The badlands were gone when Miriam woke up. She bolted upright, perplexed. Had someone moved them while they slept? Their camp looked mostly the same: campfire burning quietly, their packs leaning against each other, and Hestia, drooling and asleep. Somehow, even the dirt had changed; instead of the brittle red clay they had walked on before was now a fine beige sand. There were tall reeds like cat tails waving in a gentle breeze — what could that mean? Miriam rushed up over the small hill they had camped behind and cheered with delight. The ocean! It was about a mile away, but even from here, Miriam could spot the brilliant turquoise water slapping the sand.
No response from the tiny goddess. It wouldn’t hurt to have a little alone time and the pair still had two days left. Miriam decided to take her chances, and she headed down toward the sparkling water.
It had been a long time since Miriam touched the ocean. Before she had become trapped in this particular hellscape, the calming tides near her home were her refuge. Most commonly, she’d head there to think, to work out life’s labyrinthine issues. As she ran, she found herself crying, her tears leaving beautiful trails down her face.
Before she could reach the foam, something huge broke out of the waves! Miriam ducked behind the closest clump of reeds and peered out from behind. Seawater streamed off of the object as it grew. As the water cleared, Miriam could see that it was a sickly olive tree that had sprung up so suddenly. The tree was ghostly white like bacterial pneumonia (or something of its ilk). Atop this decaying sarcophagus perched an albino toucan, whose eyes burned red.
“Come here, girl. I see you.”
The voice echoed within the walls of Miriam’s skull, but somehow she knew it belonged to the ghastly toucan. It made the waves go silent. They crashed, but made no more noise.
Miriam stepped out from her hiding spot.
“Ah. There you are. You’re smaller than I remember.”
What? Miriam had no recollection of ever meeting this specter. She couldn’t have been here before, could she?
“I have to ask for your forgiveness,” said the toucan’s voice. “You must be confused, wondering if you’ve been here before. I shouldn’t bring up things that don’t concern you.”
Miriam had to ask about all this. “You know me? How?”
“Yes, I know you. But you don’t know me. I am Melinoe. You’ve come to ask questions of me before. What do you need to ask me now?”
Miriam’s eyes suddenly felt like syrup was being poured over them and her brain began to cloud. Sleep was pulling her closer, but that didn’t make sense — she just slept last night!
“Oh,” she yawned. “I don’t think that’s necessary.”
“Melinoe,” said a cold voice by Miriam’s side. Hestia had appeared while she was talking with the toucan. The little goddess radiated with energy, snapping Miriam from her daze.
“Ah, Hestia,” said the toucan grimacing. “Always around to ruin my good time.”
“Your idea of fun is making children suffer through nightmares while they sleep, defenseless. When they’re home, they’re in my jurisdiction. I’m not ruining your fun. You’re trespassing.”
Miriam had never seen this side of Hestia; she suddenly felt some respect for the goddess.
The toucan, however, was feeling anything but respect for Hestia. Her beady, blood-red eyes glared at the tiny goddess.
“You might have prevented me from trapping Miriam this time, but I always find a way to her. You’re merely delaying Fate, tiny Hestia. I’ll have my way with her.”
The toucan laughed, a rusty rattle that sent a chill to Miriam’s core. The waves were suddenly audible again, murmuring their oceanic poetry. The tree jerked and tilted downwards, bringing Melinoe back towards the sea.
“See you soon, Miriam,” cried the toucan’s voice as it sank. “I look forward to our next meeting.”
Miriam watched as Melinoe’s red eyes disappeared below the surf. After the bird was finally gone, she sank to her knees.
“Hestia,” she began, stopping as her voice got caught in her throat.
The tiny goddess stared over the waves at the horizon.
“You’re not here,” the goddess wouldn’t look at her.
“You’re not here, Miriam. Melinoe trapped you in a dream. Wake up.”
Suddenly it all disappeared. The sea, the sand, the warm sunlight. Miriam sat upright and found herself next to the campfire again. She looked around. The ground was that brittle red clay once more. Hestia was still there, but she was standing as she was in the dream: silent and staring off in the distance.
“She almost killed you, Miriam.”
“What, are you suddenly concerned with my well-being? Getting a little soft there, Hesti?” said Miriam.
Hestia stiffened, glaring at Miriam. “Don’t think anything of it, mortal. I just need Persephone’s tears before I turn into a pile of dust. And do not call me Hesti.”
Miriam smirked. “Yeah, okay. Whatever you want.”
Hestia quietly laughed, a bitter noise. She looked up toward the sun, already high in the sky despite the pair just rising.
