This is a clever title Who: Thoth & Hades What: Death goes visiting. Where: Dreamland. When: Every when
The hallway began in shadow, but at the end of the corridor a single taper flickered. The light was waxy and yellow, spreading like a greasy pool down the hall toward Hades' feet. He did not avoid the light, unwelcoming though it was. He carried darkness with him as he went; the candle's light retreated, at last flowing around him like a river breaking against stone. He turned a corner, and what had been a low hall opened up into a massive room. The ceiling towered overhead. What appeared to be walls were revealed, upon closer inspection, to be vast shelves and pigeon holes, each one filled with tablets, scrolls, and books. Hades ran his hand along the bottom of the shelf nearest him, moving deeper into this space that was not his own.
Indeed, no part of this place felt precisely like his home, or like any other place he had visited before. He had walked the earth with Hecate, had traversed Olympus with his brothers, had gone sowing seeds in the forests with Persephone. But nothing of this place felt familiar, and its very unfamiliarity intrigued him.
"Greetings," he called. His voice echoed from a thousand facets of smooth, flat stone. "I am Hades, Theôn Khthonios. I would meet the master of this place."
The silence in response was heavy and mindful, considering this interloper. Finally, from far above, near where the star studded ceiling receded into darkness, there came a soft rustle, like pages in a book or feathers on a wing. Beyond that there was no word or warning, just more watchful, unbroken quiet.
“Please, don't touch anything.”
The voice came from behind Hade. There a young man stood, painter’s palette in hand, apparently unconcerned with the encroaching darkness brought by the other. Instead his attention was reserved for one of the room’s vast pillars. The figure of a hippopotamus hunter had been lightly sketched onto it, limbs and face and weapon drawn in multiple attitudes and poses, leaving the artist torn as to which variation was to be chosen.
“I am the Keeper of Books,” he finally said after a long pause, beginning to trace an outline of black over what was to be the final image. “What is it that you want in this place?”
"Information," Hades said. His face was pale in the shadows of his robes, a waxing moon amidst dark clouds. He was silent for a time, studying this creature who seemed so at place in this strangeness. "You appear to have a great deal of it. Do you have a name, Keeper?" He gestured to the cyclopean hall in which he'd found himself. "Does this place?"
“I am Thoth.” The words were measured, following the brush as it followed the sketched line of a neck. “And this is my house.” A face in profile. “And you were not invited to it.” A calm, black-rimmed eye.
Outline complete, he finally turned to the stranger, wiping the brush on his linen kilt as any mortal scribe might. Though the action was seemingly born of nothing but habit, as it left no resulting inky smudge in the brush’s wake. The eye drawn on the wall blinked sleepily.
“Does that satisfy your desire for information, Hades, Theôn Khthonios?”
"Hardly." Hades was silent for a time, studying the subtly animated image that seemed, now, to watch him. He moved closer, curious, his motions soundless on the stone below. He stopped a pace away from this unknown Thoth, and passed a cold, unblinking gaze over him as though taking his measure. His expression remained impassive, giving no sign of what he made of this creature.
"If it sets your mind at ease, Thoth, I did not intend to trespass. I only walk through those doors that open to me. And yours did, as many others have before it." He shrugged, and gestured to the endless racks of books around them. "I would like to watch you work. These other tomes, are they your handiwork as well?"
“All of the writings are mine,” Thoth said after a pause to properly consider the words. They were precious and he treated them as such, thinking carefully before measuring them out, as a physician administers a cure in slow, set amounts. “I keep them here where they may be safe and treasured.”
As he spoke he crossed over to one of the shelves, running a gentle hand over neatly laid out ostraca. Schoolboy scribblings, love poems, grocery lists, unflattering caricatures…. The content was immaterial. His touch and the look in his eyes were almost reverent, no matter the base provenance of the sherds. His attention was solely for his collection; if he took any notice of the other god’s scrutiny he gave no sign of it.
“Are you also a collector? Or merely curious?”
"Both," he admitted. He watched the Keeper touch his belongings, noted the awe and love that filled his gaze. Few things stirred in him the same emotions, but he recognized them well enough. "I collect the dead," he said, "and I am curious enough about them. Yours is a very different sort of collection, but I can see there are countless lives contained here, too."
He moved quietly behind Thoth, watching the way his hands moved over the shelves. His own remained politely within the folds of his inky robes. "What criteria do you have for your collection?" he asked. "Or it is indiscriminate?"
“All of the words and all of the writings are mine, and I will keep that which is mine,” was all that Thoth said in reply to the questioning of his collecting habits. It was all that needed to be said. After some consideration, he began making his way towards a wooden door nestled between the shelves, a door that did not seem to have been there before, but perhaps it had only been overlooked. He did not look back to see if Hades would follow.
