The Blood of Tantalus

Quill 187 Blood of Tantalus Image 1 FinalHis name was Tantalus, but he had forgotten that name.  He had forgotten what he had done to earn the eternal torment he suffered in the place of punishment, the realm known as Tartarus.

He was punished by the gods for his arrogance.  He tried to trick them into eating human flesh, the flesh of his own child.  He dared to test the gods.  For that, he was cast down into the depths of Tartarus and fated to an eternity of suffering.  He was set down in a pool of cool, refreshing water above which hung the branches of a tree bearing ripe fragrant fruit.  Whenever Tantalus, parched with thirst, bent down to drink from the pool, the water receded out of his reach.  Whenever Tantalus, starved with hunger, reached up to pluck the fruit, the branches would move high out of reach.  He would forever feel the coolness of the water and smell the fragrance of the fruit, but could never partake.

In the land of the living, his family line was known not by his name, but the name of his grandson, Atreus, a king whose nature was just as depraved as that of his grandfather.  Among the ill deeds of Atreus was the decree to forget Tantalus, even though Atreus repeated his grandfather’s horrid crime.  Atreus did not kill his own offspring, but the children of his brother.  He succeeded in tricking his brother into eating his own children’s flesh.

Tantalus knew none of this.  And even if he did, he would not have cared for any of it.  All he cared for, all he desired, was a drink and a bite of fruit.

Even if it had been allowed, none in the underworld would have taken pity on Tantalus.  But there were some who were curious, curious enough to travel through the winding pits and find him.  Many entered Tartarus after the house of Atreus became known among the kingdoms of the living.  Not all who entered Tartarus were trapped in their torments.  Many were allowed to wander, for their crimes were not so terrible, but were serious enough to warrant at least some time in the place of punishment.  A few would find their way to the pool and peek at the soul of the man who had sired the cursed house.  They hid from him, behind the dried and barren gray trees and bushes, but Tantalus would see them sometimes.  He would beg and entreat them to venture out and pluck a fruit for him, or give him a drink of water.  None heeded, for all were forbidden to enter the pool, or even venture near it.  Curiosity brought them far enough to look upon him.  But none dared to risk further punishment.  If they did, one of the many merciless guards would chase them away.

One day one of these guards approached Tantalus.  The guard, Marius, believed he did not belong in Tartarus, as many did about themselves.  He was sent to the place of punishment because he was a guard in life and failed to do his duty when he let a young girl escape her bonds.  She was to have her arms cut off for stealing a biscuit to feed her younger brothers and sisters.  His act of mercy was frowned upon by one of the gods, for the biscuit was stolen from a temple offering.  When he died, Marius was sent to Tartarus, where he knew he did not belong.  He believed Tantalus did belong there, not for his affront to the gods, but for his horrible crime against his own children.  Yet the guard knew there was power in Tantalus.  There was enough power perhaps to help Marius escape from Tartarus and into the land of the living.


When first he arrived in Tartarus, Marius saw a path that led to the blessed realm.  The lord of Tartarus had forged this secret path in case the gods sent someone to Tartarus whom they later forgave and wished to send to the blessed realms.  Any who were guided to the path or saw it for themselves could walk upon it and reach the blessed realm.  But Marius had not known that when first he cast eyes upon it.  He thought it had been a trick of the eye, and when he looked again, it was gone.  He tried to find the path to the blessed realm again, but he never could find it.  Instead, he stumbled upon a different path, one almost as beautiful, and easy to find again and again.  It smelled of fresh-cut grass and sounded like the chirping of crickets.  But this path had protections upon it.  Whenever he tried to walk upon it, after a few steps, the path would darken.  The scent of grass would vanish.  The sound of crickets would become the sound of moans and howling.  He would end up back in Tartarus.  This path, he soon discovered, was the path that led to the land of the living.

