Melinoë took Angela’s hand in hers and pulled her towards the source of the terrifying sound. It seemed to be coming from a corner room. Sure enough, when they entered the chamber, Angela saw an arresting sight. There was a drumkit in the middle of the room, or rather several drumkits, and in the very center was a creature that seemed to have a hundred arms, most of which were beating time in a kind of fractal rhythm that Angela felt in her face rather than heard with her ears.
Standing nearby was a solid looking man with long dark hair and solemn features who seemed to be carved from darkness except for his eye-whites, which were more correctly eye-yellows. His mouth was open in an ‘o’ and the sound emerging was variously like the chittering of millions of bats, the crash of surf echoing in an rock tunnel, the screams of bereaved mothers and the sudden cracking of an Antarctic ice shelf. Next to him was a kind of blue cloud – a constantly shifting shape whose rhythmic movements seemed to create deep and deeply unpleasant bass notes that shook Angela’s bones. Nearby, nodding his head up and down appreciatively, was a long-haired guy wearing what looked like white face-paint and a black cross on his face. And joining in now and then with a blood-curdling yodel was a skeletal looking boy whose bare torso was decorated with triangular red scratches.
As usual when confronted with anything weird, Angela pulled out her smartphone and started recording the spectacle. A kind of gas started seeping up through the floorboards and a group of demons started dancing to the rhythms—trying to murder each other, but in a jerky, stylized manner.
This might have gone on for ten minutes or an hour, Angela wasn’t sure. When she looked at the recording time it said 5.22, which shocked her. The end of the song seemed to leave the air in tatters and everyone emerged as if from the fog of war.
“Praises, Lord Erebos!” Melinoë said cheerfully to the singer. “What a delightful tune. Is it new?”
“Yes, we wrote it today,” Erebos rumbled.
“I wanted to show you Angelia, Hera’s daughter, she’s just back from an exchange program with the Overworld.”
“Hi,” Angela smiled shyly.
“Praises,” said Erebos, “Let me introduce you to the band. Over there on the drums is Briareus—he’s a Hundred-Hands, as you can probably tell. Then this,” he motioned at the long-haired mortal. “Is Øystein Aarseth. He’s from a place called Norway. He’s sort of our musical guru.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Angela said politely.
Aarseth glared not at her but at the wall, like a cat.
“After he died he went to Christian Hell first” Erebos explained, “But there was some trouble between him and a cellmate so they decided to send him here.”
“That place was a drag, man,” the depth of his emotion forced him out of his pose, “I’m so effing glad I’m out of there. I feel like my music has reached a whole new level down here.”
“Øystein was a musician in the Overworld, you know him?” Erebos asked eagerly.
“Oh, of course,” Angela said, though she hadn’t.
“Yeah, I told you, everybody’s heard of us man,” Øystein said. “We were sick–burning the churches, we, like, took it to the next level. Well Varg had to take it too far because of his complete lack of intelligence, but before that, we were making a name for ourselves.”
“Yes, yes,” said Erebos restlessly, as he’d heard it all before, “And this here, our bass player is Moros, my step-son. It’s sometimes difficult to see him. He’s shy and usually just appears as a sound cloud.”
“Oh, well, I thought that bass playing was great!” Angela enthused in the general direction Erebos was pointing, which seemed a bit hazier than elsewhere in the room. “I play the bass myself, so I appreciated it,” Angela said. The air wriggled a litte.
“And this here is Alala,” Erebos waved at the boy with red-triangle tattoos. “He does the war cries. He’s exceptionally good at them.”
To demonstrate, he let out a holler that made Angela’s hair stand on end.
“Great,” Angela said. “Oh, hey, I just recorded you guys if you want to have a look.”
“Angelia has a magical advice from the Overworld,” Melinoë explained. “You can see anywhere in the Overworld with it. It’s amazing!”
Øystein, who’d never seen a smartphone, sneered and sulked in the background. Erebos, though, showed a keen interest. He watched the performance with an artiste’s eye and nodded with approval.
“It’s a kind of time-delayed mirror, is it not?”
“Er, yes. Sort of,” Angela said.
“You know,” he rumbled. “After all Øystein has been telling me, I would like our music to be better known. I have a feeling we would make quite an impression up there among the little people.”
