Silence. That was all Caleb heard when he first woke up, a nothingness which transcended even his thoughts. He couldn't hear within his own skull. Nothing but darkness surrounded him except the cold stone beneath him. He could see a bit of light on his left, and realized it was night outside the cave, an overcast night by all appearances.
He struggled to get up, his head aching. He grunted with effort and was grateful to find his ears were at least working. "Liz?" He called to the dark. "Is the... is the spell over?"
"Liz?" He called again as he surveyed the scene as well as much as possible in the near-perfect dark. The fire was gone along with Liz and her things. He still wore his backpack, which he'd forgotten to remove before the ritual, and somehow the knife had found its way back home into the belt sheath on his left hip.
The male voice had a melodic quality to it, as if it had intended to sing his name. It came from all around him, permeating the cave and echoing outward then inward, as if the cave itself were speaking and carrying the name on its breath.
"Who's there?" Caleb asked.
"Caleb, come here, into the dark," the voice said.
Caleb held his ground, trying to make sense of where he was and what was going on. "Who are you?" He asked, more firmly than before.
"Come into the cave," the voice urged. "You've sought me, so let's talk."
Caleb glanced outside again, seeing the ominous skies and thinking over the proposition for just a moment. This was frightening, to be sure, but he had expected it to be. He had come seeking death, after all.
He turned toward the cave's inner depths and pulled his backpack off, opening the large pocket. His hand brushed against Ethan's journal. The brief contact reminded him of his purpose there and firmed up his resolve. Withdrawing a flashlight, he switched it on and shined it into the darkness. The cone of light seemed more muted than he'd expected, barely illuminating a few feet in front of him and sometimes even less, as if the darkness were breathing around the light, rhythmically subduing its radiance. Caleb replaced the backpack and walked forward, aiming for where he remembered the back of the cave to be, the place where it became impassable.
He walked for what seemed like an impossibly long time. The floor and walls all appeared the same, and he was certain he'd walked in circles until the darkness began to recede again. He saw flickering firelight in the distance and headed toward it cautiously. As he approached, he realized he was nearing the mouth of the cave again, though it appeared different from before. A dense fog now clouded the entrance, rendering the trees outside completely invisible.
A man in a black suit sat on a log beside the fire, an acoustic guitar sitting in his lap. He had long, chestnut-brown hair, and dancing green eyes. His skin was bronzed, as if he'd spent a great deal of time in the sun, though there appeared a pallor to it as if he were sick, despite bearing no other appearance of any ailment. He strummed out a few chords as Caleb approached, then played a far more intricate melody when Caleb slowed down and stopped. The song was beyond the skill of anything Caleb had ever heard before, and stirred within him a longing for better times and better places than the dreary landscape around him. It drew him into a trance-like state and begged him to lose himself to the music.
In his trance, he became aware of another presence, that of a woman in a long, white robe in the style of ancient Greece. Her black hair reached down to her waist and showed intricate braids in the dim light. A single silver circlet kept her hair from her fair face, and despite Caleb's predilections for males, he could not deny her beauty. She stood behind the musician, staring at him with a sense of longing that fit the mournful tone of the tune the musician played.
Eventually the music stopped, and the man looked at Caleb expectantly, a sly grin on his face. Caleb shook himself from the effect of the music and asked, "What? What is this?"
"Hello, Caleb," the musician said, setting the guitar aside and folding his hands in his lap. "I've been expecting you."
"Where's Liz?" Caleb asked.
"Back in the world of the living," the musician replied, chuckling. The sound of his laughter was just as melodic as his voice had been, for this was indeed the owner of the voice who had called to him in the cave. "That's where you left her, of course."
Caleb nodded slowly. He was in the realm of the dead after all. Everything was beginning to make sense now. Though there remained at least one mystery. "Who are you?" He asked.
"Isn't it obvious?" The musician replied.
Caleb cocked an eyebrow. "A man in a suit with a guitar?"
"The lyre went out of style a long time ago," the musician said with a conceited smirk. "Thankfully long hair is in again. I hated when I had short hair in the fifties. Long hair just feels so much more Thracian."
Caleb's eyes lit up with recognition. "Orpheus."
"The one and only," the musician replied with a bow and a flourish of his hand. "Well, there are others who have had that name, of course, but I'm the one you sought, anyway. I'm pretty certain I'm the only Orpheus who traversed Hades, and your friend was quite specific."
Caleb nodded, then gestured with his head toward the woman standing behind Orpheus. "Who is the woman standing behind you?"
"There's no woman there," Orpheus replied, his smile tightening along with his eyes. Caleb opened his mouth to protest, but as he looked for the woman again she was nowhere to be found. She'd been too close to have escaped into the fog outside or the darkness of the cave without being seen. She had disappeared into thin air.
"Where'd she-" Caleb began, but Orpheus cut him off quickly.
"You came here for a reason, didn't you?"
"Yes," Caleb said. "I want to bring my best friend back to life."
Orpheus nodded slowly, his smile slowly returning to its earlier strength. "You said during your ritual that you wanted to exchange your life for his. The Ruler is capable of granting such a request."
"An exchange..." Caleb said slowly. He would die to save Ethan, it was true. Even though he'd thought those words in a moment of passion, it didn't make them any less true. "Yes, I am willing to do that. How do I save him?"
"Are you familiar with my story?" Orpheus asked, rising suddenly, placing his hands behind his back. He began to pace the mouth of the cave on the opposite side of the fire.
Although he could be more familiar than he was, Caleb felt confident enough to say, "Yes. Mostly."
"Mostly, huh?" Orpheus replied, chuckling dryly. "It's important so listen up. My wife was killed by a snake bite on our wedding night. I was heartbroken and full of anger at nature, the gods, at whoever's feet I could lay the blame. I ventured into Hades, I overcame the obstacles, played music to calm the heart of Cerberus and met with Hades himself. Are you with me so far?"
Caleb nodded and replied, "And you managed to convince Hades to let Eurydice go."
"Eurydice..." Orpheus sighed and strummed once on his guitar. "I don't often speak her name, but yes. She was an unrivaled beauty, with a heart to match. With her as my muse I played music for Hades and he cried from the beauty of the song, a beauty which convinced him to let me have her soul." He paused and looked at Caleb expectantly. "If you're familiar with my story at all, then you must know what happens next."
"You were told not to look back until you'd exited The Underworld, and if you didn't she would follow you all the way out," Caleb replied.
"Then why do you think I can help you?" Orpheus asked. He paused and stared into the flames. For a brief moment, Caleb was certain he saw the woman standing behind him again. It seemed as if Orpheus craned his neck just enough to almost look over his shoulder, but instead he turned back to the flames and the woman disappeared once more. "I wasn't exactly successful in my endeavor. I failed to rescue my wife."
