It’s been probably about a year since I posted this the first time. I’ve made a lot of changes since then and I guess I’m just trying to find out if there are still more changes that need to be made. I’ve said before that I think the first chapter is the most important for a number of reasons so I want it to be as polished as it can be.
The chapter title(s) are placeholders for now until I’m completely finished but they’re a reference to Kingdom Hearts if you couldn’t tell.
Feel free to let me know what you think, I would greatly appreciate it, but honestly just posting it is sorta therapeutic for me. Hope you like it.
Chapter 1 – Destiny Islands
What is taking him so long? We come out here all the time. You’d think I’d be used to him being late by now. I mindlessly swirl a stick in the river There’s a tiny flower bud at the end of it and I think for a moment that it might spring to life if I keep it in the water. I see the blurry auburn in my reflection with hints of turquoise. I swat at it but it always reforms in a chaotic mess.
The willow tree is the only interesting thing out here at the edge of nowhere. I can’t really explain it but it makes me feel warm just being around it, even though it almost completely blocks out the sun. I really shouldn’t be surprised that Ze’s late. He always is, but it never ceases to get on my nerves. He probably hasn’t taken one step out of the house, much less started across the vast field that separates the river and our cul-de-sac. Imagine the Serengeti. You know the one with like a single tree and a few elephants in an endless expanse of nothing? Well, our Serengeti is a willow tree situated on rolling hills by a river with no elephants or any sign of life, unless you count our neighborhood up the hill. But you may as well not count it. It’s just me, Ze, his mom, Ria, and a bunch of empty two-story houses. I guess you can count Dad but he never leaves his room, and I’m too afraid to bother him.
Ria once told me that the walk across the river is longer than it’s worth. Just more nothing. It’s not like we even have a way across anyway. I can’t swim and I really have no reason to learn. I doubt she would teach us if we did want to learn. She’s so protective that it’s a miracle she lets us take breaks from the endless homeschooling to hang out unsupervised at all so, I’m sure she wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to teach us how to get even further away from her and Asphodel. As dreary as it is, I don’t exactly want to leave. It’s nice in its own way, but I’m not sure if I have a grasp on what’s nice and what’s not seeing as I’ve lived here my whole life. I let out an obligatory sigh and make eights in the river with my stick. It’s lonely. It is. But… I guess I’ve got the wind in the leaves and water’s handshake to keep me company.
I thrust the stick into the river. “It’s about time, Ze.” I push myself up and look right at him. His bronze hair sticks to his forehead with sweat. I can tell from the way his royal blue eyes look at me that he ran here at full speed. I can’t remember the last time either of us wore shoes. “What took you so long?”
“What do you mean?” he asks, panting. “It’s not my fault you finish your work so early.” He falls down, disappearing into the tall grass browning with the change of the season. “Anyway, I brought the rope you asked for.” A long, burly rope jets out of the grass and sails above my head. I jump to grab it, but it slides between my hands and crashes halfway into the water. If it weren’t for the tall grass near the riverbank parting a little when it landed, I wouldn’t have been able to tell.
“You idiot! It’s gonna go down the river!” The rope starts sliding into the river. I lunge my whole body toward where it must have landed but the current’s already got it and my face and hands get full of dirt.
I hear a rustle in the grass near me. “Jeez, Hai. What would you do without me?”
I smack the ground and dart to my feet. “Oh shut up. You’re the one who threw it in the river.”
He laughs and starts pulling the rope out of the water. It’s a lot longer than I thought it would be. I notice Ze’s got some serious muscle going on in his arms. Since when does he have time to work out? Or I guess it’s just from climbing the tree all the time. “Didya bring the plank of wood with you?”
“Yeah, it’s somewhere under the tree,” I say, not hiding my agitation.
“Sheesh. You act like I’m an hour late. It’s only been like fifteen minutes.”
“Yeah, well. I got here early.”
“Well plan to be late from now on. Mom’s starting to really push this math on me and I still don’t really get it.” I see him sniff the air as he continues pulling the rope out of the river. “ Are you really still putting on sunscreen when you come down here?”
I roll my eyes. “Yes.”
“I don’t see why you even bother, we’re in the shade. Man I hate that smell so much.”
“Get over it.”
“Mom always says the sun is fake anyway, there’s no way you’ll get sunburn.”
“Ha. Ha.” I feign laughter. “Let’s just get to work.”
“I don’t know if I can with that ridiculous smell.”
“I’m going to murder you.”
He laughs his signature I’ve-successfully-aggravated-Hai laugh and I seriously consider smacking him with the plank.