“Yes, I think that’s…fair to say,” Angela nodded.
“I have a pipe dream that once the kids have grown up a bit that Nyx and I would go to Norway—see the fjords and things. Maybe we could even do a concert there.”
“I’m not going back to that dump,” Øystein scowled.
“No, no, of course,” Erebos said soothingly. “You could stay here and manage the studio. But what do you think, Angelia, is it a good idea?”
“Oh, I think so. Yes,” she nodded. “But I think, you know, you might need a name for your band.”
“Yes? I suppose you’re right. How about something along the lines of ‘Hell’s Fellows’. Would that work?”
“Or, I know! How’s this: ‘The Post-Mortem Players’.”
“Probably Øystein can help you better than I can,” Angelia took a couple of steps back.
“Not very subtle, is it? Do we call ourselves artists or don’t we? I mean to say, we might as well pick ‘Nose Plug’ and be done with it. Where’s the poetry in everyday things?”
“GANGRENE!” Øystein screamed.
Erebos ignored him.
“Listen, young girl, perhaps you could talk to your king and arrange something in relation to that Norwegian tour?”
“Well,” Melinoë interrupted, “Angelia is going to be a bit busy in the next few weeks, especially with Aunt Hera coming, but maybe we can talk about it later. Meanwhile, do you know where Achlys might be?”
“Sulking in his room, as usual. You know, I keep trying to persuade him to join the band with his lyre—Øystein has a brilliant amplifying system all ready—but Achlys absolutely refuses.”
“Well, he is so gifted,” Melinoë gushed. “After all, Orpheus himself taught him, and the lyre sounds better acoustic, I think. So soulful. I can see why he’d want to go for a solo career…”
“Not my cup of nectar, but each to his own. Well, lads, should we take it from the top?”
The music started up again and Melinoë and Angela made a hasty exit.
Angela opened the fridge door and took out a vegetarian sausage. She started cooking it on a frying pan when suddenly she saw that the sausage had a little face. The face was furious and started yelling at Angela, telling her that she wasn’t even cooking it properly—she had to remove the plastic casing first and to put more oil in the pan. Angela peeled the plastic off as the sausage continued to berate her. Then she hurriedly got more oil and poured it in but it turned out to be gasoline and the kitchen exploded in a fireball.
Angela woke up with a scream. Sitting next to her in the darkness, watching her intently with big pop eyes, sat Melinoë. Angela screamed again.
“What is the matter with you?” Angela cried.
“Was it scary?” Melinoë asked eagerly.
“Huh? Yes, it was scary.”
Melinoë nodded and smiled a little bit.
“That’s good. I thought it might not work.”
“What? Wait a minute, did you do this?” Angela asked, narrowing her eyes.
“Of course. Nightmares are my forte, I told you. I don’t usually get to see the people dreaming though. It’s usually long-distance, so I have no idea how effective they are.”
Angela clutched her head in her hands and groaned.
“Let’s get something straight,” she said at last. “I may be sharing a room with you, but I’m not your guinea pig. Please don’t give me any more nightmares, OK?”
“Why not?” Melinoë put her head on one side, bird like.
“Because it’s hard enough getting used to this place without bedwetting added to the mix, OK?”
“You didn’t like it?”
“No, I didn’t like it.”
“Well what about when I change shape? Can I still do that?”
“You can do that all you like. Go crazy. Just don’t mess with my slee—agh! For the love of—”
Angela found herself looking at a person who was made entirely of wriggling mice.
“OK,” Angela clenched her teeth, “As I said, that’s totally fine. Just let me get some sleep.”
When Angela arrived at the Hades household dining room, Persephone and her two daughters were already daintily addressing a breakfast of pomegranate smoothies, ambrosia cups and bread made with Elysian wheat. Cerberos was sitting next to Persephone, pitifully resting on of his heads on the table hoping for a scrap of bread.
“Good morning, Angela,” Persephone said. “Did you sleep well?”
Melinoë bit her lip and shot Angela a warning glance.
“Oh, yes, I slept great, thank you,” Angela smiled.
