Based on the Greek Myth.
Everything vanished. What was hard and real, solid beneath her touch, became ethereal and intangible. She found herself surrounded by nothing but crisp night air. Where once her oil lamp had glowed bright with fateful light, she was left in darkness. Underneath her, where there had been exquisitely fine sheets and a downy mattress, she was left with dew-soaked, spongy grass. Where there had been warmth, chill.
Her sight now focused on nothing but blurry night. She smelt the forest nearby. She heard the fountain’s silver tinkling. The castle was gone, leaving only the wilderness.
Gone. And with it, her Love.
As the shock faded, heat began dribbling down her cheeks, permeating her skin as the salty tears fell. She felt them drip, cooling, onto her hands, in her lap. Her shoulders were hunched, her feet were bare. She wore nothing but a nightgown.
At first it felt as if her insides had vanished with her home. Disapeared like a candle, snuffed out in shadow. But then the hollowness began to fill, fed by a slow trickle of grief.
As the tears began to fall- before the trickle became an overwhelming barrage- she heard an empty, broken, little voice break the stillness of the night.
“Zephyrus?” It whispered.
She closed her eyes, sending hot droplets sliding down her cheeks. A gentle, comforting breeze picked up, blowing her tears away. It played with her hair, ruffled her gown. He was never far away. Always close at hand.
“Take me home,” the little voice whispered.
And she felt the breeze grow stronger, spiralling about her until it picked her up.
The west wind carried her home, lifting her from the ground just as the grief consumed her. A single sob escaped her lips, shattering the glade’s nocturnal tranquillity with its discordant sorrow.
Then she was gone; vanished, like the castle.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
She had waited for them to turn away from her, to begin their long descent, before she let the tears fall. She had felt them fall silently down her cheeks, kissed by the sea winds, and felt the heart-wrenching sobs wrack her body.
She watched their procession wind along the path, until they were out of sight. She watched the last of the falsely bright colours disapear, and she knew what it was to be alone.
She wondered how they hadn't seen through her facade. How they had missed the lie in her eyes when she told them this was what she had wanted. They were her family. And yet they had not known. They had thought she gladly faced her fate.
The wind whippped her hair and her skirts, and she turned to face it. She could hear the surf beneath her, taste the salt on the air. She moved closer to the edge, and watched the waves below, pounding the rock in an endless battle. Almost as if they were hungry for her, and all that stood between them was the very ground beneath her feet.
She thought of what it might be like to drop, falling into oblivion. To peace, to serenity. A place where pain could not follow. A place she could finally rest.
Was it cowardice to wish for the end? She thought about it and found she did not care.
She leaned further over, feeling the pull of the ocean draw her onward. The wind picked up, as if attempting to push her back to safety. She resisted it, feeling one last wave of despair. With a strangled sob, she made her choice.
She leapt from the cliff and threw herself to the sea below.
But as her feet slipped from the wet grass, the wind began to blow like a gale, silencing everything but the howling in her ears. And then she heard a strange voice as if it whispered to her through the elements.
"No, this is not for you..."
But it was gone as soon as it came, and in moments she felt unconsiousness claim her. She fell into the dark, gladly letting it claim her.
When she opened her eyes, the cliff and the sea and the oblivion were gone. They had been replaced by a forest of tall pine trees. She looked up, following their ascent to the heavens. Dark-tipped peaks pierced the clouds, like tiny mountains. She breathed in deep, smelling the fresh alpine tang floating on the air.
She rose to her feet, leaving the needle-rusted ground. The forest floor was coated in a creeping moss-like grass, a kind she had never seen before. It crept up the rough bark of the narrow tree trunks. Light cascaded down, piercing the canopy in random shafts. For as far as she looked, in every direction, all she could see were trees and moss and sky.
She felt no fear. Surely this was not the after life. But it was not the world she had known, either. This caused her to feel light and giddy inside. She was in a place she had never heard of, had come here by the strangest means imaginable, and yet she was not scared.
She decided she would walk in any direction, as all seemed equally acceptable at this point. So she walked onward.
It did not take long for her to hear it. The sound echoed about the forest, as if it bounced off trees and rocks and moss, straight to her ears. She was sure of it, and turned to follow the sound.
The gilded tinkling of a fountain drew her, leading her out of the trees. She blinked, half blinded by sudden sunlight. As her eyes adjusted, she saw that she stood in a valley of emerald grass. It stretched on, lined by the enourmous trees. The fountain she could hear glistened in the sunlight, looking like a cascade of diamonds. She wandered past it as if dream walking, and felt as if she were entranced.
For in the centre of the valley, right before her eyes, lay a magnificent castle.
She looked up at its gleaming turrets, its perfect walls of purest white marble. She held her breath in awe at the beauty of it, and felt suddenly very small.
She had lived in a castle all her life. She had been brought up to expect the greatest quality of everything. She was used to grandeur, to wonderous pomp and beauty.
But this castle stole her soul, it was the single most achingly beautiful thing she had ever laid eyes on.
Inside was even lovlier. She wandered down elegant halls, looked in luxurious rooms, gazed upon exquisite emptiness.
For there was not a soul to be found. The castle was abandoned. Hollow as the husk of chaff.
“But who would ever leave such beauty behind them?” she whispered to herself, gazing up at a perfectly gilded ceiling.
She spun around, terrified by the unmistakably male voice. There was no one behind her. She spun about, searching the room for an owner. What had she been thinking, entering without so much as knocking?
Yet her eyes found only a room, with herself the only living inhabitant.
“Don’t be afraid. I did not mean to startle you.”
Despite these words, fear blazed unbidden in her heart. For the first time since coming to this place, she felt scared.
“I-“ She looked around herself, but could not see anyone. “I- am sorry for intruding. Your home is just so beautiful that I- I could not help but want to see inside. Forgive me, I will leave now.”
But she found she could not leave the place. She did not want to, despite her fear.
There was silence as she struggled with herself. Then the man spoke once more, his voice melodious.
“I would ask you to stay. If you wish it.”
The question set her aback. She frowned, shivering. The air seemed heavy around her suddenly. She took a deep breath, feeling as if time were slowing in that moment.
“Who are you?” she whispered.
He laughed gently, and his tone calmed her.
“I am your host.”
She found herself smiling shyly, his apparent amusement infectious.
“Then I suppose that makes me your guest,” she answered playfully.
She imagined he smiled widely at this, for his voice sounded joyful.
“Indeed, it does. As the first guest we have ever had here, may I offer you a tour of our castle?”
How can there be a 'we' when I cannot even see you, she thought. In all these empty halls, how can there be more people?
But she did not voice these thoughts. Instead, she nodded.
“I would be honoured, sir.” Late manners were better than none at all, she reasoned.
Her host sighed gently.
“I am no lord, princess. There is no need to address me as such.”
“And I,“ her voice shook as she wondered how he knew who she was, “I am no longer a princess. So please, let us both do away with titles.”
“Agreed. Now, if you will come this way, I think that you will find the view from this balcony is breathtaking.”
She jumped as she felt a warm hand take her own, large enough to engulf her hand easily. She trembled.
“I can’t see you,” she whispered, her voice small as a child's.