Today, Ze and I were supposed to build a swing under the willow tree. The plan was to swing off and into the river. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I can’t swim. To make it worse, the river is really deep, even right where the water meets the shore. Come to think of it, this is the only water nearby that I’ve seen. We don’t have pools or anything.
“Do you know how to swim, Ze?”
I squint my eyes at him. “So how do you expect us to survive a trip into the river?”
I look at him for a while as he shimmies up the tree with the rope around his arms. “Hey, can you throw me the board in a sec? I couldn’t bring it up with me.”
“So what’s the plan here exactly?” I ask, picking up the board. “Just gonna jump in and then what?” I put my arm through one of the holes in the board. “Drown?”
“I’m just tired of all the schooling, I guess. I wanna get out of here, ya know?”
“Ria says we’re not old enough to really go anywhere though.” I put my other arm in the remaining hole and hold it up to the sky. They look kinda like those really old shackles Ria showed me in a book once. There’s even a little crease down the middle and through the holes as if it actually was used as a set of stocks before, without a place for the head though. “She says we gotta stay here in Asphodel. At least til we’re old enough.”
“Throw me the board.”
I wiggle it off my arms and throw it up to him. It’s heavier than when I carried it over here. “So I guess we’re stuck here for a while then.” I find my seat back near the river. The stick is lying just barely out of the water. Weird that the stick found its way back but the rope almost got lost. I go back to waving circles in the water.
“Hai, I think it’s ready,” Ze says after a while.
I look at the stick and make sure I have this exact stick, every feature, stuck in my head. Then I throw it into the center of the river and it plops in without a splash. I turn around and see Ze climbing down the tree. The swing is touching the ground.
“Dang it,” he says, presumably noticing it. “I’ll go back up and fix it.”
He raises it and it’s about 2 feet off the ground, just above the grass. Ze comes down and ushers me to the swing. I jump to take a seat and he starts pushing me.
“This is great, Ze!” Almost immediately getting over my fear of heights, I feel the wind shooting through my hair and it feels like nothing I’ve felt before.
“It’s not too fun from down here,” he says as he pushes me to where the branches of the willow reach. This tree and its browning leaves is kind of like our own little hideout. It stops the rain and the bugs don’t, well… Bug us. He stops pushing, but I can keep swinging on my own now.
The wind in my hair reminds me of the stories Ria used to tell me about her trips with Dad─ how they’d stay at the beach all day, just running and swimming and dancing. I never really see Dad though. I’ve just always been told he’s sick and there’s nothing that can be done about it. Ria checks up on me at home religiously to make sure I’m doing my homework but also to take a peek into his room, but I’m not allowed in there.
“Hey, is it my turn yet,?” Ze asks.
Almost forgot. “Yeah, just give me a few more swings!”
I could stay like this forever. I bet I could swing off and onto the other side of the river. Ria says that’s where we can learn a lot more when we’re older. I think it’d be nice to get away from Ze every once in a while. But I guess he’s always been here and that’s nice in its own way. I wonder what it’s like over− “Ahhhhhhh!” The swing abruptly falls down sooner than it should have and there’s almost nothing between me and the ground. I keep a tight grip on the rope. My whole body is shaking and my heart is in my throat.
“Hey, let go already,” I hear Ze say from above with a sort of struggle in his voice. “You’re heavy.” I look up and there he is holding the rope that’s not tied to the branch as securely as it was before.
“Ze! You could’ve killed me!”
“Aw, come on, Hai. You aren’t dead yet.” He looks down at me with a wicked grin. I can see the pure excitement in his eyes. “My turn!”
I can’t honestly say I’m surprised, but I won’t let that discount the fact that it still pissed me off and nearly scared me to death. We trade places and after a few pushes, Ze says he can keep swinging on his own.
“Ya know, Ze. We can go across the river in just three years. We’ll be fourteen and Ria will let us go. Why don’t we just wait?”
“Three years? No way I can wait that long.”
I sit down at the base of the tree. “Well, neither of us knows how to swim. Sounds like a death wish.”
“We’ll make it!” He shouts on the back swing. “Besides, Mom says your name means ‘the sea.’”
“It does? How does she know that?”
“I dunno. She knows a lot of stuff.”
“The sea though? I don’t even know which way the sea is.”
“Looks like you’re gonna have to learn someday.” I can hear the smile in his voice.
“Yeah, well, I’m not about to just dive in!”
“Why not?” He asks, sliding to a stop, looking at me like a confused puppy. “What if I got Mom to come with us?”
I guess that kinda makes me feel better. “Fine.”
