Fingers wove over the strands, plucking each carefully to produce the sweetest sound attainable. Long, skilled hands played deftly, the sounds of which filled the vacant, black Hall of the Dead. In the room's vast center, stationed on bended knee before the great Dead Throne, was Orpheus, diligently trying to win over the Queen of the Damned's heart. The most majestic Persephone sat atop the Throne, her ashen face gathering moisture from a glassy gaze. Behind her, the heads of souls long deceased poked over the Throne's rim, their own sightless sockets producing tears. Great wails carried under the valiant lyre's song, and chokes of sorrow escaped throats. How he loved this woman so! thought the audience grievously.

The musician played on until his fingers trembled and his own voice faltered in self-pity. He slapped the instrument on the obsidian flooring and with a great sob cried, "Euridice! Euridice! What will I do without you? My heart cannot bear to be away from yours! Oh, beloved!"

The Queen of the Damned quickly shifted in her Throne, green gown glistening. She held up an ivory hand, as if that could cease Orpheus' pining. "Gentle bard, the Muses have graced you with such talent, and the goddess Aphrodite bestowed unto you a heart devoted to only one. It is rare to find someone as faithful as you. Lyrical one, you have moved us, and your plea has been heard. My husband will free your Euridice's soul, if only I but ask."

The broken man stopped his crying instantly, allowing his eyes to rise slightly and focus on the tops of Persephone's feet. In the dismal Hall she looked radiant, as if not fit to dwell inside such dark conditions. He sniffed before wiping his tears then broke into a smile. "Merciful, merciful Queen. You are as good as Hera!" He then raced to his feet and took the Queen's hand, kissing it tenderly. "Thank you," he said.

Persephone withdrew her hand and concealed it in her lap, eyes losing their empathy. They drifted to a far corner of the room and her chin rose, recognizing the silhouette hidden in the shadows. "Husband."

From out the darkness stepped forth a tall man with a hideous face. He resembled something of a cadaver, even in his living state, owning ashen skin and sunken sockets. Each eye held a black pupil, which bore into the soul of whoever stood before him. His head was completely bald, and beneath thick yards of gray fabric was a muscular frame capable of crushing anything in his way. Now his eyes were ice, his jaw tightly clenched, arms crossed over his broad chest. Coming to rest on groomed haunches beside him were two dogs, both housing three heads atop thick necks. They were the infamous Cerberus, those Guardians of the Underworld flanking the Gates to Hades' realm.

"My queen," said Hades, tone surprisingly gentle for such an evil-looking god. He strode to the Throne, whisking away the myriad wraith-like hands that grasped his clothing and skin, begging his attention. He sat on one of the Throne's mighty armrests and looked to his wife, then to Orpheus.

Before Hades could question the bard, Persephone spoke. "Husband, this man has trekked for many days to be with us. He has sung his ballad in exchange for the soul of his beloved, called Euridice. Upon hearing his plea, I was warmed and have granted his wish, with your consent, of course." The Queen looked on her spouse with honest, pleading eyes.

The god of the Underworld stared into Persephone's angelic face, cupping a cheek in one of his hands. Orpheus squinted, almost feeling the chill Hades' touch must be on her skin. "Beloved, you know how I feel about letting go my civilians," Hades replied.

The woman sighed, lips pouting, face losing its pleasant glow. "Yes."

Seeing her distress, Hades stroked her face gently with his thumb, bringing her to face him. "But for you, I will do it." As Persephone's countenance once again lifted, Hades turned his attention on Orpheus' still kneeling form. When he spoke his tone had lost its tender cadence, thus coming out harshly. "Get up."

Orpheus did as bade, joints stiff from disuse. He collected his lyre and re-slung it over his shoulder to its place at his back. He could not help but say his thanks.

"Don't thank me yet," barked the dark one. "This comes with a price."

The valiant musician suppressed a smile, swallowing to dispel his glee. "What is it?"