He watched the path to the land of the living.  For centuries he watched and studied the path in the hopes of learning its nature.  He saw that there were some living creatures that could travel the path and pass freely between the realms of the living and the dead.  He even saw a few living men and women cross over, though they often had talismans with them, like an enchanted amulet or stone.  He made a plan.  He struck bargains with those who crossed over, and he obtained an enchanted amulet that would allow him to travel the path from Tartarus back to the land of the living.  But once there, the immortal form he had in the underworld would vanish.  He would be only a ghost, a spirit who walked upon the earth with no form.  To truly restore himself to life, he would need to restore his mortal body.  This too, he learned how to do.  He needed only one thing, the blood of a god.  This he could never obtain from the gods themselves, but the gods had many offspring.  Many of those offspring were heroes and would never find their way to Tartarus, unless they were on some quest.  But there were some who were not heroes.  On the contrary, there were some who were villainous.  Those ended up in Tartarus.  Tantalus was among these.  But he did not have the blood of just any god coursing through his body.  He had the blood of the king of gods.  Surely, his blood would have enough power to restore Marius’s form.

So he approached Tantalus.  He told him the story of how he had come to be in Tartarus, and he offered to strike a bargain.  He would reveal to Tantalus the secret of the pool and the tree, so that Tantalus could relieve his hunger and his thirst.  In exchange, he asked for six drops of Tantalus’s blood.  He would not reveal why he needed the drops of blood.  But Tantalus, though his weak limbs shook from hunger and his parched tongue cracked from thirst, would not make the bargain unless the guard revealed what he would do with the blood.  Day after day, Marius returned to make the bargain.  He even fetched a sparkling fruit from the tree and held it enticingly close.  He cut open the fruit with the knife he had brought to collect the drops of blood.  The fragrance was maddening to Tantalus.  The fruit may abide in Tartarus, but it had been grown in the blessed realm.  It smelled of apples and pears at first, then melons, and berries.  Tantalus did not relent.  But finally, one day, Marius did.

He told Tantalus how he would use his blood.  Tantalus asked for a day to think on it.  Though the fruit and the cool cups of water that Marius taunted him with were distracting, Tantalus had watched the guard carefully.  He watched where the guard kept all his weapons, how he stepped, how he leaned, and how he stood.  He watched the guard’s expressions, how many times he blinked, how often he looked away from Tantalus.  He knew the guard would be the end of his torment in Tartarus.  But he would not be satisfied with food and drink alone.


The next day, when Marius returned, Tantalus agreed to the bargain.  The guard told him first the secret of the pool.  Tantalus tested the knowledge.  He bent down to drink, and when he did, the waters did not recede.  He cupped the cool, clear water and drank.  Again and again he drank until he had his fill.  When the guard stepped into the pool and pulled out his knife, Tantalus leapt toward him.  Weakened though he was by hunger and thirst, he surprised the guard, and though he could not disarm Marius, he grasped at the amulet that was tucked under the guard’s coat and pulled it off.  Marius cried out and slashed at Tantalus, slicing open his chest.  Blood dripped and fouled the pool of clear water in which they struggled.  Then Tantalus pulled away and felt a strange sensation, as if he were falling, but in every direction.  The guard reached out for him, but could not grasp him.

Tantalus knew his form had changed.  He had felt something similar when he was cast down into Tartarus and his living body was transformed into an immortal but eternally cursed body.  This seemed a greater transformation.  He had become a small creature, something that could fly, and all around him glowed a haze of green and yellow light.  He moved away from the guard, feeling the rapid fluttering of his wings.  He felt slow, yet he managed to dodge the guard’s hands as they reached for him.

For ages, he had stood in that pool of water, his legs aching, his back bent, and his shoulders drooping.  Though he was still famished, he felt vigor in his new form.  Tantalus had been clever in life, and he remained clever in death.  It did not take him long to discover the path to the land of the living.  It did not take him long to realize that the amulet had transformed him into a firefly, or that fireflies, as creatures of twilight, were one of the few living beings who could pass between the realms of the living and the dead.