Ze’s face lights up.
“Alright, give me another push!”
I don’t bother arguing about the fact he had already been swinging way longer than I had. The swing was his idea anyway, so, I guess that justifies it. He’s certainly enjoying himself. I give him one good push and that’s all he needed to soar back into the air.
“So, what does your name mean, Ze?” I know it’s short for something, but neither him nor his Mom would ever tell me.
“Mom said it means ‘the sky.’”
Sea and sky. I almost feel like Ria named me too. Sky, though. That fits Ze. Just watching him swing so high, the wind blowing through his hair, and that smile covering his whole face… It’s like he’s at his best with the wind at his back. But more like a bird that can’t quite get off the ground.
“Hey, do you see that?”
“Over there,” he says, pointing to the river as he swings forward.
I squint hard to find whatever Ze’s talking about in the river. It just looks like water to me. Lots of water. “I don’t see anything.”
I look straight up and see Ze falling, holding his legs close to his chest. Stupefied, I watch him shoot through the willow branches and splash into the water. The water tears apart and turns white around where he landed with a surge of bubbles. “Ze!” I yell at the river as if it could help him. I don’t know what to do. I can’t swim. I can’t save him. I could run for Ria. No, not enough time. I could jump in, then we’re both dead. “Ze!” Suddenly, the water starts surging again. I see Ze’s feet kicking just barely out of the water. I grab the closest one and pull as hard as I can. Not working. I push my hands down his leg a little further and pull with everything I’ve got. I’m making a little progress, but not enough. I take a deep breath and shove my head into the water, struggling to open my eyes. Ze’s tugging on something shiny and gold at the bottom of the river. I work my hands around his waist and pull again. Bubbles stop shooting out of Ze’s mouth. Panic overwhelms me and I forget I’ve still got to hold my breath as my vision becomes clouded with the balloons of the last of my air. The shiny thing pops out of place and suddenly Ze is weightless. I pull him out of the water and he lands a few feet behind me.
He’s coughing up water like crazy, lying on his back. I have absolutely no clue what I could do to help him. He turns himself over and coughs up some more water. “The coin,” he barely manages to say. “Get the coin.” He points down the river. There’s that shiny thing I saw him reaching for and it’s floating downstream. I run along the shore, keeping up with it. It’s too far in the river for me to reach. Then I see it. Floating just a few feet ahead near the shore is that same stick from before. I’m not sure if these river sticks are magic or just all look the same, but I’m not complaining. I snag it from the water and use it to smack the coin. It flies in an arc above me and falls somewhere in the grass.
I rest my hands on my knees and fight to catch my breath. “Ze! Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he musters. “Did you get it?”
I put my hands on my hips and look to the sky, still panting. “Yeah. It’s somewhere… Over there,” I say, pointing into the field.
Ze jogs into the field. I only notice that because I hear his raspy coughs, trying to get more water out of his body. “Found it,” he says, running up to me, his jeans off and hanging over his shoulder.
“Put your clothes on,” I say, panting and turning my head slightly.
He takes off his shirt. “Why? They’re soaked.” He points at me. “Your shirt’s a little wet too,” he says, laughing.
I immediately cover myself. I’ve almost caught my breath now, my mind’s starting to shift to thinking about how terrifying that really was, but I hadn’t felt that scared when it happened. Is this bravery? No, more like copacetic fear. “Thanks for saving me, Hai,” I say in my best Ze impersonation.
“Aw, come on, Hai. We’re already dead. Can’t die twice,” he says, wringing his clothes out. Practically buckets of water come out.
“Wait, what?” I don’t feel dead. If anyone should feel dead, it’s Ze, but what does being dead feel like? I feel pretty alive right now. “What are you talking about?”
“We’re dead, Hai,” he says, holding the coin to the sky and squinting with one eye. “Don’t you remember? This is the Underworld and we’re stuck in Asphodel.” He puts his shirt and jeans back on.
Asphodel. Ria taught us that it’s a dreary place where ghosts flit like shadows. I always thought that was why she chose the name. Because we’re in the middle of nowhere. I’m not a ghost, am I? I’m definitely solid. Maybe she meant that we don’t really do anything here. She always told us that you can’t cross the river without a token of some kind, but she never had one or had ever seen one. I just thought it was a joke but Ze definitely just risked his life for a coin. Maybe that’s why he wanted it so badly, to go across the river. Maybe the only reason Ze didn’t die was because we really are already dead. Is this really the Underworld?
Ze’s hands hit my shoulders hard. “Hai, calm down. I was just joking. Since when do you take me seriously?” He laughs. “Mom says that all the time when you aren’t around. Sorry, I didn’t mean to freak you out.”
