As the mists parted and our astral forms stepped through the other side of the portal, Genevieve and I beheld the grim and macabre spectacle that was the Underworld. The portrait in the mausoleum didn’t do it justice.
It was an abysmal, cavernous realm stretching far overhead, and as far as I could see, the horizon arching upwards like the reflection of a funhouse mirror or a 360-degree panorama shot. All of the speleothems, the cave formations, were monstrous in both size and shape, twisted into grotesque and appalling configurations that would be impossible under Earthly physics. They were ‘non-Euclidean’ in the purely Lovecraftian sense of the word. The dark limestone glittered faintly under the pale, eerie blue light that bathed the entire hellscape, emanating from a ghostly aurora that danced high above us. A damp, gloomy fog crept along the ground whilst thin, spidery clouds lazily drifted overhead in a spiraling vortex, continuously casting mutating shadows. Numerous craggy and yawning chasms glowed with a faint blue flame as well, looking like they would swallow up anyone or anything that might dare to get too close.
But the horror of the landscape itself was nothing compared to that of the Shades, the souls condemned to call that place home for all eternity. The ones that listlessly shambled upon the ground were still roughly human, but they were all in some state of degradation. Some looked recently deceased, most were mere skeletal wraiths of their former selves, and a few were just vaguely humanoid silhouettes that no longer bore any lingering semblance to a specific person. Worst of all were the wisps; they couldn’t even really be said to possess a distinct form at all anymore, just amorphous orbs of blue light hanging buoyantly in the dank aether. So ancient were they that they’d lost all memories of being human. They were so desperate to experience any trace of what they once were they would steal biographical memories and knowledge from the living world any chance they got.
But all the Shades, no matter their shape, groaned and wailed and screamed, the voices forming a melancholy cacophony upon the cold and howling wind.
My knees gave out beneath me, and I would have fallen had Genevieve not been there to catch me.
“This is Hell,” I wept softly, the concept still hard for me to accept, wanting so desperately for it not to be true. “This is where people are left to idle and rot, bitterly reminiscing of the lives they once had, over and over again as those memories fade beyond recognition, until they lose any sense of what they once were, and decay into undifferentiated wisps of themselves, stripped of their identity to merely exist without any sense of self until the end of time. That’s what will happen to my friend if I don’t get him out.”
Genevieve held me in her arms, staring out at the Chthonic Kingdom with a look of disillusion in her eyes.
“This can’t be the Maiden’s Goddess realm,” she murmured. “These souls, they’re suffering. The Goddess is compassionate, she wouldn’t allow this.”
“Even if the Maiden and Mother are just different avatars of the same Goddess, Persephone is not her mother. The ancestor’s journal made that very clear,” I muttered, forcing myself to my feet and reminding myself of why I had come to this most wretched of places. “The wisps aren’t attacking us at least. The journal said they can’t steal identities from astral projections, but it’s nice to know for sure now. You know, almost the last thing my friend said to me was that so long as I remembered him, the wisps wouldn’t be able to steal his identity. Even when your soul’s actually down here, just having living people keep you in their minds is enough to keep you from fading away.”
We stood in silence for a moment, taking in the ghastly scene before us and trying not to be overwhelmed with existential dread.
“So… the plan’s still to petition Persephone for a pardon?” Genevieve asked at last. I thought for a moment, briefly considering the possibility of searching for my friend and just taking him back ourselves. I was pretty sure it didn’t work like that though, and even if it did, the vast horde of the dead before us assured me that the task would be impossible anyway. The dead outnumbered the living, after all.
“It is,” I finally replied.
“Okay. So… any idea on how to go about finding her?” she asked.
“The plan is for her, or rather her minions, to find us,” I replied. “The journal said that trespassers in the Underworld don’t go unnoticed for very long. Let’s just press forward for now, and see what happens.”
Still hand in hand, Genevieve and I began our trek through the Land of the Dead. The Shades didn’t pay us much mind, at most sparing us a sideways glance before returning to their lethargic shuffling and woeful ruminations. I wondered if I knew any of them, or if any of them were people I might have heard of. I wondered what they could have possibly have done in life to deserve such a miserable fate and what, if anything, I could do to avoid it myself.
“Samantha, look,” Genevieve whispered, pointing towards the ground.
There were luminescent white flowers of dazzling crystal poking through the cracks, droplets of ambient mist crowning them in a soft halo. Letting go of my hand she knelt to the ground and scooped one up.
