundant in beauty. Something she would have only dreamed about.
“Yes. It has many names on earth. Here in the Underworld we simply call it Elysium.” he told her.
“It is beautiful.” she marveled.
“Yes, it is. After all, it was modeled after your own garden,” he told her. She was stunned until she looked again and saw that he was in fact correct. Her handy work was written all over the surface of the vast land. The tree groupings and coves that had taken her many years to find the perfect combination. Wildflowers that spread in different shades dotted the fields that grew together with the paths. How had she not seen her own design so easily?
She looked up at Hades with awe that he would have modeled such a place after her own small garden. “Did you do this?” she asked.
“It was Hecate’s idea actually. Elysium had not been redesigned since its original creation and you had done such a wonderful job already. I could not have agreed with her more.” he answered looking out at the Elysium Fields.
Persephone smiled proudly, seeing how much her friend had enjoyed her work. “She is always so kind.”
“Maybe to you but to anyone else she is a menace.” he laughed.
“That is her charm!” Persephone laughed knowing exactly what Hades was speaking of. Hecate had a special ability to annoy any and all gods in her path. She was dangerous and violent and at all times sarcastic to the point of harm.
“Maybe next time I have a meeting with her you can come and witness the extent of her charm.” he laughed.
“There is nothing I would love more than to protect you from a harmless goddess.” she teased him as they walked the shorelines.
Hades threw his head backward in a mock laugh as he squeezed her waist. “I am the king of the dead, I need protection from no one,” he said darkly but then a spark made its way through the cracks to appear on his smiling face. “And besides, Hecate is anything but harmless,” he told her, smiling as he watched her laugh in turn.
“Whatever you say Hades.” she laughed.
They continued to walk along the river enjoying the beautiful views of the Underworld. She loved to watch Hades as he explained everything the Underworld had to offer. His eyes would shine with pride and he seemed to walk higher now that he got to share this with her. She doubted many others had seen this side of Hades.
“And this river? It is so different from the Phlegethon river,” she observed.
“Yes, each of the rivers in the Underworld have unique properties and uses. The Phlegethon feeds Tartarus so it must be made of more than just water,” he explained to her, clearly, he did not want to speak of Tartarus.
“And what is this river called?” she asked.
“It is Lethe, the river of unmindfulness,” he told her, turning to her before he continued to explain. “I created the isles of the blessed for the pure of heart, for those who had lived a good and pure life. I also allow these souls a chance of reincarnation if they so choose but first, they must drink of the river and forget their past lives. In this way there can be a true beginning without any thought to the troubles of their past lives.” he explained as they both watched a group of small children running along the other side of the river. The faintest smile was upon his lips. Clearly, he enjoyed this part of his job more than others.
Becoming serious again he looked back down at her while she rested in his arms. “You must also be careful here. You cannot drink from this river as you can others. While other rivers in the Underworld cannot harm immortal gods, this one will take your memories and there would be nothing I could do to get them back.”
“I cannot imagine not knowing you,” she said sadly, the thought of forgetting all of their precious memories felt painful. As an immortal few possessions meant anything against the test of time, except memories, they were the one thing she could always have that was undeniably hers. And until this moment she had thought they were the one thing that could not be taken from her.
“It is unthinkable, that is why I have warned you,” he said coolly.
“That is very kind of you to give these souls another chance,” she said, no longer wanting to talk of such a sad and depressing topic. “Not many gods pay attention to the lives of mortals.” she could not imagine Zeus or Poseidon caring for the life of a mortal the way Hades did.
He gave a small nod before he spoke, “Being the god of judgment I have seen many vile people, I hear of cruel acts and can see the evil written on their faces like a brand. I like to think that the world could be good if given time. So if these good and kind souls want to go back and live another life then why should I ever stop them? The world can never have enough good.” he said. She nodded looking out over the beautiful landscape. Elysium was better than Olympus. Better than the heavens and the constellation. It was a place that the worthy truly deserved. A place of leisure and beauty.
This was Elysium. The land of the worthy.
The Lethe river continued to tumble and flow over the speckling of pebbles as they walked along its shores. As if it was not powerful, or dangerous. As if it was unaware of the great power it held within a single drop. Any passerby would have no idea. Soon the Lethe combined with the Acheron river and still, it flowed on, being stopped by nothing.
Hades explained that the land the Acheron circled was called the Fields of Mourning. Of course, she assumed the cause of such a name would not be one she would enjoy. She knew that for a soul to be sent to a land named after such a sad and sorrowful time had to have been a tortured soul. Mourning was never meant to last an eternity. It would always be suffocating and all-consuming but there was always meant to be an end, respite, a light at the end, and happiness waiting for the soul.
