In the coldest hour before dawn, Diana pulls Steve close to her in their messy nest of blankets, and thinks about the future stretching before them.
“When the war is over, I would like to try some of the things you talked about.”
Steve had been drowsing, but now he stirs, then goes a very deliberate sort of still. “What things?”
“Breakfast. Newspapers. Working,” she says, throwing his words from earlier back at him. “More dancing, but proper dancing next time. Amazonian dancing. Your dancing felt very nice, but it wasn’t very exciting.”
He relaxes, makes a snuffling sort of laughing noise. “I’m not sure I want to know what Amazonian dancing looks like, given what Amazonian fighting looks like. And I’m not sure I want to know what counts as exciting for you,” he murmurs against her bare chest. The scrape of his unshaven cheek and jaw makes her shiver with pleasure. “And, uh, the other things?”
“What, marriage? Children? No, not those. Not yet.” She runs her fingers through his short hair and scratches at his scalp, and he shifts even closer towards her. “We can start with breakfasts. And working. There will be a lot of work to do.”
Steve tilts his head up at her and smiles then, but it’s a hollow and haunted thing. “We,” he repeats, and closes his eyes in what looks like pain.
“What? What is it?”
“There hasn’t been a ‘when the war is over’ for me in a long time, is all.”
“There is now. We’re so close, Steve. I will defeat Ares, and it will be over. We can sort out what to do afterwards together.” She says it like a vow, like an oath, and she leans down to seal her word to Steve’s mouth with a kiss.
“Yeah. Yeah, okay. Afterwards.”
Diana hadn’t been able to read the look in Steve’s too-clear eyes then, but later, when she turned the treasured memory over and over in her mind, she deciphered it: hope and despair, in equal measure. Diana would see that uniquely human combination again and again, on countless human faces, and it seemed a torture to them, to hold both in their hearts at once, and yet they kept going. On a burning battlefield, with Steve Trevor turned to ashes in the sky, Diana understood why.
After killing Ares, after the Armistice—after Steve—when the war was over, in short, Diana decided to make a life for herself in the world of men. If she was to save the world, she had to live in it, be of it, and she owed it to Steve to try.
When she returned to London with Sameer, Charlie, and Napi, she realized that wouldn’t be so simple a task. She didn’t quite know how she would have managed it without their assistance. Between the four of them, they built Diana a life, and made Diana Prince real. Diana Prince was 28 years old, the orphaned daughter of a Greek woman and an English officer. Diana Prince was raised on a small Greek island by her mother and her aunts. Diana Prince was independently wealthy, thanks to an inheritance from a half-brother. Some of these details were true enough to pass muster with her lasso, some of them weren't. Some of them were so convenient, they felt as if they should have been lies.
“I’m not sure it’s right, my taking all of this,” said Diana, as she paced the opulent townhouse that had belonged to Sir Patrick Morgan. Her only thought on asking Etta to bring her here had been to make sure there was nothing dangerous here, nothing that would harm unknowing mortals. Now she was moving in.
Sameer wandered around with keen, appraising eyes. “He was your brother, was he not? Consider it an inheritance.”
“Or the spoils of war,” said Napi.
Charlie let loose a raucous laugh. “Literally!”
Etta snorted with laughter, then sobered when she came to take hold of Diana’s hand. “There’s no one else who would inherit all of this, Diana. You’re not cheating anyone out of anything. And you’ll need it, if you’re to make your way in the world as a single woman. Er, you are planning to make your way in this world, aren’t you? Or were you planning on going back—home?”
Diana closed her eyes, and for a moment, allowed herself to think of Themyscira. She brought the azure blue waters, the white cliffs, the green hillsides forth in her mind’s eye. She brought the memory close enough that she could just about feel the heat of the sunshine, which in choked, gray London, never seemed to make it to the ground. She could find her way, she could go back. Ares was dead. She had completed her purpose: God-killer. Her mother would welcome her, and she could return to that beloved, familiar life. Who will I be if I go? Who will I be if I stay? She breathed in, breathed out. She opened her eyes again.
“No. No, that won’t be possible,” she said softly. Etta squeezed her hand, and Sameer put a comforting hand on her arm, and she gave them both a small smile. “Anyway, there’s work to be done here. An Amazon’s, a warrior’s, duty, is not limited to the battle.”
She combed and sorted through Ares’ things with the help of the others, who made what could have been a grim task enjoyable with their commentary and their encouragements. Ares had amassed a whole hoard of things: valuable artifacts, shelves and shelves of books, precious metals and jewels, paintings. And weapons, of course. Diana was grateful for that. She needed a new sword, and there was an armory’s worth of them to choose from in Ares’ cellar, hidden behind a false wall. There were a few items of power there too, that were best kept out of mortal hands.
When they were done, Sameer and Napi scavenged together a dinner from the contents of Ares’ larder, swiped bottles of wine from the cellar, and they all ate by gaslight in the kitchen. They swapped war stories, and then, later, as the wine bottles grew more and more empty, they shared stories of their distant homes, their childhoods. Warmer, sweeter stories, seasoned with the bitterness of loss. That bitterness sat heavy in her heart. Loss wasn’t a thing Diana had ever truly known before. She knew it now. She saw its mark on others, and longed to ease it. She felt its gouging tears within herself, and wasn’t sure how to heal them. Time, she supposed, would do that work, if nothing else did. Until then, all Diana could think to do was love more.
Once they were down to the dregs of the wine bottles, Diana looked around at all of them, at these humans who were her light in a thus-far dreary world. “You’re all welcome to stay here, for as long as you need. I’ve never lived alone, you know. I’d welcome the company.”
“That’s kind of you lass, but I ought to be returning to Scotland,” said Charlie. He looked grim as he said it, but it was only right that he return home if he could, so Diana smiled at him and nodded.
“I’ve been sleeping on the boat, but…I suppose I could stay here in between trips across the channel,” said Napi.
“We shall see what new opportunities a peaceful world offers!” declared Sameer with somewhat forced grandiosity. “I would be honored to stay, Diana.”
Diana looked to Etta, who was gnawing at her lip. “Etta?”
“This is a sight better than my room in the boarding house. Of course! And you need some feminine company, I’m sure.”
“Oh, good. I’m so glad,” said Diana, and beamed at them all.
The joy of armistice didn’t last for long. Diana had listened to the tales of her warrior aunts enough to know that the euphoria of new peace was temporary, that grief and sorrow would follow after, and she knew it now for herself, as she mourned Steve Trevor and Antiope. They had died honorably, in battle, in defense of others. Diana knew neither of them would have had any regrets about that, just as she wouldn’t have had it been her who had perished. But she missed them, and their loss was a constant ache in her chest, the first thing she thought of when sleep relinquished its hold on her in the morning, and the last thing she thought of before it took her again at night. Needless to say, her pillow was often damp.
Her own sorrow would have been a heavy enough weight to carry, but the winter after the armistice wasn’t ravaged only by war’s griefs. Disease cut its own deadly swathe too. Soldiers who had made it home safely and more or less whole fell rapidly ill, and died within days. Their families, young and old, succumbed too. The newspapers were calling it the Spanish flu, and hospitals already overflowing with injured soldiers strained to handle the waves of sick people. Napi stopped making trips back and forth across the Channel. Sameer rarely ventured out of the townhouse. Etta squared her shoulders, put a mask on her face, and went to work.
“I didn’t know the illness had gotten so bad, so widespread,” murmured Sameer one morning as they watched a shrouded form being taken out of one of the neighboring townhouses.
Etta grimaced. “The papers have been hushing it up. Got to keep morale up, you know.”
“They’ve been lying? When hundreds of people are dying of this sickness?” asked Diana, horrified.
“Omitting, more than lying. And I think they, we, only realized how bad it had gotten last month.”
Disease might have been a more silent, less flashy killer than the guns or the bombs or the gas, but it seemed to be killing just as many as the war had. Hundreds died, then thousands, until there were few places to even bury the bodies. If men laid their dead to rest on pyres, as the Amazonians did, the skies of London would have been choked with the thick, dark smoke. Steve had said the war felt like the end of the world, and she’d understood why after she saw the trenches, the blasted and barren battlefields. But the inexorable creep of disease felt more like the end to Diana, with how senseless and unstoppable it seemed. Diana knew what disease was, knew that even it too could be conquered, of course she did. But it had not touched blessed Themyscira, nor had harsh winter, and for decades thereafter, when Diana would think of winter in the world of men, she would think of death and disease.
“Do the gods send plagues down upon us now?” asked Sameer as the epidemic spread. It was almost, but not quite, a jest.
“No,” said Diana, for her tutors had taught her well. Not all storms were Zeus’s doing. Not all plagues were curses.
Diana was no nurse, but she couldn’t fall ill, and the shellshocked soldiers couldn’t hurt her when they thrashed in nightmares, so she went to the nearest hospital to wage a different sort of war. She wondered, she hoped, and more than that, she prayed, that some measure of her power would be useful on this new battlefield. She had walked through no man’s land unscathed, she had walked through fire unburned, she had held lightning in her hands. She was an Amazon and a demigod, and surely, surely, somewhere in all of that, was the power that could help these people.
But Diana searched her heart, meditated and prayed beside sick beds, concentrated as hard as she could, and nothing. She had been named God-killer, and she was meant for battlefields. She was a princess of Themyscira, daughter of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, and she was taught to be a bridge to a greater understanding for mankind. She was not meant for healing, no matter how much she willed healing power into her hands, no matter how much she wished she could both mend and break. This work of healing the sick and comforting the afflicted wasn’t her domain.
It didn't matter. She’d do the work anyway.
Diana cooled fevered foreheads, changed dressings, lifted and moved patients and beds and equipment. She did her best to comfort the frightened, distract and entertain those confined to their beds, ease the minds of worried family members. She grew to hate the awful purple-blue color that signaled the human body was starved for air, but she didn’t let it turn her away from her work, didn’t recoil or despair or give up when it made its appearance. And when there was nothing left to be done, she stayed with the dying, and did what she could to ease their way. Would Steve have considered this saving the world? Doubtful. But it was what Diana could do now.
And yet, even amid all this horror, Diana saw that people endured in ways both strange and lovely, that they found the strength to go on. The nurses returned to the sick wards again and again. Children still played, even as their nursery rhymes turned grim: I had a little bird, and its name was Enza. I opened up the window, and IN-FLU-ENZA. People still danced, still sang, still welcomed their returning brothers and fathers and husbands from the war. London still celebrated its feast days for Jesus Christ’s birth. The world, in short, went on, and Diana could do no less. This was the world Steve had died for, one of the tomorrows he had hoped Diana could save. She just wasn’t sure she was saving much of anything yet.
Weeks passed, and disease loosened its grip on London a little. Etta insisted Diana take a break, suggested she take time to learn more about the world of man she had committed to saving.
“You might as well put Sir Patrick’s—Ares’—library to good use.”
So Diana did, and spent much of the winter reading her way through Ares’ library. At dinner, Etta would ask her how it was going. It took all Diana’s not inconsiderable tutoring in diplomacy not to hiss this world is full of barbarians!
“Almost all of the books seem to be written by men,” she ventured instead. Etta snorted.
“Yes, well. They would be in this library, wouldn’t they? I’ll get you some others.”
Diana read and learned things both beautiful and terrible, exciting and horrifying. New religions, wars, new lands; the exploits of kings and queens who made and lost kingdoms, the missives of explorers, the theorizing of scientists, poetry and theater and novels…When she grew too tired of the deluge of new words, she returned to the comforts of her youth. The libraries of man didn’t have the works of Clio, had scarcely anything of Sappho’s poetry, or Hypatia’s mathematics. And of course, there was no trace of the Amazonian authors Diana had grown up with, or of the works lost to the world of man thanks to time or calamity. But there was still Homer, and Euripides, and Ovid. She could see what time and translation had made of them in man’s world, and she could read the original Greek or Latin, and match it against her memories of her Amazonian sisters’ recitations.
