The stench of my George Foreman mini-grill revealed something was burning. I stopped mid-hallway: something, or someone, was awry in my house.
I’d always wondered if grilled cheeses opened portals to other worlds. There’s just something eerie about them. Nothing in the universe is so simple yet so, so appealing. In the Sandwich Olympics, grilled cheese is king. The divine scent of the cheddar entices even the gods.
Gathering my courage, I faced the intruder.
A man munched on the sandwich as Mr. Foreman burned. He leaned against the counter, merry eyes daring me to question. From his anachronistic toga to his winged sandals, he was a blaring example as to why one shouldn’t leave sandwiches alone – you never knew who might steal them.
He tipped his baseball cap. The stranger’s grin revealed bits of crumbs.
“And you are…?”
I noticed the checkered scarf around his neck.
“The man.” He sent dancing fingers through the air in a snazzy salute. “G’morning, sweetheart. Loved the sandwich.”
“Apparently,” I mumbled. “So, how did you get in? The doors are locked, and I didn’t hear any breaking glass.” I looked him up and down. “Get lost on the way to a toga party?” Maybe he was a crazy frat bro.
“My life’s a party – I bring it with me, or steal Dionysus’ thunder.” He sipped from a chipped coffee mug, then ah’ed appreciatively. “By Jove’s hairy derriere, what a drink. Wine pales in comparison. To the gods of old, and young days long since gone.” He wandered into my dining room. “We don’t love them til they’re gone.”
My eyes convulsed. “Sorry, but who did you say you were?” I looked at his hands. They were tapered like the fingers of an artist who smuggled on the side.
His eyes bespoke whimsy. Looking at this stranger was, in fact, like taking the first, dangerous bite of a melty grilled cheese.
“Hermes: the man, not the scarf,” he sang, opening the porch door.
Hermes nearly flew over to the porch’s edge, tipping the mug over the railing and raining coffee on the ground.
“To Olympus.” My mug went flying. “We make this sacrifice of vessel and drink. A blessing upon the woman who is such a kind hostess.”
“You killed my coffee cup!”
Hermes shrugged. “Sacrificing things of meaning makes the gods likely to smile upon you. Just don’t pull a Tantalus, m’kay?” He nudged my shoulder. “I’m getting you heavenly boons.”
“Are they worth my coffee?”
“Most definitely.” He patted me on the back. “So, love, the reason I’m here: your old man wants to chat.”
I sunk, comet-hard, onto the porch. The so-called Hermes blurred before my eyes.
“My — my dad?” I stammered. Hermes helped me up. “But my parents are deadbeats.” I choked back tears. “They bolted. I was twelve. I came home and found the house empty. Things were always hard for us, and my parents were always … strange, but to do that to your kid?” Shivers flooded me. “Don’t tell me you know him. He’s better off dead.”
Hermes whistled low. “He didn’t want to. The man never shut up about you.”
“As if a lost frat boy knew him!” I stumbled back into the house, sinking into the couch.
A steaming mug of tea appeared in my hands.
“Drink it up, honey. It’s sweetened with ambrosia — it’ll give you strength.”
I drank reluctantly, memories flooding my head. Whatever crap the lunatic had spiced it with tasted bittersweet, like a worm drawing old wounds from my brain: Dad, tinkering with circuits, showing me how to make metal come to life. His proud face as I showed him my inventions. “You were born to create,” he’d whisper.
He’d chased me through fields, taken me camping in the Catskills. I’d watched as he built a bonfire, his eyes sparking as the flames grew.
“Fire’s a gift, Agalia,” he’d said as I toasted marshmallows. His eyes, sometimes, grew strange to me. There was a burning in their depths like moonstone.
The lullabies he’d sang to me, in his honeyed Greek tongue. Toys painted just for me. The stories he’d spun, of the Greek gods and their follies, like the myths were his.
“I was only twelve,” I said. “In sixth grade, Jesus Christ. The cops looked everywhere. No trace. They cycled me into a hellhole of foster homes and left me heartbroken. Don’t tell me you knew him.”
Hermes’ eyes glowed. “There was no other way. If there had been, your father would have plunged the depths of Tartarus to return.”
I glowered over my cup. “Yeah. Right. How do you know?”
“I was there, in your old man’s company. I remember that night. He had Olympian business to do.”
My eyes widened like saucers. “What are you saying?”
Hermes steadied my shaking hands.
“Look,” he said, “look literally, into the cup. There’s something you should see.”
