[This is chapter two of a serial novel. Read the previous chapter here].
Angela was caught up in a cool flurry of feathers and honey-flavored air. She closed her eyes and her breath, half terrified, half thrilled. She was filled with thoughts of her imminent ascension to the throne in the Underworld. What would the job involve? Would she mainly do charity work and ceremonial duties among the Damned? Would she have a big wedding with the Prince of Darkness? If he was ugly she could just be a Queen who ruled single-handedly and had a series of demonic courtiers like Queen Elizabeth. She fell into a pleasant reverie.
It was bitingly cold and windy when she opened her eyes again. She seemed to be in some kind of cage made of four yellow bars. Stretching her neck up, she was alarmed to see that Thanatos had become a giant falcon and was holding her gently in a talon. When she looked down, Earth lay so far beneath them so that she could see the curvature of the planet. They were currently over a big ocean—the Pacific?–and she could just make out little islands and atolls with frilly white fringes. As she gazed, they moved towards a line of darkness that signalled they were entering the ‘dark side’ of the planet.
Crossing into the darkness, she became even colder and her teeth started chattering. Noticing that one of Thanatos’ belly feathers had come loose, she pulled it down and wrapped it around her. It was extremely warm and she felt much more comfortable. Digging into her bag, she took out her smartphone and made a short video of the darkening Earth.
Suddenly, there was a prolonged, shimmering flash of fluorescent green similar in hue to the Northern Lights. Thanatos wobbled a little with the force of some great wind and Angela held tight to one of his talons with her left hand and to the feather with her right. After the flash, everything went completely dark—no stars, no sun, no little glow-worm carpet of electric lights down there. This time it was an inner chill that made her shiver, the fear that everything had disappeared forever.
Through the void she gradually perceived a faint grey shimmering beneath them. There must have been light coming from somewhere, though she could not identify the source. She realized after some time gazing uncomprehending at the shimmering that it was liquid.
“Oceanus,” Thanatos explained, “We are at the eastern edge of Hades’ realm.”
Angela’s eyes adjusted and Thanatos flew closer to the surface of the sea so that she could smell its salty, brackish scent and hear the bell-like cries of unfamiliar seabirds. They skimmed the shoreline and flew over a great dark forest, absolutely silent, through which flowed a river of fire. She got out her phone to film it.
“That’s the river Phlegethon—and this region is Tartarus, home of souls doomed to torment. The Titans live there,” he swooped over three volcanoes light grey smoke billowed up into the air for miles around and made Angela cough.
They continued over high, forbidding icy mountains and deep quarries, over the river Acheron and a huge flat plain that Tartarus called Asphodel Meadows. It was brighter there, and Angela could make out groves of trees and fields of wild flowers. In fact, it seemed to be brightening all the time and when she remarked on this, Thanatos explained that it was due to a system of mirrors the people called a helioscope, which diverted sunlight from the Overland to the Underworld.
Swerving to catch a serendipitous zephyr, Thanatos flew over a different river, which he called Lethe, which meant Oblivion. Everyone who drank from it immediately forgot their earthly life. Across the river, the land was one large meadow, very bright and pleasant, with rolling green hills, beautiful gardens and sparkling lakes. As Thanatos swooped closer to the long grasses, Angela heard the sound of music and noticed a herd of white horses galloping.
“Not horses, Centaurs,” Thanatos corrected her. “They like to play their lyres when they run. This is the Elysian Fields, the happy resting place of blessed souls.”
Already, they were back at a beach but some way out, in the blue-green deeps of Oceanus, several islands jutted up into the sky. Forested and steep, they were encircled by colorful birds and here and there Angela could see a white sandy beach far below. The water was so clear that she could even see dolphins and whales swimming in it.
“These are the Isles of the Blessed,” Thanatos said, “Where only a few souls live—those who have been reincarnated three times and each time attained the distinction of blessedness. Not even I may approach them without censure. We must turn back.”