Caleb remembered the story well enough to know that much was true. Orpheus had looked back when he stood at the edge of The Underworld, against the express orders of Hades, and his wife had been lost forever. He'd been but inches away from saving her life and had failed. Caleb refused to believe he would share Orpheus' fate. "You almost were," Caleb said defiantly.
"That's the thing," Orpheus replied with a mirthless chuckle. "It's always an almost."
"You mean, no one has been successful before?" Caleb asked, feeling a knot form in his stomach.
Orpheus looked up, his eyes flashing with something Caleb could not identify. "I didn't say that," Orpheus said.
"Stop being cryptic," Caleb snapped. "I'm ready to do anything I can to bring him back, so let's get going."
Orpheus nodded. "You must really love him."
A low growl escaped Caleb's throat. "Tell me what I have to do."
"What if this is only a dream?" Orpheus asked, not the least bit intimidated by Caleb's display of anger. He returned to his pacing, walking back and forth twice before stopping beside his guitar and picking it up again. He strummed a few more chords, then began playing softly and slowly as he added, "What if none of this is real and it's all brought on by magic-induced insanity?"
"Are you trying to talk me out of it?" Caleb asked.
"Someone should," Orpheus said, pointedly stopping his strumming to look Caleb in the eye. "Trying to convince Death of anything other than itself is risky business. Life makes mistakes by hungry greed, but death waits patiently, paying no heed. Life takes all and has no friends, but Death gains all when at their ends." He wiggled his eyebrows at Caleb then strummed a few hearty chords for effect, as if making a joke. Orpheus laughed, and the sound filled Caleb with a gloomy sense of morbidity.
But he remained undeterred and stood his ground. "If this is a dream then what do I have to lose by going forward?" he asked.
"Sweet child," Orpheus said, shaking his head, "there is much one can lose in a dream, for dreams themselves can be lost and often are."
Caleb heard the warning in the words, but he was determined. He'd come this far, and he would press on until Ethan lived again. "A dream can only be realized by chasing after it. I'm going after Ethan."
Orpheus strummed one more loud chord and stomped his foot along with it. He put the guitar down and clapped his hands in delight. "Very well, a splendid choice. You have courage, I'll give you that," he said, laughing. "I suppose I'll have to guide you. Understand, I can do nothing more than guide; I only exist here for that purpose and cannot lift a finger to help you more. I am but a psychopomp."
"A psychopomp?" Caleb asked. "I'm not familiar with that word."
Orpheus smirked. "Probably because it originates in the Greek. It means one who guides a soul through the afterlife."
"I understand," Caleb replied. "I'll accept your guidance."
"Then let's begin," Orpheus said excitedly. "First up, there are two ways you might be able to bring your love back to life, but both will require a journey."
"To where?" Caleb asked.
A mischievous glint entered Orpheus' eyes. "To speak to The One Who Rules Beneath."
"We're not in Greece anymore. That may have been our name for the entity you seek, but you do not worship the Greek gods, do you?" Orpheus asked.
"No," Caleb replied. "I have no religion."
Orpheus pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Interesting... she's going to love you."
"Who?" Caleb asked.
"You'll meet her soon enough," Orpheus said with a determined nod. "But to answer your earlier question, you are seeking Death. Not Hades, not Irkalla, not Hel, not any person or place in specific. You seek The One Who Rules Beneath."
The official sounding title gave Caleb pause. "Is there one who rules above?"
"I do not have the answer to that question," Orpheus said, bowing his head in defeat. When his head lifted again, his grin was impish. "I am beneath."
"So, what if Ethan's in heaven?" Caleb asked, hoping the answer wouldn't be too unsettling.
"Is he Christian?" Orpheus asked.
"His family is," Caleb replied.
Orpheus laughed. "Interesting."
"My, don't you love to question!" Orpheus exclaimed, sliding the strap of the guitar over his shoulder as he turned toward the fog. He strummed the beginning of a new melody, and the fog shifted and swirled in response as if dancing to the tune.
"If you won't answer my questions, then tell me: what do I have to do?" Caleb asked impatiently.
"Go back into the cave," Orpheus said over his shoulder. "She's waiting for you."
Caleb sighed and turned, thinking he'd get little more from Orpheus but figured he'd attempt one last question. "Before I go, what are the two ways I can bring him back?"
In response, the tune shifted and Orpheus sang in a happy tone, "My mission was to make Death cry, and when I failed, I had to die. The result is the same, no matter the way; Death always has the final say."
"What?" Caleb asked, annoyed at yet another cryptic response.
"Go back into the cave. She's waiting for you," Orpheus said. And then he started to turn back to Caleb, but as his body turned sideways it seemed to flatten, becoming two-dimensional until he disappeared into a thin line of nothingness.
"Wait!" Caleb shouted, but Orpheus was gone.
Caleb stared at the fog, wondering if he should risk entering the mist and going back to the world of the living or doing as Orpheus had bid him and traveling into the cave. As he started to turn, he caught movement from the fog. A large, black dog trotted out of the mist and sat on its haunches, watching him. A moment later, two more dogs came through the fog and sat down next to it. Each one regarded him with intensity, though there was no menace in their cat-like eyes. Cat-like eyes like Liz's.
He approached the dogs and they rose up on their haunches, eyes narrowing. The look in those eyes made Caleb's pulse quicken and sent a shiver rippling through him. He pulled up short, eyeing the sharp, white teeth he could see through the dogs' curling lips.
"Strange... I suppose if I try and go out this way, you'll stop me?" Caleb asked the strange dogs. The dogs remained silent, but Caleb knew the answer already; he could read it in the slits of their eyes. He was stuck here, and there was only one way to go.
With a sigh, he turned his back on the dogs and walked back into the cave. Within seconds, darkness enveloped him, and he doubted he'd ever see the light again.
Although Liz had been promised Search and Rescue or paramedics, neither she nor any of her rescuers had cell service. A storm had knocked out the nearest cell tower the night before and made it impossible for them to reach anyone.
Thankfully the man who woke her up, Tim Landing from nearby Castlefield, knew a thing or two about outdoor emergencies. Between him and his two sons, Jimmy and Kyle, they were able to rig up a makeshift stretcher from two long branches and their jackets. After placing Ethan on the stretcher, they started down the trail, rotating turns carrying the stretcher to avoid fatigue.
Liz wanted to help but barely had the energy to make it down the trail. It was Monday afternoon, almost a full day after she'd cast the spell to contact Orpheus. She wondered if Ethan had been there the whole time and, for that matter, when Caleb had disappeared. It was possible something had happened immediately after the spell went awry, but it was just as possible that Caleb had managed something else afterward.
As she walked behind Ethan's stretcher, however, she couldn't shake the feeling that she'd somehow screwed up the spell. The spell wasn't even supposed to be able to do this; as far as she understood, the spell was a matter of divination. They needed answers but instead ended up with the unconscious body of someone who was supposed to be dead.
Thankfully, the three men helping her and Ethan didn't seem interested in speaking much. They occasionally asked her if she was doing all right and if they needed to slow down, but otherwise kept to themselves.