Hades suddenly appeared not a hair's breadth away from Orpheus. He was close enough so the man he spoke to could count the pores on his hairless face and examine the depths of his seemingly soulless eyes. The god grabbed Orpheus by the shoulders, cold, clammy fingers firm on his body. "You cannot look at her until you reach the surface two days from now."

The instrumentalist felt crushed. His body caved in, expressing his disappointment, and his previous desire to grin and sing merry songs vanished. Not look at her? He did not understand. "But, why?" he found himself asking.

"It is our pact. You take one of my numbers and do not look at her until above ground, you can live with her peacefully. If not..." His voice trailed off, and his mouth rose in semblance to a grin. He merely shrugged. "You'll see what happens if that's the case."

Premonition caused Orpheus to shiver. He didn't know if he could trust the god. Well, he reasoned, I mustn't look at her, that's all. If I don't look, I will not loose her. How hard can it be? Without another second thought, the bard shook hands with Hades, sealing the deal.

"Very well," whispered the ruler of Death ominously. "Turn around."

They began to climb the steps that led to the Living World, steadily and with little difficulty at first. Gradually, however, their vigor declined, and now their breaths came in short gasps. They had been walking for a day, ever since leaving Hades and his Underworld. Crossing the Styx had been little trouble. The strange oarsmen, Charon, had seemed very pleased to get rid of them, speeding off in his large, black-wood gondola as quickly as possible. They departed without a word.

Now Orpheus decided to rest his weary body, choosing a particularly wide row of steps to sit on. He looked ahead, marveling at the interminable black corridor that bowed before him. He wondered if he would ever see light again. Oh, how he longed for the sun, to hear the birds and feel the breeze on his cheeks. And how he wanted to see his beloved again, more than anything. It seemed quite unfair he should have to wait so long as this, after he had done so much for her return. He sighed and took a swig from his water skin. Wiping his mouth, he cleared his throat and closed his eyes, blocking out the way ahead for the time being. For the first time since he began his journey, Orpheus slept.

He awoke with a start. A voice no louder than a whisper hummed into his ear.

"Orpheus."

For a moment, the bard became confused. Who spoke to him? The voice. It was familiar, and sweet. Suddenly his heart stopped, and his eyes widened in realization. Euridice! It was Euridice's voice! Oh heaven, he thought, what a pleasant, soothing noise! Never had he heard anything so pure and comforting in all his years, save for the time he had known his darling wife in life.

"Dearest," he murmured, barely believing his ears. He felt the sudden urge to turn his head in her direction, but, recalling the pact he had made with Hades, the young man did not give in. He stared at the pitch wall.

"Orpheus?" Her voice contained a constant, melodious brogue, albeit concerned. "Do you not want to look me over? See what I have become?"

Instantly, he responded, "No, not yet."

Euridice's tone hardened, seeming hurt. "You do not? But, why? After all this time, you do not wish to be with me?"

"I can't."

"Why?"

"The god of the Dead has made a deal with me. I mustn't look at you until we have reached the surface."

There was a long silence. Finally, the woman said, "Hades always makes things difficult."

"Yes, it would seem so."

They said no more until daybreak.

When Orpheus awoke a second time, he was greeted with the same darkness. Below ground, there were no windows which might allow the sun to stream in, and so the passages were lit by torches alone, guiding the sojourners ever through the tunnel. Soon they neared the end of their second day. Just ahead, only a few more leagues at least, thought Orpheus, lie the Door. His whole body yearned to open that Door and step into the light with his wife.

At around mid-evening, the bard once again settled down to eat his meal. Since leaving the World of the Dead, Euridice had not eaten or drunk anything. But now, as they neared the surface, the sounds of an empty stomach reached his ears, and he was once again inclined to gaze on her face.

"Orpheus?" asked the famished woman.

"Yes, love?"

"Would you share your meal with me?"

"Of course."