An invisible thumb caressed her palm.
“I know,” said the voice softly. “But you know I am here, don’t you?”
“Yes...” she said.
“Then do not be afraid. Whilst you are here, no harm will befall you. This I promise.”
She let her breath out, hovering on indecision. But then, there was nothing to go back to.
“Very well,” she said, eventually. “Show me your balcony, then.”
He did. And he was right.
The view was breathtaking.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
Psyche looked up at the great, forbidding walls of the palace. It was both beautiful and unwelcoming at the same time, an obvious power lay within in them. No matter how lovely it was to look at, it was threatening none the less. Psyche stared up at the sandstone walls, and felt herself hesitate.
This was it.
Once past this gate, she could not turn back. She was afraid to go on. Terrified of what she would find waiting for her. And yet, she loved him. She loved him with all her soul, her very being. It was better to face whatever Aphrodite held in store, than to spend the rest of her life without him, knowing she hadn’t tried. She would do this.
And so, with a deep breath and a force of will, Psyche stepped onwards. She came up to the great metal gate and entered into the shadow of the castle.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
“What is the matter?” he asked her softly.
She felt his warm breath on her neck, and it sent shivers down her spine. She felt a hand stroke a stray strand of hair from her eyes.
“I have watched you, day in and day out. Wandering the castle halls, walking in the grounds. You seem sad, hollow. Do you not like it here? Does this no longer please you?”
The gentle worry of his tone made her smile sadly, bittersweet feelings flooding her. She turned to him.
“No. I love it here, I love you. I just… You have given me everything I could ever have wished for. I live in a beautiful land, in a beautiful caslte. I am waited on hand and foot. I want for nothing that is not given to me within a moment's asking. I am with you, and that fills me with unending joy… It's just that, despite having so much, I… I feel lonely.”
He stroked her face, listening to her.
“When you are not with me, I have no one to talk to. No one to spend time with. My days feel empty without someone to spend them with… I miss my family. My sisters, my parents.”
His hand stopped. She felt the emptiness on her skin where he had touched her. She feared her words had offended him.
“That is not to say I am not grateful! I love this place, I do-“
“Shhh.” He placed a finger on her lips. “I understand. I have seen you growing paler and paler. I know that you must get lonely here all day. But I cannot be here all the time, as much as I long to. We cannot tell people of this place.”
There was no point in asking why. It was one of those things that just had to be accepted. Like why she could never see him. Why he could not tell her where they were, or how she had come to be here.
“No one?” she asked in a little voice.
He kissed her.
“No one,” he whispered.
She sat up, staring out of the window.
“Not even my family? My sisters would tell no one, I promise. They love me, just as I love them… my family think I am dead. They think they have lost me. How terrible it must be for them, not knowing the truth. If I told them… if I told them, then…”
When he spoke, his voice had changed. He became distant and somehow hollow.
“Tell them, and it is the end of our happiness.”
She turned back to where he must lie on the bed, shocked at his empty words.
“What do you mean?”
He did not answer for a while. She lay back down, close to him. She held him, caressing his skin. She sensed he was upset, but she could not think why.
“How can that be the end of our happiness? I will love you forever.”
“You will listen to them and they will lie to you.” The pain in his voice scared her.
“No.” She shook her head, holding his cheeks in her palms. “Never,” she promised.
“You will… and you will be lost to me.”
“I wish I could see your eyes, beloved. I wish I could see your face.”
He made no reply, and she sighed. She thought of her parents, of how they must feel having lost a child. She thought of her sisters, and missed them. She sighed.
“Very well. I just wish I could tell them I am alive, and living with such joy. It pains me to think how terrible they must feel, while I am so happy here. But I trust you. That is enough. I love you, soul of my soul, and if it pains you or worries you, then I will not bring it up again.”
This brought a terrible sigh from his lips. He wrenched away from her, and she thought he had left the bed entirely. She heard him pacing up and down. When he spoke, his voice was hoarse. So quiet she could barely hear him.
“I can deny you nothing! Write to them- I will see they get the letter. Tell them all you want. Invite your sisters here if you must, I will allow them one visit and one visit only.”
He crossed to her side once more so quickly his voice then made her jump.
“But promise me- promise me you will not heed their words! You must ignore their spite, their poison. You said you trust me- hold true to that trust.”
The desperation in his words caused her to feel a deep pang of fear. She flung herself into his arms, and felt them hold her. She leant into his strength, and his warmth.
“I promise. I will not listen to any awful things they might say. I trust you, I do. I love you with all my heart.”
She kissed him. The thought of seeing her sisters again brought a shimmering joy to her, and a wide smile to her lips.
“Thank you! You do not know how happy this makes me. Oh, thank you!”
Already forgetting his desperate words, she kissed him again, and deeper.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Inside was less forbidding.
Psyche saw nothing but opulence and magnificent comfort. The inner courtyard had been filled with a serene beauty that somehow clung to the air. Peacocks roamed the perfect grounds, wonderful flowers bloomed, the scent of summer filled her senses. She was taken in through huge, ornate doors to the cool shade inside. Paintings and statues stole her breath with their magnificence.
The servant who lead her did not speak, or even look at her. In return she made no sound, observing all but commenting on nothing. She was glad not to have to make conversation, or answer questions. Her apprehension silenced her.
Psyche held her breath as a tall set of doors were opened. Her name was called out, and she spent the briefest moment wondering how they knew her when she had not given away her name.
Her plan had been to enter the castle begging work, as a servant. She realised now that she had made the mistake of underestimating her opponent. Aphrodite was a goddess. She should never forget that for a moment.
And so she entered the grand hall. Nothing could have prepared her for it. Pillers and arches lined the chamber. The ceiling seemed to stretch upward forwever. Music played; soul-inspiring melodies that brought an ache to her chest. A throne sat at one end of the room, situated on a dias. It was carved of veined marble, and was so polished Psyche could almost see her reflection in it. Two little slave boys held giant feather in their hands, fanning the goddess who lounged on the throne.
As Psyche looked up at Aphrodite, her chest tightened.
Beauty had held no meaning for her, until that moment.
Golden hair seemed alive with an inner gleam, sparking and glowing. It fell to her waist in a perfect, silken cascade. Skin so pale it looked cold to the touch and without a single blemish. Eyes that dazzled like the bluest sky, sitting in a face so exquisite that is could steal a mortal's soul.
She wore mauve robes so light they were translucent, clasped with golden broaches and a girdle embroidered with gilded thread.
Psyche stared, and was lost for words.
The goddess raised an eyebrow.
“Well, well. I finally get to meet the mortal who has caused me so much grief.”
Psyche snapped out of her awe-inspired daze, and stared at the floor.
“Great Aphrodite, I am your humble servant, Psyche.”
Melodic laughter filled her ears, like the purest music. But it held a steely undertone that struck her heart cold.
“My humble servant? Girl, if any servant of mine had stolen from me what you have so unjustly taken, I would have had them killed several times over.”
Psyche breathed in deeply, aware that she trod on the thinnest of ice.
