Caleb approached the boat cautiously. The deep cowl of the boatman hid his face in its shadows, and skeletal fingers gripped the steering pole. The figure was as imposing as any Caleb had seen so far, a traditional image of death as Caleb understood it.
He glanced in the bow of the boat and saw a familiar magazine carefully placed in the bow. It was a new issue, but the boats on the cover told Caleb all he needed to know. "Charlie?" he asked the cowled ferryman.
The ferryman threw back the cowl to reveal the charming face of the man from the tollbooth. Charlie, from the forest service, stood before Caleb once more, his help-desk-like smile sending Caleb vibes of pure, Customer Service-hating resentment. But at least he was polite. "Yes. I guard this river as well," Charlie replied, gesturing behind him to the inky-waters of the Styx. "Though, considering the importance of the Styx, I'm a bit more traditional."
Orpheus walked past Caleb to climb into the boat, stepping carefully to its far bench before turning and sitting to face Caleb with his back to the river. "By that he means that since you believe you're going to meet the ruler of The Underworld, your mind created an appropriate, traditional response," Orpheus explained.
"I see," Caleb replied, eyeing the boat skeptically. "And we're going to cross the Styx on that?"
"It's perfectly safe, Caleb." Orpheus replied. "Do you think I would take you anywhere that wasn't safe?"
Caleb answered without any hesitation. "Yes."
Orpheus snorted. "As your guide, I'm insulted."
"Good," Caleb replied. But he smiled at Charlie and said, "Thankfully, I do believe Charlie has the practicality not to climb into a boat in danger of sinking at every turn, so I do trust him."
"Then what are we waiting for?" Orpheus asked. "Climb in."
Caleb took a step toward the boat and Charlie put up a skeletal hand to stop him. "The toll," he said pleasantly.
"Oh yes," Orpheus replied, rolling his eyes and muttering, "the toll... the toll..."
Caleb made no move to pay Charlie, cocking his head to the side as he asked, "Haven't I already paid you?"
Charlie smiled wide. "Not for this river."
"What is the price?" Caleb asked.
"Your vulnerability," Charlie said. When Caleb raised his eyebrow in response, Charlie stifled a sigh, and then explained, pointing out into the void with a bony finger. "You go seeking the end, to understand the end, to beseech the end. You cannot approach the end with your pride. You must do so humbly."
Caleb nodded. "I think I understand."
He slid out of his backpack, taking a step away from the shore. He noticed Orpheus watching him, measuring him, analyzing every move he made. This made him self-conscious, but, as Caleb proceeded, he realized this was part of the point. Charlie watched him as well, but with a sense of robotic patience, as if he was waiting for orders or some new programming to alter his course. Caleb did not feel nearly as unnerved by this, even though Charlie had a far more ghastly appearance. There was something comforting about the old ferryman; he was there doing his job, like a lifeguard watching Caleb at the pool. Orpheus, on the other hand, had an agenda, and it had something to do with Caleb's quest.
Caleb slipped his T-shirt over his head, tossing it to the shore beside him. Though no wind ripped across the water toward him, it felt as if the air seemed to speak to his naked flesh. His heart responded in kind, beating faster as he contemplated the inky water; he swore it called his name in a language only he and it spoke, telling him that the blood pumping through his veins was the same substance as the river itself.
As a single bead of sweat dropped from his brow and rolled down his chest, Caleb broke from his temporary trance and moved on. He stepped out of his shoes, kicking them to the side. The rocks beneath his left foot felt cold, while beneath his right they felt warm. He removed the sock from his left foot and when he placed it back on the stone, the heat was almost unbearable. When he removed the sock from his right foot, the stones felt so icy he thought he would get frostbite.
The sensory overload nearly overwhelmed him, and he abruptly sat down, staring at the Styx once more. He wanted to know the secrets which lay on the other side but didn't know if he could handle the experience. Nothing in The Underworld behaved as he thought it should, yet he'd been told the world was a product of his own belief and imagination. He thought back, and realized that he had questioned internally if the ground would be warm or cold before removing his shoes, and then it became both. He forcefully exerted his will over the stone beneath his feet and willed it to be an even temperature, and it became so. Could he do more, he wondered?
With methodical hands, Caleb undid his belt, then the clasp on his jeans. He lowered the zipper and hooked both hands into the waistband of his boxers, then, planting his feet firmly, he lift his buttocks from the ground and pushed his pants and boxers down his thighs. He settled back against the stone, which no longer felt either hot or cold, and pushed his pants down further, first removing his left pantleg, then his right.
He lowered his legs back to the stone, extended out in front of him, as he placed his pants in his lap. Pulling his boxers out, he folded them neatly and set them to the side, like Charlie had done with his magazine at the tollbooth. Caleb did the same with his pants, folding them and placing them beside his boxers. He reached for his T-shirt and folded this as well, then stacked it on his pants and placed the boxers on top. He added his shoes next, then placed the socks carefully inside of them.