“But what if this really is this the Underworld?”
“Aw, come on. That wouldn’t make any sense. First off, if this really was Asphodel, why can we think and move freely? Second off…” He pinches my arm.
“You seem pretty alive to me.”
Aside from the bit of pain in my arm, this sort of relaxes me. It was all a joke, I remind myself. “So what did you want the coin for?”
“To go across the river of course. Mom says that’s the only way.”
“How can you go from ‘oh I was just joking Hai’ to ‘it’s the only way across?’ How does that make sense?”
I can see he’s confused himself now but he just shrugs. “Dunno. But I bet a bridge will appear out of nowhere right in front of us or it’ll open a portal or something,” he says, marveling at the coin.
I roll my eyes at yet another one of Ze’s ridiculous notions. “What’s there to do once we get over there?” I look across the river and see nothing but a seemingly endless field, a few buildings in the distance. At least that field isn’t full of weeds and dead grass. Oh, there are some trees too. Better than this one tree in a vasty nothing. “It does look way better over there. Maybe we should go,” I say, trying to play along.
“No duh. I’m just trying to figure out how this is gonna work.” He flips the coin into the air. It gleams and sparkles in the sunlight until Ze catches it again. “I mean, there’s gotta be some sort of bridge or something,” he says, staring at the coin. Starting to look up at me, he says, “Maybe Mom would−” He’s just staring at me now. Wait, no he’s looking past me at something.
“Maybe Mom would what?” I ask, turning to find what he’s gawking at.
There’s an incredibly tall, bald man in a canoe painted pitch black stopped right in front of us with one giant oar in his hands. He stands with an odd balance, as if he didn’t know what it was like to sit in this boat. His clothes are a pale black and are torn at some places. His entire wardrobe looks like it’s flowing in a wind that I couldn’t feel. The man looks down at Ze and points his bony finger at the coin.
“What can I do for you, young master?” He asks, bowing toward Ze. He rises from his bow and holds the oar behind him. The water around him, once blue, is now gray just like his wardrobe.
Oh god. We really are dead. Wait. “Who are you?” I ask, trying not to sound terrified.
The odd man looks at me with a barely recognizable confusion, then looks back at Ze. “Is this redhead a concubine of yours, young master?”
I look at Ze, a little offended but unsure of why. “This is my friend, if that’s what you mean,” he says.
“The payment is only sufficient for one passenger, young master.”
“Fine.” Ze tosses the coin to me. I stumble to catch it, just barely getting a grip on it before it would land back in the river.
I hold up the coin. “Who are you?”
He nods slightly. “What, may I ask, is your name?”
“You didn’t ask him his name, though.”
“I’ve ferried for this young master in the past. In fact, he’s quite well known.”
“And his name is…?”
“Ze—” He coughs.
“What?” It sounded like he was trying to say something else that starts with Z like zoo or something. “What’s his name?”
“My apologies. It’s just that most of our denizens have chosen new names and I was unsure if the young master had.”
I look back at Ze whose paralyzed-in-fear expression has turned to utter confusion as his eyes just widen when he looks back at me. “So why can you give us that information but not his name?”
“What do you mean?”
Genuinely concerned for this guy’s mental health, I slowly back up to Ze. “What the hell,” I whisper, “is happening right now?”
“Not a damn clue,” he whispers back.
“Fine, whatever. My name is Hai.”
“I am Charon,” he says with a bow. “Pleased to make your acquaintance. And how have you taken residence in the Underworld, young mistress?”
I take a deep breath, trying to hold in my fear. “I’ve been here as long as I can remember.” Well. I’m dead. But. How long have we been here? Is this actually Asphodel? Why do we have memories if so? But really. What the fuck is going on?
I shakily put my hand over my heart and feel it pounding so hard that it’s difficult to keep my palm pressed there. I grip my chest, trying to focus on the moment between each individual pound, but my mind is tangled in the turbulence of understanding something I thought to be very simple and clear: life.
If I’m dead then why do I feel alive? Am I immortal? Did I have to die to get here? Can I leave? If this really is the underworld, where are the rest of the dead people?
“Calm down, Hai,” Ze says, nudging me with his elbow.
“How can you always be so calm? Aren’t you even a little bit scared?” I fixate at the ground around his feet, taking deep, quiet breaths.
“Well, of course I am,” he says, burying his hands in his pockets. “But I’m not afraid of chasing the truth. I am pretty fast, ya know.” His grins practically covers his whole face, but it’s different than usual. Like he’s just trying his hardest to hide his fear.