She settled on Ovid one cold winter night, after a long day spent with Etta’s suffragette friends. It had been a rewarding day, and she had learned a great deal, the women’s excitement and drive invigorating. But now Diana wanted something easy, familiar, to keep her mind’s wheels from spinning into the small hours of the night. Ovid did the trick, enough that she was almost nodding off, until Book X had her bolting upright in bed.
…quam satis ad superas postquam Rhodopeius auras
deflevit vates, ne non temptaret et umbras,
ad Styga Taenaria est ausus descendere porta
perque leves populos simulacraque functa sepulcro….
So what if death had taken Antiope and Steve? Maybe Diana could take them back. Maybe Diana could succeed where Orpheus had failed. If any god could have survived Ares’ war, surely it would have been Hades, safe and untouchable in the Underworld. And perhaps even Persephone, if she had been in the Underworld with her husband when war had broken out. If she still lived, did Persephone still make her yearly ascent?
The Amazons had kept up the rites of the Mysteries, and of the Thesmophoria. Diana had often played the role of Persephone in the rites, her own mother playing Demeter, and maybe for Hippolyta, it had been practice. She had often wept, during the rites, as she sang of Demeter’s sorrow. She hadn’t when she let Diana go in truth. Diana dashed away her own tears now, before they could fall and stain the book. When she was still a child, Diana had asked her mother why they still performed the rites, if all the gods were dead and gone. Just because they’re gone, does not mean we should not honor them, Mother had answered. We can honor their memories still. And these rites, they are not only for the gods. They are for us, too.
Diana was glad of the adherence to custom and ritual now, though she had chafed at it as a child. Maybe it would soften Persephone’s heart—her sister’s heart—towards her, to know that Diana had honored her. Her pulse quickened, and her thoughts bounded ahead. To journey to the Underworld, to beg a favor of Death, to return not just with her own life, but Antiope’s, and Steve’s—-was it an impossible task? Was this a child’s hope, a fool’s errand?
She glanced at Steve’s watch, where it sat on her nightstand. It ticked away steadily, a mechanical heartbeat that was poor substitute for the living and vital beat of Steve’s own heart. I love you, he’d said as he pressed it into her hands, and Diana hadn’t had the chance to say the words back. She didn’t know if it was a love that could withstand more familiarity, or if it would burn fast and lovely before it flickered out. It seemed worth it to Diana to risk finding out. And if nothing else, Diana had to let Steve know that he was loved, that he was honored. Just a little more time, she thought. Even if she had to snatch it from the greedy hands of Death.
And Antiope, who had taken a death blow meant for Diana—her sacrifice hadn’t been in vain, but wouldn’t Diana have survived, no matter what? She understood her power a little better now, and didn’t think one of man’s bullets would have been enough to kill her. Of course, Antiope would not have wanted to take the risk, not when Diana was the God-killer. Maybe Diana could set it right though, maybe Diana could bring Antiope forth from the Underworld to rejoin her Amazonian sisters who so dearly missed her.
She went back to Ares’ library, tiptoeing through the dark halls so as not to wake any of the others. She pulled books from the shelves: volumes she knew would include texts on the labors of Heracles, on Orpheus and Eurydice, on Aeneas. Others had made this journey, to varying degrees of success. And Diana—Diana wasn’t mortal. If anyone had a chance at succeeding, it was her. At the very least, she thought she could come back out from the Underworld with her own life. It would be worth the journey, no matter how harrowing, only to see Steve again, to see Antiope.
She went back to the library, for a map this time, and set about planning her journey.
When she told the others about her plan the next day, she was met with incredulous stares.
“But those aren’t true—” Sameer started, after a long silence. Halfway through the sentence, she could practically see him recalling the sight of Ares, armored and wreathed in flame.
“I always thought the Underworld was a metaphor,” said Etta, somewhat helplessly.
“Just because it’s a metaphor, doesn’t mean it’s not real,” said Napi. His initial disbelief had turned to consideration.
“Exactly!” said Diana.
“You can’t just bring back the dead,” protested Sameer. “We all miss Steve, but—is it just, is it fair, to bring back one, or two, when so many have died in this war?”
It was a just question, and one Diana had considered in the small hours of the night. Was she only acting out of selfishness? Was it fair, to bring only one man and one woman back from death, when hundreds of thousands had been cut down too soon?
“If anyone deserves to come back, surely it’s Steve, who sacrificed his life for thousands of people. Millions, even, maybe. And I will ask him if he wants to return. If he’s at peace there, or if he’s drunk from the waters of Lethe….then I’ll leave him. The same for Antiope.”
“I know you’re—” Etta gestured vaguely at Diana. “—You know, but is it safe for you? And I suppose this is getting metaphysical, but why would Steve be in the Underworld and not, er, heaven?”
“I can answer that,” said Napi. “He wasn’t much of a believer. If he was going to end up anywhere, it might as well be your Underworld.” Napi looked at Diana. “He believed in you, after all.”
Diana nodded, blinked away tears. “It’s safe for me. And the Lady of the Dead—Persephone. She’s my sister, I suppose. Half sister. And Hades is my uncle. Consider it a family visit, if nothing else. I will be fine.”
“Your half brother just tried to kill you,” said Etta. “But alright. Where do you even go? How do you, you know, get there?”
Now Diana spread open the map she had found in the library. “There’s an entrance to the Underworld at Taenarus, at what is called Cape Tainaron or Tenaro now.” She pointed to the southernmost part of mainland Greece. “There is a cave there, the entrance can be reached by boat. A small boat, it’s not a very large cave.”
“Let me guess, you’re leaving tomorrow?” asked Sameer, rubbing at his forehead.
“Oh, no. It would be best to wait until closer to spring. That’s the best time for an ascent from the Underworld. Traditional, even.” She aimed a hopeful look at Sameer, Napi, and Etta. “I was hoping one of you could help me plan the journey to Greece? Is it better to go over land, or by sea?”
“Sea would take two, three weeks,” said Napi. “Fastest would be to cross the Channel, then take trains to Greece, and hire someone with a boat there.” Napi traced the routes with his finger on the map as he spoke.
“Not exactly like hiring a taxi though, is it? ‘Oh, just wait here while I pop into the Underworld, won’t be but a tick?’ Someone you trust ought to go with you,” said Etta.
“You’ve all already done more than enough. I can make this journey alone. I must make it alone, I think.”
“I’ll take you across the Channel,” said Napi. “I insist.”
Diana smiled at him and clasped his hand. “Thank you.”
Sameer took a deep breath, then threw up his hands. “And I will get you to Greece. If you do snatch Steve and your aunt from the Underworld, you will need my help to get back to London.”
“Let’s plan your route then,” said Etta, brisk and kind, as she got up to fetch a notebook and pencil. “Good thing you’re waiting a couple months, the weather’s likely to be awful all over right now….”
Seven days before the end of winter, Diana stared into the cave of Taenarus and thought of Steve, of Antiope, and of the sister and uncle she might soon meet. She searched her heart for fear, because Antiope had always taught her to wrestle her fear to the ground before it could best her during a fight. She was afraid, a little. Of death, of failure. Of the shades she might see, for she had sent men to their deaths in battle. Of Steve telling her he would not return with her, of Antiope being angry with her. Yes, she was afraid.
But not afraid enough to turn back.
“Row in a little further,” she told the boatman, and with a few slow strokes, they glided past the mouth of the cave, into the cave proper.
It wasn’t silent, couldn’t be, with the sound of the waves outside and the water sloshing against the boat, but there was something deep and dark about the cave that suggested silence. There was a temple to Poseidon above, almost directly above actually, on the cliffs above the caves, and it was as if the temple’s sacred stillness extended downward.
“No further,” said the boatman, and Diana nodded. A few boat lengths ahead, the cave’s ceiling grew too low to allow the boat. From here, she would go alone.
“Thank you, I know the way from here.”
Sameer was wide-eyed and pale. “Are you sure about this, Diana?”
“Yes. Don’t worry, Sameer. All will be well.”
Diana removed her cloak and settled Antiope’s tiara on her head. She considered removing her armored boots too, but the swim to the Underworld’s entrance wouldn’t be long. She adjusted her sword in its scabbard at her hip, checked her lasso on the other side. She glanced over her shoulder to check that her shield was secured too, and Sameer tightened the strap with nervous hands. She smiled at him, thankful, and he smiled wanly back. Her bracelets were secure, and she had a few gold coins in a purse beside her scabbard, to pay for her, and hopefully Steve and Antiope’s, passage with the ferryman. She had Steve’s watch, too, tucked under her bracelet. Time might not pass the same in the Underworld, but she wasn’t taking Steve’s watch to tell time. It just didn’t feel right, to go into the Underworld to get Steve back without carrying something of his in with her.
“We will wait here every morning until nightfall, until you return,” said Sameer. He lifted his chin and squared his shoulders. “Until you all return.”
His faith warmed her even in the chill of the cave, and when she dove into the water, already cold as death, she held the memory of it close to her heart, even as she said her own voiceless prayers to Zeus, for strength, and to Athena, for wisdom.
She kicked and swam deeper into the cave, into the dark. It would be easy to become disoriented in the directionless dark, but Diana kept close to the cave wall, and it was enough of a guide to keep her on course, even after she rose for air twice. Eventually she saw an eldritch, greenish blue light flickering and wavering in the distance, and she followed it to where the cave opened up to an underground shoreline. She stumbled to the shore on legs numb from the icy water. The cold won’t kill you, Diana told herself, as she shivered and wrung out her dripping hair.
The light was coming from a narrow passage way in the rock. Rough as it was, the passage wasn’t hewn by any mortal hands, only by time and water and the earth itself. The only sound was Diana’s own breath, and the lapping and dripping of water. She walked forward into the passage, and began the long walk down.
Diana felt it when she passed through whatever invisible, unearthly barrier marked the transition between the world above and the world below. It was not unlike the barrier that sheltered Themyscira, fizzing and crackling against her chilled skin. It did her no harm though, and the path soon turned into a steep decline, and she skidded along the damp and tumbling rocks under her feet for some time, until the path abruptly widened and spilled her forth into a wider chamber, engulfed in mist. Everything was gray: the light, the mist, the stones and the ground. She listened past the sound of her own heart, her own breath, and heard the tick of Steve’s watch, and then the softest lapping of water against stone.
The Styx was here, somewhere. She’d rather not fall into it.
There was no reply. She heard movement though, and felt eyes on her. She settled her shield on her arm, drew her sword free of its scabbard. There—was that a shape in the mist? She whirled on it, but it dissipated. She walked forward. Now she could hear sounds—weeping, groans, screams—but muffled. Until the mist coalesced into form, inches from her face. She only caught a glimpse before she instinctively used her shield to push it back: a wheezing and gasping man, skin cyanotic blue. She’d seen that sight often enough in London’s hospital wards. She brought her shield down, but the flu-struck man was gone. Disease. It shepherded enough people to these gates to have its own place here.
Diana pressed forward, until another shape gathered form in the fog, now a skeletal and starving woman, her cheeks and eyes cavernously hollow, her hands grasping. Hunger. She dissolved, was replaced—now by a bent and wrinkled old woman, then by a burned and burning young man, his skin blistering and blackening, so close she could smell his cooked flesh, could hear his thready scream—no, he too turned to mist, and now there was another—a veiled mourner, wailing and sobbing and keening, and then—
The mist cleared and she was on the banks of a wide and slow-moving river, with gray and silty water. She searched the banks for the ferryman, for surely he must be here—the air beside her shifted. Diana turned, and saw a figure who was many things at once: a pale young woman with dark hair and smiling black lips, a tall hooded skeleton carrying a scythe, a man with a jackal’s head—
There was a splash and a thump from the river Styx. “You called for me?” The ferryman had arrived. When she turned back to see the ever-changing figure again, it was gone.
She turned back to Charon with as gracious a smile as she could manage, breathless as she was. He was a filthy elderly man, with eyes of flame and a wild beard, a tattered and ragged cloak over his shoulders. Hades, Diana thought with some reproach, could surely spare some proper clothes for the poor man. Maybe she’d suggest it to him.
