A stack of post-it notes floated in the air in front of Ethan. They were heavier than he'd expected, though he managed to maintain his grip on them anyway. He had the rune circle to support him, as well as the candles to guide his focus. Liz had made it clear that both were nothing more than tools-and not requirements-for magic, but he liked the thought of having these extra materials, at least for now.
They were like training wheels, giving him the ability to feel secure before he was ready to ride on his own. He drew solace from the tradition of magic which preceded him, the wisdom of the ancients telling him that this had all been done before, so surely he could do it again. Ancient runes and scented candles might not have been a requirement, but he would use them until he was ready to do things that had never been attempted before.
This, he knew, was something to hold back from Liz. Over the few weeks they'd been studying together, it was clear she preferred to keep her magic restrained only to things tested and true. She didn't care to experiment while Ethan was the opposite. He wondered if she'd been the same way before Caleb had been lost to the magics and reinforced her unwillingness to try new things. Or, had she once been like Ethan, ready to move on to bigger and better things without guidance.
"You're a natural," Liz said. "I'm impressed."
Ethan let the post-it notes drop to the floor as he turned to regard her with delight. "How come you've never taught me any of this before?" He asked. "Imagine what we could've done together!"
"Every time I've ever brought up magic, you told me your parents wouldn't approve and gave me a sad look," Liz replied, shrugging. "I decided I'd better stop trying."
Ethan felt anger seep into his emotions at the mention of his parents, ruining his attempt to pick the post-its back up and play with them again. "Figures," he said, swiping at the candle's flame next to him in annoyance. "They ruin everything."
"Ethan..." Liz said carefully. He hated it when she took on that mothering tone with him, but he respected her, too.
"Yeah?" He asked, looking up and giving her a chance to explain her tone.
Liz reached out and touched his arm gently. "Your parents love you."
Ethan shrugged her hand off. "Sure. They just don't know me, and that's why they ruin everything." He blew out the candles surrounding him and then stood. His room smelled like incense, and he was sure his parents would question what he'd been doing, even if they wouldn't be back until tomorrow. They were currently at his little brother's hockey game in Rocksburg. He considered making a quick trip to the grocery store to buy air freshener.
"Have you considered trusting them?" Liz asked.
Ethan gestured down at the meditation mat and candles. "With this?"
"I guess you have a point."
Ethan walked over to his bed and flopped down, covering his eyes with the back of his hand. "They want me to see a counselor," he said morosely.
"About Caleb?" Liz asked.
"That's what they say," Ethan said, rolling over and raising himself on one arm to stare at Liz, "but I think it's really about me being gay."
Liz stood then, too, and came over to sit on the bed next to him. "Why do you think that?"
"Because they keep avoiding the subject," Ethan said, sighing. He rolled onto his back again and continued. "At first I thought they might've just forgotten along with everything else, but then my mom asked me if we're spending all this time together because you're my girlfriend."
"Ew," Liz said, getting up and walking away, raising her hands as if she didn't want to touch anything. "I mean, no offense, but you're like my brother. I genuinely can't even picture you that way."
"Right," Ethan nodded slightly, ignoring her visceral reaction. He was a little hurt that she felt that way, but on an intellectual level he understood it perfectly. "You're Caleb's twin and my older sister. I remember how it works. I'm not offended. Though I'm probably going to hold it against you forever that neither of you thought of trusting me with Caleb's sexuality."
"Need I remind you that you didn't trust us, either?" Liz asked. Ethan shrugged, and she sighed deeply. "Anyway, what did you say to that? Them asking about us being together?"
"I've started to grow so accustomed to them knowing about me being gay, I didn't think about it. I reminded her that I didn't swing that way, and she had an 'oh yeah' moment, but her eyes were kind of disappointed."
"That doesn't mean they don't love you."
"I didn't say it did," Ethan said, sitting up in his bed and scooting backward so his back rested against the headboard. He couldn't seem to get comfortable, and though a part of him knew it was just the subject matter of the conversation, he was still going to try different positions until the pain went away. "I just wish they knew how to communicate that 'love' better than 'you need counseling because we love you'."
"Are you sure it's not just because of Caleb?" Liz asked.
"I haven't spoken much about Caleb since..." Ethan sighed deeply and gave up trying to be comfortable. It definitely wouldn't happen now. "Since he died," he finished at last. "Not with them, only with you."
Liz nodded. "That's probably why they think you need to see a counselor. It's been what, three weeks since you came back? That's a lot of time to not speak about your dead best friend."
Ethan folded his arms and said through gritted teeth, "He's not going to stay dead."
"No," Liz sighed. "I guess not."
"You really don't believe we can get him back, do you?" Ethan hissed.
"Ethan, he exchanged himself for you," Liz said. "The only sure way I know to bring someone back from the dead would be another exchange, because I wasn't even fully convinced it would work the first time. I still haven't found a spell that does it outright. I'm not convinced it's possible."
"You're wrong," Ethan said with determination. "It's okay. Remember, I'll be the one performing the spell, anyway."
Liz cracked a smile which Ethan believed was supposed to look encouraging, but he didn't buy it. At least she was there, though, and she still intended to teach him. "Right, I remember," Liz said softly.
But he didn't want to hammer at the issue anymore, not when they were already so bent out of shape. He sighed and rested his head against the wall behind him, closing his eyes. "Well, I guess I'll go see the counselor, but I'm not going to talk to him about Caleb. What would I say to the guy? My best friend gave his soul up for mine so now I'm focused exclusively on getting enough power to get him back? How do you think that'll go over?"
"About as well as any counseling visit I've had when I've mentioned magic, I bet." Liz laughed.
Ethan laughed with her, but a memory sparked within him and changed his entire demeanor. "Mr. and Mrs. Nield want me to go visit them, too," he said.
"Yeah," Liz replied in almost a whisper, "me, too."
"I don't know what to say to them, either. Especially since it's my f-" Suddenly the post-it notes hit Ethan in the face. He rubbed where they hit and looked at them, then at the scowling Liz. "Ow! What the hell was that for!?"
"If you fucking say it was your fucking fault, I will fucking kill you," Liz said. He could sense the power surging through her, but it was slowly receding; he realized she'd thrown the post-it's at him with magic. She'd channeled pure anger, funneling it into telekinesis. This, although frightening since the anger was directed at him, intrigued Ethan.
