"Wait, no! I dont want this! I-" but it was too late, the pathway was shut behind him and there was no where to go but forward, wherever that leads. And so it goes, so ends the tale of Quentin Coldwater.
In the blinding light of a kind of godforsaken glitter, it was over. Tearful goodbyes and mementos burned, then that was it. Quentin Coldwater painfully accepted his fate, gave an old friend (friend might be a stretch) one last hug, took his MetroCard, and moved on just like everyone does eventually.
Every part of him wanted to go back, to go home, or even turn back time so he could run a little faster or stop Everett before he even reached the mirror realm. But it was over and done and before he had time to mourn for his friends and his own life, everything went dark and silent. For a moment that made sense to Quentin. When he thought about the end, he hadn’t ever imagined anything beyond life. At time, he even hoped for a quiet expanse of nothingness, no thought, no problems, just nothing. It made sense to him and he hoped for it in his darkest moments. Even after Brakebills and despite having been to and seeing the Underworld firsthand, that didn’t really change, even if everyone passed through there before they found where they were meant to be.
He always felt that there was no place for him in life, so why would there be in death?
He felt like he was floating, no sensation to speak of, stagnant for an amount of time unquantifiable to him in the darkness.That changed when he finally felt something. Quentin felt the motions of his body walking, although he had no conscious thought of making his body do so, his feet coming into contact with something beneath him he could not see and therefore could not confidently call a floor or ground. Then suddenly, his hand came into contact with what felt like a doorknob.
“Penny said this would all make sense, so I guess here we go,” he thought to himself, turning the knob, and when the door opened he found himself roaming onto the banks of a gentle river, the doorway vanishing as if it had never been there to begin with. Maybe it hadn't. The water against the rock of the shore was a deep misty gray color, and it was accompanied by a looming and persistent longing in the air. With the overwhelming sense of dread all around, a cloaked figure stood on the dock.
A loud bark echoed so loud in the cavern, Quentin was sure he almost felt the vibrations in his chest. Chains clanked together as the barks and growls continued, “Quiet, Cerberus! He’s a friend,” the cloak figure said, and the dog that Quentin could finally see as the cavern lit up with gentle fire light settled back down to sleep, and he could have sworn it had three heads.
“Ah, Mr. Coldwater, it’s nice to finally meet you. I've been waiting here for you for some time,” the man turned around, removing his hood, “I am Hades.”
Quentin’s brow turned up in confusion, “Hades? Like the God of the Underworld?”
“Yes, I believe that is pretty self-explanatory by the name, the dog, the river, you get the picture," he threw the cloak from his shoulders onto the gravel next to him, revealing a dark skinned man in a very expensive suit, smoothing out the creases of his blazer "pardon me, my predecessor always pushed for moody theatrics. I've never really done this before so I'd thought I'd give it a try but I don't quite think its my style. Anyway, the long wait, both yours and mine, was my doing alone. I’m sorry to have kept you for so long, it was necessary.”
“Uh huh…” Quentin trailed off wondering if his afterlife was just going to be one hallucination after the next, like that spell Julia and Marina had put him under in his first year at Brakebills. “Well, if you don’t mind me asking, what the fuck do you mean? I literally just left Penny a minute ago.”
Hades nodded, “Ah, well time is a fickle thing as they say, and it moves through the Abyss at will.”
Still maintaining his overactive sense of confusion, “The Abyss? Like in Fillory?”
“The Abyss exists in all worlds, but yes, that is one such land where it slips through to the corporeal realm. Most who travel through it find themselves stuck here without a coin to get them back, so imagine my surprise when your friend, Ms. Cline, made it out intact without a magical vessel to protect her soul.”
Quentin's expression twisted slightly in confusion, but then he remembered with whom he was speaking with, "So do you just know everything about every dead person?"
"Goodness, no," Hades laugh echoed in the cave, "Imagine how much space that would take up in here," he noted, pointing at his temple, "but there is knowledge to be found in all Libraries, especially if one is looking for specific information."
“Right, you read my book, then?” Quentin said, rubbing the back of his neck in embarrassment, “I imagine it was not a very interesting read for you.”
Hades laughed, “Don't sell yourself short, dear boy. Plenty of twists and turns in there. It was certainly longer than most mortal books and surprise, surprise I find myself quite invested in your tale. Now, imagine the shock I felt when it turned out to be a tragedy. And then the Old Gods wanted to usher you into the great beyond as fast as possible," Hades shook his head, "You have caused them infinitely more trouble than any mortal usually manages to in their short lifetimes. They want you gone, and as demonstrated by your over-eager friend back there, they will do almost anything to achieve that. Don’t be upset with Penny, he was not himself as it turns out, and if there is one thing I hate more than tragedies, its other gods coming down here, to my domain, to sway the fates. So, much to the disdain of beings stronger and older than I, I stalled your crossing over and hid your soul in the Abyss. Risky but necessary.”