“Yes, I did,” she said. She resettled her shield on her back, sheathed her sword, and pulled a coin from her purse. “I’d like passage across, please.”
Charon squinted suspiciously at her. “You’re unburied, unburned. You’re alive.”
“Yes, but I have the fare for passage. Is there anything else required?”
Charon snatched the coin from her fingers, and tested the gold with his yellowed teeth. He grunted in satisfaction and glared at her. “You’re one of them demigods, aren’t you. Well, get in. It’s no business of mine if you can’t leave, of course, but you know what you’re doing, I suppose.”
She stepped into the small boat, more of a dinghy really, and sat down as Charon began to pole the boat across the wide Styx.
“Polite at least, that’s more than I can say for some demigods,” Charon grumbled. “Now, what’re you doing here? Not here to get up to mischief are you?”
Diana wondered what counted as ‘mischief’ to Charon. “No, Ferryman, no mischief. My name is Diana of Themyscira, daughter of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and I’m here to retrieve two souls, if possible, and to visit with my uncle, Hades. And my sister, Persephone.”
That earned her both an amused snort and a somewhat impressed look, but Charon spoke no further, and he focused instead on getting the boat across the river. The mist had risen again, so Diana could see little of the surroundings, just the dark waters and the opaque mist. Time passed with nothing other than the strokes of Charon’s pole and the ticking of Steve’s watch to mark it, until the Styx turned marshy, reeds and river plants brushing against the sides of the boat, their dull green a welcome respite from the relentless gray surrounding them. After what felt like a few minutes more, the mist cleared to show a dock on the other shore. Charon skillfully maneuvered the boat to the dock, then offered her a surprisingly courtly hand up out of the boat, but didn’t release her hand.
“Thank you again,” said Diana, and tried to gently tug her hand free from his grip, to no avail.
“Now, if you’re not up to any mischief, I expect you’ll be alright with leaving that fine sword of yours with me.” Diana hesitated. To go unarmed…the memory of Antiope in her mind said never give up your weapons if you can help it. “You heroes and demigods come down here and hack and slash about with those things, as if it makes a difference down below. You’ll leave it with me. You can have it back on the next trip. If there is a next trip.”
Well that didn’t bode especially well. But she hadn’t planned on getting in any fights down here anyway. And she’d still have her shield and bracelets, and the lasso. She unsheathed her sword and offered it to Charon, hilt first.
“I will expect that back, Ferryman.” He took the sword and stowed it under one of the boat’s benches.
“Of course, of course. Good luck with the dog!” called out Charon as he pushed the boat off the dock, and disappeared into the mists.
Diana had given some thought to what she could do to get past Cerberus at the gates to the Underworld. She was no Orpheus, to sing the monster to contented sleep. She had no need to fight and capture Cerberus as Heracles had. And sword or no sword, she wasn’t going to hurt the poor thing, not if she could help it. He was only doing what his master asked him to do. No, Diana planned to try something different.
The gate to the Underworld rose up in the mid-distance, made of a black marble so dark the gate seemed more like a void than a physical thing. Three-headed Cerberus was drowsing in front of it, two heads seemingly asleep, but one alert and already perking up at Diana’s approach. Charon had called it a dog, and certainly the myths and legends called it such too, but it had little resemblance to the sheepherding dogs Diana was familiar with. Cerberus was bigger even than the tanks she’d seen at the Front, and while his heads and body were more or less doglike, he had a serpent’s tail, and a mane made up of more serpents.
She walked towards Cerberus slowly, keeping her hands open and her arms loose at her sides.
“Hello, Cerberus,” she crooned.
The other two heads woke and swiveled towards her. Cerberus’ serpent’s tail lashed back and forth slowly, only a gentle warning still. He didn’t attack on sight, that was good. She’d worried he might. Instead, three sets of flaming eyes trained on her, a disquieting sight, even though she’d been prepared for it. Cerberus was no ordinary hound, or even an ordinary guard dog, guarding the gates of the Underworld as he did. Still, Diana was counting on the fact that a dog was a dog, and all dogs wanted to be Good Dogs above all else. And Cerberus, she was sure, was unaccustomed to kindness from the souls who usually ended up here.
She stopped some distance away from Cerberus, and held out her hand for him to sniff. “I’m not here to hurt you, or fight you. Only to visit,” she said, keeping her voice low and gentle.
Cerberus’ center head came down to examine her and sniff at her hand. His snuffling breath was hot against her hand, and his size was enough to make some small part of her quail. Diana swallowed hard and focused on not letting her hand shake. The other heads inspected her in turn, one even lapping at her hand inquisitively with his tongue.
This isn’t so bad, she thought. He was polite, as dogs went, and the flaming eyes weren’t so terrible once you got used to them. She decided to try petting Cerberus. All dogs liked to be scratched behind their ears, right?
“Who’s the loveliest hellhound? You are,” she cooed. Cerberus gave her a mildly terrifying doggy smile. His teeth were entirely too sharp, but his serpent tail was wagging. Diana decided to find this adorable rather than terrifying. She smiled back.
After petting and offering behind the ear scritches to each head in turn, she made a couple efforts at stepping past Cerberus, but these were gently blocked. So he wouldn’t attack, but he wouldn’t let her pass either. Hmmm. Diana craned her head to look at the surroundings. The ever-present mist clung close to the ground all around, but from what she could make out, the gate was surrounded by a vast and mostly featureless flat plain. If legend was right, there were more monsters lurking around the gate, hidden in the mists: hydras and harpies and gorgons, and who knew what else.
Cerberus was sniffing all over her in earnest now, and one of his heads nudged at the shield on her back curiously. It gave her an idea.
“That’s my shield. Shiny, isn’t it?” She pulled it from her back, slowly, and offered it to Cerberus to examine. “We could play catch. Does your master play catch with you?” Cerberus’ tail wagged with frantic joy now, and all six of his ears perked up.
Diana took a few steps back and tossed the shield lightly into the mist. Cerberus bounded away, his steps making the ground shake, then bounded back to deposit the shield at her feet. She threw the shield again, a little farther now, and they repeated this game a few times, throw and fetch, throw and fetch.
Diana would miss this shield, if she never got it back. She had lost her Amazonian sword already, crumbled to dust under Ares’ onslaught, but the shield had held true through all her battles in the world of men. She ran her fingers over the finely wrought engravings, and the small nicks and pitted marks from the machine gun fire it had endured. It had served her well, better even than she might have imagined. And yet it was only a thing, and Diana was here to retrieve far more precious souls.
She stepped back further from Cerberus, shook her shoulders out. She drew her arm back to throw the shield as if it were a discus, as if this were just a discus throw with her Amazonian sisters at the Themysciran games, but this time she used all her strength and flung the shield far, far into the distance. The speed with which it zoomed away shocked Diana, and within bare seconds, its glint disappeared into the mist. Cerberus’ three heads barked happily and he bounded after it.
Diana waited a minute, until she couldn’t hear or feel the telltale pounding of Cerberus’ paws. She took one last look up at the void-dark black of the gates to the Underworld, and walked through.
Her shoulders felt light, unprotected without the weight of the shield on them. The back of her neck tingled and itched with the phantom sense of being watched, but when she looked around, there was nothing there. Only that gray and damp mist under a gray and half-lit sky, and a rolling, endless meadow spread out before her. It might have been lovely, under a clear and sunny sky. In the half light of the Underworld, the Asphodel Meadows were just an echo of loveliness, like a mural bleached by the sun and worn by weather and time, the white of the asphodel flowers turned ghostly instead of bright. The abundant grass and flowers brushed her thighs as she walked, the flowers’ sweet scent drifting up as she moved past them.
Where are all the souls, Diana wondered. The shades of ordinary souls, the ones who had been neither bad nor good, were meant to be wandering the Meadows. Would they only appear if offered a sacrifice? Was Steve among their number? But if Steve was in the Underworld, surely he would be in the Elysian Fields. He deserved that, he must, after his sacrifice. And Antiope, surely she too would be in Elysium, as the Amazons’ greatest warrior.
“Hello? Is anyone here?” Only the wind answered, shaking the asphodels. “Steve? Antiope?” She waited, straining her eyes to see if any ghostly shade approached, but there was nothing. Nothing but the ticking of Steve’s watch from where it sat on her wrist, a faint sound, only audible because of the near silence of these unearthly fields.
Diana walked on. She couldn’t know if she was walking in the right direction, didn’t know which direction was which at all, with the lack of visible sun or stars. She wasn’t sure it would have mattered anyway; the Underworld wasn’t exactly a physical place that adhered to the laws of the world above. So Diana just kept walking, keeping her destination set in her mind: the palace of Hades and Persephone, Antiope, Steve, wherever they were.
Maybe she needed to announce herself. There was no telling if Charon would relay news of her arrival to the palace.
And maybe the palace was empty. Maybe Ares’ war reached even here, and sent the gods of death beyond death, back into the deeper darkness of Erebus. Maybe it was just Charon and Cerberus and the monsters of the Underworld left alone to do their duty, masterless, among what remained of the shades of the dead. Charon would have mentioned that though. Wouldn’t he?
She stopped, looked up at the formless grey that passed for the sky, and took a breath to speak, loud and clear, as if she were before the Amazonian senate.
“Chthonia, Polydegmon, I am Diana of Themyscira, daughter of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and—” She hesitated. It felt strange, to claim Zeus as father, after so many years certain that she was fatherless. The family connection could only help now though, and it was, after all, the truth. “And daughter of Zeus, and I request an audience. I have come from the world above, to beg a favor, as Orpheus did. I’m here for the soul of Antiope of Themyscira, and for the soul of Steve Trevor, if his soul dwells here. If it please you, I would like the opportunity to return them to life, for they sacrificed their own lives for millions of others, and helped to free us all, mortal and divine alike, from Ares’ wrath.”
She waited, but heard and felt no acknowledgement. She walked on again towards the dim horizon.
If she unfocused her eyes, she thought she could see figures in the mist, bare outlines or shadows of people. The moment she turned to look more closely, they disappeared. And the sound of the wind through the leaves began to sound more and more like whispers. She walked for what felt like a long time, phantoms constantly flitting at the edge of her vision, sounds almost resolving into human murmurs, the scent of asphodel growing cloyingly thick. She found herself forgetting her purpose for short stretches of time, lulled by the monotony of her walking pace and the overwhelming grey. She tried to keep her focus on the only just audible faint ticking of Steve’s watch as it counted out the seconds, steadier than heartbeats. When that stopped working, she ran for a while, just for the change, and to keep her wits sharp. Running didn’t seem to bring the horizon any closer, and still, there was no palace or gate in the distance.
Diana didn’t know how long it was before she heard the distant sound of hooves, shockingly sharp and loud against the constant susurration of the grasses and asphodel. She turned, looked for the source of the sound. In the distance to her left, she saw a dark figure on horseback approaching. Diana freed her lasso from its holster, and held it loose and ready in her hands.
When the figure on horseback drew close enough to see, she nearly dropped the lasso. She knew that golden hair, those fierce blue eyes. She knew that armor.
Antiope dismounted with a graceful leap and strode to meet Diana, cupped Diana’s face in her hands. “You wear it well,” she said, brushing her fingers over the tiara on Diana’s forehead. “Now what’s this about you being here to retrieve some man’s soul?”
Diana laughed and threw her arms around Antiope.
“I have missed you so much,” she whispered, and held on long and hard. She drew back. “And I am here for you too! But surely you don’t belong here in the Asphodel Meadows!”
“Oh, I am no shade, or can you not feel as much?” she said with a playful pinch to Diana’s arm. “No, I was in Tartarus earlier, on an errand for Cthonia. Evidently, there is no greater punishment for some men than to be defeated repeatedly in battle by a woman.” Antiope’s grin was ferocious, and Diana laughed again.