He had no intention of returning for his clothing. He knew it would be used as the toll, and he would be unable to reclaim it, but he felt the need to be neat about it, to pay respect to the sacrifice. There was ritual to be observed here, and though there was no written form for him to study, no one who had guided him through it, he understood it innately, as if an ancient knowledge had been activated within him.
He lay back on the stone, feeling the ground of The Underworld welcome him into its embrace. It cradled him, sucking him down and into it, as if he were re-entering the womb. The Underworld, which lay deep within the Earth according to myth, was the womb of the mother, Gaia, who gave birth to all. Here, in the dark, at the banks of the river Styx, Caleb could feel her. She knew his name and said it softly, whispering of the ancient rites he had observed. He was vulnerable, yes, but he was strong, and would grow even stronger by his humility. All he had to do was face Death... and overcome it.
He rose slowly, keenly aware that Orpheus had never stopped watching over him, knowing that whatever he had just experienced, Orpheus knew at least the nature of it. He didn't mind, not anymore; he knew his place now, that he was a part of the whole, and Orpheus could never take that knowledge from him, or make him feel less because of it.
Caleb bent to pick up his backpack, sliding it back onto his shoulders. He stooped to pick up his clothing next, and walked back to Charlie. He handed the stack of clothing to Charlie, who accepted it in his bony hands. "You approach death as you approached birth. Yes, this is acceptable," Charlie said, and in an instant the clothing was gone, burned to ash before falling to the Stygian water below him. Charlie looked expectantly at the backpack Caleb wore.
"The backpack stays," Caleb said firmly. It wasn't out of anger, defiance, or pride, it was a matter of certainty. By Caleb's will, the backpack was an extension of himself in that moment, and The Underworld would heed his call. It contained within him a piece of his soul so integral it would be impossible to remove. His love of Ethan made manifest in the form of the journal. "It's a matter of use, not pride," Caleb clarified, hoping the answer would suffice.
Charlie bowed and stepped back. "I accept your offering."
"Then give me passage, Charon," Caleb said, bowing in turn. "Take me to The Ruler."
"I will," Charlie replied. "Come aboard and we will embark." He stood to the side to allow Caleb access, and Caleb moved onto the boat. He put his back to the shore, and sat down facing Orpheus.
"So dramatic..." Orpheus observed with a sly grin.
Caleb shrugged, a gesture he'd not often performed when naked, and which felt peculiar but not unseemly. "It felt right," Caleb replied. "Traditional."
"I noticed you bent him to your will," Orpheus said, nodding toward Charlie who placed the pole against the shore and pushed off, sending the boat out into the Styx.
"Did I?" Caleb asked neutrally.
"Your backpack," Orpheus observed. "Amazing you managed to keep it. You're learning faster than I anticipated. Soon you will be able to bend the fabric of the Underworld to your whim."
"You're saying, if I become a psychopomp?" Caleb asked.
"Caleb, you're already halfway there," Orpheus said with a knowing smile. "Accept the position, and you'll have power beyond your imagining."
Caleb couldn't repress his smirk as he asked, "Like you have?"
"Close. That may come in time," Orpheus replied cryptically, "But time is a fickle creature here."
"So I've learned," Caleb said softly.
Fear still gripped Ethan, even several hours after his dream. He couldn't sleep anymore, not now, not after seeing Caleb and being unable to reach him. It was Saturday night, and early, so he wasn't used to sleeping at this time, anyway, yet he also couldn't find the strength to leave his bedroom. Instead he paced anxiously, glancing at the clock from time to time, wondering if it would ever change, if the next day would come or if he was still dreaming, still trapped in his own mind.
The door opened without warning causing Ethan to jump, landing three feet away in a defensive posture, wild eyes blinking against the light streaming in from the hallway. "Ethan, honey..." Mrs. Pallet said, then saw Ethan's eyes and asked, "Are you okay?"
"Mom?" Ethan asked, slowly distinguishing her form in the doorway. She reached for the light switch and flipped it, then returned her attention to Ethan. He held his hand up against the glaring brightness, squinting at her.
Mrs. Pallet's concerned eyes met her son's as she said, "Ethan, you look like you're scared out of your mind. What happened?"
"Just a nightmare, Mom," Ethan said, shaking his head as he looked away. He relaxed his posture as he commenced pacing again, knowing he'd look crazy to his mother, but unable to find the energy to care. "I saw Caleb... I couldn't reach him."
"Oh, honey..." Mrs. Pallet said, taking a step into the room. She looked like she was about to hug him, but then pulled up short, her face a mask of uncertainty. "It's about time you faced this."