“And what have I stolen from you, Aphrodite? I have taken nothing that was not freely given. I have not-“
The goddess let out her breath in a hiss, springing gracefully to her feet. She seemed to glide down the marble steps, until she stood eye to eye with Pysche. She was taller, and her presense made Pysche feel like a child.
“You have caused me the world of trouble! How dare you? You have stolen my followers and you have stolen my son. The only reason that I do not strike you down, mortal, is that I will punish you first.”
Psyche felt herself grow pale.
“I did not steal either of them. I didn’t want those fools to worship me! It was awful. They would never leave me- I had to have a guard wherever I went. Even in my own bedchamber. No man would ever talk to me as I am, as a woman. No one even looked at me! My family sent me to my death, left me at the top of a cliff to appease a monster! All because of this worship. Why would I ever want that? Why would I ever steal that!”
Aphrodite sneered, her scorn like an acidic crown, gilding her beauty.
“Perhaps you enjoyed the attention.” Her words were sickly sweet.
“I hated every breathing moment of it.” Psyche whispered.
“Be that as it may, you cannot deny taking my son from me.”
Psyche looked at the floor once more.
“I cannot deny that I love him,” she said softly. “But I loved him before I knew whose son he is.” She looked up at the goddess, beseechingly. “But you, Aphrodite, you must understand love better than anyone- god or mortal. You must know how the heart does not chose its mate, and how much it aches to be with that person.”
“He is not yours to love!” The goddess's voice was shrieked in rage.
Psyche dropped to her knees. The sound shook in her mind, echoed about the room. She suddenly felt cold, and she shivered.
“I have come to beg of you, goddess, that you tell me where I can find your son. I beg that you let me know where he is, so that I might go to him.”
Aphrodite fell silent and still, her venomous fury seemingly waned. Her face became blank for long moments, before a dangerous glint lit her eyes. A slow, creul smile slid across her face, highlighting her perfection.
“Of course you have, little mortal. Am I right in thinking you are willing to perform a few tasks first? To prove you are worthy? To demonstrate your forgiveness?”
Psyche nodded without thinking.
“Anything. I’ll do anything you want.”
The smile deepend with a feline smugness.
“Excellent… well- as my humble servant, I'm sure you won't mind the first task.”
“Yes. I think a little servitude might do you some good.” The goddess turned and called to a hovering lackey.“Take her down to the kitchens and have her get to work.”
She turned back to Psyche once more.
“I have no need of such things, but my mortal servants seem to require these necessities. You will accomplish any work given you by my- staff. I will consider your plea further in the mean time. Now… you may leave my presense.”
With a wave of her delicate hand, Psyche was dismissed. The goddess turned her back, and began to ascend the steps of her throne.
Psyche stood in bewilderment. She did not believe she was being sent away, as if her request meant nothing. Servitude… she was not afraid of working. But for how long? Aphrodite had given her no deffinite answer. For a goddess, time was infinite! A few moments, a few days for her might be several liftimes for Psyche. She might spend the rest of her lifetime slaving away in some kitchen, following every order she was given- and Aphrodite might never even give her a second thought.
“No…” she whispered. This couldn’t happen!
But strong hands took her by the arms and began to lead her away. She was taken from the throne room, and left silently. She had no idea whether further protestation might anger the goddess. She had no way of knowing where she stood in this situation. Her last glimpse of her lover’s mother, was of the goddess reclining on her glorious throne, being fanned by the slave boys and serenaded by music.
She looked as if nothing had even happened, as if she had never left her throne.
Psyche felt despair well in her chest, and for a moment it was hard to breathe.
But she told herself to keep going, not to give up. If it meant she could see him one last time, even for a moment, it would all be worth it.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
She had woken at dawn that morning, in anticipation of their arrival.
Invisible hands had prepared the castle, so that all lay ready in waiting. Her husband had left early, gone before she had opened her eyes. She knew that he would not be there for her sisters' visit. He had not needed to tell her, but she had sensed it would be so.
Zephyrus brought them at noon. With the midday sun they came, in a flurry of the forest leaves. Psyche ran out of the castle to meet them, as they stumbled onto firm land, their faces flushed and their eyes wide. She called out their names, unable to keep the laughter and joy she felt from bubbling up. Tears of happiness prickled her eyes, and she swept both sisters into her arms, holding them tightly.
“I’m so glad you’re here! Oh, but how I have missed you!”
They said nothing, simply returning her embrace. Their silence continued as she showed them the palace, where she lived. She explained the unseen servants, telling them that if they should want for anything, they had only to ask and it would be provided.
They said nothing as she showed them the grounds, and described her love for her husband. They exchanged looks as she told them how she adored him, and how wonderfully happy they were together.
“Where is he now?” her eldest sister asked her.
“Now?” she echoed.
“Well, of course! Should he too not be here to meet us?” asked the other.
She felt the wind billow from her sails, leaving her floating aimlessly on still waters.
“Well, he- he… had to go away. He wanted to stay, and -he sends his regards, but he… just couldn’t be here,” she finished lamely.
Another look was exchanged, this time it was pointed. Like a blade in the night.
She summoned waning enthusiasm, and led them back inside. She asked how their parents fared. They spent the rest of the afternoon exchanging news, and she learnt of all that had passed since she had left. Both her sisters were now married to kings, and both had given birth to their first children. She could not contain her joy at this news, and hugged them both mercilessly.
“That is brilliant news. How wonderful! I have two little nephews, and I didn’t even know it.”
Her joy dissipated for a moment at that thought. She sat back in her chair, downcast.
“I do miss home. I have missed you all terribly. I wish that… that I could just, maybe once or twice…”
“But of course you miss us! It is only natural.”
“We are both married, but our husbands allow us to return home when we wish it! Your husband keeps you locked up here, as if...“
She looked up at her sister, shocked.
“As if what?” she asked, confused.
“Well… as if he fears to let you go.”
“It is obvious he has something to hide. Why else would he never let you leave?”
“No!” She laughed at them, shaking her head. “It is not like that at all! There is nothing to hide-“
“Why, then, have you never seen his face?"
“Why else is he not here now?”
She opened her mouth to argue, but found she couldn’t.
They smiled sympathetically at her, and put their arms around her, comforting her.
“It is alright, little sister. We understand you feel trapped.”
“Stuck here all alone, with a husband you are bound to through no fault of your own.”
“Yes, he has caught you in this gilded cage.”
She found herself close to tears, as if some floodgate had been opened inside.
“I have been so lonely… I have no one to talk to when he is not here.”
“And just think, you have never seen him…”
“Not even a glimpse, in the dark!”
Tears trickled down her cheeks, and she leaned into their strength, letting them hold her.
“He says he cannot show me who he is. He says it would put us both in danger.”
They stroked her hair, soothing her weeping.
“There, there, little one.”
“We will help you. Just do as we say, and all will be well.”
“Indeed- you must find out who he is!”
“You are in grave peril until you find out his indentity!”
She looked up.
“How he has brainwashed you!”
“Just think- what did the oracle say?”
“That you would marry a creature so powerful Zeus himself fears it.”
“A winged being, quicker than any mortal.”
“Don’t you see?”
She shook her head, remembering the terrible day her parents had returned from the oracle, bearing the news of whom their beautiful daughter was destined to marry.