And, after describing three circles, he returned back the way he had come. They flew over the Elysian Fields and the Asphodel Meadows. When Thanatos approached the murky grey waters of the River Styx, he adjusted his wings to slow down and prepare for landing. There was a pier on one bank, crowded by men, women and children. Approaching the queue and leading them with a golden torch was a tall young man wearing a winged cap, a cloak, winged sandals and very little else.
“That’s Hermes Psychopomopos,” Thanatos said, shaking himself back into the form of a winged boy. “He leads souls here, to the ferry.”
“He’s not wearing very much,” Angela said, “Actually no one is.” A horrifying thought struck her. “I’m not going to have to dress like that, am I?”
Thanatos ignored the question and pulled her along towards the river.
With her free hand, she took out her smartphone and filmed the mass of interesting humanity. “What have they got in their mouths?” she whispered as they walked briskly along the outskirts of the crowd.
“They keep a coin under their tongues to pay the ferryman.”
“Ew, that’s disgusting. Imagine how many people have touched that coin! Poor him, too, having to take the coin covered with spit. Ugh.”
The pair finally burst through to the ferry dock and Thanatos pointed to Charon the ferryman. Angela immediately saw that this was a character who would not be fazed by coins covered in saliva. He was maybe the most revolting person she had ever seen in her life, including her uncle Ralph. His hair was like an eagle’s nest—a sprawling, bristling, dirt-encrusted mess. His eyebrows were stupendous, hanging over the deep, smoldering bituminous pits of his eyes. His nose was bulbous and red, covered with warts. His skin was crusty and yellow, like cooked wax paper. His lips were unpleasantly red and emitted a smell like compost. He was dressed in rags, and they weren’t clean rags. His feet were black and swollen.
“Fee,” he growled at Thanatos.
“No fee,” Thanatos said. “Hades’ orders.”
“For this juvenile skunk?” Charon folded his arms sceptically.
“Hey!” Angela squeaked.
“She is coming aboard. Hades’ orders.”
Charon narrowed his eyes and glared at Thanatos, who stared back at him. The crowd behind murmured and pushed.
“No fee, no ferry,” Charon growled.
“Fine. Here’s your fee—but Hades won’t be happy,” Thanatos picked a silk purse out of a pocket in his tunic and thrust it at the ferryman.
Charon hocked and spat, then laughed like cold water squeezing down a hair-clogged drain.
“Hades, ha! More like that coal digger of his wife. She’s up to something rank, no doubt. I don’t know what things are coming to when she brings living ”
“Get on the ferry before he changes his mind,” Thanatos whispered and pushed Angela onto a very small and unstable wooden dinghy.
The river was thick and sluggish, as if comprised of something thicker than water. Pale shapes moved lazily in the liquid beneath the boat. As there was no breeze or air movement, Charon’s unusual fragrance settled over the whole boat. Angela felt dizzy from holding her breath. But they got to the other bank eventually.
Stumbling out of the boat and onto the other pier, Angela saw a stone wall and a large gate. Following Thanatos to the entrance, she wonderingly looked at a big rock on the left side of the entrance. It seemed untidy. She was about to ask Thanatos about it when it moved—a triangular section of it twitched a little. She gave a little scream and the whole rock suddenly came apart and reassembled as a terrifying beast. Through the mist of her fear, she saw that it was behaving somewhat like a dog. There was a tail-like thing wagging happily, though when she looked closer she saw that it was a long king cobra. It had three large heads, each one with a tongue hanging out goofily as it sprang about at Thanatos’ feet,
“Cerebos sit!” Thanatos commanded.
Obligingly, very seriously, Cerebos sat, the cobra still wagging.
“Good dog!” Thanatos flung him something that looked a lot like raw meat. The middle head snatched the morsel, revealing a set of very sharp teeth in the process. Appalled, Angela hurried in through the gates, followed by her guide.
“Can you believe the nerve of that ferryman?” Angela muttered to Thanataos as he strode through a Greek-looking town resplendent with marble buildings and fountains, “Just you wait until he finds out that I’m going to be queen around here. I can’t wait to see the look on his face,” she cackled.