Tantalus flew out of the underworld and into the green land of the living.  He went searching for the first thing he wanted, food.  After that, he would find some way to transform back into a man.  He wandered beside the other fireflies that had come out on the cusp of a warm summer evening.  Before he could find a meal, he saw a shadow approach.  As he had surprised the guard, he too was taken by surprise.  Before he could think, he was captured in a glass jar.  The young man who had caught him capped the jar and spoke of how he would present his betrothed with a lamp of fireflies, so she could read her scrolls at night.  And when she tired of reading, she could do what she could not do with a candle.  She could gaze at the fireflies and watch them dance.

Tantalus listened and watched the young man with his firefly eyes.


Marius was brought before the lord of Tartarus.  The underworld god was not known for mercy.  When he spoke, his breath dripped with cold unlike the cold of life.  It was the cold of Tartarus, a cold that seeped into one’s soul and froze all hope.  He commanded Marius to return to the land of the living and bring Tantalus back to Tartarus, where both would suffer even worse torments than they had before.  Marius refused.  He asked for the torments then and there, for nothing could be worse than returning to the vibrant land of the living, only to know he would soon leave it again for the gray misery of Tartarus.

Marius was not mad.  He was taking a great risk, for on this day, though it was not her season to do so, the lady of Tartarus sat beside her lord.  She placed a hand on her lord’s robe.  Though he gave her no sign that Marius could see, the lady began to speak to Marius herself.  She offered him mercy.  He could not enter the blessed realms, for he had defied the gods, but if he hunted down and found Tantalus, he would be granted the gift of a second life.  He would return to the land of the living.  Marius knew by now how treacherous and fickle the gods were.  He asked in what form he would return to life.  The lady smiled.  The sight of a smile was so impossible a thing in Tartarus that Marius gasped, as he felt his frozen soul begin to melt.  He recovered himself.  She asked what form he would prefer.  He asked that he be returned to life as himself.

The gods agreed.  They gave him a sword and they gave him permission.  Marius went down the path he had never been able to pass before, the path to the land of the living, to hunt for Tantalus.


After watching the young man named Quintus, who had captured him so easily, Tantalus decided to appeal to the young man’s good nature.  He found that he still had his voice.  He began to speak to Quintus, begging him for food and drink.  Quintus set down the jar of fireflies and saw that one of them was different from the others, and the other fireflies seemed agitated to be in the same jar with this one.  Quintus listened as Tantalus entreated him to free all the fireflies, promising to lead him to a gift that his betrothed would surely treasure far more than a jar of insects.

When the suspicious but curious Quintus asked what gift that might be, Tantalus did not answer, for he had no answer.  He had hoped the boy was dim.  Quintus pulled another jar from his sack and deftly separated Tantalus from the other fireflies without letting any escape.  He put the other jar into his sack, but carried the jar with Tantalus in it before him as he continued on.  He peered at Tantalus, but in the dark, past the firefly glow, he could see little.  He would see more by candlelight when he returned home.

Tantalus begged the young man to release him or at least give him some food and drink.  After Quintus came home, he fed him insects. Tantalus ate them, but then scoffed.  He asked for wine, bread, and meat, which amused the young man, so he agreed.  Quintus dropped bread and meat into the jar and even a thimble of wine.  He watched the firefly devour the meal.

Quintus went to show his betrothed, Althea, who was studying the mysteries of the moon.  She was delighted with the firefly lamp.  She asked Quintus to let them all go after a while though, claiming discomfort at seeing them trapped in a jar.  But Quintus would not release the single firefly that he claimed was special.  She did not believe him about Tantalus, because Tantalus refused to speak in her presence.

Quintus, however, was convinced that he was not imagining things.  He kept Tantalus in the jar for many days, refusing to give him food or drink.  It was not easy for Tantalus to resist now that he had tasted meat and bread, fruit and wine.  Even in his present form, such pleasures were too tempting.