But he shoved his curiosity aside with the iron will he'd been slowly developing so he could address the anger Liz expressed. "What the hell?" he asked.
"Caleb chose to exchange his soul for yours," Liz said menacingly. "He made the choice. Just as you chose to kill yourself. We're the only ones to blame for our actions. Stop trying to take the blame for other people's responsibilities."
They stared at each other for nearly a minute, neither saying anything as they fought for dominance. Eventually Ethan was the one who cracked, lowering his gaze as he said sullenly, "Fine. But I still don't know what to say to Caleb's parents."
"Yeah," Liz said, collapsing over the foot of the bed and covering her eyes with her hands, rubbing them. "Me neither."
Ethan glanced down at the post-it notes and exerted his will over them, channeling his pure sullenness to make them levitate, thinking about how he might throw them back at Liz while she wasn't expecting it.
"So, should we get back to work?" He asked, managing to keep the notes floating as he spoke. "Maybe we can bring Caleb to dinner at his parents' house next week?"
"You're a long way away from doing that. We're only levitating office supplies with a full circle, and you're talking about resurrection. Let's get back to the work on the basics, shall we?" Liz asked. And then she got up from the bed.
"Yes, sensei," Ethan said, letting the notes drop back to the bed next to him. He didn't need her to know he could already do it without her. It was his first time, but he was certain he could levitate more and heavier items by the end of the week. Liz wouldn't approve, but the more he learned, the closer he'd be to growing powerful enough to resurrect Caleb.
Liz turned around at that and said, "I thought I told you to stop calling me that."
"You got it, sis," Ethan said. "Now, please, teach me everything you know."
Despite the misty city in the distance, the causeway appeared to stretch on into infinity, crossing the dark-green waters of the Acheron. Caleb eyed the waters suspiciously, sure evil things swam just beneath the surface. On occasion, he could see ripples which did not appeared to be caused by the current, and he shuddered to think of what might be making them.
There were moments where he swore the water was speaking to him, little whispers which nagged at his mind and spread venom through his thoughts. The whispers told him that he didn't deserve to be here, that none of this should have happened, that he couldn't possibly have made it here because his soul deserved to be lost forever.
As much as he tried not to listen, the river continued to whisper anyway, and he made a mental note to stick to the middle of the causeway and avoid the water entirely.
If Orpheus felt the same trepidation, it didn't show, and he strolled closer to the side of the causeway, even switching the guitar to the front and playing a melody which evoked the idea of the moving water itself in Caleb's mind. The whole thing unnerved him enough that it took some time to get up the nerve to broach the subject of the rivers with Orpheus, simply because he didn't want to venture close enough to the musician to risk falling into the river.
But eventually he approached his guide, calling out softly, "Okay, I think it's time you explained this whole river thing to me." Orpheus looked up, as if surprised Caleb said anything at all. Caleb continued with an embarrassed smile, "I'm a bit surprised my subconscious came up with different rivers in the afterlife."
Orpheus strummed a few more chords and then stopped abruptly, walking back to Caleb's side. "Well, when I said your imaginations or beliefs create your afterlife, I might have been a bit hasty. That is only partially true, especially in your case."
"Why especially in my case?"
"You entered the afterlife believing you could change its course and decrees, did you not?" Orpheus asked, grinning. "You entered as a living being, did you not?"
Caleb shrugged. "I guess so."
"So, you have the ability to see behind the scenes. You can see some of what I see, which means you'll see the rivers, because you're living in my perception as well. You see, by me leading you beyond the light, we created an afterlife that is part you and part me. At least, for now."
"Yeah, but why rivers?" Caleb asked.
"It's more of a metaphor," Orpheus explained with a shrug. "But since we're borrowing as much from my head on this excursion as from yours, the rivers are manifesting themselves physically in your afterlife. I imagine that because you're agnostic it makes it easier to impress my afterlife on yours, too."
"We've just now crossed into the actual realm of the dead. Charon back there guards the border. He is the gatekeeper. The Warden whom you met at the reception desk, on the other hand, watches over the things betwixt."
"Before we crossed through that gate..." Caleb started, but didn't know how to fully answer the question in his mind. He was trying to grasp the geography of this place, but it seemed every time he came close, it slipped from his understanding like a wet bar of soap. And like that soap, he wasn't sure he should bend to pick it up, for fear Orpheus would take advantage of him, likely by pushing him into the Acheron.
But Orpheus intuited the direction of Caleb's thoughts and finished the mental processing for him. "We weren't even at our starting point. We still have some ways to go before we either find your friend."
"Okay, so tell me about the rivers," Caleb said.
"There are six rivers in The Underworld; they represent six different things all people face in the afterlife. Most myths will only teach you about five, but there is a sixth just as important as the others that we'll cover in a moment."
Orpheus gestured to the waters beside them and continued, "The first river is Acheron. It feeds into Styx or Styx feeds into it, depending on whom you ask and where you are. Acheron is the river of Woe, which forms the outer border of The Underworld. It represents the sadness of separation between this life and the other. It's why Charon requires the sacrifice of something valuable, so that you're forced to give up your former life among the living before entering the realm of the dead."
"Are you saying it means I can't go back?" Caleb asked. "I'm separate?"
"Well, you're coming to exchange your soul for Ethan's. Did you think you were going to be able to go back?" Orpheus asked.
"Not really, but..." Caleb shrugged disappointedly. "There was hope."
"We'll find Ethan for you," Orpheus said with a sudden shift in expression. His eyes met and maintained Ethan's gaze, radiating sincerity. "I swear it."
"You swear it?" Caleb asked, surprised at this change in attitude.
"Yes," Orpheus replied, nodding resolutely. "By the Styx I swear it."
"What does that mean?" Caleb asked.
"Styx is the River of Hate. It's a bit complicated, but the Styx flows everywhere through the afterlife," Orpheus explained, his mood growing somber, as if remembering some dark image from his own past.
Caleb couldn't help but notice that the raven-haired beauty behind Orpheus began to weep as Orpheus continued, "You see, you'll find a great deal of hate in the afterlife. There are people who hate themselves, who hate others, who hate their situation, who have so much hatred directed at them from others here..." The woman disappeared again as Orpheus paused with a little laugh. "Hitler lives on a tiny island in the middle of the Styx. The floodwaters rose around him almost as soon as he arrived, because all the people he killed changed the course of the river with their will to swallow him up."
"But what does swearing on the Styx mean?" Caleb clarified.
