Authors: Stephanie Spinner
Table of Contents
for Tom Walker
The world is full of Zeus’ children, and I am one. If my
infant antics had not attracted my father’s attention, I
might have lived out my days as a shepherd or a farm boy,
thinking only of forage and livestock and weather. But
on my first day of life I tricked my brother Apollo so
thoroughly that he lost his composure in public. This unprecedented event made Zeus laugh for the first time in
“You have a real talent for mischief,” he told me as I
stood before him in my swaddling clothes. “I can use
someone like you.”
So he made me his messenger.
It’s dark and gloomy, and it smells like dead sheep, but when Zeus says go to Hell, I go. The Lord of All Creation is not a patient deity. Have you ever seen his hands clench and unclench when he’s kept waiting? I call it the Thunderbolt Reflex. Best not trigger it is my advice, unless you long to burst into flame and explode.
I do not.
So today, when Zeus summoned me, I flew right over to his audience hall in my trusty winged sandals. I chose a very high speed—gazelle-fleeing-lion—and was there in a breath, ready with a good joke (the one about the mortal crossing the road) and a cheerful smile. Then I saw the scowl on Zeus’ face and restrained myself. Joking with my father when he’s testy is like challenging the Gorgons to a staring contest. Bad idea.
And the Master of the Universe was definitely fuming. Not only that, his sister Demeter was at his feet, sobbing. Her hair was undone, her robes were torn and gaping, and her upturned face was slick with tears. She had clawed at her exposed shoulders, raising crisscrosses of bleeding welts, like a mourner in the first throes of grief.
The sight sent a thrill of alarm through me. A thrill of curiosity, too: what had caused the Harvest Goddess such frenzied sorrow? She was normally the most placid of beings.
“Hermes!” growled Zeus. “Do you know what that brother of mine has done?”
I shook my head. Zeus could only be referring to Hades, Lord of the Underworld. His other brother, Poseidon, who was perfectly happy riding waves, watching whales, and chasing mermaids, took very little interest in mortal affairs, which was probably why his relations with Zeus were both distant and amicable.
So it must be Uncle Hades.
When I think of Hades, I feel as if I’m falling and shrinking at the same time. If this sounds unpleasant, it is, believe me. The god has no levity, no humor, and no charm. He’s been a walking bad mood ever since the day Zeus and Poseidon got all the best parts of creation, leaving him with the Underworld, which, as I mentioned, is an armpit.
And—no surprise—Hades likes to share his misery. Like a bullying host who presses stale bread and sour wine on his guests, daring them to refuse, Hades makes it impossible for anyone in his purview to breathe freely or step lightly.
How? By devising something called The Underworld Codes and Regulations, a set of rules so impossible to remember, much less follow, that it makes Babylonian etiquette look easy.
Because of the Regulations, the instant you enter Hades’ domain, you’re doing something wrong—by looking left instead of right (Unlawful Beholding and Viewing, section 32, subsection 11), saying the wrong thing (Maladroit Utterance, sections 1–87), or touching something forbidden (Heinous Tactile Errors, part 560).
Your punishment? You’re there forever. And if you’ve come from Brother Zeus’ territory, so much the better. Hades hates Zeus.
The feeling is mutual.
“He’s taken Kore,” Zeus rumbled. Hearing her daughter’s name, Demeter wailed and struck the floor with her forehead. She and Kore are very close. Zeus raised his voice over Demeter’s keening. “Forced her to marry him,” he called out.
Not much surprises me, but this did. Kore, Demeter’s only child, was a young wildflower of a girl— barefoot, meadow-dancing, and underdressed. She behaved more like a nymph than a goddess, and I couldn’t for the life of me picture her in Hell. Neither, clearly, could Demeter.
“Bring her back, Zeus!” she screamed. “I can’t live without her!” She resumed her sobbing, and her tears pooled at Zeus’ feet.
He stepped away from her quickly, looking apprehensive. An unhappy goddess is never fun to be around, but Demeter’s mood was downright ominous. In her way, she was as powerful as Zeus. Like him, she could do lots of damage.