“And let me guess, you got bored in the Elysian Fields.”
Antiope shrugged. “Perhaps. And what do you mean you’re here for me as well?” Antiope raised an eyebrow in that way that made the little girl inside Diana quail.
“The only reason you are dead is because of me. You took a shot meant for me.” Diana shook her head. “It’s not right, it’s not fair.”
“Diana…” Antiope sighed, shook her head. Then she smiled and brought her hand to Diana’s cheek. “You must know by now that a battle isn’t fair. Every one may be the last, and every warrior knows that. I took that killing blow gladly, Diana. I knew you were meant for more than our hidden island.”
“I could have survived it, I think,” Diana whispered.
God-killer, Antiope had said, with her dying breaths. Diana hadn’t understood then, but she did now. Antiope had known all the while, and had done her best to prepare Diana. If Steve hadn’t literally crashed into her life when he had, if the Germans hadn’t stormed the beach…Diana had been too shocked and upset by that last test with Antiope to fully appreciate that Antiope herself hadn’t been angered by the blast Diana had unleashed. She’d been thrilled. What would training with Antiope have been like, once Diana had understood her godly powers? Diana had wondered that often, since Antiope’s death. Maybe now she could find out. Hope took flight in her chest with every beat of her heart.
“Maybe, maybe not. I love you too much to take such a risk.” Antiope embraced her, the same almost painfully firm hug she always gave Diana.
“Come back with me,” said Diana, once she pulled away.
“Would you lead all the dead of the Underworld back up to the land of the living? Or only those you knew? No, I will remain here.” Diana opened her mouth to protest, but Antiope forestalled her. “No, no, don’t argue. I have had long millennia of life, I have served my purpose. If I return to the world above, it will be to be born anew. That is the natural order of things. For now, I am pleased to be here, with my sisters who have passed before me.”
Well, if Antiope wanted to be born anew….Diana wouldn’t take that from her. The disappointment made her throat tight and her eyes sting, but she wouldn’t deny Antiope her deserved new beginning just because Diana wanted a teacher, or just because Diana missed her. She couldn’t be so selfish. And maybe Steve would make the same choice, she reminded herself. It hurt her heart to contemplate having made this journey in vain, but Antiope and Steve’s choices were their own. She could and would respect them, even if they caused her pain. “Alright. Though I will miss you still.”
“I know,” said Antiope with a sad and knowing smile. “Come, Cthonia has heard you and desires you to visit her and her husband in their palace.” Antiope mounted her horse again, and Diana blinked in surprise as she got a good look at the horse. It was black like smoke, with the same burning flame eyes as Charon and Cerberus. Its every snorting breath released a cloud of steam and smoke. Ferocious Antiope looked as if she belonged on its back. She offered Diana a hand up. “You can tell me what has passed in the world above on the way, God-killer.”
“You knew,” said Diana, as she settled herself behind Antiope.
“Of course I knew. I did my best to prepare you. I am glad it was enough.”
“There’s still so much I don’t know,” said Diana, plaintive.
Antiope patted Diana’s arm where it was wound around her waist. “You will learn. There’s no right way to be a demigod, Diana. And you must know enough if you defeated Ares. Now, tell me how you defeated him.”
Diana rested her chin on Antiope’s shoulder as the horse began to gallop in earnest. She put her lips close to Antiope’s ear, and began to tell her the story of her journeys and battles in the world of men.
“After the battle on the beach, the mortal man Steve Trevor told us of the war raging in man’s world, the war to end all wars, they called it…”
The journey to the palace of Hades and Persephone took long enough that Diana was grateful she was on horseback. They rode through the Asphodel Meadows, on to the Vale of Mourning, where sorrowful moans and weeping filled the air, and from there, through the Plain of Judgment, where lines of waiting souls stood pale and ready to be sent to their final rest or punishment. Here, the road branched, and Antiope directed the horse, trotting now, to the right-hand road, where a palace rose in the distance. The palace gleamed a dull, sullen sort of gold in the half-light of the Underworld. Though it was made of gold, the palace’s lines were austere and simple, almost like a plainer sort of temple.
Were it not for its location, the palace would have been a lovely estate. As the road drew close to the palace proper, it was lined with cypress trees, and a burbling river encircled the palace grounds. Diana could see a sizable orchard beside the palace, the garnet and blush red of pomegranates weighing the trees’ branches down, their color vivid in an otherwise gray and misty world. The palace itself was golden, richer by far than anything that could exist in the world above, for Pluton held dominion over all the wealth of the world below, the precious metals and jewels. In her now travel-worn armor, Diana felt a little like a poor relation come to visit her fabulously wealthy uncle. She thought wistfully of her best silk chiton, hanging abandoned in her closet on Themyscira.
Antiope brought the horse to a stop in front of the palace’s outer gates. “This is far as I can take you, Diana.”
“I understand,” she said, and pressed a kiss to Antiope’s cheek before she dismounted. She didn’t bother to blink her tears away as she looked up at Antiope. Antiope just tsked and reached down to stroke Diana’s cheek with a sad smile.
“No tears, little one. It was a long life I had, a good life.”
“I know. Thank you for training me.”
“It was my honor, and my pleasure. Now, are you sure you want to do this for this mortal man, this—Steve Trevor? Is he worthy of this?”
“Yes, I’m sure. And I don’t know if he’s worthy or not,” said Diana, because it was true, she had only known Steve for a short time, the space of a few heartbeats in what mortals would reckon a long life. She couldn’t know if he was worthy. She only knew that she loved the man she had known for the space of a few short days. She wanted more days to love more than the memory of him. “I only know that I want more time with him. I know that I want to try. I have to try.”
Antiope shook her head, but in that way that meant she would indulge Diana. “Alright.” Her gaze turned from fond to sharp, and Diana’s spine reflexively straightened to battle readiness. “Remember your tutors’ lessons,” she said, low and intent, her eyes burning.
Diana nodded. “Do I just—go in?”
“Yes. But you will have to leave your tiara with me.”
“I know, I know it’s yours, but Mother gave it to me when I left Themyscira, and I’m sorry if—”
“No, I’m glad she gave it to you. But it’s the way of the Underworld.” Antiope gave her a meaningful look that Diana couldn’t quite decipher. “Do you understand?”
Diana pulled the tiara off, and gave it to Antiope. My tutors’ lessons, Diana thought, and felt a glimmer of recognition. “I understand, I think,” she said, pushed on the heavy doors of the outer gates, and walked through.
The doors opened into a courtyard, paved with volcanic dark stone, and harmoniously laid out with mosaics inset with precious gems, a few white poplar trees offering somewhat unnecessary shade. The effect was spare but lovely in its own way. Diana lingered, wondering if she was meant to go on ahead through the next doorway on her own. It seemed rude to just barge in, and Antiope had told her to remember her lessons…
Diana went to the door at the other end of the courtyard, and rapped firmly but politely. “Hello? I’m here to see Aidoneus and Despoina. I believe I’m expected. I’m Diana of Themyscira, daughter of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and daughter of Zeus.”
The door creaked open to reveal a pale, craggy-faced man bearing a scepter. “Yes, you are expected, God-killer.”
She smiled at the doorman. “I’m not here in that capacity,” she said, unsettled to be named so in Hades’ own halls.
The doorman gestured her into the receiving room, and reached towards her bracelets. Diana drew back, coming up against the already closed door at her back. “What are you doing?”
“It’s the way of the Underworld. You must relinquish them.”
The words echoed Antiope’s, and Diana cast her mind back to her childhood lessons. This felt familiar. She had given up her sword already, and then her shield, and then the tiara…yes, this was familiar.
“If it’s the way of the Underworld,” she conceded, and released the clasp of each bracelet, then tugged off her half-gloves, and handed it all to the doorman.
Gooseflesh rose on the newly bare skin of her forearms. Her instincts clamored with concern: she didn’t have so many defenses or weapons left. Just her armor, and her lasso. And Steve’s watch on her wrist, still ticking. She rubbed at its smooth face. Remember who you’re here for, she told herself. The doorman left the watch alone, but he reached for her armband, and she let him tug it off. The watch, apparently, was acceptable. He directed her forwards to the next door.
This door revealed a smaller inner courtyard, empty save for the sculptures that lined the walls. Under any other circumstance, Diana would have stopped to examine the sculptures, but she was feeling the sting of urgency and impatience now. She strode on ahead to the next door, and here too she was stopped by a doorman, who looked much the same as the last. This one knelt and set about unbuckling her sandals.
“I’m to go barefoot?” asked Diana.
“It is the way of the Underworld,” he said. Diana directed a pointed look to the doorman’s own sandals, peeking out from beneath his long chiton. The doorman didn’t react.
“Of course,” Diana sighed, and bent down to help him unbuckle the straps around the greaves at her calves and thighs.
She stepped out of her sandals and greaves onto the black stone of the palace floor, smooth and cool against the soles of her feet. She walked on to the next door, a little more carefully now. It wouldn’t do to slip on the almost slick smoothness of the floor. This door opened into a stateroom of some sort, where chaises were scattered about the room, and a mosaic stretched along every wall. The mosaic was so skillfully made that it almost gave the impression of motion as it unfolded the story of the defeat of Cronus. Diana didn’t have long to admire it before she was approached by another doorman. This time, she handed over her lasso without prompting.
“The way of the Underworld, I know,” she said, and entered the next room, affecting more confidence than she felt. She was wholly weaponless now, save for her own two hands. They would have to be enough, should she need it.
The next room was another courtyard, smaller than the last, with a well at its center. The air here smelled sweet and fresh. Mint grew in hectic, crowded bursts along the edges of the courtyard. The sight of the well and the smell of damp stone that wafted from it made Diana’s mouth water with thirst. She resisted the temptation. How long had she been in the Underworld? How long could she go, without food or drink? She lingered by the well, looked down into the seeming void below. There was a bucket on a rope that could be lowered down to draw up water. But she knew what happened to anyone who ate or drank in the Underworld, and who knew what waters fed that well. Best not to risk drinking from Lethe. She turned away from the well.
Another doorman awaited her at the next passage. “What’s left?” asked Diana.
“I’m not wearing much under it,” she said, exasperated now. “Am I meant to appear before the lord and lady of the house in nothing but my underthings?” She would, if she had to, but she knew where that story went, and she hoped to avoid it.
The doorman, a man like a statue in form and in granite-rough voice, repeated, “Your armor. Would you arrive in Despoina’s hall dressed for war, God-killer?”
“I have relinquished my weapons. I come in peace, as Diana of Themyscira, daughter of Hippolyta and Zeus. Tell my sister Despoina that I will remove my armor only if she gives me clothes to wear.”
The doorman inclined his head, and retreated. Diana waited. Here, in one of the innermost rooms of the palace of Hades and Persephone, the silence was near absolute. Steve’s watch ticked loudly. Was it going slower, or was that just Diana’s imagination? She counted the ticks until the doorman returned: 140.
He returned with an undyed folded up length of cloth. Well, it was better than walking into the throne room in just her underthings. Diana unbuckled the bodice of her armor, stepped out of the skirt, and the doorman stepped forward with the cloth, which he unfolded and shook out to reveal a plain peplos. Plain as it was, the fabric was rich and fine, and the doorman helped her drape it properly around her shoulders as Diana adjusted the skirt so it didn’t drag on the ground. She resisted tearing a slit into the side, though she was sorely tempted. Range of motion, she reasoned, would not matter. This wasn’t going to be a fight. Or, not that sort of fight anyway.
The doorman walked through the next door, and guided her through a winding, dark hallway, to a grand and intricately engraved doorway. He pushed open the doors to reveal a cavernously expansive throne room of gold and obsidian. Diana took a moment to draw in a deep, bracing breath, and to relax her automatic fighting posture to something more proper. You are a princess and a demigod. You walked across no man’s land. You defeated Ares. You can face your sister and uncle, Diana reminded herself, and walked through the door with her head held high.
