“You’re late and you’re all wet. Why are you all wet?” Hades’ eyes widened.
“Ah, well, you know…it's a river.” I rubbed the back of my head and laughed nervously. It wasn’t the best start. Even I knew being punctual was important when it came to dating and business. And according to Charon, Hades was all about business.
“Yeah, I know it’s a river. It’s my river.” Hades huffed and reached for my cloak. “This is soaked! Are you okay? Are you frozen anywhere?” She patted my ribs then began to lift my top, tickling me as her soft fingers brushed my stomach. I grabbed her hand out of reflex and moved it away.
Hades cheeks grew red. “Good. I-It’s not that I care or anything. It’s just with that amount of water you should be a popsicle. Any other shade would be frozen—” She narrowed her eyes. “Why aren’t you?”
“But then I saw you… and I melted.” I flashed what I hoped was a sexy smile.
Hades stared blankly.
“Because you’re so hot?”
The black puppy shook it’s three heads before burying its middle snout under its paws.
“Baka.” Hades turned her face away, then the rest of her til the back of her well-pressed black blazer was facing me. “Well, let’s go,” she said over her shoulder. “We’ll have to stop at my place first to get you cleaned up. Can’t bring you on the tour like that.”
“Afraid I’ll catch a cold?”
“W-what? No. No, I’m afraid you’ll embarrass me. Shades don’t catch colds. B-baka.”
“Oh. Right.” Well that was an upside to being dead. No more runny noses. I followed the blushing death god as she stormed off to a golden chariot waiting on a cobblestone road. Four black horses straightened as she climbed in.
Even in the dull overcast, the chariot glinted. Flowering vines of white gold knotted along the trim of the darker chassis; its inherent brightness contrasted by the dark steeds attached to it. Each stallion boasted a muscular body, long flowing mane, and hair as black as pitch. Also penises, three each, the size of my forearm. Truly these were the horsiest of horses. The stallionist of stallions.
Beyond the cobbled stone, white flowers dotted a meadow of soft green grass while the ever-present mist swirled around all of it, with Hades at the centre, like something from a dream. Maybe the underworld wouldn’t be completely dreary. It had a sort of haunting beauty. That could be nice—I guess. Though I would definitely miss the occasional sunny day.
“Well? She snapped. “What are you waiting for?”
“Twelve penises. It’s like an eldritch abomination under there.” I mumbled to myself.
I looked up. “I’ve never seen a chariot before.”
“Don’t be stupid. Get up here.”
“No seats?” I asked as I squeezed next to the ruler of the underworld. The floor sunk as the pup jumped on behind us.
“Why would a war chariot have seats?” Hades picked up four sets of reigns and clicked her tongue. The horses began to trot.
Having never been in a war chariot before, I wasn’t sure where to place my hands. I gripped the edge of the chassis as we bumped over uneven stone. “Why are we in a war chariot? Are you at war?”
“Yes.” Hades made another clicking sound. The four horses broke into a canter.
It looked rather tranquil for a warzone. The meadow’s white flowers grew denser the further we rode, and taller, until the waist-high plants transformed the field into a miniature jungle. Grey-skinned people knelt hidden between the stems, harvesting the flowers by the root and placing them into baskets.
Hades turned her head to me and sniffed. “Is that frog-swan?”
I lifted the cloak Charon had given me to examine. Sure enough, it was splattered with slime.
“Yes.” The chariot thumped hard over a stone knocking me into Hades. I clutched the front trim with one hand and grabbed her by the waist with the other to stop her from falling out. Mission successful. After I regained my balance I glanced at Hades. Her eyebrow twitched. Her cheeks and neck took on a deep blush.
“Are you alr—” I let go of her and took a step back--right off the moving chariot. I fell backwards into flower stalks and landed hard onto something soft. A lap. I looked up to see a pair of giant breasts hovering over me.
Before I had a chance to apologise, Hades pushed back the curtain of plants and glared at me. She tsked and turned her head. “You really are a pervert, aren’t you?” She headed back to the chariot.
The grey lady I landed on didn’t look very happy either. I scrambled to my feet, said sorry, and chased after the death god. She was already back in the chariot. The puppy sat behind her shook its three heads at me as I climbed back in.
Hades clicked her tongue and we resumed moving in chilly silence.
Misty fields fell away as we rode up a mountainous path. In the valleys below, small villages clumped together under blankets of fog. With all Charon’s economic talk, I’d been expecting the underworld to be more metropolitan. From the looks of it, it was pretty rural.
If I picked this place, what would I do? Would I be a farmer? Maybe one of those villages had need of an instant noodle restaurant. Those flowers smelled delicious. I bet I could use them to make a new ramen flavour. Or was it that woman who smelled nice. Could have been. Hades smelled a bit like food too.
I sniffed. Chocolate-coated mints.
Hades shot me a sideways glance.
“I’m not a pervert.”
I had to turn this around. It’s my first date, and I look like a tardy clumsy creep.
“What were those white flowers? Are they edible?”