"Back in my homeland, it's said that swearing by the Styx was the strongest oath a man, woman, or god could make," Orpheus replied. His fingers twitched along the fretboard of the guitar as if seeking some ancient chord. "The gods themselves swore by the Styx to validate the strength of their oaths, for anyone who broke an oath made upon the waters of the Styx was forced to drink the water of the river."
"What did that do?"
Orpheus smirked at the question and draped his arm over the neck of the guitar. His eyes became bitter as he explained, almost as if he were speaking of his own dysfunctional family. "It made them incapable of speaking for a great length of time. If you knew the Greek gods, they loved to hear their own voices, so it was quite the punishment."
"I see," Caleb said. "I know a few people I'd like to use that on."
"Yes, well..." Orpheus said, gesturing around them.
"I'm stuck here, so that won't happen, I know," Caleb said, "but a guy can dream."
Orpheus smiled. "Indeed."
"You said there were four more rivers?" Caleb asked, wanting off the somber subject as soon as possible.
Orpheus nodded. "Cocytus lies after Acheron. Often when people first come to the realization that they've died, they have a lot of things they feel they need to lament, hence the river of lamentation. People who died before their time or who were buried improperly often end up stuck at the river, figuratively speaking, because they get caught up lamenting their fate instead of moving on to the finer parts of being dead."
Orpheus pointed ahead to the misty city. "I call it Elysium. Others might call it paradise. It's the place where your beliefs and imaginations give you the afterlife you think you deserve, unless the collective will of the other residents makes your life hell, anyway." He paused, considering Caleb for a moment, then asked, "I assume your lover was a good guy?"
"He was never really my lover," Caleb replied, "only in my fantasies."
"Then he'll likely be your lover there. At least, if we tarry long enough for you to find out," Orpheus said.
Seeing Caleb's discomfort, Orpheus continued. "Two rivers run through Elysium or Paradise, and they are both important in their own way. Phlegethon sounds the most interesting, but its dominant use is for those souls who should be cast down into Tartarus, the pit beneath the underworld, the real Hell."
"Hitler isn't there?" Caleb asked, surprised. If there was one thing he knew about Christian theology, at least, it would be that the worst sinners went to Hell. To hear that someone like Hitler wasn't housed there seemed a bit unfair to the rest of the dead.
"Part of him is," Orpheus replied, shrugging. "You need to remember this isn't exactly physical geography unless you choose to manifest it that way. It's mostly metaphorical and manifests as those experiencing it perceive it."
Caleb nodded, though he wasn't sure he understood it. "Okay, so, Phlegethon..."
"The River of Fire. It carries souls judged worthy of Hell down to Hell, or Tartarus," Orpheus continued. "But for our purposes, it's really quite unimportant. You're not going there; Ethan's not there; so we can forget about it." With a knowing smile, he added, "What you need to know about is Lethe."
"Yes, you mentioned that before. Twice."
"I see it hasn't taken hold of you yet, then," Orpheus said, laughing at a joke Caleb didn't grasp. "Lethe is the river of forgetfulness. If you drink from its waters, you'll forget everything, and commit your soul to oblivion."
Caleb blanched at the thought. "That sounds unpleasant."
"Eventually almost everyone drinks from the Lethe, when they tire of the afterlife, and indeed most tire of the afterlife. One can only live in paradise for so long before finding it dystopian."
"What happens to them exactly?"
Orpheus smiled and said, "They are reborn. Their matter is conserved and reconstructed, and they live again, elsewhere, without memory. Or, without remembering their memory, anyway. I've often wondered what would happen if someone who'd drunk from Lethe then drank from Mnemosyne."
"The river of memory," Orpheus said, almost wistfully. He hummed the word as he said it again, "Mnemosyne. We're swimming in it right now, actually."
"We are?" Caleb asked, looking around in alarm to see if the geography had changed. They were still on the causeway, still crossing the Acheron.
"Metaphor," Orpheus reminded him. "How many times do I have to say it?"
Caleb shook his head. "Sorry. I just don't know what to expect anymore."
Orpheus waved away Caleb's apology and continued. "Mnemosyne is the hidden river. The one no one sees but all can touch if they but open their minds to it. It's how I've survived here for so long, how I know all of this. I've been gaining wisdom from the Mnemosyne for a couple thousand years." He paused to give Caleb a pointed look and explained, "It's the way we gain insight into the inner workings of the realm, and how we learn to manipulate it to our advantage." Appearing wistful again, Orpheus added a final thought. "One old religious order taught of its existence, and bid its followers to drink of the Mnemosyne and not the Lethe if one wished to obtain enlightenment and proceed to a higher plane of existence."
"A higher plane of existence?" Caleb echoed.
"Yes, though I don't know about that being true," Orpheus said. "I am, after all, still here. But, then again, I'm a nihilist, and I don't know if I'd recognize a higher plane of existence if it bit me in the ass. But, I do believe I am still here."
"So you are," Caleb said, acknowledging the strange logic. "What happens after Elysium?"
"That's when we reach the main body of the Styx. Cross that, and we'll be at the seat of The One Who Rules Beneath," Orpheus replied, speaking the name with a grandiose melodic quality, as if announcing the presence of The Ruler among them.
"Sounds simple enough," Caleb replied, then reoriented himself to be facing straight toward Elysium again. "Let's go. Charlie said we could find Ethan at the Cocytus, right?"
"That was his suggestion, yes," Orpheus replied. "I think it's a good one, though we're just as likely if not more to find him in Elysium."
"And you swear by the Styx you'll help me find Ethan?" Caleb asked, sparing one more glance at Orpheus. "No matter how long it takes?"
"I do. I'm certain we'll find him by the end," Orpheus replied with a solemn nod.
"Then lead on, Orpheus. Time's a-wasting," Caleb said, and then took the lead himself, walking onward down the causeway.
"Time is never wasted in Death," Orpheus said slyly, though Caleb barely heard the words, as if they were not meant for his ears. "It takes precisely as long as it should, boy."
Cucumbers: Ethan had never seen a more phallic vegetable. Ever since he'd come to fully embrace his sexuality, it just seemed he saw penises everywhere. The cucumbers were just the latest and greatest in a long list of phalluses eager to tantalize Ethan's mind with dirty thoughts.