“What, my delusions?”
Hermes twirled his finger over the tea. Images danced across it as he whispered in Greek. My Greek was so rusty I couldn’t understand.
The liquid shifted to a glassy surface. My father reflected back at me, his face contorted; his cry rang. I jolted: the cup clattered. Hermes waved his hands. Tea droplets formed a liquid sheet.
My father’s figure burned.
Red. On rocks. Chains.
“That’s impossible,” I whispered, “It’s horrible!”
Hermes’ face was grave.
Tears stung my eyes. “This isn’t real. Someone must’ve spiked my drink last night.”
Hermes tried to hold me back. I lashed out at his conjuration. “That’s not my dad! He left me — he didn’t — no.”
“I’m sorry,” Hermes whispered.
But the vision had already begun.
Dad, chained to a rock. His guts hung over a cliff.
I choked down vomit.
An eagle tore out his innards, devouring them. It flew off to a rocky precipice, beak drenched in blood.
“Hesione?” Dad asked, desperate.
The eagle cocked its head. In an unfurling of its wings, the eagle shed its skin, revealing a golden god. All the wrath of heaven was with him.
“Prometheus,” he boomed. He wiped the blood from his lips.
My father shook. His wound steamed, bubbling as it healed.
The thunderous god’s gaze was ice. “Anything to say?”
The air hung dead around them.
“The children, Zeus,” Dad murmured. “We play our parts, old, barren as winter fields. But in the end, even the fields burn. They give way to new blood. Ask dear Demeter,” he said, smiling faintly. “Even the proudest stalk falls to Kronos’ scythe.”
Zeus chuckled. “Crafty Prometheus, you know I don’t enjoy this. You bleed a thousand times and never learn.” He swooped viciously close to my dad, grabbing his head. Zeus drove it into the ground. “Your silver tongue’s just that: shiny like aluminum, useless. I’ll ask again: what did you hide?”
My father gave a sputtering laugh. “A flame in a fennel stalk. But you knew that.”
“Hephaestus,” Zeus sighed. “Bind him. Kratos, Bia, come.” Zeus rubbed his temple. “Good day, Prometheus. See you tomorrow.”
In a torrent of wind, Zeus ascended. A cripple appeared, cheeks smudged with grease. He was followed by a bleeding girl and an ox of a man.
Hephaestus lingered beside my father’s head, tending to his wounds. The others prowled the cliff’s base.
“Prometheus?” whispered Hephaestus. He hobbled to my father’s side, putting a poultice on his wound. “Can you stand? I’m breaking your fetters. Hermes found her.”
My father’s eyes widened. “The time’s come? It seems like I’ve languished here forever.” He sighed. “Time flows so differently on earth. I suppose she’s grown.” He watched Hephaestus hammer off his chains. “How can you do this, under Zeus’ eyes?”
Hephaestus chuckled. “Through my wife. She’s seducing him as we speak.” Hephaestus glanced over his meaty shoulders. “And now to dispose of the flies.”
Hephaestus struck the final blow.
The chains broke. Dad lay still, following Hephaestus’ lead.
“Kratos! Bia!” Hephaestus bellowed. The wraiths scaled the cliff.
The ox-like one: “Go, lame one! Fetter his mouth, gag the traitor. Or should I do it? Have your wits abandoned you?”
He snickered, balling his hands into fists. The woman lingered behind him, following like a shadow. Hephaestus backed away.
“Bleeding-heart Hephaestus,” Kratos hissed. He raised his fist, making to pummel my father. “You crippled bastard, freeing this broken sack of Titan shit.”
Kratos’ neck snapped. Bia shrieked. Her chest cracked as dad drove his heel to her ribs.
Dad stood above them. “You were the best of the Olympians, Hephaestus.”
Hephaestus’ eyes brimmed. “Fates be with you, Prometheus.”
I surfaced from the phantasmagoria. I leaned back in my couch as I listened to a rumbling engine.
I snapped straight up. “Where am I?”
Hermes grinned back from the driver’s seat, Starbucks in hand. “Nice nap?”
I stared at him, incredulous. “You abducted me. The god of thieves abducted me. And if any of this is remotely real, my father is — ” I gagged on the word.
“Prometheus?” Hermes provided.
I slunk back into the seat. “A Titan.” I groaned. “It all makes sense now. Dad was constantly gone on business. And mom just wandered by the sea.”