“Asphodels and yes. They’re one of our biggest exports. Why?” Hades arched a brow.
“I was thinking they’d be good in ramen.”
“Ramen. You know…” A glance at the death god’s face revealed that she did not. My mouth dropped. “You don’t know what ramen is, do you?”
Hades’ face grew dark. “I’m the ruler of the underworld. One of the Olympians. An immortal. Of course, I know what--what that is.”
“Uh huh.” I suppressed a smile as she glared at me. Then a lightbulb went off—literally. I grabbed the bulb that had appeared above my head then quickly dropped it—on account of it being burning hot. The bulb smashed on the cobblestone, crunched under a golden wheel and disappeared in the ever-present mist. Hades didn’t seem to notice.
“Maybe I could make it for you?” I tried to conceal the eagerness in my voice and ended up sounding like a badly dubbed movie. “Before I died, I had an idea for an instant noodle restaurant—”
“You’re a cook?”
“No. More of an entrepreneur.” I hoped I pronounced that right. The headlines for financial sites were always going gaga for entrepreneurs. This could be my chance to both impress my date and make my noodle dreams come true.
“I see.” Hades tugged the reigns as the road took a sharp turn. As we rounded the bend, a palace came into view. Black stone with doors of gold sat behind a courtyard of statues and pomegranate trees. “Fine. You can cook me this—dish. If it’s good, we can talk about restaurants. But if it’s awful then you’ll need to reimburse me.”
“Really?” That was easy. Everyone loves ramen. That restaurant is as good as mine. There must be a catch. She may look like an innocent schoolgirl, but she’s an immortal deity of the dead and by her own follower’s account a ruthless capitalist. “Reimburse you how?”
The corner of Hades’ lip turned up. “My time is valuable. And I assume you’ll need resources? You’ll pay me back for these things by working the fields. Of course, this means you’ll have to tell the others that you’ve chosen to remain in the underworld.”
“And if you like the ramen? Let me guess, I’ll need to stay here for the restaurant?”
“That’d be easiest, no?” Hades feigned a look of innocence.
I wasn’t eager to visit Hell but I had no idea what Anubis and Hel’s realms were like. For all I knew, they were amazing. And who knows, maybe I could do my noodle thing there. “I get what I’d get out of it, but why do you want me?”
“What?” Hades paled. “I-I don’t want you. This isn’t about you at all. The honour of the underworld is at stake. Shades don’t choose where they go. But since Anubis’ rulebook says you can, it’d be best if you chose me—my realm. Do we have a deal?”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Don’t think too long.”
The horses whinnied and stomped as we came to a stop outside the palace entrance. I followed Hades and her tri-headed pup off the chariot. A pair of shades dressed in black pushed open the doors to allow us inside.
“I’ll show you to a bathroom you can use.” She led me through a spacious lobby, past sitting rooms and libraries and up a flight of stairs. Hades’ home was the nicest place I’d ever been, but the atmosphere felt sad. It was big and filled with treasures, but it was empty.
“Do you live here alone?” I asked as she showed me to a suite.
She stopped in the doorway. “No. Well, sometimes. There’s a bathroom through that door.” She pointed past a pair of sofas to a door on the far wall. “The other door is to a bedroom. I’ll have someone lay out a change of clothes for you on the bed.” She excused herself.
When her footsteps faded I looked down at my damp clothing. Could I even take the gakuran off? I undid the top button. Seemed so. I hesitated. What did I look like under there? Did I still have a--
“You’re brave.” A voice rumbled from the door.
I turned quickly toward the sound. No one was there. “Ghost?”
“Me or you?” The voice had an unnerving echo.
I looked left and right before taking a step back. Great. The room was haunted. Now I had to take a shower with an invisible pervert lurking around.
“Down here,” said the voice.
Sat by the threshold, the three-headed dog scratched at one of its six ears. It stopped. “I’m Cerberus. I don’t believe we were introduced.”
“You—you can talk.”
“But you’re a dog.”
“I’m Hades-san’s second cousin.” Cerberus sat up straight. “And I prefer hound.”
“Sorry. I’m new to all this.” And I thought my family was weird. Hades’ aunt taught her fur-baby how to talk. “You said I was brave?”
“Indeed, Brave or an idiot.”
Figures, I meet a talking animal and it insults me.
“You told Hades-san ‘I’ll think about it.’” Cerberus tilted its three heads. “Who do you think you are? Don’t you know what Olympians do to mortals who insult them?”
The hound rolled his heads in exasperation.
“Demeter turned a boy into a lizard for laughing at her. Artemis turned a hunter into a stag for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was torn apart by his dogs. Athena thought it’d be nice to transform a woman into a spider. Poseidon had a guy’s wife fall madly in love with a bull. She then proceeded to have relations with said bull. Hera cursed a mother to become a child-eating monster. Zeus strapped one mortal to a wheel of fire—”
“Okay, I think I get the idea.”
“Oh I don’t think you do,” Cerberus’ voice rumbled. “Not far from here, in Tartarus, shades like yourself are being tortured in all sorts of interesting ways for displeasing the Olympians. And the Olympians are easily displeased.”
