‘Alright, Adrian, don’t be stupid now.’ The phrase came unbidden into his mind, spoken in his father’s voice. It was like a bucket of cold water over his head, washing away the path of his thoughts spiraling into despair.
“I won’t,” he said through gritted teeth.
The tears may as well have stopped in their tracks, halfway down his face, for all the abruptness with which Adrian’s mind switched gears. His trembling hands stilled, and wiped the salty wetness from his cheeks and eyes. He turned to the man in the pond.
“How did I get here?”
The man – Tantalus, he now realized, denied food and drink for all eternity with both within reach – was staring at the surface of the water, looking blankly into the eyes of his frowning reflection. “You know this, even if you did not a minute ago. You ask a question not whose answer you do not-”
“No.” Adrian spoke firmly, in control of himself and his thoughts once more. “Not why. I know why I am here.” His breath caught, but he pushed through the resistance and exhaled, saying, “I am dead.” There. It’s spoken. Now to make it false. “What I want to know is how I got here, through what actual process. Did one of the “guides” fetch my soul and bring me down here? Was I sucked through an extraplanar tube that opens up near a dead body to collect the soul? How did I get here.”
“A Psychopomp,” replied Tantalus quietly, still contemplating his own gaze. “It could have been any of a hundred, from Hermes to Gargravarr. They only take souls from the mortal plane to here,” he whispered, slowly reaching for the reflection of his face. “There’s no way out.” His hand snapped forward, fingers constricting into a tightly grasped fist in the span of a millisecond. The water shimmered calmly beneath it, half a foot lower than before.
Adrian shook his head. “I refuse to believe that. If there’s a way in, there’s a way out. Especially if that way in is by conscious beings ferrying the souls, and not some supernatural construct magically programmed to grab them from the mortal plane and deposit them here. People are always subject to being fooled. Gods or no.” He waited for Tantalus to tell him he was wrong, but silence had claimed the forest.
Nothing for it then; that’s the best plan I have. Of course, I’d have to find one before I could try to talk it into getting me out of here. Could I challenge it to some form of contest, with the prize being my life? In the myths, they’re often bound by promises in the context of such challenges. The problem would be finding a contest which I can be sure I will win.
“Do you know the last time I had a drink?” said Tantalus suddenly.
What? But apparently Tantalus wasn’t looking for an answer, because he kept talking. He’s probably talking to himself, now. Yet, for some reason, Adrian did not leave.
“I convinced a mortal named Odysseus to cup his hands in the water for me, so I could drink from the makeshift cup. He ran from Hades soon after, sailing off to who knows where. The gods were not happy with his interruption of my eternal punishment.” Tantalus raised his dark eyes, eyes so deep and sorrowful as anything Adrian had ever seen. They locked gazes. “Would you do me a favor?”
And Adrian felt himself moving before his mouth even opened, jaws parting on their own, feet stepping towards the pool of a volition not his own. “Yes.” No!
“Help me drink.”
He was bending down now, knees buckling against his will, hands coming together, lowering-
With an effort that hurt both his mind and his muscles, he managed to lock his limbs.
“Help me drink,” repeated Tantalus.
Shaking, almost spasming, he drew his hands back from the water’s surface. Forced his body to its feet. Turned himself around, gasped a short breath, and headed out of the trees.
“Help me drink!” Tantalus’ shout was desperate. It grated at Adrian’s mind, and he felt a fraction of the frustration and hurt that Tantalus must have been feeling. But he couldn’t risk godly anger and retribution if he ever wanted to get out of Hades.
“Please!” The word was parched as a desert on fire, cracked and bleeding and grasping for hope. “Help me drink!”
The screams faded behind him as he stepped out from under the black, twisted branches. The alien sunset, or perhaps sunrise, had changed not at all. The sun he had thought hidden behind the clouds most likely did not exist.
Adrian tried to calm his breathing, and the rest of him as well. Find a Psychopomp. Challenge it to something I can, and will, win. Demand to be returned to the mortal plane. As makeshift plans go, it’s…not as bad as it could be. Right, then.
He pointed himself in the direction of the hills he’d spotted in the distance, and started walking. A small cloud of brown-orange dust followed at his heels.