Ethan gave her an incredulous stare. "What?" He asked. "That's what you have to say to this? I have a nightmare and you tell me to face my fear?"
"Your best friend is gone. I'm so sorry, but..." Mrs. Pallet nodded to herself, apparently firming up her resolve for some hard thing she would have to do or say. "It's healthy to face your grief. I wish I could make it all better for you."
Ethan shook his head. "You can't. No one can."
He heard both the words and their tone. This wasn't a casual mention. His mother had an agenda, something she'd come to accomplish tonight. She hadn't come to offer comfort, to check on him, or even to talk about how he needed to address his grief. No, this was a missionary visit, and she'd come for his soul. That was one thing he'd never give her or her god.
"Mom," Ethan said firmly. "I'm not going back to church. I know you-"
"I know," Mrs. Pallet interrupted, raising her hand. She walked the rest of the way into his room and sat down on the edge of his bed. She hung her head sadly, fidgeting with her hands as she continued, "But I was hoping you wouldn't say that. God could help you, Ethan. I believe in that. I really do."
"No. Death can't even help me, Mom," Ethan said, chuckling dryly. "What can God do?"
"God is more powerful than death," Mrs. Pallet said with conviction.
Ethan threw his hands up in the air and shouted, "Oh, Jesus Christ!"
He meant it as a curse, but Mrs. Pallet's eyes lit up with excitement at his apparent understanding of her point. "Yes, exactly!" She said enthusiastically.
Ethan met her gaze and said seriously, "No, Mom. Nothing is more powerful than Death. I'm sure of it. I've felt it."
Mrs. Pallet's eyes fell, and her face fell with it. "Son, if you're going to keep doing this, resisting God's light in your life..." She breathed out a heavy sigh. "After graduation, I don't think we can let you stay here. Your father and I have been talking, and between your claim to be gay and your apostasy, I just don't think we want you around your brother and sister."
Ethan recoiled as if he'd been slapped. He'd expected this, but somehow hearing the words still caught him off guard. He saw the conviction in his mother's eyes and realized it stood in the way of everything he was. She wanted him to suffer because his identity did not mesh with her identity for him. "So, you're going to evict me after all," he whispered.
"Please don't think that we don't love you-"
"I'll move out next weekend," Ethan said, overriding her words. "I'm eighteen already, so it's not like you're able to stop me. Liz offered me a place already, so..." He shrugged. "I guess there isn't anything else left to talk about is there?"
"Ethan, don't be like that. You can stay until you graduate, I said that already. We're doing this bec-"
"Because you love me," Ethan finished for her, letting out an exasperated sigh. "I heard the lie the first time, Mom. You're doing it because you love your God more than you love me. It's pretty simple. Now, if you'll please leave me alone so I can pack?"
Mrs. Pallet opened her mouth again, but Ethan shook his head, giving her a warning look. She raised her hands in surrender, stood up, and walked from his room. He waited for her to go and then closed the door gently behind her, not wanting to seem angry by slamming it.
And, to his surprise, he didn't feel angry, not really. Now that the initial shock was starting to wear away, he could see a certain logic behind it and found peace with the situation. They, his parents, saw the world differently than he did. They had no concept of magic, yet they believed in God. They believed in love, though not its many forms. In his time using magic he had seen the endless possibilities ahead of him and could see the vast potential expressions of life and energy.
They didn't understand, and that was okay. One day, perhaps, they could, and then he could be with them. But he had already traveled to a different place, experienced different things, and they no longer knew how to relate. They feared what they did not understand, and so they wanted it away from them - perhaps until they could understand it.
For the same reason, he had given up magic, at least for now. He expected to return to it one day, when he understood it for what it was. He wasn't evil, magic wasn't evil, it was just new. His parents, too, would understand that in time.
But for now he needed to move on, and that meant he needed to make a call. Liz answered almost immediately, and after they exchanged hello's, Ethan said, "Liz, is that offer to stay at your place still valid? It looks like I'm going to be homeless soon."
Liz laughed. If it had been anyone else, Ethan would've thought she was going to make light of the situation, but he knew she wasn't. She just needed the relief that only laughter could bring. The sound brought a smile to Ethan's lips. "You bet," Liz said enthusiastically. "My Mom already said yes. Not like she has much say. I'm the one who pays most of the mortgage."
"Then expect a house guest by Friday," Ethan said firmly. "Think Jake could spare some time to help me move?"
"I'm sure he can," Liz replied, then, in a more serious tone, she asked, "You doing okay, Ethan?"
"Yeah," Ethan said, nodding to himself. "Better than I ever thought I would be, actually. I guess it's just... leaving home, it feels like I'm finally getting somewhere. Like I'm closer to where I want to be."
"You sound happy," Liz observed.