“Mmm,” Thanatos said. “Ah, look, here’s the agora.”
“The—how you say?—market square. It is the same your courthouse. The judges sit there all day eating sunflower seeds with eagle eyes. I must show you to them.”
“They will make a shouting otherwise,” said Thanatos, chewing his lower lip. “They are the big men here.” After a thoughtful pause he said, “Keep quiet, OK? It’s better if I do the talking.”
Sure enough, sitting in the dappled shade of three bay laurel trees, three elderly men sat on benches carved from translucent white marble. They were dressed in white woollen cloaks and wreaths of hammered gold. They were gesticulating energetically and peeling husks off sunflowers as they chatted together. When they caught sight of Thanatos and Angela approaching, they fell silent and brushed husks off their laps, frowning with proud dignity.
“Joy and health to you, lords!” Thanatos said, with a heartiness that did not come naturally to him. “Let it be a joyous day for you.”
They nodded coolly, and looked pointedly at Angela.
“Lords,” said Thanatos, “I present to you Angela, daughter of Gerry Smith of Wichita.”
They looked inquiringly at each other. The oldest judge stood up, with the help of a polished walking stick.
“Wichita?” he said. “Is that one of the lesser islands of the Cyclades?”
“Very near, Lord Rhadamanthus,” murmured Thanatos.
“You, girl, come near to me,” said the judge. “So I can look at you.”
Angela approached, trembling a little.
Rhadamanthus was as straight and stony as a pillar, his features unyielding, his eyes (though watery) sharp and critical. Nothing escaped his notice.
“This is a living soul!” he declared. “What does it mean?”
The other two judges rumbled with displeasure.
“Hades’ orders,” Thanatos bowed.
The fattest judge cleared his throat and extended his hand.
“Where’s the royal decree?” he said. “If Hades ordered it, there must be a decree.”
“I have a permit undersigned by Lady Persephone, Lord Minos.”
Minos exchanged a meaning glance with the thin, beaky judge at his side.
Thanatos proferred a papyrus scroll, which Rhadamanthus took reluctantly and unrolled.
The soul before you, one Angela Kirby daughter of Gerry Kirby of Wichita, has full license to enter the realm of the Dead for an indefinite period to be decided by Hades, Lord of the Dead. No argument on the matter may be entered into.
“This is highly irregular,” muttered Minos.
The beaky judge spoke in a dry, cracked voice. “The law is very clear. No living soul may enter the realm without the signed permission of Lord Hades himself. This was decided to avoid a repeat of the Herakles debacle.”
“Right you are, Aeacus,” said Minos. “It makes a mockery of the system! What is the purpose of having us here if any warm-blooded worm can slither in?”
“Excuse me,” Angela snapped.
“Shhh,” Thanatos hissed.
“My colleagues are right,” Rhadamanthus said. “Without a document signed by Hades himself, I’m afraid the girl may not enter. We need to uphold the standards of justice and right.”
“My Lords,” Thanatos bowed. “All praise to you for your unbending adherence to the Law. Hades will be happy to hear it. You have passed this test. King Hades wanted to know what your reaction would be if I tried to smuggle in a hot-breather. I congratulate you all, and My Lord Hades begged of me to present you with a gift in exchange for the peerless practices.”
Thanatos produced three bags and presented one each to the three old men.
Minos and Aeacus opened them up and their faces brightened as they fingered gold coins. Rhadamanthus, however, handed his back.
“We cannot accept these,” he glared at the other two, who looked crestfallen. “We do our duty to the people of Hades not for monetary gain but for Glory alone.”
Scowling, Minos and Aeacus handed theirs back too.
“Praises,” murmured Thanatos. “Hades will know of your reply, believe me. We must now go to him directly to inform him of your great integrity. I’m sure he will ask Orpheus to compose a song singing your virtues to the skies.”
With that, Thanatos grabbed Angela by the hand and hurried off down the street towards a great palace on a hill.