“But why?” Quentin asked, “I did what needed to be done and I died doing it. Isn’t that supposed to be the end of my story?”
“Normally, yes. However, as much as it is my sacred and sworn duty to uphold the laws binding the dead to this realm, you have more than my sympathies. I owe a personal debt to you and that matters to me more than old alliances. You dispatched the abomination that murdered my wife, so for that, I have a proposition for you. I am here to extend the favor of staving off your journey to the great beyond and returning you the mortal coil.”
Quentin felt like he was hit by a tidal wave. All he could think of was all the things he didn't get to do, or at least things he had done in previous timelines, but wanted to do them again in a world with all of the people he cared about. There were so many things he didn't get to say, things that mattered to him more than anything, that spoke the truth of who he was. He would give just about anything to have a second chance, "You mean, like, I could go home?” Quentin asked in disbelief
“If that is what you wish, then that is what I offer.” Hades gestured warmly, and then stood firm, “Listen carefully, Mr. Coldwater, I read your book and I want to make it very clear to you that this offer cannot be replicated, I cannot offer this to you again. I can offer you this second chance but once. It defies the very fabric of this realm and it is not an exchange that will treat you kindly if it is tossed away. So, I don’t want to see you again until your mortal life is truly over and done, in its proper time, alright?” Hades stated plainly.
“I understand. For so long, I thought this was what I wanted..." Quentin looked at his feet and kicked some gravel. He turned his head back to the god standing in front of him and smiled slightly, "but i don't, not yet. So, if you are offering this to me, then there is someone I should be getting back to.”
Hades smiled coyly, “In that case, I should warn you that about 300 years time did pass while you floated entranced in the Abyss.”
“What you’re saying? That everyone that matters to me is dead?” Quentin choked back the overwhelming sadness that threatened to break through his chest at the thought.
Hades was taken aback at the young man's worry and then chuckled deeply, “No, dear boy, what would be the point of returning you to a world where no one would know to miss you? No, but the fact of the matter is that there is a world you bound your soul to in an act of exponential and ancient magic. The time you spent in the Abyss passed there as well and it will be different when you return.”
“Fillory? From the Drowned Garden?”
The cloaked god nodded, “The magic in Fillory has a certain, let’s say, unpredictable whimsy to it, designed purposefully that way by Ember and Umber. Though I imagine Ember took the reigns on that one, so to speak, since the Wellspring's resources in Fillory are usually bastardized, mostly for trickery and entertainment," Hades rolled his eyes, almost like you would to a distant relative who would consistently get too drunk and dance on tables at family reunions. He turned back to Quentin and continued, "When you spoke your heart's truth and the flower bloomed for you, you bound your soul to the land and the magic flowing through Fillory. It certainly was an unforeseen consequence of such an admission and a connection not even broken in death, which is not something I have ever seen before but was able to use to my advantage and keep you suspended in the place apart from time but not entirely. The Abyss still seeps in through the cracks of the realms so while it only seemed but mere moments for you, as your connection to earth is still strong, time passed differently in the world bound to your soul. It will be different when you go back there, and those differences may be jarring,” Hades paused while Quentin contemplated, “but ease your worries, Mr. Waugh still lives.”
Quentin initially beamed in absolute relief and then blushed, “how much of my book did you read?”
Hades let out a bellowing laugh, “All of it, my boy, but please don’t feel embarrassed. I have read many a dull mortal story, and yours is no different on the surface but my oh my, you certainly have lived a life. And contrary to popular belief, I am a romantic at heart. Though my love story has ended, I want the man who avenged my wife to have the same chance that we did. For all the flaws of your kind, you lot do embrace love wholeheartedly when you commit. I have seen the love of your mortal life time match a love grown over millennia and I don’t believe that story is over.”
Quentin was suddenly reminded of their conversation in the throne room, “I want that. I want to believe that, I do. I want to believe we could have it again but he doesn't-”
Hades rolled his eyes, "you two, I swear," he said as he put up a finger to stop Quentin’s ramblings, “the two of you try so hard to protect the other from your faults and cause more trouble than is reasonable. Still, you cannot believe that man’s obviously contrived story about not loving you in this life. He broke through possession of a godforsaken Monster to let you know that he still lives. That is something I don’t think even I could manage. You don’t think that means something? You both have been bound together since the very first of Ms. Chatwin's timelines. I have seen you and your friends here more times than should be allowed. Your books have been shelved and unshelved more times than I have ever seen so I know what I'm talking about. Save your doubt for something that deserves it, but don't use it to justify questioning that man's love for you. Learn a thing or two from me, don’t accept his defenses in the space of his love because fear is ruling the two of you. You have grown beyond that now, both of you have. And if you don't believe me, look," Hades waved his hand in front of Quentin, a white mist appearing and in it he saw Julia and Eliot in the Brakebills Library, scouring the shelves for something, "even now, even in your death, he searches for you. They both do. Your story isn't finished yet, Mr. Coldwater.”