“You think Hades is displeased with me?”
Cerberus stared with his three sets of eyes before giving me a sniff.
“You reek of frog-swan.”
“I hate frog-swans.”
“I killed one?”
Cerberus nodded his heads. “Good man.” The black hound pattered past me and leapt onto the suite’s sofa. “No, I think for whatever reason, my cousin is fond of you.”
“Why do you say that? Did she say something?”
Cerberus grunted. “I’m leaving.”
“No wait.” My mind spun. The entire time here so far had been a disaster. How could she possibly like me…did she have a thing for smelly perverts? “If she’s fond of me, what’s the problem?”
“She’s warm to you right now, but gods don’t like being told no. They don’t like being tricked. And they hate losing. If you want to avoid an eternity of suffering, you’ll need to proceed carefully. Give Hades what Hades wants.”
“I—” I shut the door before taking a seat by Cerberus. “I don’t know if I can. Or if I want to. I get to choose where I spend my afterlife. I’m looking at three other places after this.”
“Listen, mortal. None of those places will be much better than here, but there are places much worse. With my help, you can stay on my cousin’s good side and strike a deal that makes you both happy.”
“Why would you help me?”
With three tongues, Cerberus licked his snouts. “Noodles. All I can eat. Whenever I want.”
I knew it. Everybody loves ramen. Still, I wasn’t sure I could agree with that. What if his appetite put me out of business? “All you can eat…within reason.”
Cerberus lifted an ear. “Noodles. All I can eat. Whenever I want.”
“Okay. Fine.” How much could a puppy eat anyway. “What did you have in mind?”
“You need to seduce Hades.”
I choked. Impressive considering, I no longer breathed. That was no way for a young dog to talk.
In the most frightening attempt at a smile I’d ever seen, Cerberus pulled back his lips revealing three sets of very sharp teeth. He asked, “Have you ever heard of the Red Pill?”
“Pay attention virgin mortal. I’m going to teach you how to be a chad.”
I wasn’t obsessed or anything. Obsession cost money. Manga was just something I liked. It comforted me. Gave me an escape. When dad left to go overseas, manga was there. Later, when mom followed him—well, I wasn’t really alone, I still had my comics.
In manga, the cute girl next door secretly crushed on the main character, and there was always a rival who pushed him to be better.
My next-door neighbours were a workaholic cat lady and a middle-aged shut-in who seemed to live on a diet of pizza and Chinese delivery. There was a girl who walked the same school route, but we never spoke. And my only rival was for worst test scores. Pretty sure he didn’t even know my name.
That’s okay. I didn’t know his either.
Overall, it wasn’t a bad life. Sure, there were things I still wanted to do, like go to Vegas, ask a girl to a dance, and start my own instant noodle restaurant. But I had no major regrets to dwell on. Which meant one less thing to do while I sat in the never-ending darkness of Limbo.
I did think though—a lot. I thought about unfulfilled noodle dreams, reality’s new Japanese art-style, and my upcoming first date. And I decided, screw it, I’m gonna go for it. ‘The die has been cast’, as Julius Caesar might say. I will have four perfect dates. I’ll pick out the best afterlife location and, you know what, I’ll open that instant noodle restaurant. I’d make sure my afterlife was better than ‘not bad’. I’d make sure it was pretty alright or my name isn’t--
A rectangle of light opened in the corner of my endless black world. I shielded my eyes, more out of reflex than any sensation of pain as a thin figure stepped into the doorway; their frame silhouetted by the brightness behind them.
“Ahoy, customer!” A friendly female voice chirped. She reached into limbo, her shadowed form blending into the blackness. “Gosh, why are you sitting here in the dark?”
Light flooded into the space, revealing an ordinary hotel room. “That’s better.” The woman smiled, her hand still on the light switch. She wore a black school uniform like Hades, and had blue hair like Hades as well, although considerably lighter.
“I’m Charon. I’ve got orders from the boss to pick you up.” She strolled into the room and glanced around “I hope you realize this is a very special service that I don’t regularly offer, except to my most valued customers. Do you have any luggage?”
“Um…” I stood near a television set. It would have been nice if someone had explained that limbo had a light switch earlier. “No, no luggage.”
“Perfect. You never know with some people. They’re told, ‘you can’t take it with you when you die’, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. You know what I’m saying?” Charon chuckled to herself. “Okay, let’s go. I have a schedule to keep.” She headed for the door.
I lagged a step behind as she navigated us down a carpeted corridor.
“Is this your first time in limbo?” She asked while we stood awkwardly together in the elevator.
“Yes. As far as I know.”
On the ground floor, semi-transparent souls wandered through a generic hotel lobby. A few sipped from takeaway coffee cups. I groaned at the realisation that limbo had a coffee bar and, most likely, room service.
Outside the hotel’s double doors, lay a blank greyness that extended in all directions for eternity—And also a sea-green vespa.
“Hop on.” Charon tossed me a helmet.
I climbed on to the back.