“Good,” Persephone smiled. “I thought later, you might come up to the women’s room; we want to prepare you for your ceremony tomorrow.”
“My what?” Angela said.
“You know, your ceremonial dipping in the Acheron, to symbolize your homecoming.”
“We need to dress you and do your hair and make-up,” said Elpis, “You will look so beautiful!”
“Oh, a kind of makeover?” Angela asked. “That sounds fun.”
“But before that,” Melinoë interrupted, “I can take Angelia over to introduce her to the next-door neighbors.”
“Must you?” sighed Persephone, “They’re so ghastly.”
“Yes I must,” Melinoë pouted. “They’re really cool and Achlys said they all want to meet her.”
“All right, but be sure you get back before dinner.”
Melinoë took Angela’s hand and the two hurried out of the great cold mansion, down the steps and down the street to a house constructed of grey-veined black marble. Running along the top of six great black columns was a golden architrave engraved with scenes of murder and mayhem. As they entered the courtyard, Angela gasped at the sight of a rectangular pool filled with some viscous red liquid.
“Is…is that blood?” she whispered.
“Yes,” Melinoë murmured. “Isn’t it amazing? I really like the aesthetics here. Oops, there are the Keres—get back behind this pillar. They’re real hellions. One’s full of violent death, the other one’s the personification of disease in wartime.”
From their hiding place, they observed twin girls running at top speed around the blood pool. Both wore black tunics and wings reminiscent of black swans. One was brandishing a knife and, judging by her ferocious expression, fully intended to do the other one an injury. The other was surrounded by a mist of mosquitoes, black smoke and an indescribably rotten stench. After three or four circuits of the pool, they stopped running and paused to gather up handfuls of blood, which they drank thirstily.
“Let’s go to the women’s room. It’s usually quieter there.”
Quietly, so as not to alert the twins, Angela and Melinoë walked upstairs and found themselves in a large room containing a big loom. Around it sat three serious women, all dressed in white. One was heavily pregnant and had a distracted air. Another held a long piece of wood with notches in it. The third held a pair of scissors.
“They’re the Moirai,” Melinoë murmured. “They decide how long people live. The pregnant one is Clotho. She’s spinning thread of a life from a distaff onto a spindle. Lachesis has the measuring rod—she decides the length of a life. And Atropos holds the shears—she does the snipping.”
Angela gaped at them, fascinated.
“They do that for every single person?” she asked.
“Yes, they’re always working. Come on, let’s find Nyx.”
Melinoë took Angela’s arm and pulled her along a corridor toward a bedroom with richly painted walls. A woman dressed in diaphanous dark blue reclined on a richly decorated couch. She had long silky dark hair and her face was alarmingly pale except for black eyes, from which there flowed rivulets of what looked like black ink. She barely noticed the girls come in but made a slight gesture with her wrist, which seemed to acknowledge their presence.
“Praises Auntie Nyx,” Melinoë curtsied, “Angelia is back.”
This made Nyx pay attention. She lifted herself on her elbow and surveyed the newcomer.
“That’s not Angelia,” she said. “She doesn’t have that catastrophic aura. Who is this?”
“You’re right auntie,” said Melinoë, “Her name is really Angela. But you can’t tell anyone, OK? Persephone’s planning to fool Hera into thinking she’s her long-lost daughter Angelia.”
“Oh, I see. Because the real Angelia has gone AWOL,” she sighed and lowered herself back. “What a lot of trouble. Persephone has so much energy. Well, never mind. Welcome to Hades, dear. Will you girls have some grapes?” she indicated a golden tray overflowing with black grapes.
Nyx inspected Angela again, her eye lingering on her sweater and jeans.
“What extraordinary clothes! Are you an eastern person?”
“No ma’am, Kansas is pretty central.”
“Have you ever done any babysitting by any chance? My children are wearing me out.”
“Well,” Angela started, but then looked at Melinoë, who was shaking her head and making the cut-throat sign. “I’m…I’m not really very good with kids.”
“What a shame. I believe I will go out of my mind as it is. Melinoë, darling, would you be a dear and tell Erebos I won’t be down for lunch. I have a terrible headache.”
“Will do, auntie, bye for now,” Melinoë kissed her hand and the girls left her apartment. As they walked the halls, an ear-splitter roar rent the air. Angela nearly jumped out of her skin.
