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Waves crashed as the small ship tossed in the storm, thrown there and there by the might of the weather. Jagged peaks of stone rose up before the vessel, making the passengers, sailors and captives alike, cry out to their gods for mercy.
But their prayers were not heard. The boat struck the rocks and shattered into a thousand pieces of wood and metal. The passengers were thrown into the icy water.
One man was sucked under a wave, only to surface far from the wreck, beyond any hope of even finding a splinter of wood to hang on to. He was sucked under again, but this time he could not come up again. He was gasping, choking…
I am Bloom, the daughter of Circe the sorceress and Pan, the woodland god. In my care are all those lost and forgotten, those who forsake hope. Even if they should give up on themselves, I will not.
My isle and I are the last hope for shipwrecked sailors or lost souls, for I collect those who are good at heart, feed them, nurture them, and then return them to their homes. Those with impossible tasks often come to me, seeking help. If their heart is good, I help them as I can.
If not…they are better off not coming to my island. I do not suffer those who are cruel and unjust, either patiently or easily.
I listened to the music of the ocean playing upon the sparkling white sand of my island, letting the familiar sound soothe me.
Off the shore, the waters were a bright blue-green in a ring around my isle. But farther out, the waters suddenly turned grey and terrible, with waves taller then the tallest tree in the forest behind me. I could see the winds lashing and howling as they blew past, but from where I was standing, I could feel only the sweetest, most gentle breeze playing over my face and through my long hair, toying with the flowers growing there.
I walked down to the shore and stood there with tiny wavelets lapping over my feet. I stared out at the storm in all its wild, beautiful fury for a few minutes, then stretched out my hands. Power flowed down my arms, as welcoming as a warm fire after a cold day in the snow, as accepting as the smile of an old friend. I began to hum an eerie melody and cried out into the storm winds,
“Come all ye who are kind and fair,
All ye who know of love and care,
Be borne to me upon the tide!
Come, and in my land abide!”
My voice carried out of the isle and into the tempest, and there was a brief moment of eerie silence, as though the entire world was listening to me.
The winds heard me and changed course, howling towards my isle. The waves did the same, crashing against the invisible barrier that protected my land from the elements. I let out a breath and began to dance, waiting.
As I danced to the sound of distant flutes, I watched the ocean. After a long while, something—or someone—appeared in the surf. At first, it looked like a simple blob of darkness, but after a few more moments, it separated into two men, who dragged themselves up out of the water and lay on the sand, panting and gasping like beached fish.
I continued to dance, swaying just out of their reach on the shore. I taunted them, for they had to come to my land of their own free will. I could not carry them there.
Instead, I danced over to the trees and called into them, “Sisters, come out and be sociable! We have guests!”
The swaying vines parted behind me, and a group of beautiful women stepped out, laughing and joining in with my dance. Out of the corners of their eyes, they watched as three more men managed to reach the safety of my island. One man was still dragging a comrade, either not knowing or not caring that the other man had died. I watched him, some inner sense telling me he was the last of those who would come.
Barely pausing in my swaying steps, I raised my hands and clapped them together once. The dryads broke away with a flourish and crossed to the men. Two dryads to a man, they lifted the living sailors and carried them away, disappearing into the trees again.
I knelt down by the last body and bowed my head, placing a hand over his cold lips. This man would never know his salvation had been so close, that he had a chance to return to the family that awaited him.
Now he was dead, but perhaps I still could save him.
Darkness bloomed around me, blocking out my island and carrying the reek of death and freezing stone to my nose. I shivered. No flower likes the cold or dark, and Hades’ realm has an excess of both.
A wide, dark river sprang up at my feet, flowing down to an unseen cavern. I followed it, my bare feet hardly finding purchase on the slick rocks. As I walked, the scent of death grew stronger.
“Bloom, come again to beg for a sailor’s soul?” a voice hailed me. A ferry drifted up beside the bank I walked on, the old man within watching me. His grey eyes may have seemed flat to others, but I could see the spark of compassion in them. He was no more cruel then most of the mortals he carried to the Underworld, and he could be counted on.
I stopped. “Greetings, Charon. Indeed I have. Would you carry me across?” I smiled at him, and pulled a flower from my hair to offer as payment.
The ferryman’s bad-tempered façade cracked slightly. He poled the vessel closer to my side of the bank and held it still. I stepped carefully in and settled myself, then handed him the blossom.
He smiled and held it to his nose, breathing deeply. “Ah. Your flowers are as sweet as ever, Bloom. I will take you to the tunnels, but you must pass Cerberus on your own.”
“As ever,” I said with a smile, to show I had no hard feelings. Charon was allowed to do no more, and I accepted that.