Ethan didn't entirely understand why they were at the grocery store. Liz had said something about taking the night off from studying magic, but she'd been saying that quite often lately. He didn't want to make too much of a fuss, but he was certain he'd begun closing in on the magic necessary to bring Caleb back, even if it had taken a lot longer than he'd planned. Two months had already passed since Caleb's death. Two months, and Liz was starting to tire of this plan already.
He wanted Caleb back and thought she did, too, but she was already beginning to forget. She wanted to move on; he could see it in her eyes whenever they spoke about it. But he longed to hold Caleb, something he never had a chance to do before. He wanted to kiss him, to touch him, to do all the nasty things that two people in love could do.
He noticed Liz coming up from the side and said, "What did the spell call for? Oregano? Why are we in the produce section looking at tomatoes?"
"I told you, we're not doing a spell tonight," Liz said, grabbing a bunch of tomatoes connected on the same vine. She put them in the basket and fixed him in an exasperated stare. "We're making pasta sauce."
"Yeah, but we can pretend, can't we?" Ethan said, pouting.
Liz giggled and said, "I think you're getting a bit too addicted to magic."
Ethan crossed his arms over his chest and said, "I am not even remotely addicted."
Liz gestured with her head to behind Ethan and giggled again. "Then exactly why are the cucumbers levitating?"
Ethan glanced over his shoulder and realized there were two cucumbers hanging in the air, one was thrusting back and forth slightly above the other one, which pointed downward at an angle and bounced in time with the thrusts of the first. Ethan cut the spell energy, and the cucumbers dropped to the bin of cucumbers beneath them. "It was an accident. I was thinking about... things." He blushed a shade of red to make the tomatoes jealous and avoided Liz's gaze.
"Oh fuck..." Liz said, sucking in her breath.
"God dammit," Ethan said, turning back toward his friend, annoyed that she'd made fun of his absentminded casting. "I can't help it, okay? I haven't had a good fantasy since...;" he stopped when he saw the look of fear in Liz's eyes and followed her gaze toward the front of the grocery store. "What's wrong?"
"That was gross, and I wasn't talking to you," Liz said. She inclined her head toward the front of the store and said, "Jake Sanders just walked in."
Ethan took another look and noted a tall, greasy-haired young man straighten from picking up a shopping basket. "Oh, isn't he your weed dealer?" Ethan asked.
"Could you say that louder?" Liz hissed.
"Yes," Ethan replied, then raised his voice almost to the point of yelling. "Hey, isn't that y-" Liz clamped her hand hard over Ethan's mouth.
"Shut. Up," Liz said dangerously, but the damage was already done. Jake had heard the noise and looked their way. After recognizing Liz he headed toward them. Ethan smirked at Liz and wiggled his eyebrows before studiously returning his attention to the produce.
"Liz..." Jake said as he neared. "I see Caleb isn't with you. Good, I'd have to beat his ass into the ground after last time." He laughed at his joke, despite the glare he earned from Ethan as his head swiveled around at the mention of Caleb's name. "Hey, isn't your name Eth-" Jake started, and then scratched his head as his eyes lit up in recognition. "What the fuck? Hey, ain't you dead, man?"
"Holy shit," Liz whispered, sharing a wide-eyed glance with Ethan.
"What the fuck is going on?" Ethan asked, looking from Liz to Jake. "Did you tell him? Him of all people?"
"Hey, I swear a couple months ago you told me your friend Ethan was dead," Jake said, raising his hands in defense. Then he clapped Liz on the arm and said, "Where the hell have you been, anyway? You were my best customer!"
Liz stared at him incredulously, "So you don't remember what happened last time I was there?"
"Hell yeah I remember! Best blow job I've ever had," Jake replied. "You should do it professionally; sheeeeit."
Ethan opened his mouth in surprise, and his eyes lit up at this new piece of information he could lord over Liz next time they had an argument. Liz caught that look and tried to put an immediate stop to it. "Ethan. Shut up," she growled, forcing a smile back to her face as she turned to Jake. "So you remember..." She was fishing for information, not wanting to give up any more herself without finding out what Jake knew first.
Not wanting to give up any more. The thought made Ethan snicker, and he started levitating another cucumber so it was at the height of his head. It started thrusting back and forth as Jake answered the question.
"I remember Caleb threatening me, but it's in the past. Still, glad I didn't run into him today."
Ethan opened his mouth and stood sideways in Liz's view, the cucumber on the other side of his head, continuing to float in midair as it thrust back and forth, giving the appearance from Liz's view that he was sucking on it.
"Ethan!" Liz shouted, and Ethan immediately let the cucumber drop as Jake turned around to see what was going on.
"What?" Ethan asked innocently.
Liz glared at him. "You do realize how serious this is, right?"
"Yeah, so he remembers me and..." the realization hit Ethan hard. "Oh. He wasn't affected by the memory alteration. That is serious. Sorry, I guess my mind was elsewhere."
"Glad you finally caught up," Liz said dryly, "Are you done playing with the vegetables."
Jake raised an eyebrow. "Memory alteration? What are you two talking about?"
"Spell gone awry," Ethan explained, shrugging. "No one is supposed to remember that I should be dead."
"Really?" Jake asked. He nodded thoughtfully. "Huh. Must be that protection spell I have over my garage. If I was there when it happened, there's no way your spell affected me."
"Wait. You do magic?" Liz guffawed.
"Yeah, princess," Jake said with a snort. "How do you think I keep the cops away? I'm the most famous drug dealer in town, and yet there's never a cop to be seen when my deals go down. I'm a mother-fucking sorcerer."
Ethan rolled his eyes and said, "That line is old by this point."
"So am I," Jake said. "I'm like thirty. I think. Let me do some math..."
Liz and Ethan shared another skeptical look. "But you went to school with us."
"Yeah, transferred in when I was 'fifteen', right?" Jake said, grinning like a fool. "I still look kind of baby-faced, don't I?" He laughed like he'd just heard the funniest joke in the world. "My dad was a hippy with some crazy-ass hippie mojo. He knew some spells that, used in the right combination, could make you young forever. Of course, they don't make you immortal. He got shot after sleeping with the wrong girl and her husband found him in their bed. See, I can still get killed all the other ways, but the mojo keeps me young and sexy and able to bang high school chicks without the ick factor."
Liz looked like she was going to puke and turned away from him. Jake watched her with confusion and opened his mouth to say something else, but she raised her hand. "Could you just stop for a minute? I'm feeling a pretty strong ick factor right now."