“What was that?” she was going to say, but a deafening racket ensued, accompanied by drums so low and loud that they seemed produced by a giant’s heart. She noticed that they were steadily moving towards the infernal din, and she worried that they would be engulfed by some hitherto unimagined monster, or an army of millions.
Note: This is chapter 4. Click here for chapter 1, here for 2 and here for 3.
“Praises, my dears, welcome home,” a musical voice floated out on the still air as Thanatos and Angela climbed the stairs to the entrance of the enormous mansion.
Looking up, Angela saw a tall woman wrapped in silks of rich colors—the purple of the grape, the gold of ripe wheat, the blue of a kingfisher. Her tight curls were crowned by a crown of golden leaves and her face and body were those of a simple, joyful country girl accustomed to herding sheep, gathering crops, dancing in festivals and swimming in sunlit streams. Her skin was chalky white and her smiling mouth bright red.
“Who’s that?” Angela whispered to Thanatos, amazed.
“The Mistress,” he said, as if it were obvious.
A ringing laugh echoed against the marble surfaces.
“My name is Persephone, darling. I’m your stepmother.”
Angela curtsied and took the hand that Persephone extended. It was as cold as a refrigerated cucumber.
“Did you have any trouble at the river?” Persephone asked Thanatos.
“Everything unfolded as you predicted,” he murmured.
“And the judges? Did that that stickler Rhadamanthus give you trouble?”
“Some, Mistress,” Thanatos admitted, “But your plan worked beautifully.”
“Excellent,” Persephone smiled broadly, her cheeks round as apples. She sighed happily and took Angela’s face in her hands. “Let me look at you, dear. Lovely. I think you will do very well.”
“What?” Angela asked.
Persephone laughed. “I mean, silly-cakes,” she said, pinching Angela’s cheek, “That you will be very happy here. Now come with me and meet everyone!” She took Angela by the hand and took her into the cool recesses of the marble mansion.
The first room they stopped at contained a very big man sitting on a throne frowning at a scroll of papyrus. His face was mostly lost in a bushy black beard and the dark curls of his head were tamed somewhat by a simple gold circlet. He wore a tunic of coarse black wool with a gold chain around the waist.
“Hades!” said Persephone. “Hades, hey!” She clapped her hands.
“Mmmfph?” He grunted, basso profundo, “What is it?” he looked up in alarm, as one who has suddenly been woken from a daydream.
“Hades, this is Zeus’ daughter Angelia—you remember her.”
“Oh Hades, she’s your niece! She’s the one Hera banished from Olympus after she threw her designer handbag into Mount Etna?”
He shook his head.
“You must remember. She’s the baby who replaced Hera’s face cream with a pot of snakes?”
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Was I really that bad?” Angela whispered.
“When she came to live with us she used to be so, er, vivacious that Cerberos used to come and hide under your chair, whimpering?”
“That pernicious little shrike?” He gripped the edge of his couch until his knuckles turned what. “What’s she doing here? I thought we banished her.”
Persephone patted Angela on the shoulder, “Not at all. She took a little holiday, that’s all. But now she’s back and look—all civilized and sweet.”
Hades looked her up and down.
“Hard to tell from appearances. Have you checked her for weapons?”
“He’s such a joker,” Persephone murmured to Angela.
“Just keep her away from my blueprints,” said Hades.
Persephone beckoned Angela away.
“Come away, I’ll take you to the women’s quarters to meet your house sisters.”
Persephone moved swiftly ahead and somehow to Angela it seemed as though she were floating. Her own feet made loud slaps on the stone floor, but Persephone was silent. She seemed to throw out golden specks of grain that caught the light of lamps blazing in niches carved in the walls. Angela noticed the sweet overripe smell of persimmons and apples.
They reached a hall at the end of the mansion. It was painted in rich reds, yellows, purples and oranges. In the center of the hall there was a huge loom being worked by a tall girl in a rose-pink peplos. She was just as pale as her mother, though her hair was blonde and wreathed with roses and baby’s breath. She gazed at Angela with wonder, with large child-innocent eyes.
