Samantha Lee’s Picture Choice: Both
Title: In Hell
Hell isn't fire and brimstone and it's not a kingdom of ice and cold. There are no layered circles, no warren of rooms, no spiralling pits. Screams do not fill the air. Shadows do not creep in at the fringes. Blood does not run in its riverbeds. The trees are not black, skeletal claws grasping at a fire-lit sky. The land is not a sprawling, barren wasteland. It is not a place of torment and torture nor of punishment and abandonment; it's only the immortals who suffer there. Mortals don't understand - I don't think they can - but, for better or for worse, Hell is home, where souls return to rest between lives and sins are ultimately cleansed.
I grew up in Hell. The palace was a place of marble and captured starlight, forever sparkling with its silvery glimmer. High ceilings and wide hallways, built to accomodate a certain massive three-headed dog, trapped every sound in eternal echoes and the mosaic lined walls led deeper into an unending warren of rooms and corridors, a virtual maze only those familiar with the layout could ever hope to navigate. And then there's the plants. When I first moved in, it was a place of cold stone and, I admit, a little on the dark and gloomy side. As part of my welcome, my Guardian had potted plants placed along the hallways. Over the years, the vines crept up the walls, the trees stretched out their branches, and the ferns grew larger and larger until the halls came to ressemble jungle paths and the air was heavy with the scent of blossoms, sunlight teeming through the open windows to cast the whole scene in golden light.
Outside, I had my own garden that flourished under Hell's twin suns, spawning plants unseen in the world above. I would walk there barefoot, my feet cushioned by a carpet of soft grass, and dance under the arching branches of blossom-heavy fruit trees. Vines of ivy climbed the stone walls, pools of clear water held brightly coloured lillies, and flowers of every colour imagineable stood out like gems in the sunlight amongst all that green. It was my sanctuary, that garden, my haven, my refuge. The one place I could find peace and solace, where I could be myself without fear of repercussion.
Hell is an island, surrounded on all sides by a black tide that teems with the ghosts of lost souls and perished memories. There are appearances to be kept after all; one can not simply walk into Hell. Unless you're dead, that is; the living have a much harder go of it. Never mind the River Styxx that first needs to be crossed, Hell has black gates guarded by more than just warriors. There are monsters there that never sleep, and my Guardian is ever watchful, alert to any possible threat. The three-headed dog that guards the palace is the least dangerous of the monstrous protectors, which is saying something. They were all of them my friends though, as familiar and beautiful to me as the flowers in my garden.
I grew up in Hell and it was home. In Hell, I was transformed, becoming a butterfly with hellfire wings. In Hell, I was forged, honed to the sharpest of edges, a fatal kiss wrapped in silk and grace. In Hell, I fell in love, finding a man who loves me with the sort of fiery passion and fierce protectiveness you read about in fairy tales and dismiss as fantasy. With him, I felt complete, as though all my life I'd been going around with some vital piece of myself missing and only in finding him did I realize my shortcoming and finally become whole. In Hell, I was happy.
I stand on the mountain - or what's left of it, the black sea’s waves crashing against what’s left in a relentless, destructive barrage - and watch Hell burn. The flames reach high, licking at the sky like hungry tongues. My garden is ash, the garden a charred ruin, and still the fire rages. Metal clangs against metal as swords, armour, and shields clash. Voices rise above the din, calling out orders, shouting warnings, crying out last words, screaming in pain and fury.
Somewhere out among the fray my mate fights alongside his men, vainly trying to hold back an onslaught that won't be stopped. His father will not allow any outcome but his own victory and possesses the resources to fight on ad nauseum; this is a war that could endure for century, even millennia, painting the future in year after year of blood, pain, and death and destroying this realm bit by bit and turning it into the nightmare the mortals fear.
My morphling nuzzles against my cheek, trying his best to comfort me. I scratch behind his ear. Everything has a price they say - every choice carries with it some cost to be paid sooner or later. Once upon a time, I chose to love a man of Hell and built a home with him, lived happily with him. I thought I'd paid the price for that happiness, thought I'd paid it many times over, but now I have a new choice. I know the cost of the decision that lies before me, know exactly what I must pay to either save myself or my home, know what my mate would choose for me, what others I love would choose for me, but it matters not at all.
My home is burning, my mate is in danger, and I can make it stop; that's no choice at all.
Ignoring my tears, I turn my back on the battle. The black doves fly, their coos mocking me. The waves smash, the clouds boil, and I surrender.
What more is there to tell?
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