Ethan thought it over, and he realized the truth of the statement. He did feel happy. He had a sense of direction, even if that direction was out, and not to anything in specific. His momentary thought also brought the dream of Caleb back to his mind, and his ability to see infinite possibilities emerged once more. Ethan knew what to do.
"Yeah, but it's not just for that," he said. "You ever had a dream that felt magical?"
Liz snorted. "Of course. What's up?"
"I have a theory. About Caleb," Ethan said. He heard Liz take a sharp intake of breath, and he rushed to continue, "And before you give me that stare over the phone, I don't mean to bring him back. I just want to talk to him."
"You're talking a sťance?" Liz asked, surprised. "That's a rather simple spell, compared to stuff we've done in the past. That being said, are you thinking of casting it?"
"Well," Ethan chuckled. "I was hoping you'd be willing."
"Of course," Liz replied, laughing along with him. "How about you give me a week to review the process, make sure we do it right, and we'll do it for your welcoming party?"
"Liz. You are awesome."
"I know, Ethan," Liz said, then with a mischievous tone she added, "I'm the most badass witch that ever lived in this town."
Ethan guffawed. "Jake's rubbing off on you."
Liz groaned, realizing what she'd said. "Don't remind me."
Light came from somewhere. It was one thing Caleb hadn't reasoned out yet. There was no sun in The Underworld, yet there appeared to be a sky. Light radiated down from it, but the source was something beyond his understanding. At the moment, the sky's color was muted, like at the horizon opposite the sun at dusk or dawn, and dark clouds hung overhead, obscuring most of it. Despite this, the Stygian water shone, reflecting what little light there was, making it seem as if they floated on a sea of obsidian.
Orpheus had remained strangely silent during the first leg of their voyage. Caleb risked a glance at him every now and then, and the psychopomp seemed strangely preoccupied, as if he was rehearsing what to say when he arrived at their destination. Charlie moved the boat along with quiet dedication, solemnly watching the waters and not the boat's occupants. This left Caleb alone with his thoughts, and he caught himself staring into the dark waters around him.
The longer his thoughts wandered, however, the more he thought about why he'd come all this way. Ethan's face appeared in his thoughts, not the face he'd beheld at the Cocytus, but his real flesh. Caleb could picture him wandering in the darkness before The Warden, looking for some sign of direction.
His wandering mind produced an image of Ethan's face in the black water, and Caleb spoke to it, calling out to it softly. "Ethan..." he whispered, caressing the name. He tasted the name, savoring it, thinking for a moment he could touch Ethan's soul if he tried hard enough.
"I'm coming for you, Ethan..." Caleb said softly, letting the water pull at him. The waters seemed to suck him down, and Ethan's face started to withdraw.
"Come back to me," Caleb urged the image, but it was fleeing from him, sinking down into the depths where he could see it no longer. "Ethan, I'm coming for you!" Caleb shouted, willing the water to carry his message to his lover.
"What the hell are you going on about?" Orpheus asked. Caleb looked up to see Orpheus staring at him.
"Sorry," Caleb muttered. "I must've been dreaming."
Orpheus nodded in understanding. "Oh, did I neglect to mention-"
"Probably," Caleb replied, grinning.
Orpheus rolled his eyes. "The Mnemosyne is stronger the deeper into the Underworld you travel. You're probably seeing visions. They'll be powered by the Styx as well, as the waters of the two rivers mix."
"I still haven't seen the Mnemosyne," Caleb observed.
"And you likely won't," Orpheus said pointedly. "Unlike the others, it usually doesn't manifest itself physically. It's all around us. It's in the air we breathe, should we choose to inhale it."
Caleb nodded and changed the subject. "How long until we reach the seat of The Ruler?"
"How anxious are you to meet The Ruler?" Orpheus asked.
Caleb shrugged. "Pretty anxious."
"Pretty long then," Orpheus replied.
Caleb gestured out to the water and the ominous clouds hanging overhead. "This isn't exactly my idea of a pleasurable vacation."
"Do you fear the Styx, Caleb?" Orpheus asked, his head tilting to the side inquisitively. "Do you fear Hate itself?"
"Yes. I suppose I do," Caleb answered honestly. "I'd rather we were floating on a river of Love."
"No, you wouldn't," Orpheus replied confidently.
"Why do you say that?" Caleb asked.
"Do you want to know what creates the rivers, Caleb?"
"It's the negative emotions of those who have died, leeched out of them," Orpheus explained. "All the sadness that ever was bleeds out of the dead, creating the Acheron. All the despair creates the Cocytus. All the vitriol, the evil deeds, the pain and suffering humans seek to inflict upon each other, creates the Phlegethon. The Styx? It is created by all the Hate purged from souls as they commit their souls to oblivion. And you know why that happens?"
Orpheus reached down to let his hand run through the Styx, sifting through his fingers. "I don't know, not for sure, but I have a theory. It happens so that when a new person is born, they are purged of all the evil within them, so that they reenter the world as a being of love and innocence."