“Melinoe wasted our time. We only have a day — maybe a day and a half–left,” said Hestia.
“Did you think your adventures in Dreamland took no time at all? You think that Hades and his cronies aren’t trying to trap you here forever?”
Miriam narrowed her eyes. She didn’t appreciate being treated like she was stupid when she was in a situation completely alien to her. “What can we do?”
“Not much,” said Hestia, glaring. “We’re being funneled towards something. We can’t do anything except walk into the trap that was set for us. Let’s go.”
Miriam didn’t normally accept commands from Hestia, but it was time to hightail it. If they needed to fall into a trap, she guessed that sooner would be better than later. She turned, and followed the tiny goddess deeper into the badlands.
The scenery, red and bland as rotting strawberries, failed to yield any clues about the situation that the pair were headed toward. Hestia was similarly tight-lipped about all this. Miriam tried to engage with the goddess, but to no avail. All she could do was look out over the dirty landscape, hoping that something would happen soon.
After some time like this, Hestia stopped suddenly. She squinted skyward, looking at something small and shiny.
“What is it?” asked Miriam.
“I— no. I don’t think it’s him,” Hestia said, starting to walk again. “C’mon, let’s move just in case I’m wrong.”
The goddess hustled forward, keeping her head down. Miriam kept her eyes on the sky, wondering what the hell that was up there.
“Hey. Mortal. Let’s go!”
Just as Hestia finished her sentence, the shiny object streaked downward, screaming towards the pair at maximum velocity. Miriam only had seconds to jump out of the way as the object hit the ground at full speed, cratering the dune the pair were standing on.
When the dust cleared, the golden freak that Miriam had seen near that apartment complex in her world was there. Now that she was up close, she could see that he was indeed a beautiful man. Slightly larger than a normal human would be. Entirely golden. And smirking in an incredibly irritating way. He was wearing only sunglasses and seemed to be happier for it.
“Apollo,” said Hestia.
Apollo flashed a toothy smile and looked them both up and down. “Hi there, darlings! Oh, wow. Look at you two! Aren’t you sweet!” he lisped.
He danced like an excited child, then conjured a phone. After taking an unsolicited selfie with Hestia and Miriam, he continued:
“Darlings, a little birdie told me that you’re searching out Persephone for her tears! That is so fun! So daring. I came down here to ask you the tiniest favor.”
Hestia bristled, seeming to know what was coming next.
“Did you already deplete your stores, Apollo?” she chided. “You use too much!”.
“Ugh, guilty! I just love looking so, like, fit. I mean, look at my body! I am picturesque!” said Apollo, gesturing almost directly to his golden member. “This is the result of hard work every day. Look at my discipline.”
Miriam nearly threw up.
“Apollo, enough,” said Hestia. “You can join us on this journey. We’re hopefully going to find Persephone soon.”
Apollo made a face like Hestia had spat at him.
“Me? On your little quest?! Oh, I don’t think so. I have a sun chariot to drive, darling. But I’d love it if you picked up some tears for me!”
“Apollo, be reasonable!” said Hestia.
Something dangerous flashed in Apollo’s eyes. The air around him began to sizzle, burning the tips of Miriam’s fingers, who yelped.
“I think it’s in your best interest to find me some tears. You don’t want to incur my wrath, honey,” the sun god said.
“I think I can handle it!” exclaimed Hestia, whose eyes also gained a red luster.
“Oh, I know you can. It’s your mortal friend I’d be more worried about,” lisped Apollo. The sand around him had turned to glass, blinding Miriam.
“Lord Apollo!” cried Miriam, at which Apollo cooled down, apparently enjoying the formal epithet. “We can get you the tears,” said Miriam, shielding her eyes. “Not a problem!”
Apollo turned, simpering at Hestia.
“See, auntie? That’s what manners look like. I’m excited to get the tears from you soon! Kisses!”
Apollo blasted back into the sky without waiting for a response from either Hestia or Miriam. The pair watched his golden comet streak through the heavens, disappearing from sight after an indulgent loop.
“What an ass,” said Hestia.
Miriam raised her eyebrows and looked at the small goddess.
“No, not like that! Rude! I meant rude!”
Hestia’s protestations were too late: Miriam was laughing for the first time since this whole mess started. After a moment, Hestia cracked a smile too. For a moment, they were both just girls together. Laughter broke the spell, and they set off again through the red sand.
As they walked, a ghostly city faded into focus. The buildings were tall, to the point that Miriam couldn’t see the tops when she craned her neck up. The silence in the street was violent, pressing into Miriam’s eardrums in a way that made even her breathing sound loud and terrible, an alien throbbing. The buildings glowed green, like cave water.