“Hold on tight, valued customer.” Charon grabbed my arms and wrapped them around her slim waist. The vespa’s engine purred to life. “This baby is faster than she looks.”
The unchanging landscape made it hard to tell if we were moving. I turned back for a farewell glance at the hotel building but saw nothing. Ahead, the gray began to clump together. It thickened into fog, then thinned to damp mist. An earthen cliff face came into view. Charon skidded her vespa to a stop, spraying pebbles in various directions.
“Please alight from the vehicle, valued customer.” Charon pulled off her helmet and stuck out her hand for mine.
I climbed off the vespa and returned the safety gear. What was the point of a helmet? Could ghosts get brain injuries?
Charon pushed her scooter into a wooden shelter then waved her hand. The shelter and Its contents disappeared, leaving in its place only small stones and lingering tendrils of Limbo.
“Nice trick.” I stepped toward the spot where the shed once stood and reached out to see if it could still be felt.
“Come now, valued customer.” Charon waved me on. She smiled politely. Somehow, despite being obscured by mist and under the shadow of the cliff face, her blue eyes seemed brighter. As if they were themselves a source of light. “Stay close, it isn’t far.”
Tiny rocks crunched under her boots—and dug into the soles of my feet. Why didn’t I have shoes? And on that subject, what was with the white gakuran I had on? It looked like my cousin’s old school uniform—was this what they buried me in?
I tugged at the collar and strained my neck to see if his name was written on the tag.
“The Acheron river.” Charon announced as we approached the bank of a swampy lake. Withered trees grew out from its dark waters and a soft mist hung above its surface. “On the other side, lies the underworld.”
I squinted into the distance but spied only more gloom. “Is the underworld nice?”
“It’s to die for.”
“What about—” I cleared my throat. “Hades?”
“Oh! Hades-sama is inspirational.” Charon’s eyes lit up even brighter. “Her no nonsense fiscal approach has done wonders for the economy. The Olympians are struggling to keep up.”
I nodded silently as my guide spoke dreamily of Hades’ natural business acumen. She was half-way through a story involving Hades preventing the harpies from unionizing when she stopped short. A line of semi-transparent people queued in front of a wooden pier.
“One moment, valued customer.” Charon swung her arm out and a long oar materialized in her hand. “Clear a path. Premium-grade traveller coming through.”
No one moved.
Charon cleared her throat and repeated the command louder. A balding spirit in front of us grumbled but stayed put.
“Premium—” Charon slapped the grumbler with the oar, knocking him from the line. “--Customer.” She wacked the next in the queue. “Clear—” and the next, “—a path.”
“We’re here.” Charon waved her hand toward the end of the short pier where a small boat with a lantern bobbed in the water. “Apologies for the disturbance, valued customer. Sometimes the dead can be obstinate. Shall we?”
The waiting dead mumbled as they picked themselves back up and reformed their line. I took a deep breath and stepped onto the pier.
“Careful, valued customer. You don’t want to fall in.” Charon extended her hand to help me into the wobbling boat.
“Why? What happens if I fall in?”
“It’s cold and very deep. Come now.” She flapped her hand impatiently.
The ferry rocked as I sat. “So Hades…what sort of things does she like?”
“Profit.” Charon pushed off the pier with an oar. “Now departing. Please keep your hands and feet inside the vessel at all times. Safety gear can be found under your seat and is to be worn at all times. Exposure to the Acheron can lead to a permanent cryogenic state. Please mind the vessel’s edge.”
I reached under the wooden bench I’d plopped down on and pulled out a cape. The material felt rough, heavy, and looked more likely to sink me than help me float.
“What does this do?” I asked as I swept it over my shoulders.
“Ah, glad you asked, valued customer. Our complimentary cloak helps prevent water from splashing you. So you can arrive to your destination dry and fully mobile.” Charon stood at the back of the boat shifting her oar in the water. The pier grew small in the distance along with the line of souls left behind, until the river’s mist closed in shrouding the shore.
“No lifejacket?” I asked.
Charon pulled a look. “What would you need a lifejacket for, you’re dead.” She cleared her throat. “We’re soon entering the marsh. Listen closely and you’ll hear the enchanting song of the frog-swans. A once in an afterlife experience on every underworlder’s checklist.”
Charon continued to monologue trivia about the river but the tour’s sights were monotonous. Smoke on the water made it impossible to see more than a few feet in any direction. Seemed Luci was right when she called Hades’ underworld gloomy.
“We’re soon crossing into the Styx. Expect turbulence as—”
Groans of pain cut the ferryman off. The cries grew louder, surrounding us. The agonized moans drilled deep into my core until I became tight with discomfort. I boxed my ears.
“What is that?” I shouted.
“The frog-swans,” Charon shouted back. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
Wouldn’t be how I described them. Charon shifted her pole to avoid a rock sending me sideways. I gripped the edge of my seat to stop myself from going over. The boat swayed in the rapid current sending water splashing onto my cloak and the planks by my feet. My bare feet.