Quentin watched as they paced across the library carpet he always hated. They both looked exhausted and disheveled, Julia sporting some pretty dark under-eye circles that could've given his own insomnia a run for its money. Eliot hadn't gotten his hair cut since the monster was rid from his body. It was deshelved and his face tear-stained as he limped up and down the rows of shelves. He couldn't hear what they were saying, but Quentin recognized that look on Eliot's face. That look he would get when he was frustrated beyond belief, that look just before he started yelling about the kind of stress he was under and even though the situation was grim and the pain behind his eyes was clear, Quentin's heart panged in a particularly devastated adoration as well as overwhelming surprise that he could recognize that in Eliot, even all these years later.
“In your absence, he has shown a great devotion to you. Even though you are not there to witness it firsthand, I hope you can have faith in that devotion," Hades said, waving his hand again when Quentin put his hand up to touch the illusions of both Julia and Eliot. The cloud faded to mist around his fingertips and disappeared. Quentin exhaled and visibly hunched, "Your death has been harrowing for Mr. Waugh and your friend, Ms. Wicker. They refuse to accept your loss and they search for you. A fruitless endeavor considering that I had you hidden away from even the Old Gods gaze," Hades took a breath, feeling rather guilty about his necessary action to ultimately save Quentin's soul. He smiled and continued, "It is my great pleasure to return you to them, if you are ready to go." Quentin quickly nodded, "Yes, please. And thank you, your...majesty?" Hades laughed and roused Cerberus from his slumber and began to quietly howl, trying to match the sound of his master, "just Hades if you will. Alright, if you are ready to go, Charon?” Hades called out across the water, and a boat rose up out of the river and another cloaked man rose with it, carrying a staff and a lantern. Hades stretched out his hand to Quentin and handed him a coin, “He doesn’t do free rides, not even as a favor to me. So here, take this,” and dropped the coin into Quentin’s hand, then placed his own callused hand on Q’s shoulder, “he will float you down the River Styx to the banks of the River Acheron but after that, it is up to you to find your way back home. It will not be easy, and there will be many temptations out of my control along the way, those designed to keep you here. Do not stray from your path, Mr. Coldwater. Should you veer of course, I cannot rescue you. This is your journey, and your journey alone. Your greatest desire to live will be what lights your way. It may not be easy to find, but once you have found it, you’ll know. Once you've found it, do not let it disappear from your sight”
Quentin nodded and heeded the Old God's warning, “I really don’t know how to thank you.”
Hades laughed and shook his head, “Just go live your life, my boy. Live it with the love that your soul desires most.”
“I will,” Q nodded again, with a new found determination to go home and right some wrongs. He stepped off the dock and into the boat.
“Coin, sir?” Charon asked, with a voice Quentin would have thought was made from gravel. He gestured for payment and Quentin handed over the coin. When he turned back Hades was gone. The dog still slept soundly on the banks of the river as Charon untied his boat and pushed off the shore with his staff. The boat floated out of the cave, out into the gentle ominous current of the lake. They rocked and rocked across the water of a river so wide, it resembled the open ocean. Transparent figures in the water floated, looking lost and confused. Quentin felt terribly for them, and also questioned why his life mattered more than the people lost in these waters. Just as he started doubting his journey ahead, Quentin saw a beckon of soft yellow light on the horizon.
“Charon, where does that lead?” Quentin asked but the ferryman stayed silent.
From his palace windows, Hades saw the boat leaving the harbor under his castle and out into open water across the vast river. The castle had returned to the monochromatic tones of his solitude, all traces of a soft feminine presence disappeared when her life force, the way it had been when they built a home together, had disappeared. He had been using his powers to maintain the parts of their home that mattered the most to her, the garden and keeping the shades safe, but he'd be lying if he said it wasn't tiring work.
The God sighed and sat in a chair by the windows, keeping a watchful eye of Charon and Quentin and keeping the lost souls in the water at bay. A soft breeze blew in through the windows, a breeze like a memory and a subtle scent of cherry blossoms blooming in late spring, "I know, my love. He is on his way home."