Her heart seemed to hurt even more for these mortals once Hades explained further. She now understood the length of their fate. No wonder they would always be in mourning. With a somber face, Hades told her that this was the destination of mortals who had wasted a love. They would spend eternity wandering paths unseen, or in the gloom of dark myrtle groves. Unlike in the Isles of the Blessed these souls remembered. Not even in death did they forget their grief of long ago. Hades listed a few names of mortals she might have heard of. Phaedra, Evadne, Laodamia, and Dido reminding her not even fame would soften the blow of such sadness.
This plot of land was named accordingly for it was nothing if not a place to mourn.
“This is where we will be crossing,” Hades told her as they neared the end of the river. Without warning and with a wave of his hand, the river split in two leaving behind a dry sandy river bed. It shocked Persephone for she had never seen Hades control nature in such a way. She knew he had domain over anything in the earth but moving a river was a much different power altogether.
“How did you do that?” she asked in amazement. Not even she, a nature goddess, could do such an act.
“Part the river? All Underworld gods have sworn loyalty to me.” Hades said as if it was simple. “That includes this river.” Once he had stepped into the river bed he turned back to help her step down the river’s shores. She was sure he was aware of how wildly she had always run through the forest and leaped into running rivers without help. And yet he was always the gentleman.
“All of them?!” she asked.
“Yes, all of the houses of night swore fealty to me.” he nodded. Even though she didn’t exactly know who he was talking about, she knew how powerful those gods and goddesses were. To have them not only as an ally but as a subject was a feat she could not fully understand.
“Including Nyx and Tartarus?” Persephone asked, perplexed. “They are more ancient than the Titans!” she exclaimed after she saw Hades nod. “Does that apply to Zeus?”
Hades chuckled “I am not Zeus’ subject.”
She almost laughed at how cocky he was but understood that here, beneath the earth, Hades was his own king answering to no one. But every living thing was subject to something else. To most, it was Zeus, as it had always been ever since the Titanian wars. “He’s the king of the gods.” she reminded him.
“I am no mere god” Hades smiled a wicked smile.
“What about Poseidon? Is he Zeus’ subject?” Persephone asked, digging deeper into this unseen side of her world. A new history she had never been taught.
“He does not answer to anyone,” Hades told her. Suddenly she was reminded of a conversation in the darkened hallway on Olympus. Little flower. “Name one time Zeus commanded anything of him?” he asked and truthfully Persephone could not name a single time. It seemed Zeus must know of both his brothers’ suborn sides and had chosen not to test them.
On the other side of the river was a crowded expanse of land. While there were groupings of trees and a few pillars and buildings it seemed that souls had been crammed together waiting for something.
Persephone smiled in recognition. “I know this place. It is the Asphodel Fields. I used to always walk past when going to your palace.”
“Our palace.” Hades corrected her suddenly. His face was void of emotion and she knew this was his way of showing his distaste of her referring to it as solely his. He had told her it was her new home, apparently, he was very serious about it.
She smiled up at him the way she always did when she wanted him to smile back, “Yes, now it is ours but at the time it was not.”
“It was always made for you.” he did not smile but his eyes danced. “Since you have been here so many times, tell me, my queen, what do you know?” he asked playfully.
Normally she did not like to be tested but she knew he was only doing it to play with her. This time she felt up to the challenge. “Ordinary souls are sent to live here,” she told him confidently. He nodded, impressed but still waited for more. “It is a place for phantoms whose work is done,” she said. It wasn’t much but she had never stopped to ask questions. Something had always been distracting her, pulling her forward. The promise of seeing Hades had always pulled her focus away from the crowd of mortals.
Looking around she could see there were many groups of mortals as they made their way around them. It didn’t seem like they could tell who Hades and she were because they gave them no attention but at the same time gave them plenty of room as they both walked through the crowd.
A group of young boys ran in front of them as they chased after each other. Her first instinct was to smile at the sight of the happy children but with realization came dread. The only way for these boys to find themselves here was for them to have first died. It tied her into knots thinking about the frail mortality of mortals. She would never understand how mothers survived the loss of a child. It would be worse than the loss of a limb.
She wanted to ask why children would even be allowed here. Why even collect their souls? Why not let them live until a ripe old age? Let them love and live and explore before getting taken to the afterlife. These boys were only children. But she knew the answer without having to ask. No soul was allowed to avoid the reaping. No matter how small. The sun-kissed skin and golden-haired gods did not understand this as a type of mercy, a salvation from the world. But Persephone knew. There was an equality in death. No favoritism. No bias. It did not matter who you were, death always came for everyone.