The taste of ambrosia was on my tongue again, like a memory. I wondered if that was what had triggered the visions:
“I have to go to now, sweetheart. Be good.”
“But daddy! I’m in the school play! I’m a stalk of corn. Don’t you want to see me?”
He ruffled my hair. “Sweet Aggie, brightest girl in the world. Of course.” He tossed me into the air. I laughed as he caught me. “If I could, darling, I’d spend every hour with you. Your mother and I both.”
I sniffled, clinging to his side. “Daddy, don’t go. Daddy, I love you.”
He looked out the window, at the dark car beyond. “I love you, too. More than you’ll ever know.”
I snapped back to the present.
Hermes smiled. “So you’re familiar with the myths?”
“Of course.” The hilly outskirts of Boston rolled by, painted red by fall. “Each night, Dad told me a story. I know the gods like the back of my hand.”
“Did he tell you the messenger god drives a 1966 Mercury Cyclone?” Hermes drove his foot into the accelerator, grin wicked. “Welcome home, Aggie.”
The road became familiar. We rounded a corner, reaching the dirt road that led to my abandoned house. The wind whipped oak leaves around us, and the clouds parted to let a single shaft of sunlight through. It touched the eaves of the wreckage.
I stepped out.
The sight of my house stung like Io’s gadfly.
“So I’m Prometheus’ daughter?”
“Stranger things have happened,” Hermes murmured. He led me to the crumbling door. His fingers lingered on the strange language scorched into the frame. “There’s something you should know, Aggie: a legacy, a dream. A riddle, left for you.”
I looked at the words burned into the wood. They were as fresh as they’d been eight years ago.
The lettering shifted.
My jaw dropped.
“You can read it?” Hermes whispered.
“Yeah,” I said, startled.
He whistled. “You’re coming into your heritage, then. Go on,” he coaxed.
My voice rattled:
“Go — go, while Phoebos still sleeps
To the Stygian black,
through Tartarian deep.
While the Lightbringer’s wife
doth softly still weep,
Seek the flame, seek the light,
Find the Lethe.”
“This is what I found when I came home,” I whispered. “No one else could see it.”
“I didn’t — no, it couldn’t be.” Hermes scrutinized the words. He pulled out his iPhone, snapping a picture.
“Your mother. Hesione.”
“Where is she?” I asked. “Did Zeus torture her? I can’t believe I’m saying this. The gods, Olympus, everything,” I sunk to the leaf-strewn patio. “This is some broken dream.”
Hermes pinched me. I sobbed. “Sorry!” he said. “I was just trying to prove a point. Mortals do that when you think you’re asleep. Don’t you see? There’s hope. You’re the key.”
“You’re the daughter of the wiliest god. Think. Zeus blames his downfall on Prometheus. The rise of man through technology means humanity turned their back on the gods.” Hermes’ face grew dark. “Zeus doesn’t take well to faltering worship. My old man blames man’s rise on the fire your father gave them.”
“So he decided to torture him?”
“Dad does what’s in the best interest of Olympus, not individuals. Zeus didn’t hesitate to send a flood. It was only through Prometheus’ warning of Deucalion, your brother, that humanity survived.”
“Deucalion?” I shivered. All my siblings were dead.
“In killing all but Deucalion, Zeus let Prometheus’ descendants repopulate the world. His blood runs through your veins.”
“And that gives him power?”
“Exactly. Every combusting engine, each spark of electricity, is an offering to Prometheus.”
“Like my frigging grilled cheeses,” I said. “So humans still make offerings?”
Hermes nodded. “Yep. Zeus hates the thought he could be usurped by a Titan. Not that your father would want that. But you,” Hermes looked at the rain that had begun to fall. “You’re a demigod.”
“I don’t see how I fit into this insanity,” I resisted, looking down at my palms. “How can I even exist? My dad?” I choked back a sob. “How could Zeus do that? I know the stories. You treat mortals like toys.”
Hermes hushed me.
“Twelve years. My parents left. They never said anything.”
“It was for your protection.” Hermes’ brow furrowed. “But things — they’ve gotten worse. There are factions plotting to dispose of Zeus. Twenty years ago, they turned to Prometheus as their leader. He refused.”
“Zeus is my old man. I can’t go against blood.”
“But you’re all family!”
Hermes sighed, guiding me up. “Zeus has seen us through dark times. He needed Prometheus for support. Your father went missing at a crucial moment. Zeus could only assume betrayal.”