"That sounds like the strongest spell I've ever heard," Ethan said excitedly, pulling Jake aside. "Young forever, you say?"
"I don't know, man. You came back from the dead," Jake replied, whistling. "You telling me that mine is the strongest spell ever? Whoever pulled off that shit could do way better than a fuckin' eternal youth spell, shit."
Liz straightened again, breathing hard. "You have got to be the least well-spoken warlock I've ever met."
"I don't like that word, 'warlock'. Makes me sound less peaceful," Jake said, puffing out his chest. "I prefer 'sorcerer'. Makes me sound all bad-ass."
Liz stared at him hard. "You carry a gun around."
"Ah come on, princess. It's not like I use it," Jake replied. "I got magic, what the fuck do I need bullets for?"
"Liz, we should use him," Ethan said enthusiastically. "He could help with the spell."
"Spell?" Jake said. "Yeah, probably not. I'm usually too high to cast anything, and not on the stuff that makes casting easier. I haven't cast much in the last few years."
"Come on," Ethan begged, "I need to bring Caleb back."
Jake looked at Ethan in confusion. "What do you mean? Isn't Caleb still around?"
"Caleb exchanged his soul for Ethan's," Liz explained. "Caleb's dead."
"No kidding," Jake said, laughing. "That twerp was the guy who cast the spell? Fucking bad-ass!"
"Nope," Ethan said, "that'd be Liz."
Jake gave Liz an appraising look, then smiled as if he'd just won the lottery. "Oh yeah, you're a witch. I remember you having that rep. Makes sense why I always wanted to bang you."
Liz blushed, turned, and started walking away. "Okay; we're done."
"But I thought we were going to make pasta," Ethan said, taking a step after her. She turned back toward him and saw the eagerness in his eyes. Biting his lip nervously, he said with a great deal more sincerity, "Liz, we could use him."
"I like Italian," Jake said from behind Ethan.
"All right, fine," Liz said, throwing her hands in the air. "We'll bring him in on our plans, but only if he promises to stop making passes at me."
"All right, princess. That I can do," Jake said, then glanced down at Liz's legs, following them up to the cuffs of her shorts. "Just as long as you don't mind me looking."
Ethan snickered and reached out with his magic, making several of the cucumbers stand erect in the bin. Liz's vicelike grip on his arm broke his focus and made him release them yet again.
"Ethan," Liz begged. "Please stop playing with the cucumbers."
"Why are we still on this fucking causeway?" Caleb asked after what seemed like hours. The city still appeared to be as far away as ever, and when he glanced back at the gate it was just a speck on the horizon. He didn't understand how the river could possibly be this wide, whether it was a mystical river or not.
Orpheus shrugged and kicked a small pebble from the causeway into the river. The water eagerly lapped up to swallow the rock before it even touched the surface and hungrily sucked it into the current. "Maybe because you're still holding onto that knife?"
"I gave it to Charlie, what the hell are you talking about?" Caleb asked. "This is getting to be ridiculous."
"Caleb," Orpheus caught Caleb's arm and said firmly, "Let go of the knife."
Caleb wanted to protest yet again, and his hand started to clench into a fist. As soon as he did so, he could feel the weight of steel in his hand. He looked down, expecting to see the knife there but found his hand empty. "I don't understand."
"The knife, Caleb," Orpheus said, "Not the one you gave Charlie, but the one you keep thinking about. The one that brought you here. The one that killed Ethan."
These words struck Caleb hard, and he stared at Orpheus in denial of the truth. As silence began to overtake them, the Acheron babbled to him once more. Telling him of all the woe he felt inside. He considered the reflective surface of the dark water and after a moment he could see the bloody knife lying in the grass superimposed over the water. The knife Caleb had given Ethan and which Ethan had used to kill himself.
"I gave it to him. He used the knife I gave him," Caleb whispered.
"Yes," Orpheus replied, "And you have to let go of that. Leave it behind you and walk forward."
Caleb nodded dumbly and closed his eyes, breathing deeply as he tried to force the image from his mind. Hadn't Liz said over and over again that he should stop blaming himself? His mind latched onto a happier memory than the suicide: the day Caleb gave the knife to Ethan. It had been done in a spirit of love, knowing how much Ethan loved the great outdoors.
And then Caleb realized the truth of it. Ethan had used that knife not out of spite for Caleb, but because he wanted to feel close to Caleb in his final moments. In his own twisted way, he'd done it out of love.
Caleb could be at peace with that. He opened his eyes and walked forward.
The causeway ended abruptly, emptying out onto rolling plains full of golden grass. It reminded Caleb of Ethan's golden hair, waving in the wind. He reached out with his hand and let it caress his skin, lulling him to thoughts of even more happier times in the land of the living.
"Where are we now?" he asked Orpheus. "Will I be tested here as well?"
"The plains between Acheron and Cocytus," Orpheus said, looking out across the plains as if searching for something. "It won't take us long to cross them," he added, pointedly ignoring the second question.
"Let's get going then," Caleb said, glancing again toward the distant city. He sensed a presence there, and knew it was where he belonged. The sooner he reached it, the better.
A dirt road wound through the plains which they stuck to quite diligently, even though it appeared to be quicker to travel cross-country. Caleb felt more secure in reaching his destination if he stuck to the path, because from what he'd seen of the afterlife so far, when one didn't play by the rules, it surprised you.
They came to a small, clear brook, with a narrow footbridge crossing it. The sight of the water reminded Caleb that he'd been walking for several hours with nothing to drink. He knew better than to trust a stream in the middle of nowhere, but the water seemed so pure he decided he might as well risk it. He had little to lose, after all, considering once he found Ethan he would spend the rest of existence in the afterlife.
As Orpheus started across the bridge, Caleb stopped by the side and pulled his canteen out of his backpack. He knelt beside the stream, dipping the canteen in to catch some water.
"What are you doing?" Orpheus asked, stopping on the bridge to look down at him. His expression was unreadable, though his eyes were inquisitive.
"I'm thirsty," Caleb said, lifting the full canteen. "I need a drink, and I'm out of water. It's not like we're at a river."
Orpheus smirked. "Don't drink that water unless you want to stop speaking."
"This is the Styx?" Caleb asked incredulously, looking down at the small stream. "I expected it to appear much more ominous."