At last, he spoke.  Quintus asked if he were a spirit or someone who had been cursed.  Tantalus was impressed by the simple boy’s reason.  He told the young man about himself, but the story he told was not his own.  He told Quintus the story that the Tartarus guard had told him.  The young man was sympathetic, but wisely suspicious.  He continued to feed the firefly in exchange for learning more about the realms of the dead, but as the days bore on, he noticed something strange.  The firefly’s glow dimmed and faded until it was gone.  The creature that remained appeared like a dark gray beetle, ugly and dull.  The young man didn’t know it, but he was seeing the colors of Tartarus, or rather, the end of color, for there was no color in the place of punishment.

Tantalus grew bigger and bigger feeding on the meat and bread that the young man brought.  Soon, he could not fly and he outgrew the first jar in which he was kept.  Quintus put him in a clay urn, where he grew and grew until he was size of the young man’s arm.  He began to exude a foul odor like that of rotting meat and offal.  At night, Quintus could hear breathing from the jar, but it sounded like clicking and moaning.

Quintus suspected that the creature was not who he claimed to be, and even if he was, he was something unpleasant, perhaps even dangerous.  One morning, Quintus saw that the clay jar had tipped over and broken.  His heart racing, he ran out of his house and found the creature lying in the field amidst the torn carcasses of half a dozen chickens.  Tantalus was in a stupor from gorging on the chickens.  He had hoped to eat them and scuttle away to somewhere he could find a sorcerer to restore his form.  But after he ate, he was struck with the need to sleep.

Quintus quickly tied up the creature, though it was hard to grasp.  Its shell was slick with some kind of slime, which befouled the young man’s arms and tunic.  Quintus lifted the heavy creature onto a wagon and left the village.  All day he marched.  When Tantalus woke and demanded to be fed, Quintus ignored him.   He found a cave at the foot of the mountains and chained the monstrous creature to the cave wall by driving many steel stakes through the links and into the hard rock.  He rolled a stone before the mouth of the cave and he rested a while.  Quintus looked at the stone before the cave.  He quivered and wished he could leave the creature to rot.  But he knew it would not.  The one thing he believed was that the creature was from Tartarus.  It would not die on its own, even if it were starved of food, drink, or even air.  It would grow again, from eating all the chickens.  It would become strong enough to escape the cave.  It would become a danger to himself and his people if it continued to live and grow.  He had to devise some way to kill it.

Before returning to his village, Quintus bathed in two rivers, and still he could smell the foul stench of the creature upon him.  He had not seen his betrothed, Althea, in many days.  He no longer felt worthy of her, for he had brought a monstrosity into their midst.  But she found him that same day as he skulked away from the village.  She asked him why he seemed so troubled.  Though he had vowed to himself that he would not tell her or anyone about the thing in the cave and the ill deed he must do to be rid of it, he confessed everything to her, everything that weighed upon his conscience.  Althea remembered his earlier story of the talking firefly.   She had thought he was trying to amuse her or trick her then.  But he was earnest now, and she saw the fear in his eyes, and the resolve.  She smelled a hint of something foul about him, not the odor of the goats he herded, or the sweat of his own body.  This odor was not the pungent odor of life, but the foulness of something that could only be death.  She asked if it she might see the monstrosity.  Quintus was going to check on it and he could not refuse now that he had told her about it.

Quintus was half-afraid that he would find the boulder split in two and the cave empty.  But the boulder was still there, and when they rolled it aside, the stench that struck them proved that the monstrosity was still inside.  To his horror, Quintus saw that the monstrosity had managed to pull two of the stakes out of the wall.  It was bigger than him now.  Taller and wider, and it no longer resembled an insect, but more a worm, save for its sharp, beak-like mouth.  Its vulgar form pulsed and strained against the chains that were wrapped around it.  Quintus had brought more chains, but Althea warned him not to go close.  He tossed aside the chains and pulled out the spear he had carved on their way to the cave.  Althea gazed in horror at the monstrosity.  She warned Quintus to be careful with the spear.  He threw the spear and it pierced the monstrosity’s side.  The thing writhed and as it did, its blood splattered on the cave walls and onto Quintus.  He raised his arms, but it was too late.  The blood seared the flesh of his arms and chest as acid would.  He cried out and felt himself being pulled away.  Althea draped herself and her betrothed in her thick cloak and they fled.