“Praises, dear girls, your sister is here!” Persephone announced with a smiling voice. Angela felt genuinely important and proud, a novel sensation.
“Oh, I’m so pleased you’ve come!” the pink girl cried and flew over to Angela with the same eerie floating motion.
“I’m Elpis,” she said taking Angela’s hand in her cold one, “I just know you’ll love it here. Everyone will adore you, won’t they mama?”
Elpis turned her limpid eyes to Persephone, who nodded smilingly. “Just wait until we do your hair and put you in proper clothes and tend to your skin. You’ll be the belle of the ball!”
A nasty laugh came from a corner of the room. For the first time, Angela noticed that there was a giraffe standing there, blowing soap bubbles out of its nostrils.
“Ridiculous girl! Remember your manners,” Persephone said sternly.
The giraffe blinked placidly at her with long lashes, then suddenly disappeared.
Elpis let out a shriek as she saw a tarantula scuttling the floor in her direction.
“Mama! Tell her not to!”
The spider metamorphosed into a copy of Elpis, except that she wore a bushy beard.
“That’s enough young lady,” Persephone thundered. “Behave, or Hades will hear of it.”
There was a disembodied sigh and then a pop-eyed teenaged girl appeared. She was just as pale as the other two but wore a plain black peplos held in place by a brooch that looked like moonstone and gave off iridescent flashes apparently of its own accord.
“This is my youngest daughter Melinoë,” Persephone said somewhat apologetically. “You’ll be sharing her room for now. In fact, why don’t you make yourself useful and show Angela her room?” Persephone suggested to her daughter.
Melinoë scowled and puffed out her cheeks.
“All right. Come on,” she said without looking at Angela.
Melinoë didn’t wait but headed straight for the door and Angela had to hurry to keep up. They ended up in a little corner room with two basic beds covered with extremely thin cushions. Angela thought wistfully of her comfortable bedroom back home.
Melinoë sat down on her bed and stared at Angela, who squirmed under the scrutiny.
“Wow, that was amazing how you changed into different stuff like that,” Angela blurted to break the silence. “That was neat.”
The teen continued to stare.
“It’s my thing,” she said.
“Most people here have a thing, you know, a power. Mine’s changing shape and giving people nightmares. Elpis gives people false hope–she lifts their spirits even though something terrible is about to happen. My boyfriend Achlys is really good at making people feel like they’re being bitten by termites.” She chuckled. “What’s your thing?” Melinoë crossed her legs and put her chin in her hands, leaning forward with interest.
“Um. Well…” Angela bit her lip. “I’m not sure I have a thing.”
“Oh.” Melinoë looked glum.
Angela felt her smartphone in her pocket and took it out. Luckily the batteries had not completely died.
“But, I do have this. It’s a, uh, a sort of crystal ball that you can use to see into the Overworld.”
Melinoë definitely brightened up.
“Can I see?”
“Yes. I’ll show you a picture of the jazz band at my school.”
She played a video of the band playing ‘Misty’. Melinoë gazed at it intensely.
“They all look like you,” she said. “They have that healthy skin and look all happy. It looks nice.” Melinoë sighed.
Angela was surprised.
“Don’t you like it here? Aren’t you a princess?”
“Practically everyone’s a princess here,” Melinoë scoffed. “It gets pretty boring. Plus I hate my sister, she’s such a suck up. Also Persephone gets on my nerves.”
“I call her Persephone. The parental bond has been severely attenuated by the fact that she keeps cutting off my allowance.”
“Anyway, I should probably tell you something.” Melinoë screwed up her nose and scrutinized her black-lacquered nails.
“Well, I kind of promised I wouldn’t tell, but now that I’ve met you I like you so I probably will.”
Melinoë got up and put her head around the door, then returned to the bed and sat next to Angela.
“Persephone brought you here under false pretences. You’re not Hera and Zeus’s daughter. The real Angelia is violent and crazy so she got banished to an island when she was five years old. But Hera’s coming to visit for the wine festival in a few weeks and she said wants to see her daughter. Persephone’s been feeding her lines for years about how well Angelia is doing and now she’s terrified of Hera finding out she’s been lying all that time.”
“So I’m going to be the substitute?”
“But why would she lie about it?”