“Excuse me…” I called over the harrowing howl of the frog-swans. Maybe there were some safety slippers somewhere. My seat lurched out from under me then dropped along with the rest of the vessel before splatting back into the water. I tumbled forward landing face first in the ferryman’s soft lap.
I looked up to see a red-faced Charon glaring down at me.
“Sorry, I—” The boat tilted, tossing me inbetween her breasts.
Charon’s eyes flashed red. “HentaiiI!” She pulled the oar from the water and swung, hurling me through the air.
Could ghosts fly? They could—couldn’t they? Hover at least…I hoped as I sped face-first toward the icy Acheron river.
She didn’t lie. The water was cold. I kicked my legs to stay afloat. My limbs stiffened and shivers ran throughout my soul. It didn’t seem right for a spirit to ache, but I did. Continued movement was a force of will. I had to get out of the water before I ended up spending eternity as a block of ice.
Mist encircled me as did the mocking moans of the frog-swans. I swam aimlessly into the mist only to find more mist—and the ugliest bird I’d ever seen.
The creature’s mottled green skin was slick with slime and a thin coating of ice. It looked down with bulging frog eyes before flapping its leathery wings and crying out, “KEK.”
“Shhh. I-it’s okay—” I gagged and choked as waves of icy water lapped at my face. If I could climb onto it’s back, maybe I could somehow get to shore. I swam closer. “Nice—“ I trembled with cold. My jaw rigid. “Nice birdy.”
The frog-swan bent its long neck and opened its maw, revealing rows of long sharp teeth. It lunged. I slipped under the icy black water and swam blindly before resurfacing. My legs froze. I flailed with my arms and arched my back, flicking my useless legs like a merman.
The creature cried out as it struck at me. It smelt of death. I stared into its slit pupils and let loose a hopeless battle cry. The frog-swan reared back and batted its wings before snapping its face at mine. I scrunched my eyes closed, awaiting impact.
It didn’t come.
Mouth still open, the ugly bird whipped its head back and forth trying to dislodge a long red plank. Not a plank—Japanese characters written vertically. A sound effect, like in a manga. Doki Doki. Which meant, I was either in love with this monster or terrified of it. And my confused boner couldn’t wait to find out which.
I spied another sound effect hanging in the air to my left and reached for it. My fingers curled around the arrow shaped characters as I pulled my half-frozen soul out of the water. The Frog-swan freed itself and charged again, knocking me and the characters I was holding back into the frigid marsh.
The slimy green bastard paddled close, probing its head into the black waters searching for me. I plunged the sound effect I held into its soft side. It shrieked and writhed as I pulled. I’d hoped to lift myself out and up onto its back, instead the pressure tore through its thin skin.
The frog-swan splashed and cried. Alternating between my hand and new weapon, I climbed the beast like a mountaineer. Gooey flesh squished under my nails. Reaching the top, I swung my frozen-solid leg over its back and prepared to hold on until the hideous creature decided to visit land.
It ceased to struggle. Its swan-like neck drooped followed by the rest of its muscles. We floated for a bit before a now familiar cry reached my ears. Through the mist a second frog-swan came into view. It screamed as it spied its motionless kin.
If it didn’t see me, maybe it’d go away. I pressed myself against the dead frog-swan. Rancid slime stuck to my lips, which by cruel reflex I then licked. A soft glow developed between me and the dead creature. It’s friend and I locked eyes. It glided toward me.
Clutching my partial sound-effect, I awaited battle. My lower body itched and burned. I clenched my toes in pain then realized I was clenching my toes. I was thawing. The enemy eased into striking distance. Maybe I could take this one alive—no sooner had I finished the thought, then a giant hand shot out of the water and grabbed the slimy skinned bird. With no consideration for my plans, the massive fist flung the amphibious fowl shooting across the sky.
As I admired the distance, another hand wrapped itself around me and pulled me deep into the inky waters. I gasped and terror surged through me as water flooded into my mouth. The panic slightly subsided when breathing in the water didn’t result in drowning. Then I remembered I was already dead.
I opened my eyes to find myself face to nose with a giant man. He loosened his grip but not enough for me to stab him with my partial doki if the need arose. He opened his mouth and if spirits could piss themselves, I’d have done it.
Rather than eat me, he spoke. “Tell Hekate,” his voice boomed, “I accept the terms.”
“Okay.” I replied. Which was clearly the correct answer as the giant thrust me back up to the surface and released me. Unfortunately, my frog-swan raft had drifted away. The water however, no longer felt cold and my lower half had fully defrosted.
I swam until I heard Charon’s voice.
“Valued customer!” She cried out. Through the mist, the light of her lantern swayed over the rippling waves.
“Over here.” I called back. She pulled me onto her boat.
“My deepest apologies, valued customer.” Charon blushed. “If we could not tell Hades-sama about our little accident, it’d be greatly appreciated. To make up for the inconvenience, your next ferry ride will be free of charge. How does that sound?”
“Yeah, sure.” I glanced back at the water.