“You are married to a monster!”
“A terrible monster- feared by the king of the gods!”
She shook her head.
“No- he is not a monster!”
“How can you say that?”
“You cannot know for sure until you see his face.”
Doubt filled her heart. She felt herself flouder in uncertainty.
“I-I know him. I love him... he is no monster.”
Her sister looked at one another, their faces so full of pity that she began to think perhaps she was just being stubborn, ignoring their advice. She did not believe her husband was a monster- she could never believe such a thing.
But she could not deny being curious.
She had never tried to look at him, once he had asked her not to. But she wondered, for hours sometimes, about what he looked like. Whether he was fair or dark, plain or handsome. She had felt his body, she knew he was a strong, athletic man. Yet the wonder of his face had been denied her.
Surely it couldn’t hurt to look? She could not imagine how such an innocent indulgence could put anyone in danger.
“He is no monster, sisters… but I agree that I should… I should find out what he looks like.”
They smiled at her, twin grins of satisfaction.
“We knew you would see sense.”
“You are our sister, still.”
She smiled back at them, her joy returning.
“He shows himself only at night, when the darkness cloaks his image from me.”
“Then it is at night that you must act.”
“Hide a lamp under your pillow, and when he is asleep, light it.”
“Look upon his body, see his face.”
“Then you will know.”
She nodded, laughing at their seriousness.
“I will do as you say. And when I have looked upon his face, I will tell you both how I am married to the most beautiful man alive!”
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
She had lost track of how much time had passed. She thought that perhaps she had spent her entire life here, and that the other memories were just a dream that faded a little more each day.
Psyche often wondered why Aphrodite had mortal servants, when Eros had been able to create invisible wraiths to carry out their orders. She supposed the goddess enjoyed it, and felt it a mortals proper place, to abjectly wait upon their deity.
Psyche found herself trying not to hate Aphrodite, and found it harder and harder. She told herself she had not been forgotten, that this was not all for nothing. But her courage waned, just as her memories of happier times slowly vanished.
And then she was summoned. A messenger was sent to bring her back to the hall. Psyche nearly dropped the dish she had held.
There was no point in trying to smarten up. Her clothes were ragged, her face and hair were a mess. She knew no one would ever mistake her for the goddess of love and beauty again. The thought was strangely comforting.
And so she was brought back into Aphrodite's throne room. She stood as she had done before, and hoped that her exhaustion was not overly obvious. Juding by the satisfied smirk on Aphrodite's face, she thought that this hope was wasted.
“I wish I could say that hard work agreed with you, girl, but I would be lying.”
Psyche ignored the comment.
“I have decided that I will allow you to see my son.”
Wondrous joy exploded in her heart, and she gasped. A silly smile spread across her face and she felt like laughing out loud.
“Thank you, oh thank-“
“After you have completed three tasks that I choose to set for you.”
Emptiness tripped her joy, shattering it. Psyche closed her eyes, willing the pain to leave her chest.
“Three tasks?” she asked, her voice hoarse.
“One task for the trouble you caused me, posing as a goddess. The second task for the grief you caused me, stealing my son from my side. And the third task for the pain you have inflicted on my son, betraying his trust and breaking his heart.”
“What?” Psyche breathed, bewildered.
“Oh yes, you have hurt him, mortal. When you disregarded your word to him, ignoring his advice. He is a broken god, as of late, beacause of the pain you caused.”
She closed her eyes, trying to hold back the tears. Im sorry… she whispered in her mind. She had spent hours wondering whether he could hear her when she spoke to him like this. The thought kept her going, and she prayed he knew how much she was truly sorry for what she had done.
“I will do as you ask, Aphrodite.”
“Excellent. Now, your first task.”
The goddess rose from her seat, and walked towards Psyche. As she did so, the room around them blurred and merged into another room, this one much smaller and quieter. Psyche swayed as the world finished spinning around them both, trying to regain her balance. The goddess strode calmly around the room, which seemed a storage chamber of sorts, full of sacks.
Aphrodite rose her hands slowly, and the sacks levitated.
“This is where I keep the grain I feed my doves.”
The hands stopped, and the sacks hovered in the air.
“Your first task, mortal…”
She turned her palms so that they faced the ground. The sacks turned too, and hundreds of tons of grain began to spill onto the floor, filling the room with a hissing, rushing sound. After a minute of this roaring, Psyche looked around herself in dismay, as she found herself knee-deep in dove-feed.
“… is to separate all the different grains, into five piles...”
Psyche looked up at Aphrodite in horror, as she finished speaking.
“...by sunrise, tomorrow.”
“No...” she gasped.
Aphrodite raised an eyebrow.
“Is there a problem, girl?”
“The task is impossible! I could not hope to complete it in days, let alone hours!”
A wry, uncaring smile.
“Well, perhaps you should have thought of that before you seduced my son.”
And Aphrodite was gone.
Psyche gazed around herself at the mass of grain. She could not even discern the varieties- let alone begin to separate them all. She sobbed, collapsing to her knees in despair. Tears began to fall, as she realised how hopless her situation was.
“It is impossible…” she whispered. “I have failed already.”
She began to weep, her shoulders shaking as she vented her despair in great gasping sobs.
She had been a fool, all along. She should never have come here. She should have tried harder to find him, she shouldn’t have given up so quickly. Then she might have found him. She could have been in his arms right this very moment…
The thought sent lancing pain through her chest, as if the heartache ripped her asunder. Her choking sobs became louder, and she hugged herself as tight as she could, trying to contain the despair.
She rocked to and fro.
“It's impossible…” she whispered to herself.
Through the grief, Psyche felt a strange sensation on her left hand. The insistant tickle permeated her tears, and she fell still. She brought her hand up to her face, and saw a little black ant on her index finger. It crawled over her finger tip until it seemed to stare right back into her eyes.
>We will help you, fair one.<
A small voice, in her ear. Small, but Psyche could hear each word perfectly. She did not blink, she did not move.
“How?” she asked, unable to keep the despair form her voice as she addressed the little ant.
She imagined that it smiled.
>Leave it to us.<
And it turned, crawling back down her finger. She watched for a moment, trying to grasp what was happening. Unable to understand, she lowered her hand to the floor, and saw that there were several hundred ants, already moving through the grain, sorting it efficiently.
She sobbed once more, but this time, it was with hope. Sudden, shimmering hope.
Come sunrise, the goddess returned. She entered the storage room to find Psyche sweeping the floor, moving in between five, perfect piles of grain. The mortal looked up, and smiled.
“I have done as you asked. Each pile contains a different grain.”
She watched as Aphrodite’s face crumpled into a dark scowl. Horrified fury marred the perfection, shadowing it.
She forced herself to sound bright and cheerful, finding courage from a place she hadn’t known exsisted.
“What is next?”
The goddess howled with anger, striking the nearest pile with her fists so that the grain scattered across the room, in turn destroying every other pile. Psyche ran to the door, avoiding the destruction of so many hours work. She had helped the ants as best she could, but they had worked so well that all she had done was get in the way. Now, she grieved at the devastation of their work. But she remained silent, suddeenly fearful of what the goddess might strike down next.