“Persephone’s really wants to move to Olympus, because it’s more prestigious, but she can’t do that without Hera’s blessing. Also, if Hera finds out about Angelia’s banishment she’ll be mad. I mean, like, really mad. She’ll have a conniption fit.”
[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.
As soon as the shriek reached Thomasina Kirby in the living room where she was folding laundry, that good woman rolled her eyes and flicked a towel severely.
“Playing those blasted video games again instead of doing her homework,” she muttered. “Sooner or later I’ll have to say something to that young lady.” But then, seeing a single unpaired sock, Thomasina’s mind wandered. Somewhere on Earth, she mused, there was almost certainly an enormous clot of orphan socks, a kind of giant garbage patch where misplaced strays had been drawn by some kind of planetary magnetism. The question was, how could one locate the exact spot?
Meanwhile, Thomasina’s twelve-year-old daughter Angela was sitting on her desk chair glaring at a very tall man in a diaphanous tunic who was stooping awkwardly by her wardrobe door. Everything about him irritated her: his fine reddish-brown hair and beard, his gentle smile, the enormous swan-like wings sprouting from his back, even the butterflies that fluttered about him like a living cloud of yellow, violet, red and pink. What’s more, there was a distinctive herbal scent emanating from him that she found utterly repulsive, like honey mixed with eucalyptus.
“I already told you it’s the wrong house.”
Thanatos inclined his head, as if demurring.
“However,” he said in halting English, “The name of you is Herald Kirby from the polis of,” he checked a tablet he held in his hand, “Wichita, Kansas?”
“Ugh,” said Angela, rolling her eyes in a manner not unlike her mother’s, “My name is Angela Smith, which is I suppose somehow related to the Greek word for herald—but that’s neither here nor there. Wichita is not a polis, it’s a normal town in twenty-first century America and you have zero business being in my bedroom.”
“Angela,” he inclined his head, thinking. “Yes, it is very like: Ἀγγελία—it is sure that you are the woman child I seek,” he looked happy.
“It is not sure,” Angela retorted.
The creature looked hurt and Angela, being essentially kind-hearted, regretted her harsh tone.
“Mr. Thanatos,” she said gently but firmly, “I’m sorry but there’s been some kind of mix-up. This—” she waved a hand dismissively in his direction, “Isn’t done these days. There’s a whole different procedure.”
“Yes. We don’t go in for all that winged-creature-underworld stuff. We have hospitals and modern medicine and morphine.”
“Morpheus, my dearest nephew, son of Hypnos!”
“No,” said Angela, “Morphine. A drug. A chemical structure. Nothing to do with your bizarre family.”
His wings drooped in disappointment.
“Besides,” Angela continued, “If you just look at me it’s totally obvious I’m in perfectly good health. I’m still a child, technically, and children only die if they one: get in an accident or two: are unlucky enough to get some terrible illness or three: commit suicide.”
He examined her closely, with large, dark, serious eyes.
“The woman-child is dreadful pale,” he said hopefully, “And stomach bloated as if with the famine.”
“Excuse me,” Angela said tugging at her T-shirt. “I’m extremely healthy. I just saw the doctor last month and he said I am well within the normal range. Just because you Athenians subsisted on nettles and moldy olives doesn’t mean it’s healthy.”
Thanatos drew himself up a little.
“My relations sup only on nectar and sweetest ambrosia.”
“Whatever. The point is, your usual…clients, let’s say…probably all had malnutrition,” she sniffed. “And worms, if they lived to my age at all. Also, why are you still here? I’ve got things to do.” Huffily, she swiveled her chair around to read her schoolbook and put her earbuds in, hoping that he would vanish, as he had last time.
Unfortunately, five minutes later she turned around to see that he was reclining on her bed flicking through a copy of Teen Vogue.
“Get off my bed!” she growled, with convincing enough fury that he scrambled up, feathers flying.
“Ugh, I’ll have to wash my bedspread to get that smell off it now,” she moaned
There were three sharp knocks on the door before it opened a crack, to allow better hearing.
“That’s quite enough, young lady. Turn that game off and do your homework.”
“I’m trying to mom, but—” Angela suddenly wondered how exactly she would explain.