We reentered the car. “I don’t know anything about this.” I pressed my cheek against the window. “They’re not even my parents anymore. I think of them, and I don’t feel anything.”
Hermes started the engine. “If that were true, you wouldn’t be crying.”
“They left me!”
“No. Zeus was a hair’s breadth from discovering your existence. You’re the reason they fled Olympus.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” I floundered.
“No,” Hermes sighed. “You’re a miracle. The first child born in a millennium.”
“You heard me. We’re barren, Agalia. It’s only through bastard unions with humans we can conceive. The fact that Prometheus, a Titan, and an Oceanid like your mother did — it’s a miracle. It means the old power is returning.”
Hermes grinned crookedly. “Perhaps the Twelve’s time is over. Perhaps it’s time for new gods. Adapt or die, they say.”
We drove through the course of the night. I found myself in a seaside motel, out at the stormy sea. My mother, Hesione. Daughter of Oceanus. The Lightbringer’s wife.
My grandfather Oz. My earliest memory of Nantucket summers, where he used to live, swum to the surface of my mind:
“Go, Agalia,” my mother coaxed. Her eyes reflected the waves.
“But Mama, what if I drown? What if there are sharks? –” I screamed as she tossed me into the water. The ocean caught me like a trampoline. Laughter came from beneath the foam.
“I’m flying!” I spread my arms like wings
She laughed. “It’s your birthright.”
The rocky New England coast was the same. Hermes emerged from the kitchen, pizza box in hand. He smiled, handing me a plate. “Help yourself.”
I ate a slice, numb. Only the worst situations could ruin Hawaiian pizza.
“The riddle says we have to find Hesione. Isn’t Lethe the river of forgetfulness?”
“What the dead drink from to forget the past.” He glanced out the bay window at the brewing storm. “The riddle revealed itself to you tonight. That means we have until morning to cross the Styx. Before Phoebos rises and Apollo’s alarm clock goes off.”
“Is she — is she in Hades?”
He sighed heavily. “When your father was taken to Scythia to be bound the second time, your mother followed him. She fought Zeus barehanded. He dared not strike her, not an Oceanid. But Zeus wanted to know what Prometheus hid.”
“He begged Hesione to cooperate, but she wouldn’t even open her lips. So he gave Hesione to the Furies and their forceful persuasion,” Hermes murmured. “They dragged her kicking and screaming to Hades.”
“It was the final straw. Oceanus and the old gods turned their backs on Olympus. The demigods rejected Zeus’ reign. And in the madness, Hesione escaped. She dove into the Lethe and forgot every memory, even you. With your father’s silence and your mother’s amnesia, there was no chance you’d be found.”
“But they’re gods.”
Hermes laughed. “When Prometheus wants something to stay hidden, it’s never found. No. The fact he and your mother stayed hidden for twelve years is incredible. It gave you time to grow.”
He finished off the last pizza slice. “The Fates came to your parents before you were born. ‘Your daughter is the key to Olympus’ salvation,’ they prophesied. ‘Like Zeus sheltered from Cronus’ eye, she must be raised in secret. Go — while Phoebos still sleeps!’ Prometheus left that night. But before the midnight hour, he summoned me. ‘Take care of Agalia, Hermes,’ he said. ‘When the time comes, she’ll need you.’ I’ve been watching over you ever since. Kind of like a guardian angel, but a zillion times cooler. Angels don’t know how to drive. Point is, you’re my charge.”
“But why did you pop into my life now?”
“Because the time’s come for you to inherit.”
Hermes had somehow found a beer. “How can I say this without sounding like a lunatic? Well, Agalia. Y’know Jason and the Argonauts?”
“There’s a part where Medea heals Jason with a very special flower: the prometheion. When your father was bound, his blood fell into barren Scythia, and from it, the prometheion grew. It’s the flower of immortality.”
“But what does that have to do with me?”
Hermes drained his beer. “As your father’s power has grown, so has the potency of his lineage.”
He took my hand. “All of his children, at this point, would be immortal. But you’re human. Prometheus certainly hid a flame.”
“Your immortality is chained up in human bonds. You’re undetectable. You stink of mortality. Even Cerberus couldn’t track you.” He folded my hand, placing it in my lap. “Our hold on Earth is tenuous. Your blood? It has the power to ground us, something Olympians desperately need.”
Hermes checked his watch. “Time to meet your gramps, sweetheart. C’mon!” he beckoned, whizzing to the porch door. I noticed pairs of wings beating at his heels.