Hestia’s voice was just audible over the evil breathing that Miriam’s lungs were doing. She turned to see what Hestia was pointing at: a massive building sat in the center of the boulevard. It was oddly squat despite its obvious height, making it radiate the chaotic energy of a contrapuntal thunderstorm, a terrible beauty couched within the destruction of lavish calm.
All around Miriam and Hestia, a blue-green mist began to roll in. The unexpected tide covered their street completely. As the pair watched, the mist compounded into spectral figures of all sorts: tall women, fat men, skinny persons, and a mix of everything in between and throughout. They assembled peaceably. They all faced the squat building with a concentrated fervor, a silent rage hitting an internal fever pitch.
“Hestia. What are they here for?”
Hestia didn’t say anything, merely pointing to a neon sign on the building that had just flickered on. It read “Elysian Fields Incorporeal” and buzzed pleasantly. The sign seemed familiar, like the face of a long-lost friend whose name had escaped Miriam.
“Hestia, I think we need to go in there.”
As Miriam said this, many of the ghouls turned and stared at her, smiling (or contorting their ghostly bones into something that resembled a smile) and chattering happily. Ghouls pointed out Miriam to the spirits standing next to them, who in turn would do the same. They were excited that she was here.
“Hestia,” Miriam said.
“They seem to know you, Miriam.” The small goddess looked out over the ghouls with interest.
“How is that possible?! I’m not friends with hundreds of ghouls!” hissed Miriam.
“I— I’m not sure,” admitted Hestia, who had now turned her perplexed gaze toward Miriam.
The ghouls parted suddenly, allowing a tall woman with obsidian-black skin and cornrows studded with diamonds to approach. Upon seeing this woman, Miriam collapsed to the ground with tears streaming down her face. Who was this woman? Why am I reduced to tears in front of her? Miriam thought, desperate to understand her sudden emotional breakdown.
The woman knelt down in front of Miriam, raising Miriam’s chin. They made eye contact, and Miriam cried out. She knew this woman, but couldn’t recall how or why.
Miriam stood, maintaining eye contact with the striking woman.
“What did you say?” asked Hestia.
“I know her. She and I have fought together before. I can feel that, but I can’t determine for what or when. Her name is Sisyphus,” said Miriam.
Sisyphus nodded, putting her hand in Miriam’s.
“We have to get inside Elysian Fields Incorporeal,” said Miriam.
“How do you know that? Why?” asked Hestia.
Sisyphus smiled and pressed her head against Miriam’s before answering the tiny goddess.
“Because we have to right the wrongs we were saddled with,” Sisyphus said, her eyes glinting with courage.
The ghouls chattered happily, as if two halves of a long-fractured whole had finally been reunited. A visible charge went through the crowd, making the ghouls’ forms solidify into more visible shapes, and their voices became clearer, screaming war cries. Miriam and Sisyphus turned to face Elysian Fields Incorporeal. They shared no words, but both knew it was time.
They sprinted forward without warning! The ghouls chittered and screamed, also taking up the chase with fervor. Hestia did her best to keep up, but she resigned herself to follow from a distance at her slower speed.
Miriam and Sisyphus careened toward the building. Through the blur of the ghouls they were passing, Miriam saw skeletons behind the windows of the other buildings. They glowed red and stared, unhappy with the state of things. A few even waggled their bony forefingers at Miriam, but she didn’t stop. She didn’t have time for their disappointment.
They were nearly to the building now. As they approached, horrible tendrils of rotting flesh streamed upward from the sewer grates closest to Elysian Fields Incorporeal. They took humanoid forms, imposing in their facelessness. Miriam and Sisyphus were heading toward an impenetrable wall of oozing carnage.
The barrier greeted the pair like an old friend, embracing Miriam’s body with a burning sensation and — quite strangely — the smell of roses.
“Don’t smell their aroma too long.” Sisyphus’ voice was raspy, ragged like torn fabric. She looked at Miriam intently. “Like this.”
Sisyphus began to hum quietly and nod her head. Her skin glowed with green lettering from another language, and the flesh began peeling back away from her. Miriam looked down at the throbbing pool of flesh enveloped around her body. An eyeball appeared on the mass, studying her face.
Miriam hummed something similar to what Sisyphus had done and closed her eyes. She imagined her freedom, what it’d feel like to be free of this wriggling mass and have the sun shining on her skin again. A golden-yellow color filled her closed eyes and she smiled. Miriam opened her eyes and nearly fell over. The tattoos that she had seen on Sisyphus now glowed on Miriam’s skin. They were that same warm goldenrod she had seen in her closed eyes. It reminded her of the summertime setting sun. Just as it did with Sisyphus, the flesh loosened its grip on Miriam, and the burning feeling began to fade. She stepped forward, the flesh now wicking away from her.