The throne room was vast, and the walk to stand before the two golden thrones long. Diana let the tick of Steve’s watch guide her in a measured pace up to the two figures sitting on the thrones. Hades was much like the stories described him: pale, bearded, stern, with dark hair and dark eyes. He didn’t seem angry, but neither did he seem happy. Persephone was as lovely as the stories suggested, her rich brown hair elaborately braided and pinned, her eyes a shifting greenish brown that put Diana in mind of green growing things. But there was something forbidding in her beauty, with her face set in hard lines as it was, and the light brown of her skin had a faded look that suggested she had not seen the sun above in a long time. Did they look like sisters, Diana wondered. Maybe a little.
“Thank you for granting me an audience, uncle, sister.”
“It pleases me to see you well, niece,” said Hades, his voice deep in a way that resounded in Diana’s bones. “And I thank you for defeating Ares. His war did not reach us here in the Underworld, but the losses—” Hades exchanged a heavy glance with his wife, and sighed. “It is well, that it is ended.”
“Is it? Ended, that is,” asked Persephone. Her face was as still and harsh as stone, her gaze hard and measuring. Praxidike, she was sometimes named, and just now, Diana saw in her the relentless implacability of justice, of vengeance.
“What do you mean?”
“You kill a god, then you come down here, to our realm, where you might reasonably find the last two gods who escaped Ares’ wrath. God-killer, they named you. Do you have a taste for it now?”
“No!” Diana shook her head. “No, of course not! I only killed Ares because it was necessary, because it was part of the Amazons’ duty to the world of man. And because it was the right thing to do. I have no desire or need to kill either of you.”
“That is a relief,” said Hades, dry, but Persephone kept her eyes fixed on Diana’s, still intense and intent. She needed more convincing, thought Diana, as her wariness drew a cold, prickling line of unease down her spine.
Persephone stood from her throne, her indigo peplos shifting with a too-loud silken susurrus in the silence of the throne room. Diana tried not to take a battle-ready stance as Persephone paced. She had not been Kore in a long time, and Diana could see it in the avid hardness of her expression.
“Are you here for my domain, sister? Would you be queen in my stead?” Persephone gestured towards the throne. “Come, sit on the throne!”
Remember your tutor’s lessons, Antiope had said, and yes, Diana remembered them now. If she sat on that throne—they looked at her. It was the look of death. They spoke to her – it was the speech of anger. They shouted at her – it was the shout of heavy guilt. The afflicted woman was turned into a corpse. No. That was not what Diana was here for.
“No thank you,” said Diana as politely as she could. Persephone raised an unimpressed eyebrow, which Diana hoped didn’t count as the look of death. Diana continued, “I relinquished my weapons and my armor, sister. I have harmed no souls here, offered no offense. I have done you all honor, and held to the Mysteries, I have made sacrifices in your name. I’m only here to ask for the return of Steve Trevor’s soul, as Orpheus sought to retrieve his beloved Eurydice. If Steve Trevor is here, that is.”
“And if he’s not?” asked Hades.
“Then I will thank you for your hospitality, and for the gift of seeing my aunt Antiope again, and will beg your leave to return to the world above.”
Persephone was still for a long moment, considering Diana with such intent concentration that Diana wondered if Persephone was seeing into some more essential part of her, some secret at the core of her that not even Diana knew. Finally, Persephone’s posture relaxed and she returned to her seat on the throne. Persephone fluttered her fingers briefly, and an owl descended from somewhere in the throne room’s dark heights. It alighted on Persephone’s shoulder, and she whispered something to it before it flew away.
“He is in Elysium, for he fought at your side and died a hero’s death.” Diana let out a sigh of relief. Good. She hadn’t failed before she could even try to succeed. “It has been a long time, even as the gods reckon it, since someone has come to beg for a soul’s return to life,” said Hades. Diana didn’t know if that was in her favor or not.
“He’s your beloved, I suppose,” said Persephone. “You know, everyone can’t come down here asking for their beloved back just because they love them so much. It upsets the natural order of things.”
“I know.” Diana looked down at the watch still on her wrist, ticking placidly away. “But I had so little time with him. I thought it was worth trying to get a little more. I don’t know if he’s worthy of a second chance at life or not, I don’t know if my love for him is more fleeting than it seems. I only know I love him now, and miss him. I know he was a good man and a hero, that he helped to defeat Ares, that he died to save thousands, millions even. I leave it to your judgment if that is all enough, Praxidike, Polydegmon.”
“Could you put that lovely sentiment in the form of a song? Orpheus sang a very moving song,” said Hades, with utter solemnity.
Diana blinked. “Um. I could try? I’m not very good at music, my tutors despaired of me, truly, but—” Persephone rolled her eyes.
“Ignore him, you don’t have to sing a song.” She looked less stern now, and her generous mouth tilted towards a smile. “Alright. A gift then, for my new sister, who was hidden for so long. For your defeat of Ares, and your beloved’s role in it, you are owed a boon. You can return Steve Trevor to life. But like Orpheus, you will not be allowed to look back once you begin the return to the world above.”
“Thank you,” said Diana, bowing her head.
“The next time he dies, whenever that may be, he must stay here,” warned Hades.
Another owl, or perhaps the same one, returned to Persephone’s shoulder. She whispered to this one too, and it fluffed its wings in seeming acknowledgment.
“This little one will show you the way to the Elysian Fields, and then back up to the world above.” The owl flew towards the entrance to the throne room, and Diana turned to follow it.
“Thank you again. Truly.”
“You’re welcome. But don't make a habit of this, niece,” said Hades.
“Of course. I won’t, I promise.”
The walk to the door seemed shorter than the walk to the thrones had been, or maybe she was just walking faster. Soon, she’d see Steve again. Before she left the throne room though, she remembered something.
“Persephone,” she called out, loud and strong. “It’s almost spring again, in the world above.” She couldn’t see the expression on Persephone’s face from this distance, but she could see Persephone grow still and then give her a regal decline of her head in acknowledgment.
Diana followed the bark-brown little owl out of the palace, into an orchard, down a winding path that dipped into a valley. She stepped carefully, mindful of being barefoot, but the dirt and stone of the path were pleasant enough to walk on, not too hard, or too rocky. If she had been in the world above, she would have thought she was walking east, towards the dawn, for the mist had burned away and the sky was blushing with the sun’s warm glow. Or, not the sun, but a sun, whatever sun lit and warmed the blessed dead in their eternal rest. After so long amid the grey mists and the dark wealth of the palace, it gladdened Diana’s heart to see the golden sunlight and the lush green landscape. The little owl stopped her at a crossroads on the path, beneath the shade of an ancient great tree.
“Am I meant to wait here?” she asked the little owl, and it answered with a low chirp that Diana took as a yes.
So Diana waited, tipping her head up to the canopy of leaves and the sunlight that danced between and through the leaves. There was a curious lack of warmth to the sunshine, as if it were only for show. Maybe the shades who dwelled here couldn’t tell, or maybe only Diana couldn’t feel the warmth, as a living person trespassing in Elysium’s peaceful fields and valleys. She wondered what peace Steve had found here in Elysium. Would he want to leave? Could he have tasted the waters of Lethe? The war had left its marks on him, she had seen it in the terror and despair that had sometimes filled the pure-skies blue of his eyes. She couldn’t blame him if he wanted to be free of even the memory of it.
She waited, and worried, counting the ticks of Steve’s watch. She considered what to say to him. The war is over. Come home. I love you. I missed you. You said you wanted more time. Let me give it to you. She paced back and forth beside the tree while the owl glared at her disapprovingly. She glared back at it.
“I’m a little nervous, okay?” she hissed at it.
She whirled around, and there was Steve, standing at the crossroads in his shirtsleeves and dusty pants. After months in the world of man, Diana had found that Steve hadn’t been boasting when he’d said he was an above-average example of his sex, and she felt it keenly now, because he looked beautiful under the Elysian sun. She saw now the toll the war had taken on him, for here in its absence, he looked years younger, no exhaustion or grim purpose weighing him down with the weight of time and duty. The sun had lightened his hair to wheat blond, and he was tan like he had spent a summer on the beaches of Themyscira. Oh, she had missed him. Her heart was full with how much she had missed him.
All her plans for what to say dissolved and all she could say was, “Steve!” and smile. But Steve looked stricken, and he was shaking his head.
“No, no, you can’t be—tell me you’re not—did Ares—” he said and strode towards her, reaching out, only to find that they couldn’t quite touch. Diana only felt a vaguely electric resistance where his hands grasped the skin of her forearms and wrists. He was still a shade, more soul than body. Steve sighed in relief and dropped his hands. “Oh, good. You’re not dead.” He squinted at her suspiciously. “If you’re not dead, what are you doing here? How are you here? Did you defeat Ares?”
“Yes, yes, I’m fine, Ares has been defeated. I’m here for you. I asked Hades and Persephone to return you to life, and they said yes. Will you come with me, back to the world above?”
“You know, like Orpheus. I came down to the Underworld, there’s an entrance at Taenarus, and I asked—”
“No, I get it. I just—right. Of course,” said Steve faintly, and then laughed. “Of course you can just—do that. Why not.” He gave her that wondering look he so often did, and smiled, then laughed again.
“You said you loved me. I wanted to at least get the chance to say it back.” Her lips seemed to be stuck in a smile, though her eyes were releasing tears of relief and joy and remembered grief. He reached out to try to wipe them away, but they still couldn’t quite touch, mismatched between spirit and flesh, and he lowered his hands with a huff of frustration.
“You’re not mad at me? I kind of thought you’d be mad at me, for the whole declaration of love followed by blowing myself up situation.”
“I was at first,” Diana admitted, thinking of the rage that had filled her. “But you did the right thing, and you saved many lives. I am only sorry I couldn’t spare you that sacrifice. I can try to make it right, now. Will you follow me back to the world of the living?” Steve shook his head, in disbelief or refusal, Diana wasn’t sure. “You don’t have to, you’ve earned your rest, your peace, if that’s what you want. But you said you wished we’d had more time, and this way, we can have more time.” She paused, took a shaky breath. “I would very much like more time with you.”
“Yeah. Yeah, me too. And I want to live. I don’t regret getting on that plane, but I really want to live. I want more time.” Steve’s voice cracked with his fervency. They stared at each other and smiled dopily for a moment, and Diana took care to hold the sight close in her memory. She wouldn’t see it again until they reached the world of the living again, and Diana had no intention of making Orpheus’s mistake. She wouldn't look back.
The owl hooted from its perch on a tree branch, and rustled its feathers meaningfully. Its masters wanted them to be on their way, probably.
“We should get going.”
“So, no looking back. That the only rule? Are we in for a fight? You don’t have your armor or anything.”
“No, that’s it. Just no looking back. And there will be no fighting, I had to relinquish my armor and weapons. It is the way of the Underworld, or so I was informed. Many times.”
“We just—walk out?”
“That’s how Orpheus did it.”
“Well, alright. Lead the way, I guess. I’ll follow.” Steve drew himself up with a soldier’s resolve, his jaw set with determination.
Diana took one last long look at Steve’s face, memorized it. He wasn’t alive yet, not quite, but he was real, and she fixed that knowledge in her mind before the long walk out could make her doubt it. She couldn’t fail at this for something so small as looking back. “Keep talking. So I know you’re still there.”
“I will. You’ll get sick of my voice, I’ll talk so much.”
Diana nodded, and smiled at him with as much confidence as she could muster. She turned towards the crossroads, away from Steve, to begin the walk out of Elysium. The owl hooted, in approval now, and flew on ahead on silent wings. Diana followed.
They followed the owl along the Elysian path, back towards the palace and the grey half-lit mist of the rest of the Underworld. As promised, Steve had no trouble keeping up a steady stream of observations and questions.
“So, I probably should have asked this before, but uh, I blew up pretty spectacularly. So, how am I going to—? Oh my god, how am I going to come back to life without a body?!”
Diana very nearly turned back to answer him, just out of habit. This would be harder than expected. “Oh, you don’t need to worry about that.”