I ran to the rocky strand, filled with coarse sand and sea glass. Hermes ran through seaweed and barnacles.
“Whoo!” He plunged into the waves. “C’mon. You know you want to.” He breast-stroked.
“I do?” The tide pulled at me, sucking me in. The undeniable draw had me racing after the messenger god. I dove into the waves; the chill water swept me away.
Laughter shook the sea’s basin. The water bore me aloft. Not a drop clung to me – only the caress of the ocean. Hermes skimmed the surface, as if his sandals were jet skis.
“This is impossible,” I noted.
Hermes grinned. “Only improbable.”
A whirlpool whizzed before us, and from the depths rose a towering god. He smiled brilliantly, skin tanned and wrinkled like a fisherman. He had a curled white mustache and graying black hair. He tilted his black cap to me.
“Oh, Agalia,” he whispered. “How you’ve grown.”
“Grandpa Oz? You died thirteen years ago!”
“Did I, now?” He winked. He stood in the middle of the sea as casually as if he were waiting in line at the supermarket.
“You’re taller than I remember.”
“Well, dear, you’re shorter! Oh, Agalia. You have your mother’s face, and your father’s eyes. But I wonder. Do you still have my feet?”
I stuck one up in the air. “Still flat-footed.”
My grandpa Oz — Oceanus? — chuckled. “I’ve pined away after you, darling. Waiting for the time to come. And your dear gran’s been even worse. She has just the room for you.” He drove a golden trident into the waves. The whirlpool opened. “Hold on to your cap, Hermes,” Oceanus laughed.
“Kalabunga!” Hermes whooped. The waves carried me into the ocean’s depths.
“Died in a fishing accident?” I muttered. “Oh grandpa Oz. Now I know why.”
My grandparents’ hall was a strange mix of Grecian temple and New England cottage. I sat at their white marble table, jaw wide open as I took in the opulent yet homey decor. My grandmother –- Tethys, or Titi — fawned over me. She was tall and beautiful, with large eyes and a soft face.
“Look, Oz! Look at Agalia’s beautiful, thick black curls. Just like you.”
Grandpa rubbed his balding head. “But love, I can’t remember having hair.”
“Oh Oz!” grandma clucked, batting him. “You’re as handsome as you were in the Golden Age. Isn’t that right, Hermes? He’s stately.” She pushed more lobster on Hermes.
“Mmm-hmm,” he said. He tore the tail from the lobster, bathing it in butter. “You’re both beautiful. Beautiful, wonderful people. Beautiful, wonderful lobster.” He lost himself to the food. “And Aggie’s the spanking image of Prometheus. Creepy, isn’t it? It’s almost like the old man’s looking back at me.”
“But she has the Oceanid build, tall and strong,” Oceanus smiled, nodding at his wife. “You’d be lucky to do half as well, Hermes, once you finally settle down. Imagine, legions of Hermes tykes wreaking havoc across the world,” he chuckled. “It’d be something.”
Hermes shrugged. “Wives, women, goddesses, girls. It’s all the same. I’m the son of Zeus. I’ll never settle down.”
Grandpa snorted. “Just wait until you’re a decrepit old windbag, Hermes. Age creeps up on you. Cronus flies, and beauty falls after him, into the boiling sea.”
“You must’ve enjoyed Aphrodite falling into your lap.”
My grandfather cleared his throat, under grandma’s glare. “That’s a story for another day, m’boy.”
“Grandma,” I said. “Where’s Dad?”
Her face darkened. “He’s gone searching for Hesione.” She touched my cheek. “Lightheartedness aside, we don’t have much time. You must descend with the dawn. As the goddess of fresh water, I can lead you to Lake Avernus. Hermes will guide you the rest of the way.”
I looked at the wing-footed messenger. “Hermes Psychopompous, the guide to the underworld,” I said. “You lead souls to Hades, don’t you?”
He smiled. “I’m a jack of all trades.” He shifted his appearance. Now Hermes wielded a caduceus, dressed in a leather jacket and combat boots. “This is what I wear when I go out clubbing. Hades. Clubs. Same thing.” He snapped his fingers. My jeans and sweater were replaced by leather pants and lacy black top. “There. Now you’ll blend in.”
“Is Hades like an industrial Goth club?”
“Close to it. Hades lets Percy do whatever she wants with the place.”