About a mile from the trailhead, Kyle managed to get cell service and dialed 9-11. They agreed to meet the paramedics at the trailhead and the trek continued. While they walked, Liz gave Mrs. Pallet's number to Kyle as well, and Ethan's mother was then informed of her son's condition and told where to meet them. Despite still having a mile to hike with a body to carry, the group arrived at the parking lot several minutes before the paramedics arrived. Liz moved off to find shade as the others waited and tended Ethan, making sure he stayed stable until help came.
When the paramedics did arrive, Liz was mostly left alone until they were done assessing Ethan's situation. Only then did they come to check on her. A woman with a clipboard approached and introduced herself as Janet. She had an air of self-importance about her, which normally would have put Liz on guard if not for her being too tired to care.
"So, you two were hiking and you got lost?" Janet asked for what seemed like the twentieth time. It had only been the second, but Liz wanted this over with as quickly as possible. She saw a car approaching from down the canyon road and recognized it instantly as Ethan's mother's car. Janet's questions were one thing, but Mrs. Pallet's would be a thousand times worse.
"Yeah, I guess we got dehydrated or something," Liz said, looking down at her lap. She had the distinct feeling of something crawling on her and noticed a beetle had climbed onto her leg. With the back of her hand she gently brushed if off into the grass.
"And the drugs?" Janet asked. "Did Ethan take any drugs?"
"That was all me," Liz replied, growing steadily more tired with each word. She hated this, hated everything about it, all except Ethan being back, anyway. If he was back. "He didn't take anything."
"Don't lie to me now," Janet warned, "this is really important."
Liz shook her head but avoided Janet's eyes. "I promise, he didn't take anything. Not that I'm aware of, anyway."
"Okay," Janet replied, finally satisfied with her answers as she jotted something down on her clipboard. "Thank you for your time, miss."
Janet turned to go and Liz said quickly, "Are you taking him to the hospital?"
"Yes," Janet said. She caught the concern in Liz's eyes, and for the first time since her arrival, her features softened. She tucked the clipboard under her arm and looked down at Liz with an encouraging smile. "He hasn't regained consciousness yet. There's not much more we can do until we get him there."
Liz nodded. "Thank you. He's all I have left. I hope he's all right."
"I'm sure he will be," Janet replied. "He just appears to be sleeping, like he hasn't slept in days. I'm sure he'll wake up soon."
"We had a death in the family recently," Liz said. "He lost his best friend. I'm sure that could be why he hasn't slept."
Janet nodded slowly and her face became more sympathetic. "Yeah, that makes sense. I'm sorry about your loss."
As Janet left, Liz looked back up to the gathering on the other side of the parking lot. Mrs. Pallet was standing off to the side, no longer engaging the paramedics in conversation but rather watching her son with worry. The paramedics were in the process of moving him from the makeshift stretcher to the one they'd brought with them, prepping him for the trip to the hospital.
Liz sighed and stood on shaky legs, knowing she had to approach Mrs. Pallet and face the music. There would be questions, certainly, and though the long hike down from the mountain had given her plenty of time to think about what to say, her grief over losing Caleb kept her mind wandering. She'd expected to have Caleb with her to explain Ethan's return, once they managed to pull it off. But now Liz had to see this through alone.
Mrs. Pallet turned toward Liz with a neutral look as she approached. "Mrs. Pallet, I can explain-" Liz began, but Mrs. Pallet stuck her hand up to stop Liz from going on. Liz braced herself for a tirade, to be accused of heinous witchcraft and called Satanspawn or some other nonsense.
Instead Mrs. Pallet said, "About the drugs? Elizabeth, I'm not going to judge you. It's okay. There were some moments in my own past when I turned to such things for comfort during trying times. It's understandable with Caleb..." Liz winced at the mention of Caleb's name, then her eyes widened with shock as she stared at Mrs. Pallet, wondering how she knew anything about Caleb. "Oh, I'm so sorry. I can't believe I said that, I'm just worried about Ethan," Mrs. Pallet added, returning her attention to her son.
"He's going to be okay," Liz said neutrally, trying to process where Mrs. Pallet was going with this.
"Yes, I..." Mrs. Pallet sighed and looked at Liz with a hopeful smile which didn't quite reach her eyes. "I hope so. He's been so distraught after Caleb passed away."
Somehow she already knew Caleb was dead, though Liz had no idea how. Had the spell rewritten history to make it so Caleb had died instead of Ethan? Did that mean Ethan would think the same thing as his mother did when he woke up, or would he remember? Either way, Liz knew now that she had to play along, or people would think she was crazy.
"We both have," Liz said, thinking quickly of how to lie her way through this. "I thought, you know, I thought a day up in the mountains might be good for us both. Return to nature. I guess I didn't handle it very well."
"Aw..." Mrs. Pallet said, wrapping an arm around Liz's shoulders and pulling her into a sideways hug. "You come by and see me if you need any help with anything."
"You don't sound as worried as I'd expect," Liz said as she pulled away from the embrace, feeling more awkward than ever but not wanting to show it.
"Like you said," Mrs. Pallet replied, "Ethan's going to be okay. I think it could've been much worse." Her smile had a little more warmth now as she convinced herself with her words. "The paramedics checked him out. He's fine, he's just... unconscious. Sleeping, really. I'm glad he didn't take any drugs."
"Wha-" came Ethan's groggy cry, drawing Mrs. Pallet and Liz's attention instantly. "Where am... what?"
"Mrs. Pallet, he's awake," Janet called over to them.
Liz and Mrs. Pallet rushed together to Ethan's side, both looking down at him with a mixture of concern and hope. Mrs. Pallet reached down and stroked her son's cheek, brushing the hair away from his face. "Ethan, are you okay, honey?"
"Mom?" Ethan asked, trying to sit up. He immediately crashed back down into the stretcher. "I feel... I feel dizzy," he said and then his head rolled to the side, consciousness deserting him once more.
Mrs. Pallet looked at Janet for answers, as she seemed to be the paramedic in charge. After conferring quietly with the other two paramedics, Janet stood to join them and said, "He may still be delirious but his vitals are good. I think we can wait here for a moment, but since he's woken up once and recognized you, I think we could probably send him home with you, Mrs. Pallet." Janet paused and leaned forward, whispering, "Normally I shouldn't do that, but I'm ninety-nine-percent certain he's okay, and I want to save you the bill for the ambulance ride. I suggest you get him checked out a bit later, after he's fully awake. Just to make sure he's okay. We'll get him securely in the back of your car. Do you have anything to make him comfortable? A blanket or something?"
"Yes, there's an emergency blanket in the trunk," Mrs. Pallet said. "I'll go get it, and we can use my jacket for a pillow." She smiled lovingly at her son and said, "It was just good to hear his voice. I know this probably sounds funny, but it feels like it's been forever since I've heard it."