“Is there something else you would ask of me, young mistress?”
I take one more deep breath. “For starters, stop calling me young mistress.”
“Of course, young─” he coughs.
“I don’t even know where to start, really.”
“Would you have me take you across the river?”
I guess this seems like our only immediate option. But what about Ria and Dad? Wait, we’re all dead. But does that make it okay? Can we just go for a trip across the river and come back like nothing happened? I can hear Ria now saying “Where have you been?” and I would just respond with “Doesn’t matter, we’re dead anyway.” Are there still rules to living for corpses?
Ze nudges me in the ribs. It’s hard not to get lost in the fear, I guess. “Yes, take us both across.”
“The payment is only sufficient for one passenger.”
“You just talked like you knew Ze and you still won’t bring him across?”
“Well, what’s his name then?” I ask, pointing at Ze.
“I believe you just called him Ze, correct?”
“No, I mean what was his name before? You were about to call him something different earlier, right?”
Charon eyes nervously dart up the hill. “My master would most likely prefer that I didn’t share that information.”
“Well who’s your master?”
“If you have to ask, then it would be better if you stayed here.”
I look to Ze, who is straining his entire face, trying to think of his name I assume.
“Is Haden your master, or something like that?” Ze asks.
Charon nearly cracks a smile. “Close enough, I suppose.”
Hades. He definitely meant Hades, but it’s actually pretty funny so I don’t say anything. Anyway, where was I going with that question in the first place? How does that even help?
Charon coughs. “Will there be any more questions or shall we go?”
Hmmm. This guy obviously knows a lot. And he doesn’t really seem capable of lying. If I can just find the right question, he would probably tell me anything I asked him. But I can barely even think straight. There’s got to be a way to get around this. It’s so hard to think, knowing that you’re dead either way.
“Hai, I’ll be going now if you do not require my services.”
“Wait. Take me to your master.”
He pauses, staring me down. I can tell he’s deciding whether or not he’s allowed to do this or something. “Of course.” He offers me his hand. I take it and he pulls me into the canoe. He raises a hand, waiting for the payment. “But before we go…” I toss the coin to Ze.
Ze catches it and understands immediately. “Take me to your master.”
Charon grumbles into the collar of his robes. “Get in the canoe, young master.”
“Call me by my real name, if you don’t mind,” Ze says with his chin up, wearing a terribly inappropriate grin.
He sighs loudly. “Get in the canoe, Lord Zeus.”
The trip across the river is just as awkward as that conversation. However, it feels oddly familiar as well. The sensation of the canoe’s undulations feels extremely natural even though I’ve never done something like this before. Ze holds onto Charon’s robes the whole way over. Kinda odd to see him scared of anything, especially since he just jumped into the river a minute ago without knowing how to swim.
When we finally get Ze off the canoe, he collapses on the ground as if thanking the heavens he didn’t drown. I finally get an opportunity to really see what the other side of the river looks like, but it looks just like Asphodel. “Charon, why does this look the same as before?”
“That’s because my master resides in Asphodel as well. I’ve only brought you slightly closer.”
I guess I was so concerned with the natural feel of the canoe that I didn’t notice.
“You mean we have to walk the rest of the way?” Ze lies face first in the grass.
“Correct,” Charon says rigidly, making Ze groan as he rolls over.
“Which way?” I ask.
“Walk with the river at your back and you should reach my master shortly.” And with that, Charon begins paddling away from us, farther down the river.
“Get up, Ze.”
“What about Mom and your dad?”
“I don’t even know where we are, let alone how to get back home. But if we’re going to see Hades, he’ll know how to get home. Sooner we get there, sooner we get home.”
Ze pushes himself up with a long string of mumbled words. “Let’s get this over with then.”
“So I guess we just keep walking until we see something. That’s our best shot.”
“Let’s just go already,” he says, and he’s already walking.
“What happened to that excitement and all that kidding from earlier, huh?”
“Aw, shut up,” he says flatly.
I follow close behind him, containing a giggle. “So, what’s this about Zeus? Are you like a god now?”
“Yeah right,” he says in a not so joking way. “That’s what Mom named me but I didn’t like it so I told her to call me Ze. I actually forgot, to be honest.”
“What about you? Is your name short for anything?”
“I don’t know.”
“We should look it up when we get back.”
“Look it up where?”
“You know what I mean. Ask your dad or something.”