“It’s warm,” she said, an amazed smile spreading across her face. “Warm and bright like nothing else here. I think we’re in the Asphodel Meadows, and these flowers are Persephone’s work, they have to be. A glimmer of the Summerland in the Underworld, just like her.”
An earsplitting screech pierced the sky above, and we immediately spun our heads towards its source. Three dark, winged forms descended upon us, boxing us in. Even in the gloomy underworld, they were dark – women shaped voids speckled in starlight, hair and wings and tails of smoke, with talons in place of fingers and toes, eyes of faint stardust glowing dully in their hollow sockets.
They were the Erinyes; The Furies, daughters of the Primeval Night. I had been expecting them.
Genevieve dropped the flower and we clung to each other like frightened children, the three infernal goddesses all cackling at our cowardice.
“Welcome ladies, welcome, to the Realm Invisible. Always a delight to receive astral travelers, especially Blessed ones like yourselves,” the first one said. She stepped towards us, glaring down at us with a ravenous gaze. She lifted a tress of Genevieve’s hair in her talons, taking a deep, covetous sniff. “We don’t get souls like yours down here often. You’ve come here on a quest of some kind, I take it?”
She tilted Genevieve’s head up towards her with her sharp talon, only for her to bat it away. The Furies cackled again, but made no move to discipline us.
“Yes, yes I have,” I spoke up, trying my hardest not to seem intimidated. “A friend of mine was taken here because of a deal an ancestor of his made with Persephone, and not through any fault of his own. He doesn’t deserve to be here. I would like to plead with Persephone for an appeal – please.”
The Fury chuckled softly, and for a moment I was terrified she was going to tell me to piss off.
“No need to be so formal, my dear. All trespassers get an audience with our Lord and Lady, whether they want it or not,” she said. Without warning she grabbed us both by the shoulder, her talons digging deep into our astral forms. We screamed first in pain and then terror as she took flight, lifting us high into the aether and across the realm of the dead.
We flew over all seven of the Underworld’s misty rivers, each of them choked with wading Shades that only parted for Charon when his ferry physically pushed them aside. As we flew deeper and deeper into the Underworld, the ambient sound of forlorn weeping and gnashing of teeth was gradually replaced by something I can only describe as a clamor or ruckus. I craned my neck towards the sound and beheld Pandemonium; The City of Dis, Capital of Hades. From so high above it was easy to see that the city was laid out in a Metatron pattern of 13 circles; one in the center surrounded by two layers of six circles each. The structures within the city were a grossly exaggerated caricature of gothic architecture, and just like the speleothems, they were impossibly twisted constructs that would never have been allowed to stand under Earthly laws. There were still some Shades amongst the city’s denizens, though they appeared more lucid and willful than the ones outside the city walls, but the majority of the inhabitants were the Elder Kin that had been described to me in the ancestor’s journal. Some were shaped like women, like the Furies, some were shaped like men, like the Chthonic Judges, but most were shaped like nothing living at all. No mortal creature could survive with bodies like the ones I saw, and so I had no doubt that these things had never been living at all but were natives to the astral plane. Gods or Fey, Angels or Demons, the names hardly matter. Their bodies were all spikes and horns and strange orifices, elongated and stunted limbs, scales and slime, every deformity and mutation imaginable and most of all just plain wrong.
Their ethereal movements and puckish chattering left no doubt in my mind that these were the creatures whose shadows I had seen and voices I head on Halloween, that it was these monsters who had been so fervently celebrating the yearly return of their Queen.
The Palace of Hades was a jet black, obsidian monstrosity perched upon an enormous rock that floated over the dead center of the city, held in place by seven colossal chains with an avalanche of fog perpetually rolling off its edges. The Furies flew us directly into the throne room and then cast us carelessly upon the gleaming floor.
“Cold Hades, Dread Persephone, pardon the intrusion, but we found a pair of astral travelers who’d like an audience with you,” the lead Fury announced.
There, seated in a pair of ostentatious black thrones upon a hovering obsidian dais, were Hades and Persephone. Both appeared mostly as they had in the portrait; fair-skinned, dark-robed, white-haired, eyes burning with the same blue glow than saturated the entire Underworld. Hades was lean of build with no beard, his features chiseled but stern, his expression stoic. He wore a multi-tonged black crown upon his head, studded with the same crystal flowers we had seen in the Asphodel Meadows. His bident stood erect and within reach should he have need of it.