Janet smiled and said, "Have a good day, ma'am. We'll meet you at your car in a moment, just let us finish the IV. He was dehydrated, which is certainly contributing to his condition, but I think he'll be feeling a lot better by the end of the day."
Mrs. Pallet turned to walk to her car and prepare the back seat for Ethan, but she paused and looked back, nodding for Liz to join her. Liz shakily fell into step beside her as Mrs. Pallet took her arm. "Elizabeth, I know you'll probably want to see him later to check up on him. How about I have him give you a call when he's up and his father and I have had a chance to speak with him?"
"Yes, of course," Liz said carefully. Then with a bit more enthusiasm she said, "That would be... that'd be great." She glanced back at Ethan and felt her eyes mist over. Ethan was going to be okay, and, for the first time since she woke up, she believed it.
"Elizabeth?" Mrs. Pallet said.
"The pain will pass," Mrs. Pallet said, "I'm sure of it. It's only been a couple of weeks since..."
Liz sniffled and looked down at her feet, not wanting Mrs. Pallet to see the lie in her eyes as she said, "I guess I was just worried I was going to lose them both."
Mrs. Pallet hugged her again and then said, "Take care."
They parted ways so they could return to their separate vehicles. Liz cast one more glance back at Ethan, seeing he was stirring again, though he appeared to be as delirious as ever. She wanted to go to him, wanted to say something, but she didn't know exactly what to do.
She climbed into the driver's seat, pulling her keys from her pocket, but her first attempt at inserting them into the ignition failed horribly. She didn't bother trying again; she just crashed into the steering wheel, her body racked with sobs. The tears would not stop coming, not until the paramedics, Ethan's mother, and Mr. Landing and his sons had all left the parking lot. Only when she was truly alone could she stop and look back up at the mountain, her face contorted in agony.
She hoped her prayer would reach The Underworld as she said, "Oh god, Caleb! What have we done!?"
Darkness enveloped Caleb, although he noticed a light ahead. It seemed to be calling to him in some primal sense, drawing him forward. As he approached, however, he realized there were more lights in every direction, like stars in the night sky. There were even some beneath and above him, and each one called to him the same way.
He felt something solid beneath his feet, but when he looked down he saw nothing but the sea of blackness filled with stars. He didn't know what to make of it, or, more appropriately, he didn't want to make anything of it; he just wanted to get out of his current situation. He'd expected to see Orpheus as he entered the cave, for hadn't the musician promised to be his guide? Didn't he call himself a psychopomp and say that meant it was his duty to guide souls in the afterlife?
"State your name, please," a gravelly female voice said from somewhere and everywhere all at once. Caleb looked around and saw a peculiar sight where there had been nothing but stars before. A large reception desk sat in the dark, a single, boxy computer sat on the desk, with several filing cabinets erected behind it. A woman sat at the computer, her curly, wispy, grey hair framed a wrinkled face. The woman peered over the top of her glasses as she stared at the computer screen, typing away.
"Who are you?" Caleb asked.
"That is not your name," the receptionist said with obvious disdain as she turned to look at Caleb, pushing her glasses up her nose to see him more clearly. "No one has that name. Unless it's spelled something like H-U-G-H-A-R-Y-U. Is that how you spell your name? In that case, can I call you Hugh?"
Caleb gritted his teeth in irritation. First he'd had to deal with a cryptic musician, and now he faced a smart-ass receptionist. He was getting nowhere quickly. "I didn't come here to be treated like-"
"Then why did you come?" the receptionist interrupted. "You're dead, you're not..." She paused and leaned over the desk, staring at Caleb critically. "You're not quite dead... Interesting. Well, that does change things, doesn't it? How did you get here? You should be out in the living world, enjoying your life."
"Who are you?" Caleb asked again, hoping her new realization would get him some answers.
"But still you remain uncooperative," the receptionist said, sighing. She returned her attention to the computer. "State your name, please."
Caleb groaned and replied, "Caleb."
"That's it?" the receptionist asked. "That's how you want to be remembered for all eternity in my histories? There's plenty of Caleb's. Why couldn't you choose something more interesting?"
Caleb tapped his foot impatiently, crossing his arms over his chest as he growled, "Are you going to answer my questions or not?"
"He's an annoying one, isn't he?" Orpheus asked as he stepped out of the darkness to lean against the receptionist's desk, smiling at her. She gave him an exasperated glare in return.
"Orpheus. What are you doing outside of Elysium?" the receptionist asked.
"Caleb and his witch friend summoned me, so I'm here," Orpheus said with a little bow and a flourish.
The receptionist grunted in response. "How'd you get past me?"
"Wouldn't you like to know, Warden?" Orpheus said, grinning mischievously. "Funnily enough, I think I'll keep that part to myself."
"Pity," the receptionist replied. "There's already far too many people sneaking out of the afterlife. It's enough to make one believe the afterlife doesn't exist."
"You guard the gates to the afterlife for worlds without number. How many have gotten past you in the last thousand years. A handful?" Orpheus asked skeptically.
"I'm talking about the reincarnates," the receptionist growled. "They keep getting out, and then they come back and I have to record a new name for them. When I took this secretarial position I never knew I would have to dig up my archived files every time someone dies."
Orpheus snorted. "Everyone reincarnates eventually. You knew that before you took the job."
"Everyone?" the receptionist asked. She smiled hopefully at Orpheus and said, "Will I be seeing less of you soon, then?"
Orpheus glared at her for several seconds, then slapped the top of the desk and looked at Caleb. "Caleb, have you told this bitch your name, yet?"
"Yeah..." Caleb said, shaking his head at the weird bantering between these two denizens of the Underworld. He didn't understand, and didn't want to, he just wanted to find Ethan so he could rescue him. But then he realized the answer to what was going on might be exactly what was needed to get him what he desired. "Someone want to tell me what the fuck is going on?"
"You're at the entrance to The Underworld," the receptionist said, speaking in the monotone manner of an employee at the Department of Motor Vehicles. "Ahead of you lies the path to your afterlife. You see that light?"
"Which one?" Caleb asked, staring at her stupidly.
The receptionist dropped the DMV act with an expletive. "Shit. Atheist or Agnostic?"
Orpheus cackled with delight as the receptionist stared at him with barely contained rage. Caleb, on the other hand, was simply confused. "Excuse me?" He asked.
"Are you an atheist or an agnostic?" the receptionist asked.
"Um..." Caleb thought for a moment. "I'm agnostic, I guess."
"Oh, so you just see lots of lights then..." the receptionist said. "at least that's easier."
"Yeah, that's kind of why I asked which one you wanted me to look at," Caleb replied, giving her an impatient glare.
"Like I said, Warden, he's annoying," Orpheus said. He flashed her another wicked grin and added, "But I knew you'd love him."
The receptionist swiveled back to Orpheus to glare at him. "Bite me, Orpheus."