Grandpa shook his head. “Gods have no respect for chitons anymore.” He smoked his pipe. “Hermes, keep Agalia safe. She’s worth her weight in fish.”
“Glad to know I’m worth something.”
Hermes looked at me knowingly. “There’s a spring in Hades, Aggie. Mnemosyne, the Spring of Remembrance.”
After dinner, grandma ushered me into my room. It would make a princess turn pink with envy. Hermes accompanied me, sitting down in a pearly chair. His face was shadowed under his traveler’s cap.
“Your father created mankind. He knows the intricacies of vessels, how to bind immortal souls to flesh. Is it any wonder the Lightbringer’s creations grow powerful enough to usurp the gods? That flame, Aggie, that he stole from heaven. He gave part of it to mankind, but kept the burning fennel for himself. He knew there was a time Olympus would need it.”
“The flame Prometheus stole from Zeus is still alive? But why?”
“Your name, Agalia. Did your father tell you what it means?”
“Brightness. Something like that.”
Hermes smiled softly. “’Wisdom is the wise man’s flame…’”
“’Knowledge his earthly delight.’ ‘” I whispered. My stomach sunk. “That’s what dad used to say when I complained about homework.”
Hermes stared out across the sea. “A time came for the flame to take form.”
A stone lodged in my throat. “I — it can’t be. That’s impossible.”
Hermes took my hand in his. He smiled soft. “Stranger things have happened. We change form all the time. And nothing, not even light, is what it seems.”
He laid his caduceus against the wall. An air mattress appeared beneath him. “Hearth and heart. Arguably the same thing. And if so, the heart of Olympus is dying.” He searched for a comfortable position. “The Dodekatheon’s flame is dying, no matter how hard Hestia tends to it. I wonder, are my days numbered? We need new blood. New fire. New life! A tie to the mortal world.”
I shuddered. “I can’t help you. I have my own life. It may be small, and I may be struggling, but it’s mine.”
“Your fate was determined the day your father formed you from the flame.” The olive oil candles sputtered and died. The room was pitch-black. “Sleep. You need all the rest you can get.”
I had no choice. The guide of souls paddled lightning-fast through the waters of the world, and Tethys stood at the prow, bending the current to her will. I tried fruitlessly to count the stars in the sky.
“Avernus,” my grandmother said. Roman ruins shone in the moonlight, and Mount Vesuvius rose in the distance. The air choked with sulfuric fumes.
“Thanks, Titi.” Hermes moved to the prow.
She nodded. “Godspeed, Hermes, and by the gods, Agalia, be safe.” She gathered me into her arms. “You’re a daughter of the waters. The Styx guard you.” She melted into the water.
“Aggie, do you have the Red Bull? I’m about to keel over.”
He downed it in one gulp.
“Aaah,” Hermes sighed. “Okay. Onwards to Hades. Goth gear intact.”
I looked down at my black stilettos, grimacing. “I look like Elvira.”
“No, you look like Hekate.”
He rowed us to the banks of a cliff. A cave gaped before us. “That wasn’t there a second ago,” I said.
“You just didn’t notice.” Hermes whistled. “Charon! I got a new load. C’mon, Corpseboy.”
Dark muttering came from within. A gray man stomped out, carrying a beer. He was dressed in boxers and a Grateful Dead t-shirt. “Yeah, yeah,” he gruffed. Charon lit a torch. “She’s pretty, Hermes. Too bad she’s dead.”
“Nice guy,” I muttered.
“He’s an acquired taste.” Hermes made sure Charon wasn’t listening. “Though in a few minutes, he won’t like me much.”
A vast cavern spread out, its ceiling tall as the sky. A huge, tumultuous river howled past. The murky darkness was studded with souls, loitering on the riverbank.
“This is worse than the DMV,” one muttered as I walked past them. Another joshed his friend in the side. “Hey, look at that piece of tight –”
Hermes tripped him with his caduceus. The lewd soul fell to the ground.
“Behave, worms,” Charon growled. He reached a decaying wooden boat. “Here you go, sweetheart.”
He ushered me into the boat. “And I know just what you can pay in –”
Hermes slapped four quarters into his hand.
Charon pocketed the change. “Cheap as always.” He poled us along. I looked in horror at the water. Souls reached back.
I looked away, stomach flipping. Hermes patted my back.
“So, Charon. How’s the love life?”
“Shut up,” Charon snapped.