Persephone herself was stunningly beautiful, luminously resplendent amongst the gloom of the Underworld, her slender form doing nothing to diminish the gravitas of her presence. Her long, pale blond hair, gleaming like white gold, was crowned with a coronet of woven crystal flowers. Her aura, brighter and warmer and more energetic than anything else in the entire Underworld, marked her as a foreigner to her own kingdom. But I suddenly understood why her subjects loved her so much, why Hades loved her so much. She made their world brighter just by being here, and the Summerland was no doubt darker for her absence. Her smile was the brightest light they ever saw, her laughter their greatest music, her mere existence a reminder that a better reality existed somewhere and that it was possible to return to it even after having fallen into Hell.
This effect seemed to be even stronger upon Genevieve, who immediately began to grovel and weep.
“Hail – Hail Fair Maiden Goddess, Goddess of The Spring and Dawn and Waxing Moon, Ever-young avatar of the Great Triple Goddess, Goddess of New Life and Queen of the Underworld,” she sobbed in a faint whisper. “Most Blessed art Thou, Most Hallowed art thou, most, most… I, I… I am humbled and grateful to be in your presence, Fairest Persephone.”
The Goddess arched her eyebrow in slight amusement, but otherwise seemed unmoved by Genevieve’s display of piety.
“It’s Dread Persephone,” she corrected her, sounding slightly annoyed. “And my husband’s here too you know. To disrespect him is to disrespect me.”
Genevieve shook with terror at having displeased her Goddess, and appeared incapable of responding. So, for her, I stood up and bowed to Hades.
“Hades Pluton, Lord of the Underworld and Zeus Chthonic, King of the Realm Invisible, thank you for granting us this audience,” I said. “My name is -”
“Samantha!” Persephone smiled, her eyes lighting up with recognition as she shifted upright in her throne.
“You – you know me?” I stammered, completely dumbfounded that the Queen of the Underworld knew who I was.
“Of course. You’re the dabbler who’s taken up residence in the Harrowick Cemetery," she replied. "I do keep track of the astral nexuses I created, and I was fully expecting that one to fade out after I'd claim that last of that bloodline. What a delightful surprise it was when you found it and claimed it as your own. Congratulations on making it down here, by the way. It’s been nearly five years since anyone’s made an Orphean Trek, and I wasn’t even here. The Deathless Merchant of London came to retrieve a business associate of his, can you believe that? He journeyed to Hades not for love or glory or divine secrets but to fulfill a contractual obligation. Truly bizarre.
“Oh, but I won’t waste your time with anecdotes. I have other business to attend to and I’m certain you don’t want to be down here any longer than absolutely necessary. You’ve made it this far, so say what you’ve come here to say.”
I nodded, swallowed nervously, and stepped as close to the dais as I dared.
“This past Hallow’s Eve, in the Unnamed Cemetery of Harrowick Woods, a man offered himself to your wisps as a sacrifice, and his soul now resides here,” I began. “He only did this because you, or those working at your behest, had tormented him and his family. I, therefore, assert his sacrifice was coerced, and not done freely, and that you have no rightful claim upon him. It was his ancestor, not him, who promised his soul to you, and that was not theirs to barter with! He was my friend, and it pains me to know that he is to suffer here for all eternity. For both his sake and mine, I ask for your pity and that you release him from this realm.”
I stopped, because that was all I had. Rules lawyering the Queen of the Underworld may not have been the best tactic, but I really didn’t know what else to do.
Persephone herself didn’t appear to be particularly moved, either.
“You still don’t even know his name, do you?” she asked, a tone of derision in her voice. “He was not your blood, or your lover, merely a vagrant who happened to share your affinity for cemeteries whom you knew for less than a month. That hardly seems like a loss worth upending the natural order of life and death to rectify.”
“Yes, he was ‘only’ a friend, but that is not a title I give out lightly,” I replied. “But, I’m not asking you to do it for me. I’m asking that he be released for no other reason than his damnation here is unjust.”
“Samantha, when your friend’s ancestor made their bargain with me, they became one of my subjects, a citizen of the Underworld,” Persephone explained. “Surely you’re not arguing it’s an injustice that citizenry is hereditary? By that logic, your own citizenship to your Earthly nation is an injustice. Your friend, and his entire bloodline, were my subjects. I had every right to demand that they return here upon their deaths, and to punish them for disobedience. The truth is that none of us consent to our own creation, and for good or ill we are forever bound by the actions of those who came before us. Your friend is no exception. I have every right to his soul, and I will not be releasing him.”