I hardly ever see Dad anymore as it is. When I wake up, there’s just always some breakfast on the table, which is usually just some pomegranate, juice, and an occasional apple, and I just eat it and head to Ze’s. I guess he’s there when I get home but I’m always too scared to bother him. It’s not like I’d have anything to say to him anyway. Ria teaches us everything, he just works for us and gives us food. I guess. I don’t really know what he does. Too scared to ask.
“Well, anyway I like your name.”
“Eh, just call me Ze.”
We walk for a long while through the seemingly endless field of weeds and tall brown grass, whistling in the breeze at a slow rhythm that never stops playing. We walk in silence. There just isn’t anything else to say. Ze complains about the walk every once in awhile, but that’s it. He obviously just wants to go home. I’ve never seen him like really bothered by anything before. He usually just hides his fear or anger behind a smile. Maybe he thinks that everything will go back to normal if he goes home. Me, well I don’t know what I want. But I guess seeing Ze act like this kinda let me know freaking out certainly isn’t going to help anything.
Along the way, I see a black patch in the grass just ahead of us, but before I can even hesitate, it’s moving toward us. It’s a dog. A dog with three identical heads, mangy black fur, crimson eyes. Which should all be terrifying but he only comes up to my knees, just barely visible in the tall grass. He’s kinda cute actually. All three heads bark out of sync as he’s rooted to the ground right before us. I guess he had been sleeping until we showed up. Of course, I’m a little hesitant to just meet those blood red eyes but Ze pets him on two of his heads despite the barks that quickly turn into low growls, which eventually disappear altogether. Between the sounds of, panting, the third head whining, and the who’s-a-good-boy’s, I don’t know how to feel. Finally, I walk up to the dog too. He growls a little when I get closer.
“She’s with me, boy.” Ze gestures me over. “Pet him, he won’t bite.”
Reluctantly, my hand meets the third head. His fur is a soft, smooth sable. Tense at first but relaxed soon enough. Almost as if he hasn’t seen anyone in quite some time.
“His name’s Cerbus,” Ze says, smiling and petting him.
“I think you mean Cerberus.”
“Nah, I think I like Cerbus better.”
I give his third head all my attention, scratching him behind his ears as he pants eagerly back at me. “You’d think the guard dog of the Underworld would be a bit bigger.”
“Yeah,” Ze says, coming to that realization finally. “I wonder why he’s so small.” He gasps suddenly and looks at me. “You think he can lead us to Hades?” His pets get a little more aggressive as his voice shifts into more of an adorable tone. “Can ya, boy? Can ya lead us to Hades?” All three of Cerberus’ heads start barking at Ze, even the one I had so perfectly entertained. Ze stands up but bends over a little with his hands on his knees. “Show us boy! Show us!”
And just like that, Cerberus darts off into the field ahead of us, turning into more of barely visible patch of black in no time.
“Holy shit, Cerberus is fast,” I say astonished.
“I think you mean Cerbus.” Ze clears his throat and he’s sprinting after him before I know it. Ugh. I hate running, but I reluctantly race after them.
“Fucking finally,” Ze manages to say as we finally spot a small house coming into view on the horizon. My body feels like it could fall apart at any second. I don’t think I can take another step, let alone run to the door. My body just can’t keep it up. I don’t know about Ze, but I’m practically dragging myself at this point. I don’t know how long or how far we’ve run and I don’t really want to know. I just want to never have to move. Ever again.
Cerberus runs up to the door with his tail wagging erratically, barking and panting in ferocious excitement. He jumps off his hind legs and scratches the door a few times. Ze manages to catch his breath pretty quickly but I’m nearly coughing up a lung and leaning against the door.
“Easy boy,” Ze says, pulling him back a little by the collars. I can hear the exhaustion in his voice.
Just as I’m about to give the door three quick knocks, I hear a man yell from inside, making my whole body jolt backward and nearly falling flat on my ass.
“Who’s that?” Cerberus immediately responds with a bark. “Why, you mangy mutt. Haven’t I told you not to bother me when I’m sleeping?” I hear the voice getting closer along with heavy footsteps. “Get back to the gate like I told─” he says, as he swings open the door. If there was a way to make your hair look mangier than Cerberus’ his was pretty damn close. He doesn’t look too much older than Ze and I, but I can’t exactly meet his eyes because his midnight black hair hangs in front of them. I just look up to where I think they should be.
“I didn’t see any gate on the way here,” Ze says.
Hades is tensed up, just staring at the both of us I think. But he relaxes with a sigh. He swings his head back and his hair follows to reveal a pair of truly black eyes looking us over. “Well, if it isn’t my two least favorite siblings. What an unpleasant surprise.”
“Siblings?” I ask.