“Great.” Charon cleared her throat and we resumed travel in silence. Once the current had settled, she started back up her tour. “We’ve now crossed into the river Styx. The Styx is the largest of the—”
“Yes, valued customer?”
“Back there, earlier…I saw someone in the water.”
“Ah.” Charon pushed her oar. “It’s not uncommon to find shades in the rivers.”
“The man I saw was gigantic. Big enough to lift this boat up with his hand.”
Charon’s face grew dark. “Acheron,” she muttered.
“That’s the name of the river we started in, yeah?”
“Mm. And the titan it was named after. Acheron was a healer. During the Titanomachy, he remained neutral, tending to the injured on both sides of the war. When the Olympians won, unlike other Titans who stayed neutral, Acheron was punished, because he had healed the enemy. Zeus chained him to the bottom of the river that bears his name.”
“That’s pretty messed up.”
“The underworld isn’t just an economic powerhouse—it’s also a prison. It’d be best if you don’t mention him to Hades-sama.” Charon paused. “Did he say anything to you?”
“No,” I lied. I wasn’t completely sure why, but it felt like the titan had trusted me with something important. Tell Hekate I accept the terms. Maybe it was something that could free him?
“Who is Hekate?”
Charon gasped. “You don’t know Hekate-sama? She handles all the marketing. She could sell milk to a cow.”
“Oooh. Right.” I had no idea who that was but it sounded like she was friends with Hades.
“We’re now approaching Asphodel port. Please wait to disembark until directed.”
The boat stopped next to the pier. Charon exited first then helped me climb out.
A flurry of barking resounded as a three-headed puppy sprinted toward us. A sour-faced Hades followed. She handed Charon a coin pouch.
“Thank you.” The Ferryman bowed her head and returned to her boat. Hades waited for her to push off back toward the Acheron before turning to me.
She glared. “You’re late.”
“B-b-baka!” Hades crossed her arms. “It’s not like I was waiting for you to die or anything.” The blue-haired girl glared at me from across the warmly lit classroom.
A shorter girl, calling herself Luci, squealed beside her. “Aw, he’s so cute. Can I keep him?”
“You want to keep everybody.” Hades snapped.
The pair bickered back and forth as another two girls stood silently by the chalkboard.
The tallest one, dark with black hair, looked down at me as though I were an insect. She’d introduced herself as Anubis, the first of the Death Gods, Lady of the Sacred Land, She of the Holy Mountain, Ruler of the Nine Bows, The Dog who Swallowed Millions, Master of Secrets...and a bunch of other titles I couldn’t keep track of, but I’m certain embalming was mentioned.
“Of the past six hundred and sixty-five souls, you’ve requested,” Anubis adjusted her glasses as she paused to calculate, “six hundred and sixty-five.”
Luci’s face turned pinker than her hair. “It’s not true!” she said to me. “Don’t listen to them.”
“So greedy.” Hades rested a hand on her hip.
Luci blew a raspberry back and pouted.
The fourth girl, pale with white hair, stared at her feet. Anubis introduced her as well, calling her Hel, daughter of Angrboda, Ruler of the Hidden Hall, Guardian of the Graves, Sister of the Wolf, Loki’s child, Death herself. Hel had blushed terribly throughout the entire introduction.
According to the four of them, I died. Right here in class, after choking on a lozenge. Apparently, since I’d been coughing all day, nobody noticed I was dying until I fell out of my chair and wet myself.
Hades had found that hilarious. Luci looked sympathetic, but Anubis said to be wary of her sympathy as Luci was literally the Devil. She then ran off a laundry list of titles while Luci yawned.
Beside the five of us, my classroom was empty. No students. No teacher. Not even any desks or chairs. Only the chalkboard remained. But even there the day’s lessons had been wiped away. Hades said they were here to judge me. And well, fair enough. If I really was dead, then receiving judgement was to be expected. What I didn’t understand was…
Why did they all look like anime girls???
“Okay, let’s get this over with,” Hades folded her arms and looked off to the side. “Some of us have better places to be.”
“Yeah…” Luci grinned. “But not you, so I don’t see why you’re bothered.”
Hades’ voice rose. “Y-you think I want to be here? I have lots of other things to do.”
“Mhm. like what? Sit in that gloomy underworld of yours?” Luci raised an eyebrow.
“It’s better than your stupid fire pits.” Hades spat.
Luci made her voice harsh, “I’m Hades. Nobody likes me. My own family sent me away. I have to steal my friends.”
“Oh, like you’re one to talk!” Hades balled her hands into fists. “You changed the name of your realm to Hell just to steal Hel’s souls.”
Luci shrugged. “You can’t prove that. And if someone says they want to go to Hell, how am I supposed to know they mean her. I mean, it only makes sense they would mean me.”
Luci turned to me with a wide-eyed look. “I’m way cuter and more fun than that stick in the mud. Don’t you agree, Soul-chan?”
I stuttered a non-committal series of ums.
“That’s not his name.” Hades glared.
“Oh, that.” Luci gave a coy smile and winked at me. “It’s a pet name. We have a thing. You wouldn’t understand.”