"Hate doesn't always appear dark. Sometimes it's entirely invisible and hides in the open. People are pretty good at sneaking hate in wherever they want to."
Caleb shrugged and screwed the cap shut on his canteen. "Still..."
"You're taking some anyway?" Orpheus asked, surprised.
"Yeah, why not?" Caleb shrugged. "It might come in handy. Who knows when I might need to threaten someone with it? It's more useful than an empty canteen anyway" He laughed and replaced the canteen in his backpack.
"I suppose there's some logic in that," Orpheus replied, "though I don't know when that would happen."
"Maybe someone will break an oath to me?" Caleb said, remembering Orpheus' tone on the causeway over Acheron. He'd heard the words about death taking as long as it should, and he no longer trusted his guide even though as of yet Orpheus had done nothing to break that trust. He grinned to take the venom out of his words, not wanting Orpheus to think he was suspicious. "I might have to make him drink it."
"You're terrible," Orpheus replied. He nodded resolutely, and his eyes seemed sincere once more as he said, "We'll find Ethan."
"Well, our first place to look is right ahead. Cocytus," Orpheus said, pointing down the path. Caleb hurried to join him on the bridge and followed Orpheus' finger to a dark line meandering through the plains less than a mile away. Although it had seemed impossibly distant before, the misty city now appeared to be just on the other side of the river.
Caleb started down the other side of the bridge and the rushing of the Cocytus filled his ears. He was certain they'd been much further, but now the river appeared only a few dozen yards away.
"That didn't take long at all," Caleb observed, eyes wide.
"No, it didn't. Normally people pass this way in almost an instant," Orpheus replied. "But you are searching for something, which makes it take longer."
"I see," Caleb said, remembering his earlier thoughts about breaking the rules of this place. He would have to keep better track of his thoughts if he wanted to stay in control here. "So, can you see all those waiting on this side?"
"Yes," Orpheus said.
"Show me," Caleb requested. "Do that thing The Warden did."
"Lift the veil?" Orpheus asked. Caleb nodded and Orpheus raised his hands dramatically.
All at once, people appeared out of nowhere, all milling about near the banks of the river. He heard a cacophony of noise, many of them speaking in languages he recognized but did not understand, many more speaking in languages he'd never heard. He walked through them, occasionally catching snippets of English every so often.
"My children don't care that I'm dead!" An old woman cried, screaming the words at the river.
"Why?" someone said. The voice was familiar, and Caleb latched onto it, parting through the crowd in the direction he'd thought the sound had come from.
"My mother never loved me!" a middle-aged man screamed in Caleb's ear as he passed, causing Caleb to trip over his feet, clutching at his ringing ears. He struggled to his knees, his hands still over his ears as he staggered forward.
Somehow he still managed to hear the familiar voice again. "Why?" It asked once more. He knew the voice, it was Ethan's. Caleb looked around frantically, removing his hands from his ears.
"Ethan!?" He called, searching everywhere for a sight of golden hair. He found some, but none of them belonged to his true love. He dashed forward, looking everywhere.
He caught sight of a T-shirt and jeans similar to the style Ethan wore when he died, and he reached for the arm of their owner, only to find an old man who screamed at him in agony. "They're selling the business! I spent forty years building that business!"
"Why?" Ethan's question rang clearly in Caleb's mind, calling him toward it, but Caleb didn't know where to go.
"Cremation? Cremation!?" A middle-aged woman cried as she bumped into Caleb and bowled him over, seemingly oblivious to his existence. "My body had to be whole for me to enter paradise!"
"Why?" The question seemed closer this time, and a drop of red liquid landed in the dirt in front of Caleb's face. Several more drips followed, and Caleb followed them upward, seeing the source: Ethan's open wrists, deep furrows gleaming with sticky crimson. He followed Ethan's arm up to his shoulder, then his neck and face, and the eyes which bore into Caleb's soul and promised an eternity of suffering.
The image was temporarily distorted as a young man with shaggy blonde hair walked through the image of Ethan shouting, "I can't believe they buried me in a suit. Didn't they read my will? I wanted Hawaiian shirts for everyone. I'm a beach bum, dammit!" It would have seemed comical to Caleb had he not been staring into the empty, dead eyes of his true love.
"Why?" Ethan's visage asked, and this time Caleb could see his mouth working, could practically feel the force of the word as it left Ethan's throat. He wanted to crawl away and hide, to get as far away from this ghastly scene as he could.
"Turn it off!" He shouted, praying that Orpheus could hear him.
"What?" Orpheus said. He was standing nearby, and regarded Caleb curiously.
"Turn it off!" Caleb screamed. He met Ethan's eyes again, could see all the pain and suffering Ethan had ever suffered swimming in those orbs. And Caleb was certain he'd been the cause of all of it. Somehow, he knew that he'd been the one to ruin Ethan's life, to cause his death, to bring about this terrible fate.
"I'm sorry, you'll have to speak up," Orpheus said, putting a cupped hand to his ear.
Caleb struggled to his feet and charged Orpheus, gripping the front of his shirt and screaming in his face, "I said turn this fucking thing off!"
And then the people were gone, and Caleb and Orpheus stood alone on the bank. "I'm sorry, what's the matter?" Orpheus asked. "Didn't you say you wanted to look for Ethan here?"
"He's not here," Caleb said, shaking his head firmly.
Orpheus raised an eyebrow as if he didn't quite believe it. "Are you sure?"
"Yes. I looked at their faces..." Caleb said, denying the image he saw as forcefully as he could manage. "I saw their eyes, they were so..." He shook his head, trying to force the grisly image from his mind.
"Hopeless?" Orpheus finished for him.
"Yes," Caleb said, shaking. "They were so hopeless. Ethan doesn't..." He trailed off, knowing that Ethan's eyes had been far more hopeless than any of the others' had been. He couldn't think about it, didn't want to think about it, he just wanted to rescue Ethan from this terrible fate.
"You just don't want to believe Ethan looks like that," Orpheus said. "But he did, didn't he?" He lowered his voice and nodded in understanding. "You heard him calling, didn't you?"
"Yes, it was his voice..." Caleb said. He closed his eyes, but that was worse, as he instantly saw the image of Ethan again. "He wanted to know why."
"Ah..." Orpheus said. "It wasn't him."
Caleb gave Orpheus a sidelong glance. "It wasn't?"
"No," Orpheus replied. "That was you."