Though his flesh burned, Quintus helped Althea to roll an even larger boulder before the cave mouth.  Althea, her heart pounding, her mind ticking with wild thoughts, turned to her betrothed.  She told Quintus that if he agreed not to break off their engagement for her deed, she would kill the creature for him.


Althea was an apprentice in the mysteries of the moon.  She had learned to stir many different draughts of healing.  One of these she used to treat her beloved’s wounds.  Though he was still burned, Quintus felt cool and his pain was numbed.  Althea stirred another draught.  This one was for the monstrosity that had harmed her betrothed, a poison that could dispatch an animal the size of a horse or cow in a matter of hours.  She took no pleasure in making it, for she would not use such a poison on any other living creature.  It smelled fragrant and would taste like nectar, but once inside, it would twist all the monstrosity’s insides, causing it unspeakable pain, until it died.  The brew was one of only three she had learned that could harm.  All other brews she had learned were meant to heal.  But all healers learned one or two such brews, to defend themselves.

Althea was filled with doubt.  She knew, not from learning but from some instinct, that the monstrosity’s blood would be foul, though she did not know it would burn.  There were warriors, perhaps, in the surrounding towns, who might help them to dispatch the monstrosity.  But it would take many days to bring those warriors to their village.  And in those days, the monstrosity would grow strong enough to escape.  And once it escaped and fed, it would grow larger and fouler still.  It might become unstoppable, by any but a hero from legend, and there were no such heroes left in the world.


Marius had watched from the shadows of the forest as that young man and his lady entered the cave and fled the cave.  He saw the burns on the boy’s arms, familiar burns.  There were rivers in Tartarus whose waters could burn as the boy had been burned.  Even from afar, he smelled the stench, the familiar stench of the place of punishment.  He had been in the land of the living for less than the turn of a moon, and yet, he had forgotten that stench.  He was not pleased to be reminded of it, even if it meant he was closer to earning his true return to the land of the living.  He much admired the young woman when she told her young man that she would kill the creature for him.

But Marius was certain that she would not succeed, whatever her scheme.  He had never been sent to bring back a soul to Tartarus that had been lost.  Few escaped from the place of punishment, but it had happened before.  And anyone who was clever or powerful enough to escape Tartarus, could not be sent back so easily.  Marius had heard many rumors of those who had escaped.  As most wanted to escape themselves, such rumors were particularly rampant.  But he had never heard of anything like what was happening to Tantalus.

The amulet’s power should have worn off and transformed Tantalus into a man shortly after he entered the land of the living.  But it had not done so.

Marius wondered if it was the curse upon the man’s house.  The curse that he himself had invited.  If the girl’s plan worked, Marius would need only to step forth and claim the shade of Tantalus as it emerged from the body of whatever monstrosity lay within the cave.  If not, then Marius would dispatch the living Tantalus with the sword he had been given, whose blade was forged in the fiercest pits of Tartarus and quenched in the waters of all five of the underworld’s rivers.

Marius stayed close to the cave, watching over it to ensure that Tantalus did not escape it.  He spent the next day and night fashioning a cloak to protect himself from the burning blood of his quarry.  The young man and woman returned to the cave in three days, as they had said they would.

Marius readied himself.  Because they did not know anyone was watching, the couple embraced and they kissed each other passionately and tearfully.  For a moment, Marius held his breath.  He knew he should look away, for he had no right to intrude upon their moment of tenderness.  But moments such as that was the very reason he longed to return to the land of the living.  For his soul and his heart were still frozen by the cold of the underworld.  He frowned and decided that he would not let any harm come upon the couple.

He strode forth and called out to them before they entered the cave.  They were weaponless and frightened already.  Seeing him made them clutch each other in terror.

