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A penny for the ferryman

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"I can pay you," Thana said. She held out her coin. It was a Greek coin; she hoped the novelty of it would help her case.

Karun held out his hand.

She put the coin inside it, careful not to touch his blue skin or the snakes around his arms.

With one hand he flipped the coin into the air. With the other, he twirled his mallet.

The coin fell to the floor and spun. And spun. And spun. Eventually, it stopped spinning, standing upright on its side. Karun reached out a foot and flicked the coin with his toe. Again, it landed upright.

He looked back up at Thana, eyes narrowed. The mallet swung through the air and Thana had a moment to fear this was it, she really was going to die in front of the gates of the underworld, but the mallet simply struck the door. The path down to the underworld was dark.

Thana took a deep breath and picked up the coin. Down she went.

It was dark and she could not see five feet in front of her. She hastily pulled her hand to her chest.

The darkness and the silence were absolute.

She took a deep breath to hold off the panic growing in her chest. It smelled of damp earth with a layer of rot underneath.

Far away, a light began to grow. It was tempting to walk towards it, but she had been told not to stray from her path.

The light came closer. It was a torch, illuminating the sharp edges of a woman's face and the span of her wings, trailing behind her in the dark. It was Vanth, snakes twinning in her hair.

Thana half-took a step back, but stopped herself. It might count as trying to walk out. It might not. She was not chancing it.

Vanth came closer. The breath caught in Thana's chest; she loved Velia, gods knew she did, but Vanth was beautiful in the way the sea was beautiful. Ancient, untamed and more powerful than any mortal would even dare dream of.

"I paid my way," Thana said, before Vanth could ask anything. She held out her hand, with the coin still standing on edge upon it.

Vanth laid a finger on the coin. Snakes unwound from around her arms to peer at it. Thana held her ground, she knew not how.

The snakes hissed at one another. One of them pushed the coin with its head. Vanth pulled back her hand and the snake kept pushing. The coin refused to fall.

Vanth spread her wings, suddenly. The darkness surrounding them did not ripple, nor the torch's flame waver.

In a beat of her wings, Vanth was gone.

Thana shivered and hugged herself, the coin falling from her grasp. It rose in the air to float in front of her face. She poked at it. It spun on itself and glinted in a light that wasn't there. Last rays of sunlight, something whispered inside her mind.

The path was briefly illuminated. It was blood red, meandering and narrow, with not even crossroads to choose from.

She continued down the path. Both of them, woman and path, fell back into the dark.

Something purred, out there in the darkness. Thana shivered. If snakes could purr they would sound something like that.

There was a faint sound. If there was ground under her feet; she could not feel it. Light crept into the edges of her sight, soon she could see the ground below her feet, dry earth the colour of old bone. Everything else was darkness still.

She heard clicking. In front of her sat Tuchulcha, setting up pieces on a board.

There was no more path. Thana tried to step aside and found Tuchulcha again in her way.

Tuchulcha made a sweeping motion with a hand, encompassing both the board and Thana. Thana got the message.

She sat down and set the coin on the edge of the board. It took her a moment to identify the game.

It was senet, a game she'd seen Phoenician traders bring from far Egypt. She remembered the rules, she thought, but not well enough that she would wager Velia's life -- or her own -- on her winning.

"I don't know this game," she said.

Tuchulcha seemed to know it was a lie, but to not care. The board changed with a wave of a hand and a sigh.

This game she knew how to play, so play they did. The pieces were worn smooth under her fingers, dark, shiny bucchero that still smelled as though it'd been freshly fired.

Thana lost.

She stared at the board again. She had indeed lost; she hadn't seen Tuchulcha's plot until it was too late. She rolled the coin over to Tuchulcha.

Tuchulcha took the coin and bit into it, then put it away with the imprint of teeth upon it. Thana felt cold. She reset the pieces on the board.

She pushed another coin towards Tuchulcha.

Tuchulcha pushed the coin back towards her and stood. Suddenly, Thana was alone again.

She waited.

The darkness reformed around her. This time it felt like it was seeping into her skin and smelled like the edge of night. For a moment, she could not hear anything.

Then, she did. It was Velia and she was laughing.

"Only you would do this," she said, next to Thana's ear. Thana could feel and smell her breath, but when she turned her head she could not see her.

She reached out. Felt Velia's fingers twisting with her own. Slowly, Velia began to appear out of the darkness, like a fresco being patiently painted.

Thana surged forward and kissed her as soon as she could. She tasted like ash and rot.

"I could not leave you here alone," Thana said.

Velia folded her hands over Thana's. "I wanted you to live, my love."

"I know," Thana said. "But I could not leave you here." She held up a coin and put it into Velia's hand.

"You bribed them?" Velia asked. "Where did you get the idea?"

"The Greek."

Velia rolled her eyes. "Ah, yes. The Greek."

"And it was a wager, not a bribe."

"Did you win?"

There was the sound of wings and Vanth said, "In a manner of speaking."

Thana startled and pulled Velia closer. "You can't have her."

Vanth blinked, long and slow, as snakes slithered around her arms. Karun appeared by her side, blue skin, goat's eyes, mallet and all.

"Neither can you," Thana said. She put herself between Velia and the gods.

Tried to, at least.

Velia would have none of it. She refused Thana's protection, choosing instead to stay by her side. She set her face and only their fingers digging in the back of each other's hands showed how scared each of them was.

"We don't want her," Vanth said. "Or you." Her wings snapped open. Her hair fluttered in a wind that wasn't there and she held up Thana's coin, still with Tuchulcha's teeth marks on it.

"We are not Greek. Their ways are not our ways. There is no need to pay your way into the Underworld." She was looking at Karun as she spoke. "To ferry the dead is our task. The living is not, but my friend here is a romantic and we cannot let the living stay in the Underworld."

Velia took the coins from Thana and offered them to Vanth. "You said we couldn't pay our way in. Can we pay our way out?"

Vanth's wings flickered and she smiled the way the heart of autumn might smile as she turned on her heel. Thana and Velia followed in her footsteps into the dark.

The taste of ash in the back of Thana's throat faded first, then she could not feel Velia's fingers against hers. She could see them, but she could not feel them.

Then she could not hear the sound of her own breathing, or the heart within her chest. Fear griped her tight, but she followed Vanth still.

She had not thought the darkness here smelled like anything, but she could still tell when it stopped smelling of anything at all. It left her feeling unmoored, more than losing touch had.

They reached the gates, the path still blood red under their feet.

There was a key on Vanth's belt and when she opened the doors, the light blinded Thana.