"Imagine then, if we were floating on a river of love, how the world would be?" Orpheus said, lifting his hand back out of the water. His fingers had been devoured to the bone, but his flesh regenerated over the next few seconds. "What if love were purged from the soul instead of hate? What kind of life would the living have, if all this Hate were let out into the world without Love to stop it, because Love flowed here? No, The Underworld is the province of Hate. We keep it, that the world need not suffer even more than it already has, but yet people still dig. They dig and they dig and they dig, eager to find the source of power which drives the soul. Some find the other rivers, but most find the Styx, because Hate is the most plentiful power source, even if Love can dispel it."
Caleb let the words sink in as he reached out to the primal feeling he'd felt at the shore. He knew in his heart that Orpheus spoke the truth, as innately as he understood the need for humility. He let his gaze return to the water, and realized that he no longer feared it. Just as Orpheus had moments before, Caleb let his fingers glide into the water. He touched hate as he had never touched it before, but it was around him, not in him. Hatred of others, hatred of self, both concepts were one, and both were apart from him, yet they burned him on contact. He lifted his hand from the water, amazed to see that his flesh, too, had been destroyed. But, just as had happened to Orpheus, the flesh returned within seconds.
"What powers the Lethe?" Caleb asked, returning his hand to his naked thigh.
"Unrealized dreams and expectations. Disappointment. Fear. Stagnation and fear of change." Orpheus looked up, his eyes hard. "Only those dissatisfied can feed her waters. It's the desire to escape our reality, because it doesn't match what we wish it to be. This is why even paradise becomes unbearable, when one endures it long enough."
"And the Mnemosyne?" Caleb asked.
"Is powered by Madness," Orpheus answered.
Caleb smiled slyly. "Which explains you, I suppose."
"Yes. I guess it does," Orpheus replied, chuckling. "Always questioning, always seeking, driving one's self mad with endless curiosity of mysteries beyond the mortal mind. The Mnemosyne is the great 'Why'. Not why in the sense of despair, but in the sense of dread, of pure, existential terror."
"And yet you drink from it," Caleb observed.
"As deeply as I can, as often as I can," Orpheus conceded with a nod. "It brings answers, though it always creates more questions. It never quite satisfies, but it's the only thing which comes close." He gave Caleb a knowing look. "You've tasted it, you know of its pleasures."
"I have, and I can see how it would be intoxicating. But I d-" Caleb's world became black, and he slumped forward into an unconscious stupor, cutting his words off in the process.
The last thing he heard before fading completely was Orpheus calling his name.
Night greeted Ethan and Jake with the enticing sound of crickets. Both men wore jackets in case of a late March chill, but neither felt particularly cold. Their anticipation kept them warm, that and the company; everyone they loved currently resided in the small house behind them.
Not quite everyone, Ethan admitted to himself, missing his family already. He did love them, even if they were distant from him now. He would see them again, visit on occasion, when they felt the time was right. He'd leave it up to them, however, instead of forcing them to see him. He had his own life now and they had theirs, and that was the way it should be.
Jake's hand twitched, making Ethan think he wanted a smoke. Ethan wished he could offer one, something, to calm Jake's nerves, but he didn't have anything on hand. Jake barely carried any drugs anymore, having cleaned up on behalf of his fiancé and future child, but he still kept a small stash. Ethan considered running and getting him something, but before he could, Jake asked a question. "Hey, are you sure about this?"
"More than I've been about anything in a long while," Ethan replied. He glanced inside, where Liz sat at the kitchen table, muttering to herself. She was memorizing a spell, careful to consider every word and internalize it. Ethan admired her dedication to adequate preparation, and wished he'd learned that skill from her. All he felt right now was anxiety.
He returned his attention to Jake and asked, "You have misgivings?"
"The mother of my baby is eight months pregnant with my child. You can bet I'm nervous," Jake replied, some of his typical roughness now missing from his tone. "I'm not even sure she should be doing magic, and a séance isn't exactly a simple thing."
"She says she can handle it, and I trust her," Ethan replied. As he realized there was potentially more to it than that, he added, "If you're feeling bad about it, though, I think I can probably get up the nerve to do it myself."
"The only thing riskier than her doing it is you doing it, dude," Jake said, laughing like it was the funniest joke in the world. His face fell when he saw Ethan wasn't laughing. Jake added, "No offense, but... you haven't touched magic in what, four months now?"
"Just about," Ethan confirmed.
"And the last time you did, shit," Jake shook his head, "You barely walked away, you know?"
"Yeah, I know," Ethan replied, laughing. "I'm a mess."
"I mean it in the best way possible," Jake said. "But man, I'm glad you're here."
Ethan smiled. "Thanks, Jake."