“Hades told me you finally got the Erinyes’ number. It only took what, a few millennia? Good going, buddy. If you have any questions about the ladies, I’m your go-to. We’re thick as thieves, right?”
Charon stabbed Hermes with the sharpened end of his pole. Hermes pulled it from his breast.
“I swear by the Styx I’ll destroy you,” Charon growled.
“Hey! No ill will. Say, why don’t we go watch Spartacus after this and grab a Bud together?”
“You mock me.”
“I do?” Hermes smiled innocently. “You’re right. I do.”
Charon roared, thrusting his pole at him. “I’ll feed your entrails to Cerberus.” Hermes hopped back and forth, avoiding the pole. The boat rocked; my nausea grew.
“I’m lean meat. I don’t think Persephone’s three-headed poodle would like me.”
I clung to my seat. Hermes lured Charon to the edge, hovering over the Styx with his winged combat boots.
“Hah!” Charon roared, landing a blow on his heart.
“Aye, a mortal wound!” Hermes crowed. Charon put all his weight into the stabbing, and the boat began to capsize. “Impressive, Charon. Didn’t think you had it in you.” Hermes slapped him on the back in congratulations. Charon, caught off balance, went tumbling into the Styx.
“Son of a Gorgon!” Charon struggled as the souls dragged him down.
“See ya, chump.” Hermes merrily poled away.
We traveled all day. Anxiety gnawed away at me like a beaver. I watched the eldritch scenes pass by, transfixed —
Something snapped within me. I screamed.
Hermes nearly dropped the pole, racing towards me. “Aggie, what’s wrong?”
I struggled for breath. “It hurts, all over,” I moaned, doubled over in pain. Hermes’ face grew wan.
“It’s Thanatos,” he whispered. “We must be close. Quick — hide under this cloak. You have to relax. Clear your mind.”
“How?” It was like the bite of a black widow. I shuddered.
Hermes bit his lip. A rocky cliff bordered us, water trickling down it as if from some hidden spring. Hermes’ eyes flashed. He cupped some of the water, then dabbed it on my brow. “Lethe runoff,” he whispered. “It will numb your pain.”
My surroundings dimmed to shadow. Hermes’ concerned face grew cloudy.
Quiet footsteps approached.
I watched as if in a dream.
Hermes tipped his hat, lips twitching. “Th — Thanatos.”
THIS IS NOT YOUR USUAL ROUTE.
“Yes, well, I’m a wanderer. I was struck by an itch for adventure.”
TARTARUS IS A FOOLISH PLACE TO VENTURE THROUGH.
“Is it, now?” Hermes asked, folding his hands atop his pole. “I thought it was Hades’ greatest attraction.”
IT IS POPULAR AMONGST THE DAMNED.
“Heh, well, is that so. You looking great as ever, Th – Thanny. We should hang out more.”
I GROW QUITE LONELY.
“R – right.”
PERHAPS YOU WILL ACCOMPANY ME TO A BAR.
“Any time, man, any time.”
I YEARN FOR MORTAL WOMEN.
“We all do.”
I ALMOST SENSE ONE NOW.
Hermes paled. “Too bad they don’t come down here. I’m sure we can find you a nice girl.”
A towering shadow drifted towards the boat. Ribbons of darkness touched the prow.
THERE IS A GIRL WITH YOU.
“But that’s impossible, Than, my man. You really have it bad. I’ve got some girlie mags I can give you, y’know.”
There was a sigh like disappointed wind.
Hermes laughed uncomfortably. “Right, buddy. Well, you’ve got eternity. I’m sure you’ll find your lucky lady eventually.”
I LONG FOR HER BODY AND SOUL.
“Ooookay. Remind me to show you Reno later. I think you’d get a kick out of it.” Sweat dripped from Hermes’ brow.
RENO … YES. I WOULD LIKE THAT. The wind hissed. THERE IS UNREST, HERMES.
“Is that so?”
PROMETHEUS HAS BEEN UNBOUND.
I NEVER MAKE JOKES. HE SEEKS HESIONE.
“Huh. Well, is she here?”
“Well, fancy that. You think he’ll find her?”
HE ALREADY HAS.
Hermes stood still. “He — he has? But how do you know?”
Dark laughter rumbled the earth.
I HELPED. AND I KNOW WHO THE GIRL IS. AGALIA.
The haze on my mind lifted.
YOU MUST COME WITH ME TO RENO SOMEDAY, PROMETHEUS’ DAUGHTER. PERHAPS YOU ARE MY LUCKY LADY. COME, MORTAL. I WILL BRING YOU TO YOUR FATHER.