Aphrodite spun on Psyche, rage glittering like the ocean in her eyes.
“How dare you! You couldn’t possibly have done this on your own!”
Psyche said nothing. She watched as the goddess seemed to realise something, and her anger cooled.
“Very well..." she mumured to herself.
She stepped back, flicked her hair and smiled. The glowing beauty returned.
"I congratulate you on the completion of you first task. However, I feel that it is only correct that you start your next task immediately.”
“I agree.” Psyche spoke, mirroring the goddess’s calm voice.
“Do you. Well, no doubt you have heard of the golden-fleeced sheep that live on the other side of the river?”
Psyche had heard servants discussing the herd a couple of times. Apparently their fleece was spun of the finest gold. It shone in the sun, glittered at night. They were Aphrodite’s flock, and anyone caught touching them would die a painful death. Psyche swallowed, wondering what the goddess was planning this time.
“I know them," she said, fighting to keep her voice even.
“For this next task, all I ask is that you collect a golden lock from each sheep in the herd. I will set no time limit, but if you do not return in three nights time, I will assume you have given up, and fled.”
The sheep were kept a day’s walk from here. That left her an entire day in which to harvest fleece. Psyche frowned. It was a perfectly possible task.
“Very well… I accept.”
The smile widened.
“You may start today.”
“I wish you the best of luck, mortal.”
And she was gone.
Psyche did not move for a moment. There had been something strange in the goddess’s voice. It had been victory, Psyche was sure of it.
She shook the thought out of her head, and left the room.
It was not difficult to leave the castle. She had worked and lived here long enough to know her way around. And so she made her way through familiar corridors, until she left the castle. She slipped through the great gates, watched by no one but the gaurds. She struck out in the direction of the fields, and she made her way to the second test.
The flock was kept in a beautiful meadow. Psyche reached it on the second day of her journey, as she had hoped she would. The sun was not quite at its zenith, and its gentle autumn light played on the surface of the river before her. It divided her from her goal, and as she studied it she searched for a way across. On the other side she could see the glinting sheep, lazily grazing in their field.
This task had been simple. She had half expected Aphrodite to have arranged for her to befall some accident on the roads. But she had reached this place unscathed, stopping only to ask directions from a local farmer. He had only told her how to reach the river, he had given no instruction as to how to cross it. But the water was not overly deep, and the banks were not far apart. Psyche thought she could wade across if she needed to, but would prefer to find a bridge or ford if she could.
And so she walked the length of the banks, mindful that she should not waste time, and enjoying the beautiful day at the same time. It did not take her long to find a place to cross.
As she leaned over the side, to see how deep the water was, three faces loomed from beneath the shadowed surface. Psyche leapt back, a scream on her lips. She fell over and landed in the clay. She looked up, her breath quick and shallow with fear. Before her stood three drenched maidens, each hip-deep in the water. They regarded her thoughtfully, their hair slick and dripping, their skin wet and their bodies naked. Psyche stared with her mouth open. Long seconds passed, and her fear began to abate. They had not attacked her, only regarded her. She found her voice.
“Who- who are you?” she croaked.
One woman cocked her head, the others seemed to ignore her question.
She realised, finally, that they were not human. She thought perhaps they were water nymphs, or river spirits. Her fear returned, though it seemed like a dim ember in her chest.
“What do you- can I help you, in some way?” she asked.
All three shook their heads. Psyche felt herself surrendering to bewilderment, when the centre nymph spoke. Her voice was pure and light, almost as if she were singing.
“You must not cross this river.”
“But I must! I have to reach the other side, so I can-“
All three hissed so venomously that she fell silent, flinching away from them.
“You must not cross!”
“Not until the sun has set.”
“May I… may I ask why?”
They smiled sweetly at her.
“The task you are given is a trap, set to spring.”
“The flock is dangerous to mortals. By sunlight the beasts will tear you apart.”
“By moonlight, they sleep. Cross then, and live.”
Psyche felt her eyes grow wide.
“She thought to kill me...”
The three women nodded in synchronisation. Psyche realised the goddess had assumed that the sheep would kill her. Then Eros would truly have thought she abandoned him. She cursed her own stupidity for trusting Aphrodite.
Looking up at the nymphs once more, she was shocked to find them gone. She crawled to the edge pf the river, and looked once more into the waters. But there was no trace of them. They had vanished.
“Why did you help me…?” she whispered.
Pushing the question away, she looked up at the sky. She would have to wait until nightfall, then. Once the flock slept she would cross the river, and steal a golden lock from each sheep, without waking them. Having done that, she would leave immediately for the castle, and hope she could make it back in a day.
She would not fail.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
She waited a few days, allowing the memory of her sisters’ visit to fade from her husband’s mind. He seemed apprehensive, as if he were waiting for his imagined disaster to fall on them both. She smiled at him, at the empty space he occupied. She whispered words of comfort to him, and held him close to her heart.
She loved him so desperately. She longed to see what he looked like, and could not contain her excitement.
And so, on the fifth night after her sisters’ departure, she took a lamp with her to bed. When he was not in the room, she hid it under her pillow. She had practised lighting it in the dark, and knew she could do it.
Then it was simply a matter of waiting. Waiting for him to fall asleep, waiting for his breathing to deepen and for his form to lie still. She held her breath in the dark. Her heart thumped wildly in her chest, racing palpatations that must surely keep him awake.
When she knew he slept, she took a deep, steadying breath. She calmed her excitement and moved slowly in the bed. She drew the lamp out from under the pillow, and she lit it.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Aphrodite’s eyes narrowed as the girl walked back into her throne room, carrying a sack. She knew it carried a golden, shimmering burden. Fury leapt like wildfire in her heart. Through gritted teeth, she spoke.
“Congratulation, Psyche! You have completed another task.”
The girl glowered up at her, and dumped the sack unceremoniously at her feet.
Psyche stared up at Aphrodite, her heart suddenly hardened. She had discovered the goddess’s game, and she found she no longer cared. Eros was gone. It was her own fault, and he wasn’t coming back.
“Yes, I completed it. Now, what is the last task. I wish for this to be over with. I am sick of your tricks.”
Aphrodite laughed mercilessly.
“Understanding the rules, at last, little mortal? Do you still think to beat the gods at their own game?”
Psyche shook her head.
“I have been honest, Aphrodite. I have not lied or manipulated.”
“You dare think yourself above me? You dare think yourself better than a goddess!”
“No. I think I am above deception and cheating to get my way. I believe I am better than a spoilt brat with no thought but for her own gain.”
The goddess became very still, and an icy wind seemed to blow through the chamber. When she spoke, her voice was like an empty void.
“Very well. Your last task, then. All I ask, is that you run an errand for me. I left something with one of my dearest friends, and I want you to return it to me. Your task is to go to Persephone. Travel to the Underworld, and collect my box from her. Return it to me, and you will have completed all the tasks. Then, and only then, I will allow you to see my son.”
Psyche felt hollow. Not only would she fail to complete this task, no matter who helped her... it would kill her. She would die trying. For no mortal could go to the Underworld and return.