“I don’t— I don’t understand,” Miriam gasped to Sisyphus, partially collapsing into her arms.
Sisyphus smiled at Miriam. “You and I met down here. In this Underworld. We knew it could be better than it was, that Elysian Fields was full of sinners who could bribe their way out of punishment and Tartarus’ gates were unguarded and Asphodel was overcrowded to the point of suffocation. You and I organized our ghouls. We wove stories of a better Underworld that comes with a little bit of work from us all. But as we fought to be heard, Hades got less indifferent and more hostile toward us. He lured you and me into a trap. The next thing I knew, I was buried alive along some road down here and there was no sign of you. When I found my way back, I hoped I’d find you here, but I’m seeing you for the first time since we were trapped.”
If there were moments like this before in Miriam’s life, she couldn’t remember them. She was full of a profound love, torn apart by a spine-splintering sadness, and boiling over with an anger unseamed by Sisyphus’ recollection. Miriam stumbled forward, embracing Sisyphus.
“I miss you,” she said into Sisyphus’ neck, the words falling like tears.
She could feel Sisyphus smile against her skin. “You took your time,” Sisyphus whispered. “Don’t do that again.”
The pair took their time breaking apart. They hadn’t been alone for a while, and the reacquainting of familiar smells, feelings, and tastes was a priority, even in the midst of their siege on the monolithic Elysian Fields Incorporeal. As the two relinquished each other, they felt whole, peaceful for the first time in a long time. Miriam couldn’t remember past the last couple of days, but her tactile memory was sure-footed in its love for Sisyphus. She was Miriam’s guiding star, a planet Miriam revolved around with urgent invisible hands always grasping for Sisyphus. Gravity followed their lead: inevitable and magnetic, pressing them closer together.
Miriam, absorbed by these thoughts, did not see the tendril of inky darkness billowing towards Sisyphus. Only when Sisyphus stiffened, crying out, did Miriam notice the dark arm piercing her. Sisyphus collapsed, shaking as the darkness angrily unsheathed itself from her skin. Miriam screamed, waiting to run to her, but she was suddenly glued to the floor by some similar dark energy.
A simpering voice called out from some unseen place in the room. “Watching your disbelief gets old, Miriam. You look like a kicked puppy every time,” the voice said, melting into laughter over the theoretical canine misery. After it had its fill of guffawing, the voice continued:
“It really is very funny. You should smile more. Might make you look less severe. Anyway.”
Miriam got the impression that the voice was leaving.
“Hey! Come back here and show yourself!” she called, still unable to move.
“I haven’t gone anywhere. This is my world, I’m everywhere in it, all at once,” the voice sneered quietly in Miriam’s ear.
“Show yourself!” called Miriam again, wanting to flinch away from the cold voice.
A horrible thing stepped into Miriam’s field of vision. It was a hybrid of some beings that Miriam had never encountered before, but she recognized hooves, teeth, eyes, and antlers. The other body parts were unknowable, beyond the bounds of human description.
As she watched, the creature melted, a wax figure from a twisted memory. Its form resettled into an unbelievably fat man, balding and ugly.
“You should know who I am, but I know your memory hasn’t been serving you too well lately,” he said, adjusting some of his patchy hair. “I am Hades, Lord of this Underworld and King of the Dead.”
Miriam grimaced. This was Hades? He resembled an unhappy driving instructor more than the lord of anything.
“What do you want from me?” Miriam asked. “You’ve already taken my memory and Sisyphus away from me. What else could you possibly want?”
Hades smiled, a mean and dark look that could’ve frozen a lake in the heat of August.
“I don’t want anything from you. You’re here in my clutches already. I’m just here to torture you for a moment before we reset the clock again,” he said, sounding out the words slowly.
“W— What?” said Miriam.
“You haven’t figured it out yet? You’re dumb for someone who put together a resistance against me. This is your punishment, dear,” Hades said.
Just as he finished saying that, Hestia burst into the building, panting.
“Hestia! Finally. Help me, please!” shouted Miriam.
The look on the goddess’s face was strange — almost like she was looking at a car accident from a distance.
“Hey? Hestia?” pleaded Miriam.
The goddess looked at her blankly, then skipped over to Hades. She began to shimmer brightly. Her figure warped and rippled, changing into a vaguely familiar shape: a poisonous algal bloom. Where had she seen this blood red algae before?