Caleb sighed and said, "Look, I'm not trying to get to my afterlife, I'm trying to get to, well... to Ethan's afterlife?"
"That won't get you what you want," Orpheus said.
"It won't?" Caleb asked, to which Orpheus responded by shaking his head solemnly. Realizing Orpheus would be of little help here, Caleb turned to the receptionist and said, "We're seeking The One Who Rules Beneath. I'm here to demand that he, or she, release my best friend's soul."
The receptionist raised her eyebrows. "So?"
"Excuse me?" Caleb asked.
"What does that have to do with me?" She asked. "Listen, Ca-leb," she accentuated both syllables and then raised her hands. The darkness receded for a moment as if in response, and suddenly there were thousands upon thousands of people standing near him. All of the people were wandering around and barely avoiding each other. Some were standing at the reception desk, berating the receptionist with questions, and some were opening doorways in the distance and disappearing from view. All at once the darkness returned, and Caleb stood alone with Orpheus before the receptionist. "At this very moment I am handling thousands of people who all need to be pointed to the right tunnel ending in the right light to get them to the right afterlife. You're easy. Pick a light and walk toward it. They'll all get you to where you want to go if you're seeking The Ruler."
"Any of them?" Caleb asked.
"Don't worry, she makes it sound simpler than it is," Orpheus said. "Are you done with him? He told you his name."
"Yes, just..." the receptionist shook her head. "Orpheus, please stop pretending we're friends."
Orpheus patted the desk consolingly. "I'll bring you coffee later."
"Yes, please. Two sugars," the receptionist said absently.
Orpheus took a step away from the desk and nodded behind him toward one of the lights. "This way, Caleb."
Caleb moved to follow Orpheus as the desk suddenly vanished. They appeared to be in a tunnel, heading toward a speck of light which no longer seemed like a star, but a doorway in the distance. He hoped answers lay on the other side of the door, because he was impatient at not having any.
But at least he was now moving forward, and that made him relax a little bit. He'd been at this for less than an hour by his reckoning but felt a distinct sense of urgency. The quicker he brought Ethan back to the land of the living, the quicker Caleb would feel better.
Walking in silence, however, did not seem like the best way to make time go any faster, and so he decided to have a conversation with Orpheus. "So, I have to say, I had no idea what I would find in the afterlife, but a reception desk with an overworked secretary wasn't what I expected."
"A part of you did," Orpheus replied.
"What are you talking about?" Caleb asked.
"A part of you expected it, I mean," Orpheus explained. "Otherwise, she wouldn't have appeared that way to you."
"How would she have appeared?" Caleb asked. He considered the question she'd asked him and realized it hinted at her identity. "Is she like Saint Peter?"
Orpheus shrugged. "Sort of, and I suppose some Christians might see her that way. Sometimes people don't appear before her at all, they just end up in a dark tunnel heading toward a bright light and she asks their name. They say their name and then enter the bright light and BAM!"
"What?" Caleb asked.
Orpheus grinned. "They're in the afterlife."
"And then what?" Caleb asked, expecting something more dramatic.
"Well," Orpheus said, "the afterlife sort of becomes exactly what you make of it. It's a little complicated, though really quite simple."
"So tell me."
"The afterlife is however you perceive it. It's also how everyone else perceives it. It's both at once yet also neither, and always will be. I may walk through the Elysium fields, cross the river Acheron, and then play music for Cerberus, but that doesn't mean everyone does," Orpheus explained. "A Christian might enter through the pearly gates at the same place I met Charon. They might spend time with their loved ones in 'Heaven' where I'd have Elysium, and, if they have any level of guilt or negative emotions, there's likely going to be some measure of hell for them as well."
"You just mentioned 'Heaven'," Caleb said. "Doesn't that mean there is an above? I thought you said you don't know."
Orpheus shrugged. "I imagine people who firmly believe in such things might ascend instead of descend, but I'm Greek. I live beneath. It's all Greek to me." Orpheus grinned at his double entendre.
"Okay, two questions," Caleb said, "First, if the afterlife is entirely determined by your imagination, why don't more people just imagine the perfect place to be?"
"Two problems with that. First, they don't know the secret, and, besides, how exactly are you going to tell them?" Orpheus laughed incredulously. "You're currently here, and not out there with them, so communicating with the rest of the living is pretty much out. And, should you make it back, you're going to tell them what, that all their fondest dreams will come true when they die? I'm sure they'll all believe you. People will be lining up to kill themselves just to make it happen."
Caleb grunted. "You don't have to be an asshole."
"Actually, I sort of do. It's my nature," Orpheus said pointedly.
"Fine. What's the other problem?"
"It's not imagination which creates the reality, it's belief. It's will."
"Like my friend Liz says, 'will' is a fundamental of magic," Caleb reasoned.
"Probably. Is she the one who sent you here?"
"Then yes, will," Orpheus explained. "Or faith. Or whatever you want to call it. The principle by which one exerts mind over matter. So, if you don't devoutly believe there's something waiting for you..." He trailed off, gesturing for Caleb to finish the thought.
"There won't be," Caleb said, nodding in understanding.
"You've got it," Orpheus replied.
"So, what happens to atheists then?"
"Well, depends on if they're really atheists or not. You clearly aren't, since you saw something. Most people really aren't. I think most atheists are not people who devoutly believe there is nothing after death. I think most atheists are people who believe that it is an unknowable thing until it can be experienced," Orpheus paused and shrugged, "at least, deep down within their souls I think that's the case."
Caleb nodded. "So, what happens to them?"
"Some probably wander in the darkness for a while until seeking an answer or deciding to not exist. Some probably see a light, some hidden belief they didn't know they had. Some probably see lots of lights, like you did-the potential realities that agnostics, pantheists, and a few select others see. Some probably are immediately reborn, their consciousness fading into the nothingness they devoutly believe in, which to me means they drowned in the waters of the River Lethe, and they get reborn somewhere."
"Got it. So, my second question..." Caleb shook his head. "No, I have a follow-up question first."
"Knock yourself out."
"So, everyone reincarnates? That's what you said to The Warden."
"Eventually, yes," Orpheus confirmed. "Matter cannot be created nor destroyed, or so the laws say... it's all about transference. The matter of the soul and consciousness may exist on a slightly different plane, but they can't be destroyed, either. So, once they're done here, they move on."
"Is it possible that Ethan's already reincarnated?" Caleb asked.
"I doubt it, but yes," Orpheus replied solemnly. "Was that your second question?"
"No," Caleb said firmly. "My second question is this: how are you able to move freely through the afterlife? Shouldn't you be stuck in your Greek version?"
"Hah!" Orpheus laughed heartily, and clapped Caleb on the shoulder with enough force to send him stumbling forward. He caught himself and glared back at Orpheus, but the musician was already moving on with his explanation. "There's a classification of people whom the Warden hates more than anyone else, and I happen to belong to that classification."