“You call all the shades that. You just can’t be bothered to learn their names.” Hades huffed. “And I chose to rule the underworld. You’re the one who was kicked out for being annoying.”
“Uh huh. Sure.” Luci rolled her eyes. “If that’s true, then why is it when I left, a whole bunch of my friends came with me? Hm?”
“I-I prefer to be alone.”
“Poor Hades.” Luci frowned.
A vein in Hades’ temple began to bulge. “My point is, we’ve all been cast out.”
“I haven’t,” Anubis corrected.
“I wouldn’t say that…” Hel mumbled.
Luci threw her head back and cackled. Hades growled. Her golden eyes flashed. She looked like she wanted to hit something. I took a step back not wanting it to be me.
Anubis cleared her throat. “Hel, Loki’s child, perhaps you could begin?”
The pale girl jumped at the sound of her own name. She brushed away a strand of long white hair from her face and nodded. It fell back to its original spot.
Hel bowed. “I’m really happy to meet you,” she said softly. “I’m sorry it has to be under these circumstances.” She continued speaking but was too quiet to hear. Her eyes were the palest of blues and sparkled like crystals. Her pink cheeks darkened the more her mouth silently moved.
“Hel!” Hades stomped. “Get on with it.”
Hel squeaked. “Oh. Right,” she said at an audible level, then turned to write on the chalkboard.
Cycle # 937
Most recent name--
“This is so boring!” Luci skipped over and grabbed my arm. “Let’s just skip to the end. He’s mine. Look on the board. 666 is my favourite number. We were meant for each other.”
She looked at me deeply with her large red eyes. “You’ll have pride of place in my harem.”
Anubis slid her glasses up her nose. “That is not how this works, Lucifer of the Morning Star.”
“It could be how it works, if we let it.” Luci nuzzled her head against me and snuggled closer.
My body stilled as prey does when spotted by a predator. This had to be a dream. I must have fallen asleep in class.
“Begone, Satan.” Hades grabbed my other arm and tugged me away. Her nails digging into my arm certainly felt real. I swallowed. Did I really piss myself in front of the whole class after being killed by a piece of candy?
Oh gods! Was that going to be how I was remembered? They’d point to the floor beside my desk and tell future students, “That’s where that guy died, flopping around in a puddle of his own pee.”
Anubis approached. And although I was certain I was taller, I felt myself shrink before her judging glare. Fortunately, she turned her attention to Luci.
“As per our agreement, made during cycle 666 when you proposed all shades should belong to you that cycle, all souls hereafter shall be jointly judged and their destination determined by turn.”
“And it’s my turn,” said Hades.
“Oh.” Luci’s shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry, Hades. I didn’t realize you wanted him so badly. You can have him.” She looked up at Hades with sad eyes before skulking back to the front of the classroom like a scolded child.
“I-I-I don’t want him.” She released her grip. My arm dropped to my side.
Luci’s defeated expression flicked to one of excitement. “In that case, he is mine. Isn’t that right, Anubis?” She bounced over. “Hades has forfeited her turn and I’m next. I told you all.”
The death gods began to bicker. I took a step back, and then another. With the anime girls distracted, I headed to the door. Only, it wasn’t there.
“I’m rebelling!” shouted Luci.
Hades huffed. “You’re always rebelling.”
“Ladies…” Hel squeaked but her plea was drowned out. She turned to me with her haunting gaze then quickly looked away.
I ran to the closest window. My class was only two floors up. It might be better to jump and risk injury than the alternative. I wasn’t sure where they’d be sending me, but none of the options looked to be any sort of heaven and one was most certainly hell. Worst case, what, I die again? Best case, I wake up.
I pulled on the frame. Stuck. Bracing myself against the floor I pushed harder. An icy tap on my shoulder sent chills racing up my neck. I turned to see Anubis looking down at me. Before I could muster an explanation, she shoved her hand into my chest and ripped out my heart.
Agony radiated from where my heart once was. I crumpled to the floor. Fatigue set in and a hollowness within me throbbed. I should’ve been afraid of what might happen next or angry at the violation, even sad about what my life had come to. But instead, I felt nothing.
“You said you weren’t going to do that anymore,” Hel mumbled.
Hades and Luci had ceased bickering. Anubis carried my heart to the front of the class and plopped it into Hel’s hand.
Anubis snapped her fingers and a justice-style scale appeared on a table. “If contracts between death gods are broken, protocol 7 section 3 states we revert to standard operating procedure.”
She directed Hel to place the heart onto one of the scales. The golden plate dropped down as the empty plate shot up.
“And now, we begin.” Anubis plucked a feather out of thin air. “If your heart is heavier than this feather, you will be fed to the devourer.”
I looked around from my seat on the floor. While Anubis had an expression of pure apathy and Luci one of annoyance, both Hades and Hel looked as though they might cry. “What does that mean?” I croaked.
“You will be eaten,” Anubis said with a blank expression. “Digested and destroyed.”