We drifted down the dark river for many minutes. The jagged rocks loomed overhead, bearing down on me. I hated enclosed spaces, small openings that had no life. But instead of dwelling on my surroundings, I closed my eyes and imagined the sweet smell of dew-drenched flowers in the dawn, of light breaking over the ocean as a salt-twined breeze blew across the island.
Behind me, Charon sighed. “You are too free and full of life for this place, Bloom,” he said, and his voice was sad. “You should not come here so often.”
I opened my eyes and looked back at him with a small smile. “I think perhaps you are right, but I must.”
He shook his head. “Why, Bloom? This man you seek to find will never do anything to help you. There is no reason to save him in this way.”
We went on in silence a while longer. I considered his words, then shook my head as well. “I know this, Charon. But I must try. Perhaps one day, I will find myself in need. I would not want someone to give up on me easily, if that were so. And thus I shall not give up on this man.”
After a fair distance, Charon pushed his craft up to the bank and assisted me out of it. Without a word, I pulled another flower from my hair and tucked it into his robe. Then I leaned forward and pressed a kiss to his wrinkled cheek.
“Thank you for your kindness, Charon,” I said softly, and then grinned at him with a spark of wickedness. “I shall be sure to mention it to Hades.”
He scowled at me. “You shall do nothing of the kind, or you shall swim across the River Styx next time you descend, as I know you shall.” He smiled at me. “You have a soft heart, Bloom.”
I raised a hand in farewell and turned away. But as I left, I saw the ferryman lift the second flower to his nose as well, then tuck it with the other one behind his ear. I smiled and went on my way.
The path was dark and filled with loose stones to make a traveler lose their footing easily, but my feet were steady as I walked.
As I came to a great gate in the stone, I stopped. Something stirred in the shadows on the other side, and a growl like thunder trapped underground rolled through the tunnel.
With a smile, I raised my hand. “Peace, Cerberus.” Then, as I had shown Hermes how when he had come to rescue Persephone, I took a deep breath and blew the flower petals I held towards him, adding the faintest touch of magic to them.
As they flew, borne upon a greater breeze than my breath alone, they multiplied. When they struck the three-headed dog, there were enough of them to cover his heads and fill his mouth with tiny petals. He recoiled in surprise, shaking his heads to try to rid them of the followers, but they wouldn’t come off. I took advantage of his momentary blindness, slipping through the bars of the gate and down the tunnel behind it.
Things loomed around me as I walked, faceless shades and lost souls who could not reach the end of the path to rest at peace. Some were there because they had earned punishments from the gods. Theses were the ones I like the least. The gods were very creative in their retributions, but severely lacking in mercy. But sometimes, those being punished had earned it.
Once, a groan came from within the shadows, and hands reached out to me. “Pity,” cried the man chained to the stones. “Have pity on me, lovely one. Have you a bite of food or sip of water about you?”
“For you I have none, Tantalus,” I said coldly, skirting his grasping attempts to hold me. “You were a fool to think you could feed your son to the Olympians and not have them notice. And why? To prove yourself superior to the gods?”
“Pity!” he cried again. I felt my lips curve in a cruel smile, and stopped. I placed food from the pouch I carried on a rock, just beyond his reach.
“There is my pity,” I murmured, dragging one sharp fingernail down his withered cheek. “There is my pity.”
I went on.
Farther on, where the tunnel opened out, I saw a man struggling to push a giant boulder up a steep hill. At the foot of the rise, I paused and reached into my short wrap. I drew out a small handful of seeds and cupped them in my palm, then blew them towards the man.
Thick, grasping vines burst from the soil, holding the stone in place for a moment, then forcing it to roll up the hill little by little. The man stumbled as the weight disappeared, then turned to watch with incredulous eyes as I made my way up to him. Silently, I pulled a gourd filled with water from my shoulder and offered it to him. He took it with a nod of thanks and gulped it down.
When his throat was wet enough to speak, he handed it back and said, “Thank you, kind one. You did not need to do that.”
I reached inside my wrap again and pulled out a handful of dried fruits, which would give nourishment even to the dead. “Your only crime was asking for no funeral, and as such slighting Hades. This is not so great a thing, and so I helped you.” I handed him the fruits and watched him eat, smiling. Those I choose to help are always good in their own ways, even if others do not see them that way. If not, I do not help them.
“You are far kinder then any I have met, in this realm or otherwise” King Sisyphus said. “I thank you for it.”
I glanced to where my plants had pulled the boulder almost halfway up the slope. “My spell will not last for long. Only until the stone reaches the top of the hill.”