"Assholes?" Caleb asked acidly, rubbing his sore shoulder.
"Close. Nihilists," Orpheus replied with a knowing smirk. "I can't say I always was one, but once you've taken a journey into the Underworld and understand how it all works, it's really hard not to see things with a blanket of pure skepticism."
"So, you have a supreme lack of belief?" Caleb asked. "Then how does anything function down here for you if it's run by belief?"
"On the contrary, I have the devout belief that the world is entirely what I perceive it to be, that I am the God of my story, and thus I'm the only one who can decide my fate. I make the world my slave. Or at least, this world," Orpheus replied.
Caleb considered Orpheus' response for a moment before voicing his next thought. The answer appeared to contain a great deal of wisdom, though at the same time, a hint of sarcastic bitterness ran through it as well, as if Orpheus didn't truly believe that his nihilism brought him any degree of happiness. He didn't see the world as real, so it was just a toy, but that didn't mean it fulfilled him. "That thing you were saying about everything all being a dream... that's how you see it, isn't it?"
"Something like that, yeah," Orpheus said, shrugging. "Although, there is another reason I'm able to move this freely at the moment."
"And that is?" Caleb asked.
"You and your friend called to me specifically. Usually they call Hermes if they're invoking Greek gods..." Orpheus replied, his smirk returned. "He's the one who brings souls to the Underworld. On occasion they call me, and that means I get to act as guide."
"Get to?" Caleb asked.
"Yep. I may be an asshole, but interacting with the world of the living is the most fun I ever get to have," Orpheus said, bowing humbly. It was the first genuine emotion Caleb had witnessed in him, and he found himself wanting to know more about the psychopomp. "Thank you for the opportunity to serve as your guide."
"You actually sound sincere," Caleb observed.
"I usually am when it comes to matters of life," Orpheus replied.
They had reached the doorway, light shining brightly through it, enveloping them in its glow. Caleb wanted to reach out and touch the light, but he feared what would happen, especially since he couldn't make out anything beyond it.
"Where to next?" He asked shakily.
"Touch the light and find out," Orpheus said with a shrug. "I don't know exactly what you'll see, but in case you didn't notice-" Caleb reached out and touched the light and it exploded around them, cutting off Orpheus' next words. Covering his eyes against the glare, it took a moment for Caleb's eyes to adjust, but he realized instead of darkness, daylight illuminated everything.
They now stood on a rocky hillside, not unlike the terrain near the mouth of Cherry Creek Cave. A forest rose up in all directions except directly ahead, where a rocky trail descended the mountain toward a river with dark green water.
"When did we get outside?" Caleb asked. "Am I back in the world of the living?"
Orpheus pointed down the hillside. "Hardly."
Where Orpheus pointed stood a shining, golden gate at a causeway which crossed the river. A tollbooth stood next to it, a single guard in a brown forest service uniform sat inside, reading a magazine. He seemed unaware of his unusual placement, so far away from any part of civilization.
Beyond the causeway, on the other side of the river, Caleb could see the hints of a grand city shrouded in mists, the buildings brightly lit against the gloomy fog. It appeared welcoming, despite the obscuring clouds, and he knew he wanted to go there, that he belonged there.
"What's that?" He asked, pointing at the city.
"With any luck," Orpheus said, "It's where you'll find Ethan."
It was noon on Tuesday morning when Liz's phone rang. She'd been hoping Ethan would call, and Ethan's name on the screen prompted her to answer before the second ring. "Ethan?" she asked without saying hello.
"Sorry, no, it's Mrs. Pallet," Ethan's mother answered. "How are you today, Elizabeth?"
"I'm fine, thank you," Liz replied, taking a deep breath to calm her nerves. "You're calling from Ethan's phone?"
"Yes. I thought that'd be simpler than looking up your number and calling you from mine, and he said I could."
"Makes sense. What can I do for you?"
Liz could hear the hesitation in Mrs. Pallet's voice. "I'm hoping you'll come by and see Ethan."
"Is he lucid?" Liz asked.
"Yes. He's doing much better, actually," Mrs. Pallet confirmed. "All except for one thing. He keeps asking about Caleb and I don't know what to tell him."
Maybe he remembers, Liz thought, hoping that wouldn't be the case. Then she'd have to explain what she'd done, or more appropriately what she and Caleb had done, and she didn't know what kind of reaction to expect from Ethan. "What have you said so far?" she asked.
"What can I tell him? That Caleb's dead... that I'm sorry... that..." Mrs. Pallet stopped to catch up with her emotions, which threatened to spill out into her words even more than they already had. "I just thought, maybe, since the three of you were so close. It's like he has no memory of the last two weeks, which I guess we were all in a sort of haze, but..." She trailed off, uncertain.
"Definitely understand," Liz replied. "I'll be right over."
Liz was normally a careful driver, but today she sped the whole way. She ran stop signs where she could, and only stopped briefly to see if there were any cops at the one traffic signal on the way to Ethan's house. Even though she wasn't the least bit eager to explain herself, she wanted to see Ethan alive and well; she hoped that, at least, would bring some solace to her.
She parked along the curb and got out of the car, and she could see Ethan through the kitchen window, talking to someone. He looked so vibrant it was as if he'd never died, and, even better, he was smiling. It didn't take her more than a second to realize, however, that the smile didn't touch his eyes. Something was still very wrong.
As she walked past the driveway she saw Ethan's dad sitting in his car, idling the engine. He waved to her and smiled; Liz responded in kind. She walked to the front porch and knocked on the door. Mrs. Pallet answered, ushering her inside. "Ethan, honey, Elizabeth is here to see you."
"Okay, send her in," Ethan called pleasantly from the kitchen.
Liz walked inside to see Ethan standing next to the counter, pouring a glass of water from a large pitcher. He appeared well, dressed in his typical T-shirt and jeans, though today he wore black ones instead of blue. "Hi, Ethan," Liz said.
"Hey, Liz," Ethan said, smiling. "Thanks for coming. I guess we had quite the adventure yesterday, didn't we?"
Mrs. Pallet swooped into the kitchen and wrapped her son in a quick hug, kissing his forehead and then stepping away. She looked down at him and said, "Your father and I are going out for a little bit, would you like to have some money for pizza? You don't have to worry about your brother and sister, they're out with their friends and I bet they'll be gone all day."
Ethan nodded. "Sounds good. Thanks, Mom."
Mrs. Pallet pulled a twenty from her wallet and put it in Ethan's outstretched palm. "Here. Don't forget to tip."
"I won't," Ethan said.
Liz followed Mrs. Pallet's movements as she walked out the front door. The sounds of a car door preceded the parents' exit, leaving Liz alone with Ethan. Liz turned around at the sound of a drawer opening and started to ask, "So, how are you-" but she stopped short as she saw the steak knife Ethan had pulled from the drawer and laid against his wrist. "Ethan, what are you doing!?"