He told them who he was and saw a strange look in the young man’s eye when he recounted the story of how he had been sent to Tartarus.  He told them the shameful truth about his bargain with Tantalus.  When they learned the name of the monstrosity, the young woman shuddered.  Marius told them to leave, that he would bring the poison to Tantalus.  But the young man rightly claimed that Tantalus would drink no potion brought to him by his enemy, the one he had betrayed.  The boy on the other hand had a plan to make a bargain himself.  He was going to claim that the potion was a new kind of nectar that he would promise to supply the monstrosity, if the thing agreed not to attack or befoul his village and the surrounding lands.  Now that he knew the thing’s true story, he would give the potion to the monstrosity, to Tantalus, and claim that the potion would transform the monstrosity back into a man.

Marius agreed, for he knew the boy’s words were true.  Tantalus would be suspicious of anything Marius did or said.  But he might believe the boy.


Quintus went inside the cave and offered the draught to Tantalus.  Then he returned to the cave mouth and the three waited.  For many hours, they heard nothing and believed that Tantalus may have figured out the ruse, despite the enticing aroma of the draught.  Or perhaps he might have refused to drink on the slight chance of a ruse.  The light faded from the sky.  The night birds began to sing, and the fireflies began to come out.  Quintus felt anxious as he watched the glowing creatures flit about.  Marius lit lanterns and told the couple to return to their village.  He promised to bring them news of the death of Tantalus.  They were but children in his eyes, and he had spent centuries in a place of torment, yet they refused to let him face the monstrosity alone.  They promised him that if he were attacked, they would flee and call for help.  They would not try to defend him or fight the monstrosity themselves.  They were sensible enough to know they could not fight the monstrosity as a warrior would fight it.

Suddenly, they heard a screeching roar from within the cave.  The ground shook as if some great weight had been cast down to the ground.  They sat some distance from the cave mouth, which was sealed with a boulder.

That boulder burst open, shattering the lanterns they had placed before it.  The oil spilled and caught fire.  Out of the cavern’s darkness came an even darker shape.  Tantalus.  He had grown as tall as the trees.  He barely fit through the cave’s opening.  He opened his mouth and sprayed foul gray vomitus.  It struck the trees before him, searing and melting them.  The odor of burning and rotting wood filled the air.

His muddy gray form still pulsed and now it writhed as he screeched again, in pain.  The draught was working.  But like all else he consumed, it had also worked to make him grow and transform into something fouler and fouler than he was before.

Marius marched into a clearing and called out to the monstrosity by name.  Tantalus turned toward him, but then with a speed that belied his mand jerking body, he turned the other way, toward Quintus.  He launched himself at the boy and Marius ran toward them both, knowing he would not reach them in time.

Althea was closer, perched in a tree.  She tossed something at the monstrosity.  A stone perhaps, another potion.  Marius did not see.  He only feared as he watched Tantalus turn his attention to the girl and strike.


Althea fell from the tree.  Quintus was kneeling by her side at once.  Marius pulled off his cloak and tossed it on the boy.  He slashed at Tantalus, missing, then slashed again.  The monstrosity was too fast.  Marius called upon the power of the gods and swung.  He missed.  He called upon the powers of Tartarus and swung.  He missed.  He summoned the curse upon the house of Atreus, the house that Tantalus begat.  He narrowed his eyes against the darkness and stabbed.  He did not miss.

His sword, the blade of Tartarus, pierced the foul flesh of the monstrosity that Tantalus had become, and it pierced the heart, the neck, and the skull of the monstrosity.  The thing’s searing blood sprayed everywhere, scalding Marius’s face, his legs, and his back as he turned away.  But he had to be certain.  He turned back toward the monstrosity, pulled out the sword and stabbed again, and again.  He chopped at the unearthly thing until he was covered in its blood, all his flesh burning.  He saw through seared eyelids, as a shade rose from the remains of the monstrosity.  He struck it with the sword and both the shade and the sword vanished.  And he knew his deed was done.


At once the burning stopped.  Marius gasped and looked down at himself.  He flesh was restored.  Even his garb was clean of the foul stains.  The monstrosity was gone.  The burning blood, the stench, the screeching cry.  All were gone.