"Are you boys ready to begin, or are you going to just sit there all night?" Liz called to them through the screen door. Jake and Ethan shared a look and a grin, then both abandoned their porch chairs to walk back into the house.
"Sorry, Liz," Ethan said, taking the seat to her left at the kitchen table as Jake took the seat opposite. "Let's do this thing."
Liz took Ethan's hand and then Jake's, and Jake reached across the table to take Ethan's. Each of them tapped into the well of pure emotion within them, and linked their will, giving their power over to Liz. It wasn't strictly necessary for such a spell, certainly not with a magic user of Liz's caliber at the helm, but having the strength of all of them would make it easier on Liz. Out of concern for the baby, it seemed the best course of action.
Closing her eyes, Liz let her will assume control, and she slowly began the incantation she'd practiced.
"By the power of three, we seek the realm of the Dead. We humbly ask admittance of the guardians therein, and seek to commune with a soul who dwells among you. We seek the soul of Caleb Nield, beloved friend, fallen lover, and our companion. Guardians of The Underworld, let Acheron and Styx forbid us not, and let us bring his spirit to us but for a moment, that we may have our last communion."
Ethan didn't know what to expect. He'd never seen an actual sťance before, only the theatrical depictions in television or movies. There were no flickering lights, no loud sounds or shaking walls, only the quiet sense that someone else had joined them.
"Caleb?" Liz asked, sensing the presence as well. She could feel him within her, and by extension, the others could, too, though at greater distance.
"Liz, is that you?" Liz said with Caleb's voice. Ethan looked at Liz in surprise then shared an excited grin with Jake before returning to a clear mind and focus.
"Yes," Liz said excitedly. "Oh God, it actually worked."
"What worked?" Caleb asked. "Where are you? I can't see you. I can't see anything. Everything is dark."
Liz didn't care for the description of Caleb's location, but she couldn't help her smile at hearing her best friend's voice again. "I'm at my house," she answered. "I'm here with Jake, and Ethan."
"Ethan is with you!?" Caleb asked, his voice booming out of Liz's mouth.
Liz nodded. "Yes, of course. Didn't you rescue him?"
"Ethan!" Caleb replied. It sounded like a moan, and Ethan started to lose his grip on his emotions. Thankfully, the circle kept him in check, and he was able to maintain control as Caleb asked, "Can I talk to him?"
"I performed a sťance. You're dead," Liz replied. "You'll have to speak through me."
"C-caleb?" Ethan asked shakily.
"I can hear him. Oh, I can hear him!" Caleb said. Ethan could hear the intake of breath that marked a sob, and he choked on his own emotions in response. "Ethan," Caleb whispered, "I missed you."
"I missed you, too."
"I love you," Caleb said.
Ethan sniffled, and his emotions went haywire. "I love you, too," he said, nearly dropping out of the connection with the others. As he wavered, Liz and Jake sucked him back in with their unshakeable will.
"Ethan, I've been looking for you. I've tried to find..." Caleb choked on his words, and then said, "I guess my question has been answered."
"Caleb, is Orpheus with you?" Ethan asked.
"Yes, he's guiding me..." Caleb said.
It sounded to Ethan as if Caleb had trailed off in thought, and so he continued with his intended warning. "He's not what he appears to be, he's-"
Invoking Orpheus' name came with the power of summoning him to the sťance, and a different voice took control of Liz's vocal cords: a melodic, male voice rippling with power and control. "That's quite enough of that, Ethan," Orpheus said. Liz's eyes flashed open, and her head turned toward Ethan, glowering intensely. "You interfere again, after last time? I'll give you one thing, you've got tenacity. Maybe you'd be useful to me after all."
Liz gasped, as if overwhelmed by the intensity of the being now inhabiting her. Ethan could feel her fighting for control, to hold Orpheus at bay. He glanced at Jake, whose concerned expression showed the difficulty Jake was having in concentrating on the spell now that Liz was in danger.
"Let me talk to Caleb," Ethan said, hoping diplomacy would work. "Please, Orpheus."
"And why would I want to do a thing like that?" Orpheus asked, working Liz's mouth into a conceited smirk.
"I won't try to bring him back," Ethan said.
Orpheus threw Liz's head back and cackled madly. "You already know you can't. Why do I care?"
Ethan's eyes pleaded with Orpheus. "I just want to talk to him."
"And tell him all about me and what I'm doing to him?" Orpheus asked. "I think not."
Jake gripped Ethan' and Liz's hands tightly. "Liz, you need to end this," he said. And then Ethan felt Jake attempt to assert control of the spell, his will surging within him as he reached into Liz, trying to help her regain her focus.
Orpheus swiveled Liz's head toward Jake and growled menacingly. "Oh, another pitiful mage thinking he can interfere in my affairs. Maybe I should kill you, too?"
"Liz, now!" Jake insisted.