“You think this is what Charon meant?” Ze whispers to me.
“I dunno,” I whisper back.
“You.” Hades points to Ze. “What’s my name?”
Hades laughs with his entire body, holding himself by the door’s threshold. I giggle a little, holding my hand over my mouth. “I think you mean Hades, Ze.”
I can see Ze visibly in thought, rubbing his ear and looking off into the field. “Nope, I like Haden better.”
Hades is still laughing but clearly trying his best to stop. “Well that’s just rich. You’re as dumb as ever, little brother.” He runs his hand through his hair. “So, to what do I owe the pleasure?” His eyes move back and forth between Ze and I.
“Well… I guess we’re here to figure out Ze’s true identity or whatever and uh… I guess it’d be nice to know why we’re in the Underworld in first place,” I manage to say.
“Fucking Charon,” he says under his breath.
“Not much of a secret keeper huh,” Ze says suddenly.
“Oh yeah, and now you must think you’re a smart little shit, right?”
“Look,” I say, trying to diffuse the tension. “We just want to get back home and maybe learn a thing or two about what’s going─”
“Why the fuck do you think I brought Mom and Dad back?”
Not exactly knowing why I’m getting yelled at, I kinda freeze with my arms up like I’m about to get arrested. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Yeah, I know you don’t.” He squats down a little, pushing his hair out of his eyes. He squints, looking directly into my eyes. “What’s your name, then?”
He scoffs. “Yeah. Go home.” He backs into the building and starts to close the door but it stops right before it can shut. Ze’s foot is the only thing keeping this confrontation going. “Move it or I break it,” he says through the door with a sort of growl.
“What’s it matter if I’m already dead, asshole?”
After a brief pause, the door swings open and he gestures that we come inside. I walk in. “Dog stays outside.” Ze lets go of him and he whines at the door as if there were a barrier there.
Now inside, Hades sits us down in front of a furnace, where he’s prepared three seats all facing the fire. An animal pelt rests between us and the fire but I can’t tell what kind of animal it is in the dim light. Hades fixes some mugs filled with a gold liquid and hands one to each of us. I’m kind of afraid to drink it. I’ve never heard of a gold drink that’s safe to drink. Then again, I guess haven’t exactly had a wide variety of beverages. Ze says “Ah” as he finishes his mug and sets it on the arm of his chair. I take a sip of it. It tastes like all of my favorite foods in one cup. A little salty, but I enjoy it all the more. I gulp the entire mug down.
“I’d say it’s been awhile since you’ve had ambrosia, huh?”
“Ambrosa?” Ze asks.
“Don’t fuck with me, alright?” Hades says as if he wants this to be the last time he ever has to say it.
“Just ignore him,” I say. “He’s always been like that.”
“Believe me, I know. Now, what’s your name again, kid?” He asks, still looking at Ze.
“Ze. And for the record, I messed up that word on purpose,” he says, crossing his arms.
“No shit. Your real name?”
“Zeus.” I chime in.
“And what about your real name?” He asks, looking at me.
“Yeah, that sounds about right. I had a feeling you guys were a little early.” He leans back in his seat and takes a big gulp of his mug.
He leaves us in a weird silence as he just stares into the fire. Completely unsure if he evens wants to talk to us— No, I’m sure he doesn’t want to talk to us. I guess I don’t know if I should even speak unless I’m spoken to. But I eventually muster the courage, or whatever you want to call it. “Are we dead?”
“Think. You obviously know who I am and that I am a god right?”
“And if you two are my siblings, that makes you…?”
“Gods,” I say, not entirely thrilled that I’m related to this guy.
“There’s more than one god?”
Hades smacks his forehead. “What are you even doing here? I can’t believe that dipshit of a ferryman showed you the way in the first place.” He looks at the floor, shaking his head. “Go home.”
“Like we even know which way that is,” Ze snaps.
“I don’t care where you go or what you do, just stay out of my shit.”
“Yeah, I’ll gladly stay out of your shit pile of a house,” Ze says, jumping out of his chair.
Hades stands up slowly. He walks ominously toward Ze and abruptly grabs him by the collar of his shirt. “Then get the fuck out.” He and Ze have a short staring contest before Ze pulls himself away in a huff and walks out the door. Hades continues staring at him as he leaves. “The one who does nothing but cause me trouble.” He looks toward me. “And the one who only cares about himself.” He has to be talking about me, right? Did he just say ‘himself’ by mistake? But his tone, the atmosphere, and his face all just startle me to the point where I’m too afraid to ask questions. And I find myself hurrying out the door. “You two should feel lucky to be alive at all,” he growls, and the door slams shut.