"Are you going to tell me why I shouldn't do this?" Ethan asked with a blank expression, though his eyes were filled with wrath. He was serious, Liz knew it in her soul. She was going to watch him die again if she didn't think of a way to diffuse the situation.
"Ethan..." Liz said, searching for words.
"The last thing I remember was Caleb kissing me as painkillers and blood loss knocked me unconscious," Ethan said, pain oozing out into every word. Liz would've expected Ethan to be shaking from the amount of emotion he put behind every word, but he held perfectly still, the knifepoint poised unmoving against his wrist. "I know you know, I can see it in your eyes, Liz. Why is everyone telling me that Caleb's dead when it should be me?"
"I can explain," Liz said, eyeing the knife cautiously.
"You'd better," Ethan said, "or you'll get to explain to my parents why I killed myself. Again. I assume you did it the last time, too."
Liz shook her head. "Not exactly. Your mother read your journal and figured it out on her own."
"So that's why..." Ethan sighed deeply. He shook his head and muttered, "Interesting, she remembers reading my journal but doesn't remember me dying. Little twists of fate, I guess."
"You remember everything?" Liz asked. "Do you remember anything from the other side?"
Ethan smirked. "No. Like I said, the last thing I remember is Caleb kissing me."
"We... we performed a spell to bring you back. Something happened," Liz replied sheepishly.
"Obviously, it worked," Ethan said, pulling the knife away for a moment to gesture down at his body. "So, where's Caleb?"
"I don't know. He... there was a moment, during the trance, when I thought I saw him," Liz paused, not wanting to mention that she saw Caleb put a knife to his chest. "But then... then you were there."
"He gave himself up for me?" Ethan asked, his blank expression fading completely as horror overtook him.
"I guess so?" Liz said, not sure what else to say. "I heard something, after. Something about 'a life for a life'."
"Then I guess..." Ethan lowered the knife and threw it back inside the drawer. "I guess I can't go through with this. That'd mean his sacrifice would be for nothing, right?" He shook his head ruefully and turned his wrathful eyes on Liz once more. "Liz, how could you let him do that?"
"It wasn't supposed to..." Liz choked back a sob, but seeing Ethan's need for more information, she continued despite emotion threatening to destroy her ability to speak. "I-it was just supposed to be a divination spell. W-we w-were looking for a w-way to bring you back. I-I d-didn't think this w-would happen! I already lost you, do you think I wanted to lose him, too? God, no one realizes I'm the only one who lost both my friends! And now you hate me, and-"
To Liz's surprise, Ethan crossed the distance between them and wrapped her in a hug, crushing her against him. He held her for a minute, giving her strength as she desperately clung to him. "I forgive you," Ethan whispered, his own voice cracking with emotion, "but I need something from you."
"What?" Liz asked, whispering back.
"We're going to bring Caleb back, but this time, you're going to do it right."
Liz pulled back to consider Ethan's eyes, seeing determination through his tears. But she couldn't respond to that emotion, not this time, not after what happened to Caleb. "Ethan..."
"He deserves to be alive," Ethan said resolutely.
"Ethan, I already screwed up once and lost Caleb. I don't think I can," Liz explained, shaking her head firmly.
"Can't or won't?" Ethan asked angrily.
Liz stepped away and stared out the window, trying to figure out how to explain it to Ethan. She wanted to help, she really did, but she knew the truth, and it was as plain to her as it would be to any practitioner of magic. "Can't," she said at last. "Magic requires will, and I don't have it. Not for this. I can't risk it. I can't risk losing you again, too. My heart won't let me. Even if I tried, the spell work wouldn't possibly succeed. I doubt I could manage the pure emotion required either. I'd be too scared to pull it off."
"Fine. I guess we have one option then," Ethan said.
"If you say it's 'can't' and not 'won't'," Ethan said slowly, reasoning out his thought process as he spoke, "then I guess you'll just have to teach me how to do it, and then I'll do the spell."
"Ethan, you're completely untrained, and-" Liz protested.
"Then you'll fucking train me!" Ethan screamed at her.
"Ethan..." Liz said consolingly.
"Liz," Ethan said, gripping her arms as fresh tears rolled down his cheeks. His eyes were filled with desperation. "Please. I beg of you. Please. I can't kill myself because it would nullify Caleb's sacrifice, but I can't live without him, either. I can't live like this, don't you understand? Please, I need this!"
Liz took three seconds to decide. One to catch her breath, a second to file her emotions away, and a third to respond to Ethan's needs. She knew the truth of it now, and it was simple. "Okay," she said firmly. "Then we start tonight."
Ethan's eyes widened as he hugged her again, just as tightly as before. "That was a much quicker turnaround than I expected," he said, laughing. It was somewhere between hysterics and delight, but Liz loved the sound of it anyway and embraced Ethan back.
"I'm a pragmatist, Ethan," Liz explained as she ran her fingers through his hair. "I can see you're not going to be dissuaded, and I know what can happen if you go seeking magic without knowing what you're doing. You could end up dead. Again. If you're going to chase death either way, I'd rather help you try to avoid it than leave you to face it alone. We start tonight, and you're going to do exactly what I say."
Ethan pulled back and gave her a critical look. "I'm to be taking orders, am I?"
"Yes, and you will only attempt the spell when I say you're ready," Liz said firmly.
Ethan's response had twice the determination her statement had. "But I will attempt it."
"Yes. I won't stop you," Liz replied. "Once you're ready."
Ethan stepped back and extended his hand to Liz. She took it and shook. "Deal," Ethan said.
"Well then, warlock, your first task is simple," Liz said, taking a step away from Ethan. She paced the kitchen, wrists crossed behind her back, looking the part of the teacher about to instruct her student in discipline.
"What's that?" Ethan asked.
Liz paused and reached to the wall, pulling the cordless phone from its receiver and tossing it to Ethan. "Order the fucking pizza. I'm starving and magic requires energy."
Ethan laughed, and this time there was nothing but delight in the sound. Liz wanted to sing. "You got it, sensei," Ethan said. "Magic requires energy. Anything else I should know?"
"Yeah," Liz said, "If you order mushrooms, I'll make your life hell."
Caleb wasn't convinced of what he was seeing until he reached the bottom of the path and started walking toward the small tollbooth. The guard inside the shack looked up from his magazine, a boating magazine of all things, briefly acknowledged their approach with a glance, then returned to reading.
"A toll booth," Caleb said, pulling up short. "There's a tollbooth in the afterlife."
Orpheus stopped next to him and shrugged. "For you apparently. You have an interesting way of seeing things, I suppose."
"What's the purpose of the tollbooth?" Caleb asked. "Why would the afterlife need one?"
"To open the gate, I imagine," Orpheus said, pointing ahead at the large, golden structure blocking access to the causeway. "You do see the gate, don't you? I mean, it's right in front of you."
"Yes; I see the gate," Caleb replied dryly.
Orpheus raised his hands defensively. "Hey, I can only assume. Maybe you're really blind."