Opening the door led to a columned portico overlooking a garden sloping gently down to the river. The sun was setting in the east, painting the sky in reds and pinks and turning the water to burnished gold. Birds darted through the reeds seeking insects and cattle lowed in the distance as a herdsman led them home. Thoth spared a brief appreciative glance for the landscape, then gestured his guest towards an elaborately decorated chair next to a low table laden with wine and bread. He, however, sat himself cross legged on a woven mat on the stone floor, a papyrus scroll pulled from some hidden place and unfurled across his lap. The stock image of the attentive scribe preparing to record.
“But tell me about your dead, Hades, Theôn Khthonios. Where do you keep them? And how?”
Hades folded himself into the chair, looking like nothing so much as smoke roiling and settling, after a time, into a neat container. His shape thus reformed, he looked out into the strange world around him, trying to place where and when he had arrived. He thought back to his queen's first visit to her kingdom, to the tour he had given her as they walked side by side through his vast realm. He stretched out a hand, taking up a goblet, breathing deeply of the scent of unfamiliar wine. He took a sip, swirling it over his tongue as he considered these questions.
"The dead are my people," he said, "as your words and writings are yours. I keep the dead who mourn, the dead who toil, those who were virtuous, and those who were not. Each has a place of their own, a place suited to the manner in which they spend eternity."
Thoth’s pen flew over the page as his guest spoke, freshly inked hieroglyphs glinting in the light, each a perfect image in miniature. At the end he looked up at Hades once more, honest curiosity shining from his face.
“I hope the wine is to your taste. It is grown in my estate’s vineyards.” Yet he made no move to reach for a goblet of his own. “Please, tell me more of these places for your dead. Do they have their own estates and fields to tend? Or do they work yours?”
"They tend to my own," Hades said. He leaned slightly forward, watching the little shapes his host's writing utensil made. "Most do not work unless they wish to. But eternity is long, to mortals, and many more choose to make use of their time than do not." He sipped at his wine, then set it aside, looking back to the inked page again.
"The only dead whose toil I require are those who must pay for their crimes in life. They do not deserve respite, and they shall have none."
“Yet you still permit them to enter your domain despite their unworthiness? Why? Would not the fields of the gods still be a blessing to those so evil, even if they must tend them?”
His pen hovered over the page as he waited for a reply, head cocked to one side as he watched Hades’ expression closely. There was far more going into his account than merely the words that the other god said.
At that, Hades finally smiled. It was a terrible thing, as dark and hungry as the bottomless pits he tended. "Do you ever leave this place, Thoth?" he asked. "You should come and see my domain. There are fields and flocks and orchards to tend, and yes, they are each of them a blessing to the dead. But where the unworthy dead toil is a different matter altogether. Their lot is suffering, according to the suffering they caused in life."
Hades watched the writing as it went on, curious beyond measure. "And where do your dead go, Keeper?"
Thoth met that smile, held it for a long moment, considered it fully, then turned to watch the river. A small boat was carrying a family downstream, husband and wife embracing while their children, naked and nearly identical, hung over the side, happily trailing a chain of lotus blossoms behind them in the water. He smiled as he watched, expression reflecting the tranquility of the scene.
“Look around you. Every man and woman, each beast and bird, the very creeping insects at your feet are all the dead.” As if to punctuate this point, a flock of birds flew by on their way to roost for the evening, tipping their wings in a sort of salute as they passed the House of Books. “This is Sekhet-hetep, the Field of Peace. Only the righteous enter. The souls of the unworthy are devoured utterly and die a second death. What suffering could be greater?”
Thoth's explanation clearly satisfied the visitor. For a long time he watched the passing of the river, studying the contented family until they were too far even for him to see. His analog was Elysium, Hades assumed, and while the two were not perfectly aligned, it was clear to him why he felt more comfortable here than he had in other such wanderings.
"I can think of many kinds," Hades said. "Though I see the wisdom of your way. What devours your unworthy souls? Is there some great beast here, hidden away?"
Despite his firsthand knowledge of the void, Thoth maintained a polite silence on the subject of what sufferings of the unworthy dead could possibly be greater than utter nothingness. The other was a guest in his house and he would not contradict him.
“Ammit dwells in the Hall of Two Truths. She devours those with heavy hearts.” While he spoke, he sketched in a margin, pen skimming lightly over the page. In its wake it left an image of a creature in profile: partly crocodile, partly lion, partly hippopotamus. Her long jaws slavered and snapped in anticipation of a meal. Thoth looked up at his guest once more, eyes shining inquisitively.
“But many fall prey to perils before they reach that great hall. Or they do not know the proper names and spells to enter it and must wander in the wastes until they too are devoured. Is it the same with your dead?”
Hades' brow was arched at the image of the the goddess. She was a fearsome thing indeed, and though she served a purpose similar to his, it was plain she belonged to this world and it alone. Were he anyone else, he might have pitied the dead who found themselves in her teeth. As it was, he studied the illustration of her, then sat back in his comfortable seat.
"For some," he said, "yes. But it is not they who must know the names and spells. Those mortals who cared for or about them must prepare them properly, observing the correct funeral rites. Still, if they died unobserved but of good spirit, I allow them respite in my realm, and an opportunity to work toward their salvation. My kindred do not count me merciful, but in this I believe they are wrong."