Hermes’ temple throbbed. “Well why didn’t you just say so in the first place!”
“Nyx’s children,” Hermes spat, “you’re all the same. As fun as a barrel of vipers, and half as charming.” He stepped out onto the gravelly strand. Thanatos loomed over him. A pair of wings drooped somberly around him.
Death reached out with his gloved hand. ALLOW ME, LUCKY LADY.
“Umm, thanks,” I squeaked. Death, apparently, was a gentleman. He laughed like wind rustling winter trees. Hermes smirked, gliding after me.
“You two make a cute couple,” he whispered.
I looked at him like he had potato chips for brains.
Hermes shrugged. “Like I said, stranger things have happened.”
After much panting on my part, we finally scaled the cliff. I caught my breath, gazing in horror down at the hellscape before me:
The land was bits of bone. The sky, a dark wine red, was studded with sulfurous purple and shots of blood red stratosphere. My knees grew weak; Thanatos steadied me.
“This place: it’s horrible,” I whispered.
Thanatos shook his head. He swept me into his arms, then pumped his wings.
“Where are you taking me?” Death abducting me: definitely not okay.
“Whoa whoa whoa, Thanatos. She’s my charge,” Hermes said, snatching me away from him. I felt like an oversized football. Hermes was much more comfortable.
FINE. I WILL HOLD HER IN RENO ALL NIGHT.
Oh please no.
We came to a river that belched fire.
THEY ARE HERE.
Thanatos landed, Hermes following. He set me down gently. “You’re doing well, Aggie. You really are Titan stock –”
He fell dead silent as we rounded a corner. I froze.
“Agalia,” my father said.
“Dad!” I cried out. In a blur I was in his arms, bawling. I choked between snot. He wept, chest rumbling.
Hermes sniffled behind us, teary-eyed. He turned to Thanatos, crying into his shoulder. Death watched, unmoved.
“You’re beautiful,” dad finally said.
“Dad. Why did you never tell me?”
He stroked my hair. “I wanted to protect you. My only daughter.” His voice seemed hoarse from disuse. “I’m so sorry. Every day, for years, not a moment passed when I didn’t think of you or your mother. I never imagined you could grow so quickly. I’ve missed so much.” His lips drew thin. “Hermes, I can never repay you.”
Hermes blew his nose on Thanatos’ hood. Red-cheeked, the messenger god replied, “You two are such beautiful people! Oh Prometheus!” He tackled us in a bear hug. “You’re free. And things in Olympus — they may finally be alright.”
“Agalia?” came my mother’s voice.
Dad handed me over to her. I nearly screamed at the sight of Hesione. She was rail-thin, her skin was marred by scars, hair cut haphazardly like a Nazi prisoner’s. But she smiled despite her suffering. She was hardened, but unbroken.
“Agalia, oh, my beautiful daughter!” she cried.
We talked until gods knew when. Thanatos left, disgusted by his snot-covered robes, and Hermes brightened up.
Finally, my father, as he did of old, told me a story of stolen light.
We stood at the base of Mount Olympus. The clear sky undercut the storm within me. I shivered, looking at my father, his eyes slick with tears. He handed me the water of Mnemosyne.
“Drink,” he whispered.
New strength yawned within me.
Hestia’s hearth beckoned above.
I felt my father’s Titanic sorrow, my mother’s grief, and Hermes’ quiet wonder.
A new goddess was born. I said goodbye in a voice like embers. Hermes bore wingless hope to the sky.
In the beginning, the wiliest son of Zeus returned Prometheus’ stolen fire. A fire that, in the end, had become his. The road before us stretched into the stars.
“Is it lonely, on the peak of Olympus?” I asked.
Hermes smiled softly. “Only when you lose sight of your dreams.”
[Allister Nelson writes: I’m a grad student by night and scientific communicator by day with a passion for nature and mythology. Former editor at the College of William and Mary’s award-winning Gallery Literary Magazine, I have been published in several outlets including October 2016’s Apex Magazine issue and numerous anthologies and journals, most recently Wyrd Harvest Press’ Corpse Roads anthology. In 2014, I won the Goronwy Owen Prize, judged by acclaimed poet Kazim Ali. Professionally, I publish articles on renewable energy and conservation for the likes of GeoEnergyWeekly, Renewable Energy World, Rainforest Trust and POWER Magazine.]