“What do you mean I don’t need to worry about it? I don’t want to go back as a ghost!”
“It’s part of the Mysteries. You will be fine,” said Diana.
“Yeah? It’s a pretty big damn mystery! One I have some real personal investment in!” His tone was indignant, a little panicked, and Diana could imagine the look on his face, wide-eyed and aghast. She wished she could press a kiss to his bristly cheek and comfort him.
“I don’t mean a mystery, I mean the Mysteries. Dying and rising, descending and ascending. I suppose the Mysteries wouldn’t have survived in the world of man, they were never written down. But you have your own dying and rising god, do you not? The Christ? We celebrated the festival of his birth in London.”
“Okay, that’s fine—ancient myths, whatever. I get that. But I’m not Jesus. I am very much not—”
“But he did die and rise again after a sacrifice, didn’t he? This is no different, not really. It’s an old story, Steve. One of the oldest. The specifics change, but the story stays the same.”
Steve was silent for many ticks of the watch that still sat comfortingly on her wrist, but Diana didn’t worry. She could still hear his footsteps behind her. “This doesn’t seem like it should count. It was a war, I was just doing what I had to do,” he said eventually, quiet and solemn.
“You knowingly gave your life for the lives of others. That counts as a sacrifice.” She didn’t know if she could explain it to him properly, the feeling she’d had when through ringing ears she had tried to comprehend what he’d been about to do, why it was different from dying a warrior’s death on the battlefield. He hadn’t done it for her, but still, something had broken open inside of her when the plane burst into flame. And something had shifted in the world, in the tide of endless battle, thanks to Steve.
“And all those boys in the trenches? Were they sacrifices too?”
“Someone else’s sacrifice, maybe,” said Diana, thinking of the generals in their wood-paneled halls, far from the front line, and Ares, feeding life after life into the maw of war.
They were near to the palace now, and the owl directed them along a path that wound through the orchard and gardens that surrounded the palace, rather than through the building itself. Another owl was waiting for them, glowering from its perch on the lower branches of a pomegranate tree. The lasso of Hestia was dangling from its talons, glowing with its soft golden light. Diana smiled in relief. She hadn’t been entirely sure that she would get it back.
“May I have that back now, little one?” The owl hooted in seeming acquiescence and flapped over to her to drop the lasso in her hands. She looped the rope around her waist and held an end out behind her towards Steve, keeping her eyes forward. “Here, take the other end. That way we can be sure we won’t lose each other.”
She didn’t feel Steve’s touch, but she felt him take up the slack on the lasso, which could snare spirit and flesh alike.
“Guess we’re just going to be totally truthful for the rest of this trip, huh?”
Diana’s steps faltered a little. “Is there something wrong with that? I’ve always been truthful with you.”
Steve sighed, and she didn’t know how to decipher it. “I know. But you know me, liar by trade. We lie a lot, in the world of men, in case you hadn’t noticed. Seems like lies are the only things that keep the world going sometimes.”
“I’ve noticed,” said Diana, because she had. Little lies, big lies, lies that everyone knew were lies but still accepted anyway, lies humans told themselves. She hadn’t spent so long in the world of man so far, but she had seen all these things already in their newspapers and among their leaders. Diana wasn’t wholly ignorant though, it wasn’t as if lies were a foreign concept on Themyscira. “We do lie on Themyscira, you know. Not so often, but we do lie.”
“Oh yeah? And what did you lie about?”
“It was more a lie of omission, I suppose. But when I was a child, my mother didn’t want me to train for battle. She feared for me, I suppose, feared it would draw Ares’ attention to me. But I was determined, so I begged Antiope until she said yes, and we trained in secret together for years. Mother was so mad when she found out.”
Steve laughed. “I’ll bet. But she let you keep training, right?”
“She did. Every weapon, every fighting style, every scenario. I know now what she and Antiope were preparing me for.”
“Did you, uh—get a chance to talk to Antiope here? Maybe you should be taking her back out with you instead of me—”
“I did speak with her, and I did offer to return her to the land of the living. But she refused. Said she had lived a long life and fulfilled her purpose, and that she’d rather be reborn.”
“Huh.” The path broke clear of the orchards and gardens, and the palace rose up before them, mist swirling all around. “So that’s the palace of Hades and Persephone, huh? You really just went in there and asked to bring me back to life?”
“And it wasn’t dangerous or anything?”
“It had the…potential to be dangerous,” said Diana, for that was an old story too, and she could easily have fallen into its gravity. “And getting down here would likely be considerably more dangerous for a mortal, I suppose.”
“And you’re definitely not a mortal. I mean, I figured as much, after the—everything, really, but—guess I hadn’t really…” Steve let out a frantic little laugh. “You know, I don’t—didn’t—even believe in gods. They say there are no atheists in the trenches, but the things I saw…the things I did…one day I saw someone praying, some poor kid in the trenches who flinched every time the shells dropped, ours or theirs, it didn’t matter, and he was still asking god for deliverance. And I thought, ‘god isn’t here,’ and then I realized I hadn’t prayed in a long, long time.”
“Did you have faith before the war?”
“I guess. But it was—thoughtless, you know? Going through the motions. And now here I am, with concrete evidence that the ancient Greek gods exist. Only I’m still not sure I believe in them.” Steve laughed again. “What is wrong with me?”
“You believe in me though,” said Diana.
“That’s different,” came Steve’s prompt response, and Diana smiled when he didn’t deny that he believed in her. “You’re—you’re Diana.”
“But I’m a demigod too. Apparently.” It felt strange saying it. It was the first time she had said it aloud, and she wasn’t sure she liked it. Demigod. What did that even mean in the world of men now, when the age of heroes was so long ago? She knew what it meant to be an Amazon, and a princess. That would have to be enough to be getting on with, as Etta would say.
“I thought you said Zeus made you from clay.”
“It turns out that was more of a metaphor,” said Diana wryly. “Though I suppose it was true too, in its own way.” She told him what she had learned of her origins, of her purpose.
“Huh. Well, that explains some things, I suppose.” They lapsed into a brief silence.
“Tell me, how has the afterlife treated you so far?” asked Diana.
“I was pretty confused at first. It was nice though. Peaceful, and beautiful,” said Steve. He was quiet for a moment, but then he groaned, feeling the lasso’s burn, probably. “But boring, I was so bored.”
Diana grinned and laughed. “You and Antiope both!”
Soon enough they reached the branching of the road at the Plain of Judgment, and there at the side of the road was Diana’s armor, gathered in a neat pile on the ground. The owl flew down to the ground and pecked at it as if to draw Diana’s attention.
“Oh, good,” said Diana, sighing in relief, and she rushed to reclaim her armor. Steve was tugged along after her, thanks to the lasso binding them both. She untied the knot at her waist and held out the end of the rope behind her. “Here, hold this,” she said, and felt Steve take the rope.
“What are you—” She started pulling off the plain peplos. “Oh, right here, now? Okay.” He had already seen her naked, but knowing Steve, he had probably turned around for propriety’s sake, which was ridiculous and pointless, but sweet.
Diana began to strap and buckle herself into the armor, and when the hairs on the back of her neck stood up, she knew Steve had stepped forward to help her. He was a little more solid now; she could feel his touch like feathers on her skin, and she shuddered. He tightened some of the buckles, fumbled for and adjusted the strap that would hold her shield and weapons, and then tied the lasso around her waist again. Diana held her head carefully still, looking straight ahead. The last time Steve had done this for her, they had been in Veld and Steve had been alive and warm, and he had kissed her neck, her shoulder. His hands had been a little clumsy with the unfamiliar to him straps and fastenings, but he had set about the work of armoring her with a sort of reverent solemnity, silent the whole time, though she had been expecting him to ask her questions about her armor. He’d checked the straps and buckles after he fastened and tightened them, careful and thorough.
She had thought, then, that she would very much like it if Steve were the one to always dress her for battle. She’d kissed him after he finished, and there had been something desperate and yielding in the way Steve had kissed her back. Her lips burned with the memory. Now, she could barely feel him.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Of course,” murmured Steve, and Diana wanted to turn her head and catch his lips in a kiss, she felt the desire strong like a hand on the back of her neck, urging her to turn—the owl hooted and flew along the road. No. She would not look back. Diana didn’t turn to look for Steve, and strode ahead on the road.
They passed through the Field of Judgment, where Steve regaled her with his tale of waiting in line to be judged, how confused he’d been, and then they were in the Vale of Mourning, where the sounds of weeping turned Steve quiet. When he did speak, his voice was a hushed whisper, as if he didn’t want to disturb the agonized souls or draw their attention. It wouldn’t have mattered. She and Steve could have screamed or shouted, and it wouldn’t have made a difference. These poor shades were too consumed with their own sorrow to take notice of them.
The quiet of the Asphodel Meadows was a relief after the keening sorrow of the Vale, and thankfully, her sandals and greaves were waiting for her at the edge of the meadows. At least she wouldn’t have to make the rest of this journey barefoot. Diana knelt to put her sandals on, feeling the lasso go tight for a second, then slacken. Steve had knelt behind her.
“Look up,” he said, and Diana lifted her eyes from her feet, up to the gently waving fields of asphodel. Then he said, “Let me,” and she felt his fingers at her ankles as he closed the straps. His touch still didn’t feel quite real, too cold and too light, when she knew it should be warm, rough from the callouses on his fingers.
“Stand up?” he asked, once he had fastened the straps of both her sandals, and she did, on knees that felt abruptly shaky. It didn’t help that she could feel his nearness, not as the heat of human skin, but as a softer, chiller echo of the lightning she had caught and wielded in that battle with Ares. The sensation was both eerie and thrilling, raising gooseflesh on her skin, and she suppressed a shudder.
He tightened and fastened the straps on her greaves with agonizing care, and he was so close, close enough that she should have felt his breath, should have heard it. Instead she only heard the rustling of the asphodels in the breeze, and the tick of Steve’s watch. When he was done, he didn’t stand right away. He just knelt there for a long minute, one hand on her thigh. She could just about feel the gentle bristle of his hair on the back of her knee, the sensation almost ticklish. She drew him in her mind’s eye: head bent, one hand on her and one hand on the ground, taking a moment of respite, or of comfort, or she didn’t know what.
“Yeah. Alright,” he said, voice rough, and stood up.
The guiding owl had waited for them on a swaying stalk of asphodel, and seeing that they were ready to go again, took flight. Diana and Steve followed.
The shades of the dead were more visible now than they had been when Diana had first come through this way. Word had spread, maybe, that a living person had come to the Underworld. The shades didn’t trouble them any, at least not yet, only milled around near them, their figures vague and formless, silent. It would take the blood of the living to bring them into focus. Compared to these nearly colorless shades, Steve would seem vibrant and real.
“This is...unsettling,” said Steve in a low voice. “Where are we?”
“The Asphodel Meadows. Where those ordinary souls who were neither good nor evil go.”
“So they just wander? No way to get to Elysium?”
Diana shrugged. “Some have drunk from Lethe, to forget. But yes, they will wander, until they fade.”
“That’s grim,” muttered Steve. Then, after some silence, “Would I have ended up here if I hadn’t blown up the plane? Because I think I’d have ended up here. I think I’d have been one of these ghosts.”
“No!” said Diana, and very nearly turned her head to look at Steve in sheer surprise and denial. “No, of course not! What you did to help end the war, even apart from your sacrifice—”
Steve’s next words burst forth in a vicious, low-voiced spill. “What I did to help end the war—Christ, Diana, you have no idea. The things I did. It wasn’t—it wasn’t heroic, it wasn’t good. I was a spy. I lied and I stole and I murdered, and I did all of it in the dark, no honor in any of it.”
“You did what you thought was necessary to help end the war. You did it to end the war, not for your own honor or for accolades, not to take joy in pain or suffering. That is a good thing, Steve, a heroic thing.”
“If you say so. But I felt like a con man the whole damn time,” said Steve in a harsh whisper.