“Cease to exist.” Anubis’ glasses slid down her nose. She pushed them back up and placed the feather onto the empty plate. “If your heart Is lighter however, we move on to stage two and determine to whom you will go.”
The other three death gods seemed to hold their breath as the scales shifted. I’d had held mine too, if I had any. Slowly the scales stopped, with my heart and the feather near parallel.
“So?” Luci went over to examine the results. She tilted her head so as her eyes were level with the plates. Anubis looked as well. Her brow furrowed.
“Anubis?” Hades sounded concerned.
The dark-haired goddess stayed silent. Her glasses slipped once again, but she didn’t bother to push them up. She mumbled something. The room had grown so quiet that when Hel spoke I had no trouble hearing her.
She said, “It’s even.” then looked over to me briefly. “Perfectly even.”
“Whaat?” Luci barked. “Is that even possible?”
“Even?” I repeated. “And that means?”
Anubis regained her composure. “I’ll need to check the book.”
Luci burst out in laughter. “She doesn’t know.”
“I’ll be right back.” Anubis clicked her fingers and vanished.
“You just had to cause trouble.” Hades glared at Luci and pulled a chair out of nowhere to sit on. The pink-haired girl responded by pulling down her eye and sticking out her tongue. The two exchanged death-glares as Hel took my heart from the scales and slowly made her way over to me.
“Here,” she said gently. “You’ll feel better once this is back.” She moved my heart back to my chest with blushing cheeks and eyes squeezed closed.
My spirit reabsorbed it with a pale blue flash. My vigour returned. “Thank you.”
Feelings of fear, confusion, relief, and more fear flooded back to me. I raised myself from the floor and brushed off my legs. Hel turned her gaze to her hands, mumbled something, and shuffled back to the scales.
Strange girl. Well, death god. Strange anime-school-girl-looking death god.
Anubis returned, holding a giant open book with both hands.
“So?” asked Hades. “What’s it say?”
Anubis cleared her throat. “In cases where the shade’s heart is of equal weight with the feather. The decision of where to go resides with the shade.”
“You mean, it’s up to Soul-chan?” Luci raised her brows.
In a mix of ice and fire, I felt the gaze of all four death gods bore into me.
“Well?” Hades spoke first. “Which of us do you choose?”
“Wait—what? Me?” I pointed to myself.
Luci nodded and skipped over to me. “Just tell them you pick me, and we can be on our way.” She smiled sweetly.
“Can I—um” I glanced at the devil and swallowed hard. “Can I pick not to be dead?”
Anger flashed across Luci’s face before being suppressed by a look of innocent curiosity. She turned to Anubis. “Can he?”
Anubis flipped through the pages of her gigantic book. “No.”
Luci shook her head. “No. Oh but don’t worry, Soul-chan. Being dead isn’t all that bad. Especially when you’re with me.” She grinned.
“Can I—” I took a step back. “Choose heaven?”
The devil glared.
“Or, or something like that, you know. Ha-Ha.” I rubbed the back of my head.
“You must choose from one of the four Death Gods assigned to judge you.” Anubis closed the book.
“But—” I looked at each of them. “I don’t know much about any of you.” It was true. For starters, I’d thought at least three of them were supposed to be male.
“Maybe we could show him around each of our realms?” Hades shrugged.
Luci’s eyes widened. “Like a date?”
“No, not like a date.” Hades glared. “like a—like a tour.”
“I think a date is a great idea.” Luci hugged herself and squealed. “I vote yes for dates.”
“Not a date!” Hades balled her hands.
“I’ve never been on a date before,” Hel said softly.
“Oh, they’re great fun,” said Luci.
“Not a date,” said Hades.
“Oh-okay then.” Hel nodded as she looked at her hands.
“It’s settled,” said Anubis. “Soul #666 will go on a date with each of the Death Gods present and then decide with whom he wishes to spend this afterlife.”
“Not a— oh forget it.” Hades grumbled. “I’ll go first.”
“Oooo,” Luci smirked. “Someone’s eager.”
“I-I’m just eager to get it over with is all. It’s not like I like him or anything.”
“A sensible suggestion.” Anubis disappeared the scales and book with a wave of her hand. “Dates order will be the same as in the previous agreement. Picking up where we left off, Hades first, then Lucifer, myself, and Hel last.” She looked to me and Hades. “Ready?”
“Now?” Hades and I said in unison.
“It’s a bit sudden.” Hades looked off to the side. “I-I’d like some time to prepare.”
“I thought you wanted to go first to get it over with.” Luci rolled her eyes.
“I do, it’s just—the underworld is, it’s very large and, I, um. Impressions are important.”
“Aw, you do care.” Luci smiled. “You’re so cute, Hades-sama.”
“I only care about the reputation of the underworld.” Hades straightened her school uniform.
Anubis pushed up her glasses. “A recess then. Each of us will return to our realms to prepare for our turn.”
“B-but what about…him?” Hel motioned to me with a nod of her head. “Where will he go?”
I opened my mouth to suggest back home when Anubis said, "Limbo.”
She snapped her fingers and I was gone.