Hades watched the boys the same as her. Even after they had passed them the couple stayed to watch them runoff. He put his hand behind her back and pulled her into his side. Neither one said a word. There was nothing to say. His touch was comfort enough.
As they walked towards a large pavilion Persephone began to notice three large men seated in a line in front of souls. Hades nodded towards them as they got closer, “This is the judge’s stand. They are passing sentences based on the mortals’ deeds during their previous life.”
“And are they fair?” she asked Hades as they watched a new soul step onto the pavilion.
“Yes, very. I make sure of it.” Hades nodded. Persephone watched him study the judges as if he could hear their ruling from this distance. She realized this must have been part of Hades’ duties he performed every morning, keeping the judges accountable as they carried out judgments. One of the characteristics she had first loved about Hades was his strong sense of right and wrong and the ability to act on it, a rare quality among the gods. As king, he had the power to keep the judges in line. “I often get blamed for every sin that ever happens, every evil act has my name on it. Nothing will change the way I stink of death but I can at least do this. I do not need to be worshiped, the dead know the truth.”
Persephone held her husband’s hand tighter, suddenly consumed with pride. It was true he had never been judged fairly but even with this prejudice hanging over his head he still made sure all mortals were given a fair trial. Hades had seen the equality death could bring, not the damnation.
A new group of souls was unloaded onto the shores and filed into line behind the others. Looking over she saw Charon as he unloaded the last of the souls from his boat. He too was an ancient mortal who must have understood the terror of each soul that boarded his boat for he had once crossed the river into the Underworld. In his mortal life, he was once an old sailor. He had never been the most accomplished but no other mortal loved to be on the water as much as him. Charon had always been in love with the sea and so his afterlife could have never been spent with his feet on dry ground. No other seamen would want to spend eternity on board another boat, especially after their death had been caused by shipwreck. Still, he had not been deterred.
“This is Charon.” Hades introduced them once they reached his small dock. Charon grinned at Persephone and Hades’s jaw tightened, but he had not noticed Persephone’s smile was just as bright.
“Yes, Hades we know each other quite well already. How else do you think I got into your realm so many times.” Persephone explained to him. While this explained Charon’s lack of decorum for his queen, Hades still did not relax. “Are you well?” she asked Charon.
“I am indeed, my lady,” he replied as he always did, bowing his head.
“When will you begin to call me Persephone,” she said. He had always insisted on an old-fashioned form of tradition when they had met. After all, she was a goddess and he was a mortal, if it had been any other goddess it would have been an insult not to. But over the years she had grown quite fond of the old sailor and saw no point in formalities.
“My lady will do,” Hades interrupted sharply, and Charon’s smile widened before bowing his head in an effort to gain his composure.
Over Charon’s shoulder, a sight caught Persephone’s attention. It was not the long line of mortal souls waiting to board Charon’s boat, it was another group of mortals. Instead of waiting close by the shores watching the water expectedly, they were further off sitting in the sand or leaning against the sides of the rock walls.
“What are they doing? Do they not want to get into the Underworld?” Persephone asked both the men.
Charon was the first to answer after turning around to see what she was looking at. “They are the forgotten, my queen.”
“The forgotten?” she asked. If he knew who they were then certainly they couldn’t be that forgotten.
“Yes, they are the ones that do not have payment.” This time it was Hades who answered. They looked to one another as questions crossed her mind, too many to ask. Hades saw this and went on further. “Their tale is truly a tragedy. They have been forgotten or lost in death. Most have done unspeakable acts, their punishment has been that they have not been given a coin to pay the ferryman for access into the Underworld. Some were lost in war or forgotten within the wilderness. But a few have come from families so poor they could not afford to pay the death toll.” he watched as he explained, well aware of how horrified she would be. Still, he continued. “They cannot cross the river or board Chiron’s boat until he is paid.”
“What?! What will become of them?” she asked, hoping there was an explanation or hope for these people. She had no idea these mortals had been cursed to live without their afterlife. It was supposed to be the one constant given to everyone.
“They will wander my shores for two hundred years, only then will they be permitted across,” Hades answered her, bracing for the shock about to flood her.
Two hundred years was nothing to a goddess, even though she was young it would be a blink in her eye, but to a mortal, it could mean everything. “Two hundred years is a long time to wait for the afterlife Hades.” looking over at them she now understood the somber looks cast over each of their faces. They both already knew. She thought of the mortals having to see friends and family board the boat and go into the afterlife without them. It would drive any being, immortal or not, into insanity. “Why can’t Charon let them board? This is torment for them.”
“He cannot.” His voice was firm, but she caught the touch of regret only she would have heard. “It is the way of the Underworld. Death tax must be paid one way or another. If not In gold then in years.”