"I'm trying!" Liz cried.
"I'm trying!" Orpheus mocked, then returned his attention to Ethan. "Ethan, I think it's time you and I had another chat, face to face."
Ethan felt a tremendous pain travel up his arm. He wanted to let go, to end it, but he could no longer send commands to his hand or arm. He glanced down and saw his veins and arteries begin to darken, as if they were filling with black sludge. His whole arm tingled with pain, as the blackness traveled upward, hitting his bicep now.
"Liz! End it!" Jake shouted.
"I can't," Liz yelled, "he's too strong!"
Death itself had reached into Ethan and threatened to fill his blood vessels with the eviscerating waters of the Styx. He could sense the poison and its source, and knew it would soon consume him entirely. Sparing a glance at Liz and Jake, he saw that they, too, were suffering from the same taint.
Liz, Jake, and baby Caleb; all of them would die if Ethan didn't do something. He shut out the pain, transferring it to some distant point of self, compartmentalizing his mind to free himself from all distraction. He reached into the void of his own soul, the infinite depth of human consciousness, calling on all the will he could from himself and from his friends.
"Raaaaaaaaghhh!" He screamed, and his body surged with energy, drawn from the well of humanity among them, pulled from his love for his friends and their love for him. He forced the Stygian waters back to their source by his will, powered by the purest emotion he had ever known, and he uttered words of power, ringing with his conviction. "Go back to the Underworld! I banish you from this realm and sever the link to this body! You cannot have me, you cannot have her, and you will heed my words!"
Liz shuddered, and Orpheus uttered one final decree. "I'll have you all in the end. I am Death!"
Ethan, Liz, and Jake collapsed to the table, breathing heavily. The world was spinning, and Ethan thought that the lights had now decided to flicker in response, until he realized how close he was to passing out. He felt Liz squeeze his hand weakly and risked lifting his head to glance at her.
"Ethan, how did you do that?" Liz whispered, and then more urgently added, "He was so strong!"
"Letting him kill me was one thing, but letting him kill you? Or Jake? Or the baby?" Ethan asked, he closed his eyes, then opened then again, starting to breathe normally at last. "I couldn't let that happen. I love you both too much."
"Ethan," Jake said breathlessly, "you beat him."
"Yeah, on our terms," Ethan said, sitting up at last and letting go of their hands. "And he still almost killed us all."
"Yeah, but you beat him," Liz said, keeping her hand locked tight with Jake's. "You know what that means, right?"
"He can be beaten," Liz said. "We just have to figure out how."
Ethan was surprised at her conviction. She'd been the first to start doubting that bringing Caleb back was the right idea, and yet now she seemed to think she could challenge death. He had fought Orpheus twice, and he knew what a real battle would mean. Liz did not.
"No," Ethan said firmly.
"What do you mean, 'no'?" Jake asked, sharing a look with Liz. "We can do this. Shit, you just did it!"
"We can't beat him," Ethan replied. "Not on his terms. Only someone who understands those terms and the limits he has can do that. We can't beat him." But his eyes lit up, and a smile slowly crept across his face. "But Caleb can, just as Orpheus beat Hades. It's time to hit Orpheus where it hurts. We'll take the fight to The Underworld."
Caleb's eyes fluttered open. That was no dream, he knew that for certain. He'd heard Liz's voice - and Ethan's - and he could sense their presence. He even sensed the presence of another, less familiar person. As he gathered his sense, his mind dwelled on the identity of the last one who'd been there, remembering Liz's words at the beginning. Jake. Jake Sanders? Why would Jake be there?
But overshadowing all of that was one thing; Ethan already lived on the other side of the veil. He'd already gone back to the world of the living, which meant... Orpheus had lied to him from the very beginning.
"Ethan," he mumbled, sitting up. He was in the bottom of the boat, but the boat no longer moved through the water. It rested on a rocky shoreline, Charlie standing tall at the bow, with Orpheus staring at him critically.
"We've arrived, Caleb," Orpheus said. But there was a difference now. While Caleb wasn't sure what had triggered it, he knew Orpheus had at least played a part in ending his connection to the others. It was just after Ethan had asked if they were together. Ethan must've tried to warn him.
He didn't anticipate a straight answer, but he asked the question anyway, thinking it would be expected of him. "What happened?"
"You started to fall into the Styx, but we were able to catch you in time," Orpheus replied. "Its energies must have overwhelmed you. You were unconscious for some time. Apparently, you didn't drink any of it, since you're speaking just fine."
"I was..." Caleb said, trying to think of an answer that wouldn't tip off how much he knew about Orpheus, while still acknowledging where he went. Orpheus knew, after all, that he'd been speaking to his friends. Caleb could see it in his eyes. He wanted to protect them and had a feeling if Orpheus thought they'd been successful in their mission, they wouldn't be safe. "I was dreaming. I could hear things."