Slowly, the man passed the bread on to his wife, careful not to touch her, then likewise handed her his water skin. He heard the sounds of her rapid devouring and thirsty slurping at the meal placed in her hands. Before long, the skin had been passed back to him, and re-slung alongside his lyre.

"My love," said Euridice, "would you play for me? Like the old days?"

A smile came to Orpheus' lips, and he reached over his shoulder, feeling his lyre with instrumental hands. He took the piece from his back and placed it twixt his knees, then began to play. It was a merry tune, meant to coincide with the feeling of his soul. He even found himself singing bits of lyrical nonsense he had made to accompany the music. Softly, Euridice rose her voice to the texts, her shrill soprano sailing an octave above the tenor. When he had finished, there came a silence.

"It was beautiful," Euridice commented. "Just as I knew it would be."

"Oh darling, it is so wonderful to hear your voice," said Orpheus.

"Orpheus, my husband! Look at me, I pray you! Hades would never know, he is too occupied with counting souls," the woman snapped unexpectedly. It was obvious she wished his approval on her current state of appearance.

"Beloved, it can't be done. Even if I knew he wasn't looking, I wouldn't risk it."

The cadence of Euridice's voice dropped. When she spoke again, she was clearly hurt by Orpheus' words. "Then we must make it to the top. We cannot stop."

Weary by the continuous trek upward, the woman's husband sighed, brushing back his hair with a hand and surveyed his surroundings once more. "Dearest Euridice, I feel we must rest, at least for a little while. I'm very weary."

From behind, Orpheus felt and heard Euridice's disapproving hiss. "But we are so close!" she protested. "Why rest now when we are within sight of our destination! Have you no will power?" Her tone depressed the man, but quickly he put it aside. He knew the reasoning behind her outburst.

"I must rest," he insisted, sitting as a mark of defiance. "And so must you. You will need your strength if you plan on making it to the top successfully."

Silently, Euridice allowed herself to sit on a step below her husband, her lithe form cleverly hidden within shadows. Once he sensed her settled, Orpheus rolled on his side and curled up, one arm behind his head to cushion it as he napped. Releasing a lion's yawn, the bard gently closed his eyes. Soon his breathing became labored, and he fell into unconscious rest.

Orpheus awoke a short while later, and, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he sat, pondering. His thoughts wandered over the many horrors this trip had exposed him to. The fear of being rejected by Hades, the absurd confrontation with Charon, Persephone and her minions' strange reaction to his lament. Also, there was the River Styx which still lingered in his mind. Its vast waves of fleshless spirits grasping the gondola's sides, toothless mouths gaping in want of freedom. He gave an involuntary shudder, and focused his attention elsewhere. Freedom. Was that what Euridice had now? No, he decided. She was not free, not yet at least. She wouldn't be free until she made it through that Door. He grunted mournfully, and let his vision examine the corridor again. It was a dull thing, totally uninteresting in architecture, with no real style. Those who built it eons ago mustn't have cared much for creativity, thought Orpheus.

Soon, he ceased his contemplating, and reached for his lyre. Bringing it to his lap, the man gently felt the instrument, letting its familiar feel caress his palm and fingers. The song he had played for Euridice on the eve before their marriage ceremony took place came to mind. Thus, with a breath and a grin, he strummed. Its tune was like something from a dream, airy and beautiful. To Orpheus, it was the essence of Euridice's character, all that she was to him, and more. It reflected her inner beauty, the beauty he had first fallen in love with. The strumming became more insistent as the song reached its peak, although the clarity and grace remained. Crescendo to decrescendo. Pianissimo to fortissimo Legato to staccato. Those were the patterns frequented in Orpheus's tune. All too suddenly, however, it was cut short.

"Oh Orpheus!" came a shrill cry, one full of deep loss.

Without thinking, the man ceased his playing and turned in the direction of the voice, his eyes locking on the risen form of Euridice. A wash of ink black hair, pale ivory skin, deep brown eyes, locked in a gown of pastel pink. Her rosy mouth formed a silent, shocked "O".