I threw him a sympathetic look.
“She’s stopped working,” he said quietly.
There’s bad news,
I thought. Without Demeter’s attentions, crops on earth wouldn’t grow, and livestock wouldn’t breed. That meant drought, famine, pestilence, and a high mortal death rate—not to mention a sharp decline in offerings to us.
He nodded. “She’s been cursing the harvests.”
“And I’ll keep cursing them,” Demeter vowed, rising unsteadily and swiping at her bleary face with her gown, “unless you bring her back!”
What would Zeus do next? My prophetic gift kicks in sporadically, never on command, so I had to guess. Knowing Zeus’ weakness for mortals (especially pretty ones), I reasoned that he’d want to prevent any disasters leading to their extinction, which meant placating Demeter.
Or did it?
If Zeus rescued Kore, he’d be provoking Hades, who could be a vicious adversary.
“Tricky situation,” I ventured.
Zeus raised his big, bushy eyebrows in agreement.
Which is why you called me,
As usual, I was right.
I’ve been stealing since I was born. Really. When I was one day old, I hopped out of my cradle and stole fifty cows from Apollo—in my swaddling clothes, I might add. I almost got away with it, too, but Zeus made me confess. I didn’t mind—I was only playing, and Apollo did forgive me right away. As for Zeus, the trick made him laugh long and hard, and he’s had a soft spot for me ever since. Now I’m called Prince of Thieves, which I don’t mind, either; I like my work.
Stealing isn’t the only thing I do, of course. I escort the dead to the Underworld, carry messages for the Immortals, guide travelers, invent musical instruments, and protect animals. In my spare time I bring luck. I’m reasonably good at all these things, but when it comes to theft, I excel. No other god had the wherewithal to hustle down to Hell and steal back Hades’ bride with a minimum of fuss, and Zeus knew it.
So, minutes after our conversation, I was in his chariot, happily taking up the reins. When Zeus told me I could drive it down to the Underworld, I nearly whooped for joy. His six colossal horses are as swift and powerful as his thunderbolts; they fairly rip through the sky. I’m no slowpoke, but they can run circles around me. Zeus had never let me near them—until today.
“I’ll be careful, I promise” were my parting words.
Now, as I clucked them on, caution was the last thing on my mind. “How fast can you really go?” I whispered.
They heard me.
Their ears went flat and they leaped into the air like sparks out of a fire.
I thought, my stomach dropping. Mount Olympus fell away until its snowy peak was a white blur, and as we rose even higher, I clenched my eyes against the frigid blaze of starlight. I could swear I felt the crackle of ice in my lungs.
Then the horses dropped without warning, and we were tumbling through the heavens like lava coursing down Mount Etna.
It was supremely exciting.
If we crash, who cares?
I thought, giggling helplessly as we approached the earth. It was the best ride I’d ever had.
Then, as the hills of Arcadia rose up to meet us, the horses slowed, and their headlong plunge became a stately, measured canter. It wasn’t my doing—I was so giddy I was barely hanging on to the reins—but by the time we got to the mouth of Taenarus Cave, they were trotting.
In we went, as smoothly as you please. I come here all the time—I lead the dead down to Hades through the cave—but Zeus’ horses had never made the trip, so I was afraid they’d be skittish in the tunnel. But they weren’t. They jogged along with perfect composure, and before long I’d regained my composure, too.
When I was finally breathing normally again, I began to compare the good and bad points of my situation. I had started doing this long ago, on the advice of my brother Apollo. He believes in taking stock, reasoning things out, and planning carefully. Of course I’d already agreed to rescue Kore. But I’d fallen into the habit of making lists in my head anyway, and now I did it just for fun.
Unforeseen, possibly thrilling dangers
Warm gratitude of lovely Kore (& her mother)
Rolling tide of rich mortal offerings
Paternal approval (always a plus)
Hades isn’t called the Lord of Darkness for nothing; he
holds a mean grudge
Well, that’s clear enough,
The good far outweighs the bad.