She opened her mouth to protest, but thought better of it. At least this way she would not have to live with the knowledge that she had failed him. Failed him, and failed to tell him she was sorry, that she loved him. To tell him...
He was lost, and she was doomed. Why had she expected anything less?
“I'll do it,” she whispered. “I will attempt this last task.”
Aphrodite smiled broadly.
“I will give you one piece of advice, mortal.”
“Yes?” Psyche looked up, barely daring to hope that Aphrodite might let her survive this.
“Don’t open the box.”
Psyche glared at the goddess, despising her for her taunting.
And she turned to leave, knowing that as she walked from the hall, from the castle, Aphrodite sat watching her, grinning madly.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
The lamp’s warm little light had filled their bed chamber. Her husband’s shadowed form had been illuminated, and her eyes had fallen on her lover for the first time.
The sight of him stole her breath. She gazed at the perfect figure, the flawless skin, the angelic face. He was beautiful. Wholely, and purely beautiful. Her heart ached to see him, just as she had known he must be.
But then she saw the wings, for the first time. Her mind spun as she saw the way they stretched out from his back, stunningly majestic. Then she looked around, and saw the bow with its quiver of golden arrows. She realised just who her husband was.
Her sisters had been right, he wasn’t human at all.
Her hand flew to her mouth as the implications of what she saw sunk in. Her right hand wobbled, and a drop of hot oil fell, landing on her husband's shoulder. He stirred, turned and woke.
He opened his perfect blue eyes to find her staring at him with tears rolling down her face. Horror flooded his fair features.
“No…” he whispered. “I told you not to listen…”
The hurt in his voice wounded her, and she broke down completely.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
She tried to hold him, but he flinched away, the look in his eyes not wavering for a moment. Psyche sobbed, feeling as if he had struck her with that small movement.
She stared at the god sitting in her bed, and felt fear for the first time.
“You- you’re…” Words escaped her. “Why didn’t you tell me? How could you lie to me?”
He shook his head.
“Trust. Trust was all I asked of you. But you broke your promise. You betrayed me, and now… now she will know. She will find us and…” His gaze sharpened.
She felt herself floundering in countless emotions that she could not control or understand. Her mind could not let go of the fact that he was a God, that she was married to a God. The shock did not let her breathe, and she could only stare at him, and wonder how this had happened.
Her love for him wrapped around it all, choking her. As she stared at his divine beauty she could not help but feel her love growing like a vine, uncontrolled and unchecked.
At the same time, he was looking at her as if she had wounded him. As if she had done the most terrible thing imaginable. She didn’t like the look. It made her squirm with fear, and she knew something awful was about to happen. Something she could not stop, no matter how much she wanted to.
“What's happening?” she whispered weakly.
He looked at her with a mixture of love and pity. She held her breath with hope in that moment, but the look was extinguished with hurt.
“I have to go. I cannot stay any longer.”
“No!” she moaned, reaching for him. “Don’t leave me, don’t go-“
“My mother will find us. I cannot let that happen.” His voice quivered with emotion.
She shook her head, as if such a futile action could stop him.
He stood, backing away from her. She stared into his anguished eyes and begged shamlessly.
"Don't go! Don't leave me, please..."
He shook his head slowly, closing his eyes. Psyche fell silent, and began to shake.
Everything grew dark, until he disappeared. The room around her dissolved into shadow.
“I'm sorry…” she whispered.
And then the darkness vanished. And she was alone.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Psyche stood on top of the tower. It was the first building she had found, once out of Aphrodite's kingdom. Old and crumbling, an ancient centinel standing guard over the land. She had climbed to the top, pulling herself up inch by inch over the decaying stone.
It had taken a while. It had taken her all day and half the night just to leave the goddess's kingdom, and now she stood on the edge of oblivion, watching the sunrise over the tree tops.
She found herself feeling strangely empty when she thought of what had happened, and how she came to this point. Her life had taken the strangest of turns. A path she could never have imagined for herself. She wasn’t sorry that it had happened. Who could ever wish love hadn’t found them? Certainly not someone who had loved truly and deeply. She wouldn’t change a thing, if it meant she spent a second less with him.
But she felt a heavy guilt, a constricting grief for what she had done, for what she had caused. It was her own fault that she stood here now. Her own fault, completely. She could not lay the blame on anyone else, she could not even ask why. She knew what she had done, even if she did not fully understand it.
Her only regret was not seeing him one last time. She had gone half mad missing him, needing him. She longed, even now, to feel his hands on her, to hear his voice whispering. Even if she could not see him, she wished he could be with her one last time.
She stood on the edge of the tower, and felt a moment of uncertainty. She had been in this place before. He had saved her then, but wouldn't break her fall again. There was more at stake this time, so much more. And yet she would never see him again. She could not live with that knowledge. He would never know...
This thought tightened her resolve, and she closed her eyes.
“I’m sorry…I didn’t listen to you. I’ve done all I could. I'm sorry it wasn’t enough…”
The wind caressed her cheeks, drying her tears. The sun rose, shedding light on the world. The last sunrise.
She wiped her eyes, sniffing, and took a deep breath. It was time. Now or never.
She took a step closer to the edge.
“There is another way,” a voice whispered in her ear.
Psyche stopped, staring down at the ground beneath her. Her breath caught in her throat. She had asked to be with him one last time. She had not expected her wish to be answered. So many things to say, so many thoughts and feelings to explain.
But no time, no time at all. She sniffed and spoke with a hollow voice.
“There is only one way for a mortal to enter the Underworld. This is it.”
Her heart leapt in the silence. Maybe she had imagined it, maybe he had left her…
“I know another.”
She swallowed. Time seemed to hover in that moment, as she thought of all that had happened. She held his memory close in her heart, and she feared that she might have to let it go if she asked the question in her mind. Yet the words burned in her thoughts, and she could not help but ask. She did not dare hope what his answer might be, what it might mean.
“It was you, wasn’t it? The ants, the nymphs. You told them to help me.”
He said nothing.
“I wont ask why. I don’t dare ask why.”
“There will be time for explanations later. For now, just listen.”
And he told her how there was an entrance, in Taenarum, to the south. She must journey there, and descend the staircase she would find. She must take with her two pieces of barley bread, dipped in honey. She must use these to distract the gatekeeper. Then, she must use a coin to pay Charon to cross the river. He would take her to Persephone, who would give her the box she needed. Then she could return the way she came, paying the boatman another coin.
“Is that all?” she whispered dryly.
He laughed softly. There was the barest moment of silence as he waited for her response.
"I will do it," she said softly.
“The dead will call out to you, but you must not heed them. Do not even speak to them.”
She nodded. This time she would listen to him. She would not ignore his advice again.
“I will be in Taenarum, for your return."
She swallowed and nodded. Their parting grew closer.
"Very well. Until I return."
The wind blew a little harder, so that she felt it on her skin, in her hair. She closed her eyes, letting hot tears fall, only to be brushed away by the wind.
"Until then," he murmured.
Then the wind fell still, his voice fell silent. He was gone.
It was easy, so easy, in the end. It was the simplest thing in the world for a mortal to enter the Underworld.
