Down, down, down we walked. If I allowed myself to, I could lose my sense of self among the descending throng before we ever reached the river. The farther we descended, the fewer differences distinguished the once-people surrounding me. All sizes and shapes melted and stretched into uniform gray rectangles that bore vague resemblances to people when I glimpsed them out of the corner of my eye. At every turn, more shades of former people joined us for the journey down to the world of the dead.
I wondered if the walk down turned me to gray as well. Gray muting the red hair that drew the eyes and attentions of gods. Gray turning my once-clear intentions to the bare need to put one foot in front of the other for the long trip down, and hopefully for the long trip up again.
I am Zoe Hester, I told myself. Daughter of Leon and Cornelia Hester. Age sixteen. I am here to live my own life. I have not come beneath the earth to die.
I remembered enough to toss my flask of the water from the river of forgetfulness over my shoulder once the spirit attending the newly dead turned its back on me. Among so many new souls, none of the attending spirits noticed me. Perhaps I appeared just as gray and rectangular to them as the true dead did. It would be better that way, to disguise the sound of my beating heart that, to my ears, rang out across the silent fields of the dead. Did the spirits have ears to hear my heart? I had not considered that prospect when I wandered far from home to find a sinkhole and follow it down, down, down to retrieve my fate.
Zoe Hester. Too young to die. Too striking to hide. Too headstrong to obey.
The first field would never hold what I sought. No, that would be too easy. I continued down through waves of washed-out souls with nothing before them but the world beneath the earth. From a distance, I saw no way through the crowd, but every row of immobile, insubstantial souls somehow parted before me. How many souls would I have to walk through before I reached my goal? I reassured myself with thoughts of how far I had come. I had already crossed the river unnoticed and nearly traversed the first field. Surely, I could overcome my aching feet to continue my march through the world of the dead. So long as my feet continued to ache, I could ward off the gray from reaching my heart, for I still had life within me.
I directed my thoughts to the living world as I walked in the hopes that the memories would keep me unaffected by the dead air. I thought of running my hands across the columns of the temples to feel the grooves in the stone. I had tried to live a good life under their protection. I had followed the rules, made the sacrifices, and done my best to avoid sin. If I did those things, then they would be gentle with my fate, for they held my fate in their hands and controlled each aspect of my destiny. But no more. The god I had encountered in the wood had expressed intentions that were anything but gentle. He had called me too pretty to stay hidden and told me I should feel honored. I remembered the shock of cold river water on my skin and the disappointment when the water washed nothing away.
So I dropped beneath the earth to follow a tale that might not even be true. One of the great heroes had descended to the world of the dead to collect his fate from the gods and thus become his own master. Unlike him, I was mortal, and I possessed no great gifts. Yet I had made it this far anyway.
"You are not supposed to be here."
I stopped and turned in the direction of the commanding voice, where I saw a woman clothed in deep purple who seemed to glow in contrast to the dull crowds of the dead surrounding her. Out of instinct, I fell to my knees before her. "Forgive me, my lady," I said. Had I obeyed the proper courtesies? At this point, did my lack of manners even matter? I had trespassed. The very act of coming to the world of the dead for my fate suggested that I could handle my fate better than the gods could. A voice whispered to me that I could do that, but the gods likely would not take the suggestion kindly.
"Your thread is uncut." Her voice had lost none of its authority, but she did not sound angry. "Your heart still beats. Tell me who you are and why you have come here."
It took a moment too long for my name to spring to my lips. "Zoe Hester, my lady. I heard the tales of the hero Renald, and I--I thought to do the same."
"To claim your fate?" I had always envisioned my fate as a thread according to the stories, but when the glowing outlines of a swan appeared in the goddess's hands, I recognized it as my fate. I rose to accept it, but the goddess drew back her hands, and the swan disappeared.
"Yes, my lady." I bowed my head. "I am but mortal, and I have no great gifts, but--I am no longer welcome in the house of my parents, and I do not know how to make my way. So I thought to claim my fate and bring myself hope."
"Hope," the goddess repeated. I dared to look up again and saw her watching me. I bowed my head again and did not move, even as I wondered what she was waiting for. "Who would I be if I denied a maiden hope?"
"But--my lady--I am not--"
"Take it," she said to me. The swan appeared in her hands again, and she extended them towards me. I touched its glow and gasped, unprepared for the shock of power that came with holding my own fate. "Keep it safe."
"Thank you, my--"
"Don't thank me yet," the goddess said. "I have given you your hope. You must not waste it on your way back to the living."