Oh gods! he silently cursed, taking note of the lethal mistake. He looked down the hall, half expecting something to pop out at him and grab Euridice away. But, amazingly, nothing happened. The familiar quietude rang in their ears.

"I don't understand," sililoquized the man. "Hades said--"

"Forget Hades. He does not always keep his promises. This was done to scare you," Euridice said softly.

Orpheus looked to the corridor, making out the Door with little effort. From this standpoint, they could make it before the invariably devastating occurred.

"Come on! Even if it was to scare, I don't want to take any chances." stated Orpheus, slinging his instrument over his shoulder. He firmly grasped his wife's wrist, as if making sure she would not vanish. In one fluid movement, he hauled himself to his feet, dragging Euridice behind.

Without warning, Orpheus felt the earth begin to quake beneath him. The steps cracked. The walls shook. The drab tiles fell from the ceiling. In long strides, Orpheus raced up the remaining way of the hall, dodging debris of all kinds and ignoring Euridice's panicked whimpers.

"Orpheus, what is happening?" she asked above the roar of the hall.

Panic-striken, the musician swallowed, feeling beads of perspiration begin to gather at his brow. "Exactly what Hades failed to mention!" he retorted, voice sharp. He cast his gaze frantically ahead.

The Door now was very close, dangerously close. From where he ascended, Orpheus could make out the gold engravings carved into the wood. What it read, however, he could only guess. It was clearly some form of primitive writing, one long abandoned. But this was no time to ponder the meaning of some useless words. Desperately, Orpheus stole a glance at Euridice. She was still whole, her eyes trepid, yet determined. He looked toward the Door. They could make it. They had to.

Suddenly, the man and his wife were jerked back by unseen creatures. Orpheus felt, but did not see, two strong, furry hands begin to work on tearing the pair apart. Stupidly, Orpheus dug his fingers into Euridice's flesh, causing her to cry out. This sound startled the bard, and he eased his hold, providing adequate time for the creature to pry loose the spouses.

"Orpheus! Orpheus!" wailed Euridice. Her brown eyes were wide with palpable terror.

"Euridice!" he called back. To the air he hissed, "Get away from her, you bastards! Leave her be! This is not her fault! It's mine! Take me!"

But the demons would not listen. An unknowable tongue dribbled from wherever the creatures were hidden. Orpheus fought to control himself. He had to think clearly if he was to reclaim Euridice once more. Suddenly the woman was sucked farther down the now destroyed staircase. Darkness enveloped all but her torso.

"No!" she screamed, kicking at her captors. It was a vain attempt to escape, one that only caused her more pain. The more she squirmed, the stronger the creatures became. "Orpheus, do not let them harm me! Do not let them drag me back to Hades!"

"We had a deal, bard," came a voice from above. Orpheus stopped still in his tracks, looking toward the sound. Looming over him was the hideous form of Hades. His eyes were alive with wicked disdain. His nostrils flared, intensifying his angst. He seemed to be one with the wall, his body protruding from the broken rocks, legs and lower body lost in the stones. He owned a wraith-like form; colored, however transparent.

"I--I'm sorry!" stammered the man.

A rumble escaped the god's throat. "Apologies mean nothing to me, mortal. We had a bargain, and you lost it. Now I'll take your bride back where she belongs!" He snapped his fingers and the invisible demons dragged Euridice down the black passage, leaving nothing but the echoes of her screams in their wake. Tearfully, Orpheus made as if to follow, but was made immoble by a bark from Hades.

"Don't look for her again, lest you want my Cerberus to rip you limb from limb, and Charon to revel in your disembowling. If you go after her, you will never see her again. I guarantee it."

With that, the image of the god disappeared, and Orpheus was left alone. He buried his head in his hands, crouched low to the ground, and wept for his horrible folly.