Taenarum was on the other side of the land, but she reached it eventually. She had become used to travelling, and found she slipped easily back into the routine of it. As she travelled she felt the season change around her, until winter held its grip over the land.
She finally reached the entrance, and held her breath at the darkness of it. As if it sucked out all the light from exsistence. She felt afraid in those moments, but pushed herself onwards and downwards. It was the only direction left, afterall.
The Underworld was cold. Not in a biting, frosty, wintry way. Not a healthy, earthly cold that caused goosebumps or made one shiver. It was a much emptier, deader chill that penetrated Psyche's core, causing her mind to fill with dark thoughts.
But she pressed on, forcing her feet to tread the path ahead, one foot before the other. She walked through shadow, the surface beneath her feet hard but slick with moisture. She held tight to the contents of her purse. Two tarnished copper pennies and honey-dipped barley bread.
She reached the edge of the great lake, and smelt the damp decay. She heard the lapping of the water, and the sound of a boat drawing nearer. As she waited for the boatman, she fought the urge to let the emptiness consume her.
No ants, no sprites... not even the wind. She was alone, and must complete this task without aid.
Charon reached the bank, and held out a skeletal hand. She eyed it warily, conscious that it was the hand of death he offered. Psyche took a deep breath, produced a coin, and entered the boat.
The sun shone, and a light breeze carressed the green grasses as they swayed and danced. A sweet scent clung to the air, and serenity reigned.
Eros looked down upon the lands surrounding Olympus, and found them much as they had always been. Things rarely changed here.
He entered Olympus as discreetly as he could, and made his way to the throne room, where Zeus held court. The various gods and goddesses looked upon him in shock, and the crowd parted. Eros stalked down the hall, ignoring the fear in his erstwhile victims' eyes.
Zeus looked upon him in displeasure.
"What is he doing here?" The mighty voice rumbled like thunder, and Eros dropped to his knees in respect.
"My lord, I come with a request."
There was a shocked moment of silence, and several collective sighs of relief could be heard.
"You dare come here asking for a boon? After all the grief you have caused me, boy! I have lost count of the number of times you-"
"I beg your forgiveness, Lord."
Zeus raised an eyebrow, and remainded pensive for a moment.
"What is this request, then?"
Relief washed over him. He had been uncertain as to whether Zeus would listen to him. Given his past actions, he was not popular with many of Olympus's inhabitants. But, given the circumstances, he had been willing to risk anything. A last resort, of sorts.
"Speak, boy! What is the problem?"
Eros had planned a speach, words he had hoped would sway the God of Gods to his side. But he suddenly felt he could not express this. It was beyond words, and trying would only highlight the failing. So he spoke from his heart, and hoped simple honesty was enough.
"Love, my Lord."
Zeus rolled his eyes.
"Not again. And who has been your arrow's target this time, eh? I warned you, I refused to bail you out again. And I swear by all that is-"
"I am, Lord. I am the victim of love."
Unbroken silence held for unbearable, long moments. Eros whispered once more.
"I have fallen victim to the pain of love."
Zeus laughed mirthlessly, his soft scorn almost fatherly.
"So you have been hit with your own weapon, is that it? I confess, I had heard rumours... And so you come to me, begging that I undo the spell?"
"No! No, my lord, a hundred times no! I would never wish to lose this love. Never."
"Explain yourself, Cupid." Zeus's tones were dangerous.
He found the courage from somewhere, a deep place he had forgotten.
"I have fallen in love with a mortal woman."
There were a couple of gasps, mainly from the younger courtiers present. Zeus himself did not bat an eyelid.
"I fail to see the difficulty of this situation. Surely such a woman- a mortal- is firmly within your reach. Take what you want and be done."
He gripped his fists tight, steeling himself against his natural reaction when such words were spoken. He managed to control the blazing fury in his heart to hear her spoken of in such a way. Now was not the place.
"I- agree, my lord. Such a situation would normally be simply rectified. But in this case, it is not so."
"Oh?" Zeus's tone was flatly unamused.
"Oh creation!" Zeus rolled his eyes and sighed irritatedly. "I'm begining to see where this is leading. I swear- between the two of you, you have caused me the world of trouble, again and again! "
"And for that, I whole heartedly apologise. I know that so far my actions have been those of an immature youth, a spoilt boy with no care but for himself-"
"It is only now that you realise this?"
He bowed his head, regretting his outburst.
"Yes, my lord."
"Well, then I-"
Everyone turned to see Demeter stand from the crowd. She spoke softly but with a power that stilled everything. Her calm confidence sliced through the hall, and her fair but aging face looked on, unwavering. Zeus recovered from his interruption and spoke evenly.
"I ask that you hear the boy out. The mortal girl came to me, whilst searching for him. She is pregnant with his child, and I believe their love to be pure. Please- just listen to what he has to say. If nothing else, it is an entertaining tale."
His mind reeled. A child...? He had not known Psyche had spoken to Demeter... A child! Unbridled joy simmered in his heart, and he laughed out loud. All faces turned to him, many of them disproving.
He sobered his expression and looked at Demeter as she nodded to him. This was his chance. His only chance.
Eros turned back to Zeus and began to tell the tale of how he had come to meet Psyche, whilst under orders from his mother to ruin her.
He told the tale in its entirety, taking his time and leaving very little out. He had them laughing, and crying- Gods and Goddesses weeping openly at the plight of one mortal! He spun the story, throwing all he had of himself into it. He did all that he could and hoped beyond the stars that the truth would be enough.
Psyche entered Persephone's chambres apprehensively. She looked around, and found that these rooms held a warmth, a soft glowing light that somehow countered the emptiness of death.
Persephone stood by a window, her face lit with sunlight. Psyche wondered where that window looked upon, for such earthly light to shine through. Certainly, nowhere down here.
The Queen looked up as her mortal guest entered, a smile of ice on her face.
She curtsied, hoping this was the correct thing to do. Persephone showed no emotion. She gestured to a chair.
"You must be weary after all your travelling. Please, rest yourself."
Psyche recalled what the voice on the tower had told her. The voice of the wind.
She thought of a polite way to refuse the invitation, knowing that to sit upon the chair was to forget life, to lose all memory of what might have come before.
"I am tired, but I... I fear my travelling clothes may dirty such exquisite upholstery."
Persephone nodded, her face inanimate.
"Very well, stand."
She crossed the room to the table decked in every imaginable delicacy. Psyche felt her stomach hungering desperately for food as she gazed at the fare. Persephone took a handful of grapes and ate them one by one.
"Help yourself, girl. You will find nothing lacking in my hospitality."
She burned to try just the smallest morsel. But his words in her mind cooled her hunger.
"Thank you, but I am fine. I have eaten recently."
Persephone stopped eating and dropped the grapes. They rolled across the stone floor.
"Don't wish to make the same mistake as me, hm?"
Psyche stared at the beautiful, remote Queen. She had been torn from her home and tricked into staying in the awful place. Psyche felt sympathy mingle with sorrow in her heart. Persephone shook her head.
"We have no Pity down here, child. So don't you dare look at me with her shining in your eyes."
Psyche lowered her gaze to the floor.
"I am here on Aphrodite's bequest. She asks that I return to her a box you keep."