“I know you, Steve Trevor. You’re a good man. And it takes strength and courage to do those deeds in the dark, so that others would not have to, or so that a greater good could be achieved. You held to your purpose, even through things that seemed utterly bizarre to you.”
“You really believe that, huh?”
“I am wearing the lasso of Hestia, I speak the truth.” He stayed silent. “I don’t care what you deserve, Steve. I believe in you.”
Steve wasn’t ready to let it go though. “And I deserve another shot at life, when millions are dead?” A gust of wind rattled the asphodels, and something like a moan rose up. “Hundreds of thousands at the Somme alone, and I get to—I get to just walk out of the grave, good as new? It’s not fair, Diana.”
Diana stopped, closed her burning eyes. “No, it’s not. You said it yourself, before you—before. It’s not about deserving. It’s not fair that everyone in Veld is dead, after we fought to save them. We should have saved them. They didn’t deserve what happened to them. If I could, I’d lead every single one of them out of death.”
“Why can’t you?”
“They went to their own afterlives, your people’s heaven. That way is closed to me.” Diana started walking again. “You’re right, it’s not fair that I can only bring you back. It’s selfish, and maybe it’s wrong, but I had the chance, and I had to take it. I had to try. Wouldn’t you have done the same?” Her heart pounded wildly as she waited for his answer.
“Yes,” he said, thick and low.
“You don’t have to come, Steve. If you would rather stay here, that’s your choice, and I won’t take it from you. You can go back to Elysium, and when the time comes, you can be born anew.”
“But then I’d forget you. I’d be someone else.”
“I don’t want that. I want—I want to live. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, that I can just want to live, when millions of others are dead of that fucking war. I thought I was okay with it, you know? I was scared, but I blew up that plane, and I laughed while I did it. I thought—I want more time, but this is okay, this is the right thing to do, this is worth it. And now I just—I want to live. I want a life. I don’t even know what kind of life. What the hell kind of life can I have, now that the war’s over?” Diana could hear the tears in his voice, and she so wanted to turn and wipe his tears away as they fell, she wanted to comfort him.
She settled instead for saying, with all the ferocity she could muster, “There is nothing wrong with you. We can work it out together, what kind of life we can have after the war. If you’d like to, that is, you don’t have to stay with—”
“I would definitely like to,” interrupted Steve in a rush. “I mean, if you’ll have me. I know we didn’t really know each other that long, and that I jumped the gun on the whole ‘I love you,’ thing, what with my imminent death, but—I do love you. And I do want to try those things we talked about.”
Diana smiled, her happiness burning in and through her like the sun. “I love you too,” she said, and she was glad that they were both bound by the lasso of Hestia, so there could be no doubt between them. She thought she could feel Steve’s own happiness behind her, his smile so bright she could see it without seeing it, like the red gold of the sun from behind closed eyelids. “Which things did you want to try?”
“Oh, you know, breakfasts and working and…the other things, maybe. Some time,” he said, sounding a little bashful now.
Diana smiled, and hoped Steve could feel the warmth of her happiness just as she could feel his. She felt light enough to fly. “Yes, alright. I’m looking forward to it.”
They walked through the Asphodel Meadows for what felt like a long time. There was no path through the meadows, but the owl seemed to know where it was going, and it stood out amid the silvery-grey of the asphodels, and it never went so far ahead that they lost it in the mist. She thought she could just about make out the faint black smudge of the Underworld’s gates in the distance. They had a long, long ways to go yet.
“Any hint about how long this is gonna take?” asked Steve.
“That’s hard to say in the Underworld. Time doesn’t pass in quite the same way. And on my way in, Antiope took me to the palace on horseback.”
“So what you’re saying is I’m going to have to talk a lot.”
“We both will. Do you see that very faint black smudge in the distance?”
“That is where we are going.”
Steve let out a gusty sigh. “Right. Of course.”
They passed the time easily enough with conversation, all the long conversations they hadn’t had time for when they had both been so consumed by their respective purposes. Steve told her about his family, his childhood, the somewhat aimless life he’d led before the war. Diana in turn told him about her own family, what it had been like growing up among the Amazons, all the mischief she’d caused and the adventures she’d managed to throw herself into, how her tutors had often despaired of her.
“You were a little hellion!” said Steve, clearly delighted.
“Yes! Yes, I suppose I was,” said Diana, laughing.
She told Steve of what had passed in the world above while he had been in Elysium too. Some of it was grim news: Diana told Steve of the Spanish flu with sorrow. Some of the news was better: how Etta, Sameer, Charlie, and Napi were doing, how Diana had tentatively made a place for herself in the world of Man. She told Steve about what she had learned of Man’s World: the books she read, the people she’d talked to. In turn, Steve told her of the places he wanted to take her, the things he wanted to show her and do with her.
“Paris! You’ll love Paris, I promise.”
“Hmm. Is it nicer than London?”
Steve laughed. “Less hideous you mean? A lot of people call Paris the most beautiful city in the world. Not to oversell it. We can go, after—after this. See the Eiffel Tower, spend days in the Louvre…”
Making such plans buoyed both of them with hope on the long, monotonous walk, but even so, there were periods where they fell silent, and Diana would call out to Steve, just to make sure he was still there, that he hadn’t turned into one of the faceless, silent shades that still milled around them. He always answered, and eventually took to humming.
“I’m no Charlie, but at least you’ll know I’m still here,” he said.
Finally, after what could have been hours or days, they got close enough to the gate to see it and the end of the Asphodel Meadows properly. Where the asphodels stopped growing, Diana’s bracelets and coin purse sat on the ground, glinting even in the weak light. She snatched up the coin purse, relieved to feel it still heavy with the coins for their passage back across the Styx. She was about to put her bracelets and gloves back on, when her eyes caught sight of Steve’s watch still on her wrist. It was still ticking, though the hour it reported was meaningless here. She took it off, and held it out behind her.
“This is yours. I think it’s time for you to have it back,” she said. Just as strongly as she had felt she needed to come down to the Underworld with it, so she felt Steve needed to walk out with it himself.
“Alright,” said Steve, and took it from her hand. Diana felt a little jolt as he did, as if a bit of static electricity zapped them between their hands. Then there was silence for a moment as Steve presumably strapped the watch onto his wrist, then he gasped, coughed, and gasped for air again.
“Steve? Are you alright? Steve!” She nearly turned, but caught herself and held still, strung tight and trembling like a bowstring.
“Yeah. Holy shit. Yeah, I’m fine. Just—wow. That did something.”
Diana held her hand out behind her, and felt Steve grasp it. And she felt him, properly. His skin was still too cold, but for the first time, it felt wholly real, wholly solid.
“We’re close now. Just the gate, the river, and the way up left.” She squeezed his hand encouragingly, and he squeezed back.
They walked on towards the path to the gate that was now just visible past the nodding heads of asphodel blooms. When they got there, Diana’s tiara was waiting for her on the path to the gate. She wondered if Antiope had left it for her here, or if it had been dropped by one of the Underworld’s many and interchangeable owls. Whoever had left it, Diana was glad to have it back, and she picked it up and settled it on her forehead with a whispered, “thank you, Antiope.”
When they finally passed through the gate, they were greeted by Cerberus, whose serpent tail was wagging with happy speed. All three of his mouths stretched into wide, doggy grins. Her shield was at his feet, and one head leaned down to grasp it delicately in his mouth and present it to her. Diana laughed in delight.
“Oh, what a good dog you are! Was that a good game of fetch we had?” Cerberus barked, a somewhat horrifying roaring noise that had Steve whimpering a small “oh my god,” behind her. “Yes it was!” she told Cerberus, and petted all three heads when they presented themselves to her. “Good doggy, good Cerberus,” she cooed to each head in turn.
“Of course. Of course the literal hound of hell loves you,” muttered Steve. “You got past him by playing fetch?”
“Well I wasn’t about to hurt the poor dear,” said Diana.
After receiving sufficient pets and praise, Cerberus let them pass, and they followed the owl that was still guiding them, to the dock on the bank of the river Styx.
“Please don’t tell me we have to swim across,” said Steve.
“Of course not! We pay Charon the fare, and he takes us across.” Diana stepped onto the dock and peered into the swirling mists. “Ferryman!” she called out.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” came the reply, and soon enough, Charon and his boat materialized out of the mist that clung above the water. “Got what you came for, did you?”
“Yes, I did,” said Diana as Charon poled to a stop beside the dock.
“Alright then, I’ll be needing your fare for the trip back,” he said, and held out his hand.
Diana held out her own hand. “And I’ll be needing my sword back, please.” Charon huffed, but he bent down and pulled it from some hidden place in the little boat. Diana gave him the two coins for their passage, and he handed the sword over. Diana slid the sword back into its place in its scabbard, and let out a brief sigh of relief and satisfaction. It felt good to be armed and armored again.
It took some slightly awkward maneuvering for Diana and Steve to get into the boat without Diana inadvertently catching a glimpse of Steve, and without untying the lasso, which Diana refused to do just in case Steve managed to fall in the Styx.
“I think I can avoid falling into the river, Diana!” protested Steve.
“I won’t risk it,” insisted Diana. “I will be very upset if we fail for something so silly as you falling into the river.”
So they got in the boat still bound together, Diana closing her eyes to avoid seeing Steve as they settled themselves in the boat, just in case. Charon bore it all with ill-concealed impatience.
“Bet you didn’t think you’d be seeing me again,” said Steve to Charon. Charon looked past Diana to glower at Steve.
“How did you get across before?” asked Diana. There had been no funeral rites for Steve, given the manner of his death, no chance to slip an obol under his tongue, no chance to do anything other than pour libations for him at what Etta and Charlie had called a wake. By all rights, Diana ought to have found him waiting on the shores of the Styx.
“Funny story! So I end up here, totally confused, laughing like a madman, wondering what just happened, and this guy shows up saying, ‘if you want to get across, you’ll have to pay the fare.’ Now I maybe—definitely, ugh, fine, geez this rope gets hot, definitely—did some shouting and yelling, but eventually I remembered my Greek myths and realized what was going on. At first I thought I was out of luck, but I rummaged around in my pockets and found a shilling, and handed it over. Only this guy here didn’t like it, kept asking what kind of coin it was, it didn’t look like any kind of coin he’d seen before—”
“Never heard of this England place. But I took it, didn’t I?” interrupted Charon waspishly.
“Took you long enough though,” grumbled Steve.
“Next time you can swim,” said Charon.
Diana was sure Charon had gotten them across the river faster than was his usual wont, if only to be rid of them sooner. He deposited them on the far shore with haste and poled away with nothing but a dismissive wave.
“Thank you!” called out Diana after him.
“Are we almost out?” asked Steve.
“Almost,” answered Diana, and pulled her sword from the scabbard while she tried to find their guide owl. She had lost track of it while Charon had ferried them across the Styx, and she worried that she’d lost it entirely, or that they would have to make the rest of the journey without a guide. But no, there it was, winging towards them again from upriver.
“Stay alert, take the shield from my back,” Diana told Steve. She felt him lift the shield off carefully.
“Don’t you need it?” he asked.
“Don’t worry, I have my bracelets. There are monsters on this side of the Styx, and…other things. Don’t try to fight them. Just keep the shield up, and keep moving.”
The mist was already beginning to swirl into and around shadowy shapes. Diana strode through them, and didn’t linger to find out just what it was that she was seeing from the corner of her eye. She heard it though, low, keening wails, and gasping, wet screams. Battlefield sounds, but not a battlefield in full swing, only the aftermath: the injured, the dying, the dead. She heard men crying out for their mothers in thin, terrified voices, men weeping. The mist seemed like smoke all of a sudden, and she could smell gunpowder, faintly, like the trace of an offering long after the smoke had risen up to the heavens.
“Are we—are we on the Front? I thought you said the war was over!”