Sisyphus smiled and shook his head. “It offers a brief respite from an otherwise endless torment. I will think of you long, and remember your kindheartedness until the end of my days. Thank you, Lady of Flowers.” He started towards the top of the hill, and the vain hope that he could hold the boulder in place, balanced on the peak, so ending his punishment.
I watched him go, feeling wonder in my heart. Here was a human who should have been bitter and resentful, but was not. He still hoped that his punishment for slighting a god would someday be eased, even though he had no reason to think so.
I started down the hill, stepping back into the tunnel. The darkness closed in once more, and I almost faltered, but the memory of the sailor’s cold body lying on the sand urged me on. “Just a little longer,” I told myself softly. “Then I can return home.”
I passed into another cavern, where curled a vast serpent with a head at each end of its body. I passed him by without fear, but paused to touch his side. He watched me with weary, wary eyes, but let me continue on unhindered. He knew his task was to keep the dead in and mortals out, but as I was neither, I could pass if I wished.
I crossed the Acheron River, full of stagnant and bitter water, and tried to ignore the surge of foreboding that flooded my mind. I pushed it aside, for I was almost at the court.
Two thrones sat beside each other in the distance, and I turned towards them. They were carved of the same dark stone that the rest of the land was made of, only polished to a bright sheen. On my right sat a tall, imposing man, dark haired and wearing a black crown. On my left, there sat a woman so blinding in her beauty that one could stare at her forever and never look enough to see one’s fill.
I stopped and dropped to my knees in front of them, bowing my head. “Hades, Persephone, my greetings to you.”
Hades watched me without showing any emotion. “Bloom, Lady of Flowers. Have I not granted enough of your requests already?”
I didn’t look up at him, just stayed on my knees. “I would not ask you again, dark lord, but I feel in my heart that this man I seek deserves another chance. Salvation was so close, but he was not able to reach it.”
“And how does this concern me?” Hades demanded. “I do not see my connection to a drowned sailor, no matter how sorry you feel for him.”
“I am not asking you to empathize with him,” I murmured. “But please, grant me leave to return his soul to his body, or at least assure me that he will pass on to the Elysian Fields, so I can know of his happiness. Please, I beg of you.”
Persephone stirred for the first time, gazing down at me with compassion. “I would agree to your request, Lady of Flowers, but only at a price. I shall ask you a question, and you must answer truthfully.”
I nodded without hesitation. “Ask what you will, goddess.”
Her eyes bored into me, but I didn’t look up to meet them. “Tell me, Bloom, why it is you do this for men you do not know, and who will only barely know you, though you have saved their lives. When the history of the world is recorded, you will be forgotten. No one will remember your name, or what you have done for the men who have passed through your care. So why?”
I considered her question, so like Charon’s query. Like before, I had no definite answer, only a thought that came from the heart.
“I help because I can. To do anything else would be to betray what I am, what I wish to be. I care for them because there is no one else to; because I must, or live with the knowledge that I could have saved them on my soul. Because, someday, I hope a person will do as much for me as I would do for them.”
I looked up and met the god and goddess’s flat, emotionless eyes. “I realize that history may forget me, that I shall become nothing more then a sailor’s last thought of safety in a storm, a survivor’s rambling, or a drunken dock-rat’s boasts. And you know what? I do not care.”
My voice turned fierce and soft, and I stood without fearing those in front of me, foolish though it was. “I will help until I am nothing more then a whisper in the wind, and I will bless the fact that I could aid even a single person. I will then be content, and retire gracefully. And while the old gods die with fire and glory, letting all remember their names, I shall fade quietly, with no one to recall who I was. And I will be satisfied.”
The look on Persephone’s face showed me I had done the impossible and surprised a god. I allowed myself a small smile and asked, “Does that find you content, my lord, my lady?”
“It does indeed,” Hades said slowly, then called me forward with a twitch of his fingers. “Take the soul of your sailor and depart my realm, knowing you have won my regard this day. You are as unlike any other being that I have ever met as could be imagined.”
Persephone smiled and held out her hand. “Go, Lady of Flowers, and return to your isle. You have been too long from the sun.” She passed me a small sphere that looked to be filled with mist.
I cradled it in my palms and bowed to them. “Thank you, dark lord, bright lady. I assure you, I shall use this well. May you and your kingdom prosper forevermore.”
I took my leave of that dark court and returned to the sunshine of my beautiful isle. I returned the man’s soul to him, and set him and his companions on their way on the next ship that passed.
And, though I have been forgotten by history, I live on in the whisper of the breeze that cries for you never to give up; in the ray of light that breaks through the darkest clouds to guide you. I am Bloom, and in my care are all those lost and forgotten, those who have forsaken hope.
But even if they should give up on themselves, I will not give up on them.