“You said you’re our brother, right?” I say shakily, just loud enough for him to probably hear me. “Isn’t family supposed to be there for one another?”
“I don’t owe either of you a damn thing.”
“What’s your fucking problem, man?” Ze demands, nudging Cerberus away.
“You two are my fucking problem. We’ve all got the shit end of the stick and I am doing the best I can to not just kill all of you and be done with it.”
“So why not just help us?” I probably sound more desperate than I mean to.
“Help you? I dug up our parents to help you so I wouldn’t have to. If you want someone to hold your hand, I’d cut my own damn hands off before I gave either of you charity.”
“At least tell us how to get home, then.”
“How about you try the damn road I had made from your house to mine?”
I look around the small house and see three dirt roads, pointing in different directions. Never noticed that before. “Which one?”
“Why don’t you try reading the fucking signs?” And with that, I hear his heavy footsteps retreat back inside the house.
“What a douche,” Ze says, pushing Cerberus off his legs.
“You’re calling him a douche? All you did was provoke him the entire time.”
“I know. I know. I just… For some reason I couldn’t help it. I can’t explain it.”
I feel Cerberus’ paws hit my butt and I turn around to pet two of his panting heads. How sad that there will always be one head that’s left out. “Well, boy. Looks like it’s time for us to go.”
“I’ll go find the road,” Ze says, jogging off around the house.
I stay at the door, petting Cerberus who’s finally resolved to lick my leg with his third head. Ze’s back in no time, calling my name as he runs up to the door and pets Cerberus some more. “Our road’s right over there,” he says.
I nudge Cerberus off me and follow Ze behind the house. Cerberus doesn’t follow but instead whines as he walks back the way we came from originally. There’s a tall sign next to the dirt road with an arrow pointing away from Hades’ house. I can just barely read the sign on my tiptoes. “Zeus & Poseidon.”
Poseidon. I feel like I’ve heard that somewhere before. Kinda sounds like Hai, I guess. But not really. I say the name out loud, and feel the strange familiarity of my tongue slapping the roof of my mouth.
“So I guess that makes you my sister,” he says, finally. “If we can even believe what that guy said.”
“No reason not to, I guess. I bet I’m older though,” I say, smiling. We’ve gotta be much older than eleven if we really are gods.
“Yeah, you wish.” He puts his hands in his pockets and starts walking down the road. “Whether or not we can believe him.” Ze kicks a rock off the path. “If anyone will know for sure, it’ll be Mom.”
Ze rarely acts this serious. He’s kind of intimidating in his own peculiar way. But I’m just as confused and curious as he is, if not more. Well, I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything more than Ze honestly. He may not get like this often, but when he does, I get sort of jealous. That he can be so mature one second but be his reckless, goofball self the rest of time blows my mind. If we’re going to figure this out, it’s going to take more of him acting like this. I really don’t know if I can figure any of this out on my own.
I start to follow closely behind him, not particularly wondering about any specific thing, just taking it all in. Whatever that means. Too much information to process all at once. I can’t think logically with my brain so clogged with so many details of increasing uncertainty.
“So we’re gods, huh?”
“Mhm. Just like that from that movie Mom showed us,” he says.
“Oh, that’s right!” I say, just glad that I can contribute even a little to figuring something out. “That’s where I remember the name Poseidon! Zeus too!”
“Oh, you’re right!” Ze turns around as if a light bulb just lit above his head. “We’ve gotta get home and watch it!” With that, he starts into a sprint.
“Hey, wait up!” I try to run after him but he’s too fast for me. I hear Cerberus barking from way behind us. I wonder if he’ll be okay. I guess he has been for this long, but I’d hate for him to go on completely neglected with Hades.
“Hai, come on already!”
“But what about Cerberus?”
“That guy just threatened to kill us. I’m definitely not taking his dog.”
I look back at the mutt and can see him panting as if he thinks we’re coming back. I feel a pit in my stomach as I start to back away toward Ze.
“At least we know how to get here, Hai,” Ze says, walking back beside me. “We can come back some time and play with him.”
“But to leave him with Hades, though? I mean it looks like he doesn’t even give a damn.”
“One problem at a time, sis.” He pats me on the shoulder. “Come on. Maybe Mom will know what we should do.”
“Alright,” I say, begrudgingly.
Ze shoots off down the road again. “I’ll race ya!”
“Like I could ever beat you anyway,” I say to myself and run after him.
And so we run all the way back home, either too curious or too out of breath to notice the bridge over the river that’s never been there before.