“Sorry,” she corrected herself. “I’ll turn the game off now.”
“Any more shouting and I’m confiscating that computer for a day,” Thomasina threatened before shutting the door again.
Angela looked over toward the wardrobe and noticed that there was a shimmering transparent silhouette where Thanatos had been. Gradually, the transparency became colored and three-dimensional—the same annoying demi-god.
“Nice, very brave of you,” Angela sneered.
Thanatos raised his eyebrows proudly.
“You are mistaken, I do not fear the woman. I vanished in order to consult with the King of the Dead.”
“Yes. It seems that you were thinking an incorrect thought.”
“You thought I came to bring you the terminus of blissful oblivion.”
“Hmmph. Is that what you call it?”
“In fact, my task is otherwise. I have come to take you to receive your realm, O Princess.”
Angela looked at him with greater attention.
He knelt on the floor, keeping his distance to avoid kicks.
“Yes, Princess Angelia, Daughter of Hera and Zeus!” he bowed his head respectfully.
“Well,” said Angela, who wasn’t displeased, “I’m actually the daughter of Thomasina and Gerry Smith. Though I admit it might be nice to be a goddess.” She twirled a pen thoughtfully between her fingers.
Thanatos lifted his head to gaze wonderingly at her.
“The mortals? They are not your parents!” He said it so solemnly that she felt not only inclined but also compelled to believe it.
“How’s that?” she said.
“When you were an infant, your father Zeus entrusted your care to five lovely nymphs. But you were very…unruly and they could not prevent you from doing mischief. At the age of nine months you snuck into your mother Hera’s house, stole her valuables and handed them over to Europa. She was so angry she could have killed you, but you cleverly hid here in this place. Unfortunately, ever since, you have been unclean.”
“What do you mean?” she sniffed her armpits. “I shower daily!”
“The day you came, the woman in the house was in labor. You were besmirched with the pollution of birth.”
“So that would have been…when Tori was born! I always thought she didn’t seem that much younger than me.”
“And the next week you were taken by the mortal guardian to a funeral procession—so you were tainted by the pollution of death.”
“Grandad. Anything else? Did I fall into a dungheap maybe? Eat human flesh?”
“No, the pollution upon you is very much worse than those trifles.”
“Right. Thanks a lot. So, why are you here again?”
“My lord the king has asked me to collect you for purification in the waters of Acherusia Lake.”
“Which is where?”
“In the realm of the Underworld. And then, after the ceremony, you shall receive your title.”
“So…I would be in the Underworld…but not actually dead?”
“Of course. After the purification, you would enjoy immortality.”
“I see.” Angela flicked the pen very quickly between her thumb and forefinger, making it drum against her leg.
“So, tell me more about the position though. Do I get a crown? And a palace? And beautiful dresses, stuff like that?”
“All, your Majesty.”
The ‘Majesty’ bit took her by surprise. She glanced at him to check whether he was making fun of her, but everything seemed to be in order.
She glanced at the textbook on her desk, which provided a blow-by-blow description of the process of photosynthesis, and her eyes blurred over. She thought about her family—her mortal family, that is–and imagined leaving them. It seemed all right. Tori could have her clothes. She always wore them without asking, anyway. And her mom probably wouldn’t mind. She’d never even bothered to tell her she was adopted, anyway. As for Gerry, he probably wouldn’t notice. In fact, he’d probably be happy that the utilities bill was going down. No more nagging about thirty-minute showers!
“OK, sign me up,” she said. “Do I need to bring anything?”
“All will be provided, your Majesty.”
“Then let’s get this show on the road.”
They were gone in a dazzling slow-motion flap of white swan wings. The displaced air knocked a glass off the table so it shattered on the floor.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” a voice cried from without. In a few seconds, the door opened suddenly and Thomasina burst in, looking with fury at the broken glass on the floor. “What in the world?” she murmured.
No window, so she couldn’t have got out that way. She tiptoed around the broken glass and checked in the wardrobe and under the bed. Nothing. Except a strange medicinal smell.
“That will need a wash,” she said, yanking the bedspread off the bed.
“Funny about daughters. One minute they’re appearing out of the blue, next minute they’ve gone the way of socks.”