Angry tears began to well in my eyes, and I impotently clenched my fists as I tried to restrain myself from screaming.
“He didn’t do anything,” I persisted. “His wife, his child, who you killed didn’t do anything! How can I accept any ruling you make as just when you would condemn an innocent child to this Hell for all eternity!”
It was then that Hades first stirred on his throne, his indifference shifting to indignation at my display of indolence, his hand poised to grab his bident in a blink of an eye. The rest of the court adopted their Lord’s demeanor and stood at the ready to strike me down should I take one more step out of line. Even Cerberus was growling at me, and I did not want to find out what it felt like to be ripped apart by those three sets of jaws.
Persephone though grabbed her husband’s hand and held up her free palm to tell the Court to stand down. She then gave me a weary nod, a nod of a god who was well accustomed to accusations that they were not all-benevolent.
“Samantha, I realize this may offend your modern, egalitarian sensibilities, but obtaining entry into the Earth Mother’s Summerland or the Sky Father’s Empyrean requires meeting certain moral and spiritual criteria, which not everyone does,” she claimed. “And these are not arbitrary standards on their part either. Astral bodies are governed by Karma just as physical bodies are by gravity. Unworthy souls are simply not capable of ascending to or remaining in the higher regions of the astral plane. Were it not for the Underworld, they would remain Earthbound poltergeists. Not only would such a vast number of restless spirits on Earth cause untold havoc, but their collective presence would weaken the Veil enough that the physical constants of your world would be noticeably less constant, rendering all the science and technology based upon them useless. Earth would be a demon-haunted world both literally and figuratively, and it is only thanks to the Underworld that my husband and I maintain that it is not. Worse yet, some of those souls would be at risk of falling even lower than Earth, into Tartarus or the Darkness Below, which I assure you would be a far worse fate than anything that exists in this realm.
“This is not a prison; it is a poorhouse. We take in the spiritually destitute, but we are not the cause of their destitution. For both their sake and the sake of Earth, we maintain an astral realm where those unworthy of paradise may seek shelter, but it was not us who made them unworthy of it. As with any poorhouse, not everyone here is happy, but some do make better use of our charity than others. And make no mistake, it is charity, a necessary yet often thankless service that we provide, one we would not be doing if we were not just.
“And that, young dabbler, is why you can trust that my ruling is fair.”
I calmed down, a little bit. She was naturally persuasive – as was the Court of the Damned at her beck and call - and I got the impression that she at least believed what she was saying. But I wasn’t willing to give up.
“But, but surely a person’s Karma isn’t fixed upon their death? Can the Shades of the Underworld not still become worthy of ascending to a better afterlife? Is there anything, anything, I can do to help my friend?” I pleaded. “Please.”
A cold, calculating glare overtook Persephone’s face, and in that moment I knew that she was not thinking about whether or not it was possible, but whether or not to tell me.
“As it stands, your friend is not worthy of ascending to the Summerland, and I see no reason to let him roam free upon the Earth,” she said at last. “Go back to your body, dabbler. Study your Craft, and perhaps one day you may be able to change my mind.”
“No! Persephone, please don't send me back empty-handed! This can't all have been for nothing! I'm not going back without him!" I screamed.
“Enough,” she said briskly, giving a slight commanding gesture to her husband. Hades rose from his throne, bident in hand, his eyes burning brighter as the rest of him darkened like a storm cloud. I froze in horror as he lunged towards me, his bident poised to strike. I have no idea what would have happened if it hit me, because in that instant Genevieve sprung back to life, throwing her arms around me, and commanding us both to wake up.
Our eyes shot open, and we were back in our bodies in the cemetery, gasping for breath and hearts pounding out of our chests. Despite the adrenaline rush, the horrors of what I’d just seen and the consequences of my unsuccessful deal with Persephone immediately overwhelmed me. I fell to the ground, curled up into a ball and just started sobbing.
“Samantha! Samantha!” Genevieve cried, rushing to my side and lovingly cradling me in her arms. “Samantha, are you okay?”
“No,” I squeaked, with a pathetic shake of my head. “I failed.”
Written by The Vesper's Bell