"Yes. Ethan's must be the voice you accuse yourself with. The Cocytus heard your inner lamentation and whispered it back to you," Orpheus said, and he walked down to the bank and crouched beside the water. He reached his hand over the river and held it there, every so often the water would lap up and splash his hand, as if it were reaching out to him. "I still hear her sometimes," he whispered.
"It was..." Caleb whispered, trying to comprehend the manifestation of his own guilt. "It was me?"
"The rivers," Orpheus said, standing straight and facing Caleb again. "They can destroy your soul, if you let them. All six of them."
Caleb stared at the river. It was wide and rushing quickly, with jutting stones poking from its murky surface wherever he looked. But, despite the ominous appearance of the river, all Caleb had to do was look across at the edge of the city to know he needed to reach the other side no matter the cost. "How do we cross it?"
"The Cocytus is shallow," Orpheus said, staring at the water with grim determination. "We can wade through."
"I have to enter it?" Caleb asked. The thought sent a shudder down his spine, and he took an involuntary step backward from the bank.
"Yes. Come on, there's a path. It won't take much. Just a little courage." Orpheus started down the bank, but Caleb held his ground, staring at the dark waters.
"What do others see here?" Caleb asked.
Orpheus stopped and turned back his way. "I'm sorry?" He asked.
"What do others see here?" Caleb repeated. "At this river?"
"It depends on whether they have anything to lament or not," Orpheus replied. "Some are at peace and never see this river, or see only a small stream they can hop over." He glanced back at the river, and his face fell, his eyes filled with a foreboding sense of familiarity. "For some, it's as wide as the Acheron. For you, the Acheron was greater, but you still hold on to the life you had before. You still want to hold on, so the river is wide and laments your refusal to let go."
"I can't forget," Caleb said. This was true as much because he refused to forget as it was truly impossible to do so. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw Ethan's tortured visage and bleeding arms. He doubted that image would ever go away.
"Forgetting and letting go are not the same thing," Orpheus said. "Come on, Caleb. Let me guide you. There is a path."
Caleb nodded and followed Orpheus down the bank, keeping his eyes on the dark water, hearing its gurgling and feeling its whisperings reach out to his mind. The river teased and taunted him, pulling at each part of himself he despised; it sounded like Ethan whispering in his ear, telling him dark secrets. Telling him it was all worthless.
And then Orpheus stopped at a place where the river was more narrow, and the rocks jutting from the surface appeared to be evenly spaced so as to be used as stepping stones. With a nod of encouragement, Orpheus started onto the first rock. He made two more jumps before turning to see if Caleb was following.
With a heavy sigh, Caleb jumped onto the first stone. The whispering of the river increased by several decibels, the water lapping around the stone splashing eagerly toward his feet. And then the murky water started to change color, becoming a deep, blood red. He stared at it with horror as it took on a reflective sheen, and Ethan stared back at him from beneath the surface.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Ethan whispered, his dead mouth quirking to the side, as if he were attempting to smile. It felt like a mockery of Ethan, but Caleb was still disturbed, and needed to get away as quickly as possible. He jumped to the next two stones before he had to stop and catch his balance.
As he righted himself and prepared to jump again, a skinny, bloody arm with a deep cut down its length reached out of the river and clutched at the stone he stood upon. In his mind he heard Ethan whisper, "Why didn't you save me?" The arm sank beneath the rapids, struggling for purchase until it disappeared completely.
Caleb jumped again, then two more times, until he slipped on the stone he landed on and he went belly first onto the rock. His face was inches away from the river, staring directly into Ethan's eyes. The reflection's lips pursed as if they wanted to kiss him, and two arms snaked out of the water to wrap themselves around the back of Caleb's head, pulling him toward the image. He struggled to get away and was able to escape, but the image offered a pouty, "Why don't you love me?"
His heart was pounding, but he stood on shaky legs and looked ahead, seeing Orpheus standing on the bank. There was only one more stone to cross. He prepared to leap to it when two hands shot out of the water, gripping the edge and pulling Ethan's naked body out of the water to stand upon the stone. Ethan stood tall, nothing but skin clutching tight and emaciated around thin bones, dripping with blood from every angle. His hair, also caked in blood, hung in wispy trails, and his sunken eyes were filled with utter despair.
"Why do you love me?" Ethan asked.
Caleb couldn't jump for the stone, so he aimed as close to the bank as he could, looking away from Ethan and hoping he wouldn't land in the river. He pushed off with all his might and landed several feet from the shore, the water reaching up to his knees. He tore toward the shore as quickly as he could, the water laughing at him as he sprinted, and all around him chanting, "Why? Why? Why? Why? Why!? Why!? WHY!?"
He came out of the water, pulse racing and breathing heavily, collapsing to the rocky shore, his chest heaving as he desperately pushed away the image. The river's whispering slowly quieted, but Caleb's mind continued to race, filling his heart with such misery at the terror of Ethan's broken form he could do nothing but cry and wail until his soul ran dry of tears.
Eventually, as he lost the ability to breathe, the waters of Cocytus retreated entirely. Caleb rose up on his hands and knees, sobbing between breaths, forcing the feeling of despair to slowly dissipate.
A hand appeared before his face-the calloused fingers of a guitarist. Caleb looked up into Orpheus' sympathetic eyes as the musician said, "Come on. We've arrived."
Caleb took his hand and allowed Orpheus to pull him to his feet. He stood at the edge of a magnificent city, towering skyscrapers as far as the eye could see, glistening in some unseen sun. People were everywhere, mulling about and speaking to each other, exchanging pleasantries as they went about their business. The sound of laughter filled the area, and everyone appeared to be happy.
But it wasn't quite enough to drown out the inner voice that told Caleb everything was worthless. He glanced back at the Cocytus, half expecting to see Ethan standing there, blaming him for everything. Instead he saw the three cat-eyed black dogs, sitting on their haunches on the three nearest stones.
Ethan spent nearly every waking minute doing research. His grades were slipping, his parents, teachers, and counselors were all worried, but he was determined. Every night he'd come home from school and sit behind the computer, scouring the internet for answers.
Liz hardly spent any time around him anymore, not because she didn't want to, but he generally ignored her calls. He was too busy, and she didn't want to teach him anymore, anyway. She thought he'd gone too far, and, he had to admit, it was possible she was right. Magic had become the sole focus of his life.