“It indeed seems merciful and generous to my eyes. You must truly be a great and beloved lord in your lands.” Flattery, yes, but hardly idle. None of Thoth’s words were. All served some purpose even if what that purpose was was not immediately clear.
"Beloved by some," Hades allowed. "But it is not my aim for them to love me, or even to ensure they understand the wisdom and intent of my choices. I do what is best for them, and no more. I'm certain your own Ammit feels similarly."
“I shall have to ask her. She is not often in the habit of sharing her opinions,” he said with a small shrug. He had returned to his papyrus once more, drawing the black outline of another figure. “Are the dead your only subjects? Or do other great ones dwell there as well?”
"My only subjects are the dead and those gods and creatures who attend to them." Hades reached for his wine, nursing it for a moment. He wondered at Thoth's prolonged interest, at the figures he made on his pages, and what purpose each might serve. But like any king, he was susceptible to such interest, taking it as a kind of devotion in its own way. "And half the year, my queen dwells there with me. Her duties call her elsewhere for the remainder."
“Has she estates of her own that must be attended to? Surely the beloved of one so powerful must be equally as great, with administrators of her own to see to her affairs both within your Duat and without.”
The image of Ammit was gone from the scroll, having wandered off on mysterious business of her own. In her place a different picture altogether was beginning to take shape: a king in profile, gazing upon the words across from him with a sharp eye, his seated form bound by strict rules of proportion and pose, yet still managing to suggest curling smoke through the age-old conventions.
The king watched the painting, his features returned to their unreadable state. Whatever pleasure he felt at seeing himself so depicted, he kept pointedly to himself. So, too, did he keep his discomfort at this line of questioning, all his considerable effort bent on appearing utterly unruffled. "She does," he said, after a time. "She has her own subjects, of course. But some things can only be attended to by the living Persephone Chthonia. The kingdom of the dead only suits her for so long."
Thoth nodded, the very picture of an understanding, attentive underling. Sympathetic to the affairs of the great, but untroubled by them himself. It was an illusion as strong as any of his magics. “The mighty Ra, Lord of the Horizon, spends half of his time in the Duat and half in the world of the Living. It does not make either land the lesser or greater,” he noted mildly. “Nor does it lessen his concern for them.”
Hades considered this for a time. This explanation satisfied him; it seemed to set something in him at ease. The hard line of his jaw softened the slightest; he finished his wine in one long, slow draught. Then he set the empty goblet aside, his pale hands disappearing immediately after into the coiling smoke of his robes. "Perhaps Ra has the right of it," he said. But things are divided differently for us. He drew a slow, deep breath, taking in the scent of earth and sun and ink around him.
"Why does this intrigue you so, Thoth? It is my experience few ask so many questions without purpose, concealed or otherwise."
“Does knowledge need a purpose behind it to make its pursuit worthwhile?” Thoth carefully put down his pen for a minute, stretching and moving long, slender fingers in a deliberately mortal gesture. His hands would never cramp and ache as a human scribe’s, yet he knew the pains of those who honored him with their profession and wore them proudly in this guise. “What scribe of any worth would not thrill to be confronted by such a personage as your own and would let the opportunity to question pass him by without a word?”
"Hm." Hades smiled once more. "I see there is some pride hidden among your flattery," he said. "It almost makes me trust you more. But you speak so little of yourself. For me to be your guest, I have given you a great many things in my stories, and I have received only wine in return."
“A scribe of any worth knows also that it is far better to listen in silence than to speak of oneself. And I am a scribe of some worth indeed, Great Lord of the Dead.” A smile crossed Thoth’s face as well; small, serene and self-contained where Hades’ had been dark and terrible.
“And you are still an uninvited guest. Are stories truly so much to ask in return for my hospitality? I permitted you to stay and gave you a place of honor in my house. Do you desire more?”
As Hades' smile faded, his pale brow arched all the higher. He had lingered too long in an unwelcoming place; had spoken too much of the world entrusted to him. The shadows that surrounded him flexed and changed, curling like serpents around his pale feet.
"Only to speak openly with you," Hades said. "And to learn of you as you have of me. But you are correct." He rose from his seat, affecting a small, slow bow. "I have imposed upon you long enough. You have been a gracious host, and you have my gratitude. Should you find your way to my house, you will be made welcome."
When his guest rose, Thoth rose as well, bowing low and seemingly unconcerned by the gesture of subservience. “I shall remember it. Should I visit your lands you shall hear as many tales as you wish, all of them true. There are no falsehoods in my house, Hades, Theôn Khthonios, and neither would I travel with them to the house of another.”
Hades thanked his host once more. Then two doors opened wide behind him: one false, one true, each of them the perfect mirror of the other. They were a void in the space of this warm, sunlit world, with only yawning darkness within their frames. He chose one, passed through it, and the doors shut heavy behind him.