“Ah, my dear. Lovely as ever,” said Hades. The algae shimmered with a little bit of gold, like it was smiling. It stretched, becoming the form of a woman. Finally, skin and hair regrew to reveal a thin-lipped, striking woman. Persephone.
The pair turned to look at Miriam, who was stock-still despite the betrayal. “Why are you doing this to me? Why would you pretend to be an ally for so long, Persephone? You actually cared for me,” she said.
Persephone laughed. “Oh, puny mortal. You err when you assume I was your ally. You and I could never be allies. Even being around you turns my stomach,” the goddess said, pinching her nose as if Miriam smelled. She cozied up to her husband, who then responded. “People like you need to learn that you can never change the gods. We’re immortal. We know more than you and we see all. How can you dare to have the audacity to think you can improve the system we’ve been using for eons. Mortals make me sick,” he said.
“You’ve been doing the same thing for lifetimes. You remember the definition of insanity, right?” Miriam spoke before considering the consequences, but things were starting to get her angry.
“Very feisty for a prisoner who can’t remember her life above ground. No matter. We’ll just send you back around. Maybe you’ll learn to stop trying to change your world this time,” said Hades with a dismissive flick of his wrist.
He disappeared into the shadows, leaving Persephone and Miriam.
“Goodbye, little freak. I am looking forward to torturing you again,” said Persephone, disappearing in a flash of gold light.
A pair of red eyes opened in the darkness. Melinoe’s rattling voice rang out. “Hello again, Miriam. Feeling weak? Dejected? Like you’re trapped in a nightmare? Good.” She flew forward, skeletal toucan body coming into full view. “I’ll see you again soon, Miriam.”
Melinoe opened her beak and began chanting in an ancient language. Green mist emanated from her beak, creeping toward Miriam. Melinoe was crazed, shaking as she cast this spell. Miriam, finally freed from the dark forces keeping her in place, ran to Sisyphus. She felt for her pulse, then nearly smacked herself for trying to find a pulse on someone in the Underworld. Sisyphus stirred weakly, obviously drained from the assault. Her form began to waver between translucent and opaque.
“You must not forget. Every time you forget, and the cycle is repeated. You cannot forget. Miriam, do not forget. Please. Please. Miriam, you—” Sisyphus dissolved before she could finish talking to Miriam.
Miriam panicked, looking around to see if there was some way to stop Melinoe. The toucan was barely visible behind the storm of green smoke in the room now. It was too late to plan, too late for a moment to think.
It finally hit Miriam, and she thankfully closed her eyes. She hummed Sisyphus’ song, rocking back-and-forth to bring her goldenrod light back. Melinoe’s chanting reached a climax, where the bird was screaming the ancient curse and howling horrible sounds. Miriam felt the green smoke grip her ankles and she prayed that the light would come. As the smoke reached her shoulders, the light mercifully shone from the letters on her skin, blasting beautiful rays through the toxic fog. As the smoke reached her face, Miriam held the image of Sisyphus’ face in her mind, remembering the freedom and love she felt when they were together. With a tug in her gut, she flew upward, hurtling away from Melinoe and the Underworld.
When she opened her eyes, Miriam was staring at the Lethe Garden Apartments. The stucco was cracked, the wood well weatherworn, and the grey paint drab, to say the least. But before she got lost in her thoughts about this building, she remembered. Everything about her death flooded back to her in an instant, and she gripped the wall to stay upright. She’d been in this exact position nearly a hundred times. She had failed to take Elysian Fields Incorporeal with Sisyphus a hundred times. She had found and then again lost Sisyphus a hundred times.
Miriam turned, looking at the setting sun. She was done with Hades’ loop. If he wanted a fight, she’d bring him a fight. She was dead already, but she’d rather be erased from any sense of existence entirely than warp back to this spot one more time. Miriam stepped out onto the lawn of the apartments and began humming her song. The tattoos appeared on her arms much more quickly this time, their goldenrod hue inspiring an enormous wave of confidence in Miriam. She looked at the apartment building and waved her hand at it. The facade flickered and faded, showing Cheryl’s enormous metal maw. Miriam walked to Cheryl’s neck and wrenched the metal apart, making herself a new entrance to Hades’ realm.
Before reentering, she looked back out at the city one last time. She noticed more errors this time: the bricks weren’t lined up properly on one building, the street signs were in Farsi, and a couple of trees were actually upside-down. These facts made Miriam laugh. Melinoe and Hades were losing their grip on her. The circle wouldn’t stand anymore. Miriam turned and jumped into the hole in the ground, ready to tear down the old underworld and draw out the new one.