He swore to himself that it had nothing to do with addiction to the energies itself. His driving force remained freeing Caleb from The Underworld, and he'd researched everything from Necromancy to Ancient Aboriginal Dream Magic seeking answers.
Finally, in a dusty, unused corner of the internet, he found an answer. He'd excitedly called Liz up and asked her to meet him at her house. Jake would be there, too, he knew. They'd been dating for two months now, much to Liz's chagrin. Ethan liked Jake, even if he was a bit of a creep. It hadn't taken long for Jake to slip Ethan the spell combination that had made him eternally young, and Ethan had already cast it.
It seemed like child's play compared to the level of magic he'd been researching lately. Eternal youth seemed much easier than soul transposition and resurrection. He was so close to bringing Caleb back, he could feel it, and he was certain this spell would mean the end of his searching.
He barely bothered to say hello as he walked through Liz's front door and found her sitting with Jake in her living room. "Hey, I think I've made a breakthrough," he announced.
"Really?" Liz asked neutrally. "What's up?"
Ethan nodded excitedly. He held up a notebook stuffed with extra pages he'd added, folded printouts of spells he'd studied along the way. He called it his 'Necrocalebicon' and carried it with him most places, studying the energies contained within. "I've been studying a lot recently, and I think I know what to do. I might be able to summon Caleb's soul directly. I'd just need his body to put him in it. Then I can do a restoration spell to bring his body back to life."
Silence greeted his rehearsed revelation. "You just need his body?" Liz asked incredulously.
Ethan shrugged and grinned, "Yeah. That should be it."
"Fuck, man... graverobbing, huh?" Jake asked, laughing nervously.
"Jake, I see that look on your face," Liz said, her eyes narrowing dangerously as she placed a vice-like grip on Jake's thigh. "Don't you start encouraging him."
"What the fuck, Liz?" Ethan said, glaring at Liz. "I thought you were going to back me up."
"On grave robbery?" Liz asked, standing up and staring Ethan in the eye. "You want to dig up Caleb's body, and I'm the insane one?"
"We don't even know if he's there," Ethan said dismissively.
"Ethan says in encouragement of this plan..." Liz said, throwing her hands up in defeat. She walked away to stare out the large window, watching the quickly approaching twilight. Ethan stared at her like she was an alien, especially when she rounded on him again and shouted, "You are fucking insane, Ethan! What the hell are you thinking? Do you even realize what you're saying?"
"How can you not see the beauty in this?" Ethan asked, brandishing his Necrocalebicon. "We can bring him back. Hell, if this works, we can bring anyone back! We can master death itself!"
Jake stood and put himself between Liz and Ethan. "Hey, dude, I think Liz might be right. I hate to say it, but you might be going a bit too far."
"Fuck, ever since you two started dating it's like you're both against me." Ethan shook his head and turned toward the door. "Fine. I'll do it alone, then."
"Ethan," Liz said firmly. "You're going to shut up and listen. You've gone off the deep end."
"Liz, no," Ethan insisted. "You said you'd let me do this when I was ready, and I'm ready. It's been five months, and I've been working my ass off to get strong enough. I can do this." He turned to go again.
"Ethan..." Liz begged, catching his arm. He turned to face her, his eyes flashing against hers. Hers were filled with sorrow and agony, and she pleaded with him as a tear fell from the corner of her eye. "Please don't."
"Why not?" Ethan asked. His features softened in response to the pain in her eyes. "Please, just give me a good reason, and I'll hear you out."
"Ethan, leave him buried. I've been thinking about this a lot. You have to let him go, you can't..." Liz paused and looked down at her feet, her cheeks coloring. "You shouldn't bring the dead back to life."
Ethan ripped his arm away from Liz's grip and snorted derisively. "Look who's talking, and look whom she's talking to."
"Ethan, bruh," Jake said, moving between them again. "I think you should listen to Liz, she-"
"Oh, Mr. Fountain of Youth is going to advise me on the perils of magic, is he?" Ethan snapped. He looked Jake up and down, sizing him up. "Fuck you, Jake. I thought you were going to help me out."
He walked forward and put a hand on the doorknob, but before he could turn it Liz shouted, "Ethan!"
"What!?" He asked, spinning around angrily. "Either let me leave, or help me. Those are your choices."
"Look at yourself!" Liz screamed. "You're a mess. You never sleep, you barely eat... all you do is magic, and it's killing you. Do you think this is what Caleb would want you to do?"
Ethan's entire body trembled with rage. "Don't."
"Don't what?" Liz snapped.
"Don't presume to know what Caleb would think. He's the one who got himself sacrificed for me. I'm the one who's supposed to be dead, remember?" Ethan growled, the sound more beast than human. "So fuck you and fuck your morality. I don't give a shit any more about the rules."
"Ethan..." Liz said dangerously.
And then he felt her, summoning all of her energy, ready to throw it at him and force him to listen. He sensed her, and he turned, and with a flick of his wrist he sent Liz flying sideways into the wall. She dropped to the floor with a heavy thud, dazed but conscious.
Jake stepped between them, his hands raised in surrender. Ethan let his mind drift across Jake, looking for any sign Jake would use his magical abilities to attempt to stop Ethan. But there was no surge of power, only Jake's calm face and his terrified eyes. "Hey, dude..." Jake said, trying to play cool. "I'm not going to try anything, okay? I just want to... to try and talk some sense into you."
"Fuck off, Jake," Ethan said, and tore the door open. He stormed out into the night, eager to forget ever having asked either of his friends for help. Bringing Caleb back was all that mattered. If they couldn't see that, they weren't worth knowing.
Jake rushed to Liz's side and gently helped her up. He checked her head for damage and found no outward signs of injury. Liz groaned as Jake helped her into a chair and handed her a pillow.
"Are you all right?" He asked.
"Yeah..." Liz groaned, holding her back and adjusting the pillow for added support.
"Is the..." Jake choked on the question. "Is the baby all right?"
Liz shook her head and closed her eyes, breathing out softly. "I don't know," she answered quietly.
"Fuck," Jake said, his face contorting with rage. "I'll kill him."
Liz put a staying hand on Jake's arm. "No. He didn't know. He wouldn't have thrown me like that if he knew I was pregnant."
Jake bit his lip uncertainly. "Are you sure?"
"No. But I have to believe in him. No matter how far gone he is, I have to..." Liz looked out the window to where she could still see Ethan's quickly disappearing form walking away from them. "For his sake, and for Caleb's."