Caleb glowered at Orpheus and replied, "You know, you really are an asshole."
"I get that a lot," Orpheus said. "Don't know why. I'm just doing my job."
"You could do it with less sass."
"What would be the fun in that?"
"I don't know, maybe a bit more professionalism would make people like you more."
"You're just snappy because we haven't found your lover yet," Orpheus said.
"Yeah," Caleb replied, gesturing angrily at the tollbooth and gate, "and now there's a tollbooth in the way."
"Have you considered addressing that issue?" Orpheus asked. "I don't think it's going anywhere while you stand there bitchin' about it."
Caleb groaned and approached the guard. The brown forest service uniform came with a nametag which indicated the guard's name was 'Charlie'. "Excuse me, sir?" Caleb asked.
Charlie folded the magazine carefully as he placed it next to a clipboard on the sill of his booth. "Hello. May I help you?" he asked pleasantly. Too pleasantly, like he'd done this too many times before.
"I need to get on the other side of the gate," Caleb said. "It's rather urgent."
"You've got to pay," Charlie replied. "It's the law."
Caleb reached to his right-side pocket on his backpack and pulled out his wallet. He opened it up and saw how much cash he had. There wasn't much, but hopefully it would be enough. "I have some money. How much is it?"
"Does money mean anything to you?" Charlie asked.
Caleb shook his head and answered honestly. "Not particularly."
"Then keep it." Charlie picked up his magazine with a smile that belonged to everyone who had ever worked in Customer Service. "It has no use to me if it has no use to you." He opened the magazine and started reading again, ignoring Caleb entirely.
Caleb stepped back and rejoined Orpheus. "What am I supposed to do, Orpheus?"
"Why don't you ask the nice man with the Forest Service, honey?" Orpheus said distractedly. He fingered the guitar on his back, as if considering stopping to play some jaunty tune while he waited. This only made Caleb's glare intensify.
"Some guide you are," Caleb spat. He walked back to the tollbooth and addressed Charlie again. "What can I give you to get past?"
Charlie carefully lowered the magazine, folded it shut and set it aside once more before answering, clasping his hands together like he worked at a helpdesk. "Something you prize. Something you value. Something you care about."
"I don't have anything like that," Caleb said, shaking his head.
Charlie's eyebrows raised. "Didn't they bury you with something like that? Usually people do."
"They didn't exactly bury me," Caleb replied.
"Oh. Well that seems like a bit of a problem, doesn't it?" Charlie said pleasantly. "Let me know if there's anything else I can help you with." He started to reach for the magazine again but stopped short when Caleb addressed him again.
"At least tell me what lies beyond the gate," Caleb said.
"The River Acheron," Charlie replied, gesturing behind him with his open hand toward the causeway. "We built a causeway when I got sick of running the ferry. The gate serves just as well."
Caleb nodded in new understanding. "You're Charon."
"I have been known by that name," Charlie said, bowing in acceptance of the title. "You recognize me for what I am, don't you? You must know you're dead. Which means you must have come here alive." He didn't sound surprised, more like he was simply observing the fact for what it was. He regarded Caleb curiously, but otherwise asked no further questions.
"Sounds about right," Caleb replied. "I'm here to seek an audience with The Ruler. I am trying to win back the soul of my friend."
Charlie nodded. "A noble quest, but not adequate payment to get through the gate. I tell you what, I'm able to let people in when I have a lull, if you can wait awhile."
This was welcome news, and Caleb's eyes lit up with hope. "How long?"
"Approximately a century, give or take a year," Charlie said, smiling as if he were being helpful. Caleb groaned and stepped away from the booth, and once again returned to Orpheus. He didn't know what to do now, and what made it worse was Orpheus grinning at him like he was an idiot.
"Give him the knife, you dolt," Orpheus said, laughing.
Caleb looked at Orpheus in surprise. "What?"
"The knife," Orpheus said, pointing to it on Caleb's hip. "It's the one thing that means something to you. Give him the knife."
Caleb rested his hand against the knife. He didn't want to part with it, as it made him feel secure. Not physical security, but a safety that came with a sure connection to Ethan. Still, he didn't want Orpheus to know that was the reason. "But what if I need to protect myself?" Caleb asked.
"You think a single knife is going to be much protection from a danger found in the Land of the Dead?" Orpheus asked incredulously. "You're lying to yourself. That's not why you want to give it up. You don't want to give it up because it reminds you of your lover."
It didn't matter anymore, not if Orpheus could see right through him. He gave up denying the reason for keeping it and came clean. "I don't want to forget him," he whispered. "It's all I have to remember him by."
"Then don't drink the waters of Lethe," Orpheus replied. "If you avoid that, you'll be fine."
"Lethe?" Caleb asked. "You mentioned that before, with The Warden."
"I'll explain when we reach the other side of the Acheron," Orpheus said. "Now go, give him the knife. It'll be all right."
Caleb nodded then turned and hesitated. The knife certainly meant more than he wanted to show. It connected him to Ethan in ways he couldn't entirely define. But the longer he held onto the thought, the more he felt the weight of the backpack on his shoulders. He still had the journal, a piece of Ethan's past to connect them to each other. Remembering Ethan wouldn't be much of a struggle anyway, Caleb realized bitterly. The knife was just an object.
He nodded again, firming up his resolve, and unhooked the knife sheath from his belt. He returned to Charlie, who once again put his magazine aside in careful order. Caleb handed the knife up to Charlie and said, "Here. It's... it's all I have."
Charlie took the knife carefully and inspected it, checking its weight in his hands and the detail on the sheath. "Yes. This'll do nicely. Before I open the gate, whom did you say you were seeking?"
"His name is Ethan Pallet," Caleb replied.
"Was he buried with something to offer?"
"I believe so."
"Was he buried the way he wished to be?"
"No. He wanted to be cremated."
"Then you might find him along the river Cocytus," Charlie replied. "It may or may not be the next river you encounter, but it is the river of lamentation, where people lament mistreatment by others in their mortal lives."
"May or may not be the next river?" Caleb asked.
"Again," Orpheus said, placing his hand on Caleb's shoulder, "I'll explain when we cross the Acheron. Come on, the gate is open now."
Caleb glanced toward the gate and saw that it had indeed begun to open, allowing access to the causeway. Before heading toward it, he turned back and said, "Thank you, Charlie."
"Certainly, Caleb," Charlie replied, then gestured with his open hand toward the gate. "Welcome to The Underworld. Enjoy your stay."
Caleb and Orpheus walked through the gate together, with Caleb only glancing back once to see that Charlie had once more resumed reading his magazine. As he glanced back, however, he saw the woman behind Orpheus, watching him with the same longing as before. He considered commenting, but then saw the same cat-eyed dogs from the cave, now sitting in front of the closing gate, barring his passage back through.
He couldn't go back. His path was forward, and he reminded himself to leave the past behind him.