Persephone walked to a shelf where an innocent wooden box hid in the shadows.
"This is the one. I have filled it as she asked."
Her hands brushed those of the Goddess. Psyche felt their icy chill, and shrank from her as soon as the box was in her arms.
"Thank you," she said, bowing her head.
Persephone made no responce, simply stared at Psyche.
"Tell me, mortal. How do you find our world... our Underworld?"
She searched for words, but could find none that would not give offence. Psyche felt her mouth hanging open like a fool's, but she could think of nothing.
Persephone laughed bitterly.
"It is a wretched place, is it not?"
She swallowed down the fear that rose in her stomach.
"Yes, my lady. I find it empty of all things."
The Queen fell still.
"And yet you found our entrance, did you not. Found a way in, avoiding death."
"I was informed that this was the way that would allow me to return."
"And Gaia... tell me, what is the season like? It is winter, is it not?"
"It is. The sun shines thinly, the leaves have fallen. Crisp cold air freezes the world, and snow falls in the mountains. The ground is frozen underfoot, and frost gilds the land."
The Queen turned her back, and walked back to ther window. Psyche watched her for a moment, and wondered what to do.
"My lady?" she asked quietly. "My lady, shall I leave?"
When Persephone did not answer, Psyche assumed she had been dismissed. She turned and exited the way she had come in, but stopped at the door.
"It is easy to fall in love with them." Persephone's voice was distant, but it caused her to look back. "These Gods. So easy to fall for their charms, before you realise the price to be paid."
The Queen's auburn hair fell long and free down her back, contrasted to her pale skin like fire on snow.
"But to stand by that love, depsite the hardships you experience... that takes courage, Psyche."
She stared for long moments at the melancholy sight of Persephone, before leaving. She would never forget the sight of her, desolate and hollow, staring out of a false window into false sunlight.
She slipped past the gaurdian and returned to Charon where he waited. Another coin bought her return passage. As she sat in the boat, and the boatsman's pole propelled them through the darkly glassy waters, Psyche closed her eyes to the moaning and the pleading of the dead. She closed her eyes and wished she could block the sounds out altogether. Their voices pulled at her heart, but she resisted the urge to help them. She had come too far to fail now.
And so she made it to the other side, and clutching the box she ascended back to Gaia. The land of Taenarum met her eyes, and she blinked in the blinding sunlight.
"I did it!" she cried out to herself, completely alone. "I did it!"
She twirled on the spot, happiness turning her giddy. She fell to the icy ground, laughing and unable to stop smiling. She gazed up at the bleak sky with joy in her heart.
It was over. She had completed all three tasks, she had succeeded in everything Aphrodite had set her. Now she would be with him again, she would see her lover, hold him and touch him and tell him...
Tell him her secret.
Her hand slipped to her stomach unbidden, and she imagined she felt a little warmth there, the spark of new life inside her. She hadn't known until she had spoken to Demeter, her last resort before seeking out Aphrodite. The goddess had been unable to help, but she had offered her hope- a priceless gift.
And now it was done. She had passed her trials, survived the tests. It was over.
She had beaten Aphrodite at her own game.
Granted, she had had divine assistance, and would never have been able to do it on her own. But her elation in that moment would not let her cast any solemnity on her victory.
A dark part of her rejoiced in this defeat of her enemy. But it was a small, feral part and the other Psyche inside simply rejoiced in anticipation of seeing her beloved once more.
Her fingers found the box. It was beautifully crafted, like everything the Gods surounded themselves with. The grain of the wood gleamed under polished varnish, its waxy surface flawless. It was lighter than she had expected, as if it were empty.
Psyche studied it thoughtfully. She would not put it past Aphrodite to have requested she risk her life for something so trivial as an empty box. She had assumed it contained jewels or treasure or... something godly.
What was inside it?
She bit her lip. Last time her curiosity got the better of her, her world had shattered. It was the reason she was sat here alone, surounded by nothing but empty fields.
The darkness inside told her not to be ridiculous. It was over, she no longer feared Aphrodite. Eros was her's once more. What could it hurt, just to take a peak?
And so her fingers moved, and she unslipped the catch. As she opened the box she heard the sound of wings above her. She looked up, but it was too late, the box's contents spilled out, snaring her in their spell.
Her body fell slack, and her head hit the ground. She thought she saw an angel leaning over her, and she whispered,
But then darkness claimed her, and she could not fight it.
When she awoke, she was in another place entirely.
She thought she recognised it, as if it were the memory of a dream. She looked about herself and saw white pillars, marble halls, gilded decoration. The peace seemed to penetrate all, and she shook her head fuzzily.
"Where am I...?" she croaked.
A hand lifted her, so that she rose to a seated position. She turned and saw him, gazing tenderly at her. Her world seemed to melt into him, and she lost herself in his eyes. Wordlessly she leaned into him, feeling his body solidly wrap around her. He enclosed her in his embrace, and she was safe.
She knew that now, if she opened her eyes, she would see him, that she could gaze on his lovliness if she wished. But she found she didn't care. She felt almost as if his heart burnt into her soul, completing her. She held him like that, and wished the moment would never end.
"I love you," he whispered, and she felt like dancing in joy at the sound of his voice so real, so close.
"Love you too," she mumured. He gently kissed her hair, as if she were fragile and might crumble in his arms. "I have to tell you, Eros.... Beloved, I am carrying you child."
He held her face in his hands, and the smile she saw there broke her heart with its beauty.
"I know. And she will be just as beautiful as her mother."
Psyche found she could bear the bittersweet pain no longer, and let the tears whell and fall down her cheeks.
They had spent the night together, holding each other close and living each minute as one. They had lost so much time, and it was as if neither one could bear it. So they lay together and they talked.
Eros told her of all that had happened to him, and how he had persuaded the Olympians to take pity on them. She listened in awe as he told her how Zeus himself had decided that they should be allowed to be together. It made her shiver to think that the God of all Gods had taken a hand in her fate.
He told her of their reward, their price.
Psyche blanched at first. She had touched the world of these gods, and had been burnt. She would be happy never to see them again. Olympia was lovely, but she shrunk away from what she imagined to be it's rotten core.
And yet she loved Eros and would never leave him again. Surely immortal divinity was a small price to pay?
Persephone's words echoed in her mind.
...But to have stand by that love, depsite the hardships you have experienced... that takes courage, Psyche...
Perhaps they deserve it, after all. To be together, no matter what.
Psyche had looked up at him, an irrepressible smile on her face, and she had agreed.
And that was how she came to be standing before the entire Olympian court, with Zeus himself presiding over all. She walked to the alter, feeling at home in her fine robes and exquisite jewelry. She saw Demeter in the crowd, as it parted for her, but all the other beautiful faces were new. She held her head high, and aproached the young Goddess who stood, offering her the Cup.
Eros had told her not to fear it, that she may even enjoy it.
And so she drank the ruby liquid, draining the chalice of Ambrosia. She gasped at the fluid fire that exploded in her veins. She felt her eyes open as if for the first time, she felt the world unfurl before her like a spring flower. Power pulsed within her, surounding her.
She tasted heaven, and smiled.
He had been right. The new world shone, beckoning.