That had been Zeus’ view also.
“If Hades tries to stop you,” he’d advised as I was leaving, “quote the Regulations to him. Kore’s free to leave if she hasn’t eaten anything. It’s a footnote in the Admissions section.”
The Regulations are endless and incredibly boring. I couldn’t believe that Zeus had actually read them, but he can be surprisingly thorough sometimes. And he has an amazing memory.
“ ‘Any being admitted to Hades,’ ” he’d recited, “ ‘must remain for 46 million lunar cycles or in perpetuity, whichever is longer, if he, she, or it has consumed the Food of the Dead. If, while in Hades, said being has not chewed, swallowed, inhaled, absorbed, or in any other manner ingested the aforementioned Food of the Dead, he, she, or it may leave upon verbal or written request.’ ”
“How could she eat
in that place?” Demeter had cried. “It’s a sinkhole!”
“She probably hasn’t,” Zeus had replied, and I agreed. Kore is an Immortal; like the rest of us, she eats only for amusement. She wouldn’t eat Down There— she’d be too miserable. And in that case, my job would be much easier. Old Stickler Hades had to abide by his own Regulations, didn’t he?
There’s no sun in Hell, only a grayish half-light like winter fog. The air is still, static as only a place without weather can be, and faintly acrid. The horses coughed with their first breath of it. I couldn’t blame them. Though I’ve been here countless times, that first whiff always put me off, too.
I slowed the horses to a walk as we neared the river. The Styx isn’t much more than a deep channel, but its milky green waters are poisonous, so I’d decided to leave the horses behind just to be safe. I told them to halt and they did.
“Hermes? Is that you?” Paddling toward us was old Charon, who ferries the dead across the river. His sight is bad, but his ears are as big as discuses, and very sharp. I will sometimes startle him by approaching his ferry very, very quietly (which he hates), but not today. There was no sneaking up on him with six horses.
Charon is irascible and greedy. He demands—and gets—money from every one of his passengers, which to me is adding insult to injury. In my opinion it’s bad enough to be dead without having to pay for transportation, too. And what can Charon possibly do with the money? There’s not much to buy down here.
“Yes, it is,” I replied, stepping down from the chariot carefully. The riverbank was muddy, and I wanted to keep my sandals clean. I would need speed today, and infernal mud tends to slow them.
“I thought so,” he grunted. Across the river, Cerberus jumped and snarled, showing far too many teeth, even for a dog with three heads. I was glad, as I always am, that he was chained. Cerberus is Hell’s watchdog. He stops escapees by eating them. With all three mouths going, it’s a hideous sight.
I tied up the horses and checked my provisions: ox-liver treats for Cerberus, Cap of Invisibility for me, silver coin for Charon. Then I boarded the ferry.
After crossing the Styx, I skirted the Asphodel Fields, the place where most mortals go when they die. As always, the flat green expanses were splashed with white, pink, and yellow asphodels in bloom, and the air was milder and less acrid than it was at the river.
The fields are pleasant enough, in a spare, featureless way—nothing but flowers, a few shade trees, and the occasional cloth pavilion to break the monotony. Of course the dead don’t really need much more: they don’t eat, they don’t sleep, and they don’t need shelter because the weather’s always mild. So they’re left to wander listlessly, trading gossip and complaining about the lack of entertainment.
They’re overjoyed to see me when I visit because I tell them jokes. And I have to admit they’re my best audience. They like puns. They like riddles. They even like mortal jokes.
“What did the mortal say when Cerberus bit him? ‘Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!’ ” makes them howl. And “What did Zeus say when the mortal built a house near Mount Olympus? ‘There goes the neighborhood’ ” gets them every time.
I usually can’t resist the temptation to make them laugh. But today I didn’t stop. I was bound for the other part of Hell, where the wicked live in torment and Hades lives in a bad mood: Tartarus.
It was there that I would find Kore.