When he saw a bright spark in the night sky coming closer and closer, he knew that the gods would honor their bargain with him.  For here was one of their messengers coming on winged feet with feathers so bright they glowed against the night.

The messenger hovered just above the earth.  She was beautiful to behold and clad in white.  She said nothing but reached out her hand to him.  In it was an amulet.

Marius turned toward the sound of weeping.  The boy, Quintus, was bent over his beloved.  He was still covered by the cloak that Marius had thrown upon him to protect him from the blood of Tantalus.  The cloak had not covered his hands, and it had not covered poor Althea’s body.  Both were burned and mangled, and had not healed as the burns on Marius had.

Marius turned to the messenger, for there was only one thing to do.  He asked if he might give the gift of life to the young woman.

The messenger told him he could for Althea’s soul had not yet crossed over.  She, like him, was still in the land of the living.  Marius dropped to his knees beside Quintus and placed the amulet on Althea’s chest.  At once, she was restored.   Her skin was healed, even her garb.  She took a deep breath and opened her eyes.

Quintus embraced her and she lamented at his burned hands, but he did not care.  He claimed he could not feel the pain, and Marius believed him.  Quintus and Althea looked upon Marius and smiled.  He had forgotten gratitude.  He had forgotten love, for in that moment, they truly did love him for what he had given them.

The messenger of the gods lay her hand on Marius’s shoulder.  She told him what he knew would be so.  He had done as he was tasked.  He had kept his word.  His deed in passing on his gift was noble, but because he had rejected a gift from the gods, he must be punished.  He would return to the underworld, and be a guard once more.  Both as torment and reward, he would be given the power to see the path that led to the blessed realm, but he would never walk upon that path himself.

Quintus and Althea entreated the messenger, but she would not relent, for she too was tasked with carrying out the will of the gods.  The couple swore to Marius that they would pray to the gods and find some way to intervene on his behalf.  But Marius made them promise not to.  He told them he now belonged in Tartarus, not for rejecting the gift of the gods, but for letting loose a monstrosity in the land of the living.  But he had hope now, for he could look upon the blessed realm.  And he would keep their memory.  He asked only if he might call them friends.  And they agreed.


Tantalus was returned to the pool, but not as himself, not as a man.  He returned as the foul monstrosity he had become in his second life upon the earth.  In that form, he fouled the waters he lay in, so that they bubbled with an odor that could not be born.  Even though he knew the secret of the pool, he could not drink from it anymore.  The fruits remained above him, but now when he reached for them, they did not move away, but rotted instead and dropped into the cesspool within which he lay.  He could not eat them.  Thereafter, because of the foulness of the pool and the monstrosity that lay within it, no one was curious enough to come near.


Marius found purpose in his task as a guard.  He would keep those who were fated to abide in Tartarus in their place.  He would punish those who were deserving.  But every now and then, he would see a good soul, one whom he knew did not belong as he once did not belong.  He would feign to lead such souls to their place of punishment with whips and lashes, but they did not know and the other guards did not, where he was truly leading them.  He could see the path to the blessed realm.  He could not step upon that path himself, but he could lead others to it.  He would lead those souls who did not belong in Tartarus to that path.  He would force them to walk it.  On the Tartarus side, the path looked ominous and terrifying.  There were traps along the borders and on the path itself.

But a few steps beyond, daylight pierced the gray, birds sang, and the muddy path became a path paved with grass and springy earth, beyond which lay a forest of green and golden leaves.  The fragrance of fruits and flowers wafted by on a soft breeze.  Most of the souls would stumble forth, unbelieving.  A few understood what the guard had done, and they would turn to wave to him or smile to him.  They could not see him by then, for they had become blind to the horrors of Tartarus, and soon, they would forget those horrors altogether.  They could not see him, but he always saw them.  Once they were embraced by the blessed realm, the path would turn dark again.  Marius would turn back to his duty.  The guard would never smile, but in such moments, his heart would beat once for each soul he saved from the torment of Tartarus.


Copyright © 2016. Nila L. Patel

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