“The war is over,” Diana assured Steve. “We’re on the other side of the River Styx. It’s—” She was about to say it wasn’t real, but the lasso burned in warning. It was real, or, if not real, true. Diana had rushed and powered her way through this liminal part of the Underworld on the way in. Leaving wouldn’t be so easy. Death wouldn’t release its hold on Steve so easily. “It’s like a nightmare, Steve,” she settled on saying. “We just have to get through it. I won’t let anything hurt you.”
She heard Steve take a shaky breath in, then release it. She thought it was maybe the first time she had heard him breathe in the Underworld. He was so close to life. They were so close to succeeding.
“Okay,” said Steve, as if to himself. Then, louder, “Alright. Let’s just get out of here.”
Diana forged on ahead, setting a pace that was probably a little too fast, judging by the tug she felt on the lasso, but the sooner they made it to the way up and out of the Underworld, the better. She knew they weren’t truly on the Front, she knew this wasn’t the terrible No Man’s Land between the battle lines, but she still had her arm braced up in front of her to catch bullets, and she still half-expected to hear the booms of shells and grenades. Diana kept her eyes on the owl’s flight ahead of them. Everything else was a distraction.
A fairly potent distraction, judging by Steve’s harsh, sobbing breath. He was struggling behind her, the lasso going taut often as Diana went too fast for Steve to keep up.
“I didn’t miss this fucking mud,” he gasped out. “Oh, fuck—”
“Get off, get off, please let go, I’m sorry—no, Diana, don’t look back! I’m fine, it’s just—” Steve let out a sound that was neither a laugh nor a sob. “Oh god, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” There was an awful sort of squelching noise, and Steve couldn’t wholly muffle his horrified moan. “Keep going!”
Diana didn’t know what had Steve sounding like that, and she couldn’t risk catching sight of him to look for it. She kept going. Eventually they were clear of the mud, and the sounds of the battlefield, and the smoky mist turned a poisonous yellow-orange, drifting low to the ground.
“Gas! Shit, it’s gas—”
Diana could smell it, could feel its phantom burn, but her breath still came easy. But then, she wasn’t human. “Can you breathe? Steve, is it hurting you?”
“I—no, it’s fine, I’m fine. Go, keep going,” he said, and his voice sounded strained but normal, so she did.
As the gas swirled around them, Diana heard the awful sounds of people gasping for air, of people drowning on dry land. She’d swear she could even hear flesh blistering, a terrible crackling noise like meat on the roasting spit, and when her gaze wavered from the owl still just visible through the gas, she could see ghostly men sprawled on the ground, clawing at gas masks that did no good.
The moment of distraction was too long, and when she looked ahead again, she reared back to a stop to avoid a gaunt woman with starving, terrified eyes.
“Please, please! My baby is starving, you have to help, please—” There was a baby cradled close to the woman’s chest, but even Diana’s limited experience of infants told her this child was too thin, with none of the rolls of fat he or she should have had, and with a bluish cast to its face.
“I’m sorry, I can’t—” Diana barreled forward, and the woman and child dissolved into the mist.
That didn’t mean it was over. The mist turned into a conflagration, and explosions and panicked screams filled the air, the screams of women and children, and of men too, some just screaming in terror and pain, others screaming for help that would never come, until the gas burned them from the inside out. Diana had to cover her ears, the sound pressing on her. She hadn’t gotten to Veld in time to see all of this, but she had no doubt that it was true. This was what had happened to the people of Veld before their village had fallen into its terrible final silence. These were the people she couldn’t save, and there had been countless more villages like them. Millions dead, just as Steve had said. The fire didn’t burn Diana, and the gas did nothing to her lungs, but these people had suffered because of her failure, had died horribly, and that left Diana sobbing and gasping for air, her heart aching with the pain of it. She stumbled forward, fell to her knees.
“Diana!” Steve was heaving out great gasping, sobbing breaths too. “Diana, get up, you have to get up.”
“I failed them, they were innocent, and I failed them, and they died—”
“I know, I know, but you stopped Ares! And we stopped this from happening to hundreds of thousands, millions more. So keep going, Diana! We still have work to do. Get up!”
“And when this happens again?” she rasped out, because she had seen enough of man to know that it would, and it wouldn’t be the work of Ares. This new, horrifying Pandora’s box had opened, and the horrors inside it would not be shoved back inside. The machine guns, the bombs, the gas—the war was over, but they remained.
“We do the work again. We keep trying. It has to matter that we keep trying,” answered Steve, his voice cracking.
For a moment, Diana had a vision of the centuries stretching before her, her own version of Sisyphus’ torture, of Atlas’ burden, to save a people so bent on destroying themselves. But then, she was here, wasn’t she? She was here to save Steve, even though he would inevitably end up here again, for she couldn’t steal him from death more than once. She would lose him again. But until then, they would have more time. She had come here because she thought the pain and peril of the journey was worth it to have more time.
“Diana!” Steve yanked at the lasso, hard, and it cut into her waist. The small pinch of pain brought her back to the present. She got back up, stumbled ahead. These illusory dead couldn’t be helped. Steve was behind her, and she had to lead him back to life.
“Work to do. We have work to do,” she murmured to Steve, to herself.
The owl was a dark blur ahead and above them, and she followed after it. The mist grew thick and opaque again, and Diana almost relaxed a little, until she heard the brittle crunching under her feet. She looked down and saw bones, countless bones.
“They’re just bones,” said Steve, with a little laugh. “That’s not so bad, right? Just bones!”
Diana stepped carefully, trying to clear space, but there were only more bones under the ones she was stepping on. She nudged a skull aside with her toe; it rolled, and the jaw snapped open and shut, open and shut, as if trying to speak. Steve yelped.
“Just bones,” repeated Diana wryly, and walked on with a wince.
Macabre as it was, it was peaceful compared to the horrors they’d just walked through, and Diana let herself hope they were near to the way up and out of the Underworld. They had a long climb up ahead of them, and that might be harrowing in its own right. No matter. She would carry Steve out on her back if she had to. That wouldn’t require looking back at him.
After picking their way through the bones for long minutes, the mist ahead cleared some, and she spotted the cramped opening of a cave. The owl flew straight towards it and disappeared into its darkness.
“Finally! We’ll have a bit of a climb up out of the cave, but then we’ll be out, we’ll be back in the world above—” She strode forward, but jerked to a halt when the lasso went taut. “Steve? Come on!”
“Do you not see them?” asked Steve hoarsely.
Diana looked carefully to the side, not turning her head so as not to risk even an accidental look behind her. It was just more of the damnable mist, and she was about to tell Steve so, when the mist fell into form before her eyes. There were two lines of men all along either side of them, ghostly forms still bearing the grievous wounds that sent them to their deaths. The blood was a vivid red against the vague grey of their bodies, their hollow, dark eyes fixed unerringly on Diana and Steve.
“They’re just shades, Steve. We’re nearly there, please—”
“I killed them.”
Diana tugged gently at the lasso stretching behind her, and took another step forward. She heard Steve take one halting step forward, then another.
“You’re a soldier and a spy. You did your duty.”
They walked past a man with sluggishly bleeding bullet holes in his chest, another with his half his head caved in. There was a young man, little more than a boy, with a neat bullet hole in the center of his forehead. Another man with dark bruises on his throat. There were dozens of men, a few women too, all marked with the signs of the war’s violence, Steve’s violence. Steve walked slowly behind her. If he was weeping, he was doing so in mostly silence. She could feel the lasso tremble and shake behind her though, as Steve was wracked with some strong emotion. If she had been able to turn around—but no. This was Steve’s to face.
“I did this,” said Steve, agonized, as they neared the end of the line.
“Yes,” said Diana. There was nothing else to say.
“For duty.” Steve said it like a dirty word.
“And for peace,” she added gently.
Steve laughed, dark and bitter. “So that’s alright then. You see all this and you still want to bring me back to life?”
“I see you facing it with honesty and without excuses, feeling sorrow for the lives you took in service to your duty. That is the man I want to return to life. That is the man I believe in.”
Steve was silent for a long while. She wished she could see his face, see some indication of what thoughts were passing through his head. But no, only a little longer now. She couldn’t look back yet.
When he finally spoke again, his voice was thick with recently shed tears, but strong all the same. “Okay. Let’s go crawl out of hell.”
The cave’s steep path up was different than the one Diana had taken to get to the Underworld, which made her nervous. But the owl was waiting for them, flapping on ahead of them with alternately impatient and encouraging hoots. The way up was cramped and slippery, and so dark she could scarcely see anything. It would have been pitch black without the lasso’s gentle glow. They had to scrabble over rocks and reach and grope around for handholds to pull themselves up, and when they had trouble finding a hold, one or the other of them would tell some innocuous lie to get the lasso to flare brightly enough to light their way a little better. Diana was more glad than ever for the lasso, not just for its light, but for the constant tug of it at her waist that reassured her that Steve was still behind her, that he hadn’t gotten lost in the cave’s turnings, or fallen from the treacherous path.
“Are we climbing a mountain?” panted Steve. “Because I’m starting to feel like we’re climbing a mountain. Where are we going to end up in the world above anyway?”
“I entered the Underworld at Taenarus, in Greece, there’s a cave there in the cliffside that can be reached by boat. But this isn’t the way I came down. I think we might exit somewhere else. Hopefully not far. We were meant to meet Sameer there.”
“Oh great. We’re gonna end up in the middle of nowhere, aren’t we.”
Diana laughed. “Who cares? We’ll be alive!”
The path leveled out some eventually, but it grew tighter and smaller, until they had to bend their heads and then bend over nearly double. Diana had countless scrapes and scratches from the rock of the cave walls, and judging by Steve’s frequent muffled curses and exclamations of “ouch!” so did he. Just when Diana thought she spotted a faint circle of light up ahead, the path narrowed dramatically, and they were forced to crawl forwards. The owl had given up on flight, and was now hopping daintily ahead.
“We’re almost there,” Diana reassured Steve. “Do you see the light?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I think I do.”
The last stretch of the path was nearly vertical, and a tough climb. Diana gave up on looking for handholds, and simply punched them into the rock, just to get them up to the bright circle of daylight above them faster.
“I can feel the fresh air!” said Diana, and then a few handholds later, she was there, she was out.
The sunlight blinded her for a moment, and Diana waited for her eyes to adjust before pulling herself fully from what was little more than a hole in the ground. The owl hooted and hopped in seeming delight, then jumped up and flapped up and away. “Thank you,” she called out to it before it wheeled out of sight.
She scrambled fully out onto the ground, stood, and braced herself to give Steve better leverage, but still she didn’t look behind her. Instead, she tilted her head to the sky, closed her eyes, and waited. The sunshine was warm, truly warm, and the breeze that whipped around her still carried the chill of winter. She could smell grass and wet stone and the sea. She could hear waves crashing not too far away. This was the living world, and her every sense sang with it. Almost, she told herself. Just a little more patience.
The lasso went tight as Steve presumably pulled on it to help him climb out, then it slackened. Diana heard Steve grunt, heard his steps scrape on the rock, then thump on the dirt and scrubby grass around them. She heard another muted thump. She nearly turned, but no, what if he still wasn’t fully out yet, what if—
“Steve? Are you out? Are you alright?”
Steve laughed. “Yeah. I’m—I’m out, I’m alive. Holy shit, I’m alive. Turn around, Diana. Please.”
Diana smiled, wild and wide, and finally, finally turned around. Steve was on his knees behind her, dirty and scraped up, pale and deathly, looking up at her in something like awe, his eyes bluer than the sky above them. Diana knew what she had to do. She cupped his still-cool cheek in her palm, bent down, and kissed him, gentle at first, then deep, bruising. Steve gasped against her mouth, moaned, his cold lips warming against hers, and heat bloomed in him under her touch.
“Thank you,” he breathed against her lips, and she smiled, pulled him to his feet.
He looked as lovely and miraculous and wondering as he had when she’d plucked him from the sea.
“So, now we have more time. What do you want to do first?” she asked him.
He smiled at her, a bright and shadowless smile that she had never seen on his face before, and that she wanted to see again many more times. “How about we start small? Say, with breakfast?”