"Like at the Cocytus? The whisperings of the rivers?" Orpheus asked.
"Maybe," Caleb replied, shrugging noncommittally. "It felt different."
Orpheus seemed satisfied by this answer. "Nothing to worry about, Caleb. As I said, we've arrived. We can talk about what you saw after you meet with The Ruler, if you so desire."
"Where do I go?" Caleb asked, rising to his feet. He focused on maintaining his balance as he walked forward, then stepped out of the boat and onto the shore. All he saw was a desolate landscape of boulders and dead trees in front of him, but the elevation continued to increase, and a mighty mountain rose in the distance. It looked familiar, like something he'd dreamed about or saw in another life.
Orpheus pointed toward the mountain and said, "You'll see it. You'll recognize it. Everybody does."
"Up the slope, then?" Caleb asked.
Orpheus nodded. "Yes. I cannot go there with you."
"I am your guide, and nothing more," Orpheus replied. Caleb tried to read the lie in his expression, but he could not detect one. "This," Orpheus continued, "You must do alone."
Caleb nodded and turned away from Orpheus. He understood. Even if Orpheus turned out to be The Ruler as Caleb suspected, he understood having to make the trek alone. He came seeking, and he had found; he only needed to walk the last bit of the way alone.
The sharp stones beneath his bare feet were uncomfortable, and even though he tried to will the ground to be smooth as he'd changed the temperature before, he could not do so here. This part of the land resisted him, as if it had to be the way it was and no other way. He found this peculiar, considering the laws of the realm as he'd so far experienced them, but he decided to accept it and move forward.
As he moved away from the shore, the sharp rocks became less frequent, and he soon came upon a dirt path which led upward. The path appeared unused, no footprints at all, yet the existence of the path itself told him that others had walked there. He wondered if it rained in The Underworld, and if so, where the rain came from. Did it wash away the signs of creatures passing, as rain did in the living world?
He felt eyes at his back and glanced over his shoulder, expecting to see Orpheus watching him from the shoreline, but when he looked he had to stop and turn around, taking in the sight. He didn't feel he had climbed very high, yet he looked down on the world below him as if he stood on the tallest mountain in the realm.
He could see all the way to the Acheron, which appeared many miles away. The great city of Elysium rose up halfway between him and the Acheron, a splendid metropolis to behold from this vantage point. He could sense all the souls there, living out their peaceful paradises. Despite the distance, he could make out the fountain of Phlegethon, and the fountain of Lethe, both beautiful in their own sense.
And he could see the Styx, less a river and more a swamp, surrounding everything and wrapping around The Underworld in all its spiteful glory. He understood its hidden beauty now, the way Orpheus had described it. The Styx didn't flow through The Underworld, it flowed out of it, to the outer reaches. It protected its citizens, stealing their hate and letting them live out their afterlife without spite.
If it rained in The Underworld, it must rain over The Styx only, for only that great swamp could contain the waters of the Dead. Caleb knew, and in that moment, he was overcome. He sat down on the trail, looking down at the world below him, and he wept. He wept for the dead, who knew not the beauty which surrounded them. He wept for the living, who knew not the clarity of death. But he did not weep for himself, for he had never seen the world with such a perfect understanding than he did now. His soul felt whole for the first time he had ever known.
But there remained a task to complete, he reminded himself, and after he could weep no more, he stood. Only then did he catch the signs of movement below him; three dogs rose up off their haunches, cat-like eyes following his every move. He smiled at them, knowing they, too, understood the world as only the truly dead could.
Caleb crouched once more, and the dogs approached him. He held his hand out for them to sniff, and one by one they approached him. Their cold snouts brushed against his fingertips and he scratched each one behind its ears.
"You're not so bad, are you?" Caleb murmured. "You're just a part of this place after all, and there's no reason to fear you, is there?"
The dogs didn't offer any form of answer, and so Caleb turned his back on them and resumed his ascent. He climbed for what seemed like hours, and what seemed like seconds. A part of him marked time as a man, and a part of him marked time as The Underworld did. Despite the difference, both made sense to him, and he drew comfort from the fact that he retained his humanity, even after everything he'd come to understand.
He'd drunk deeply from the Mnemosyne, but he did not feel mad. Yet, he knew, this too was a form of madness. The thought made him smile as he crested one last ridge and saw his destination. Orpheus spoke the truth; he recognized it instantly. Cherry Creek Cave stood before him, it's gaping maw calling to him as if welcoming him home.
His heart rate increased unbidden. He sensed a presence within, and his whole body reached out to it. He'd thought he was whole before, but he knew now that the final piece he needed lay inside the cave. Without thinking any longer, he sprinted toward the mouth of the cave, clambering over boulders as quickly as he could.
As he entered the cave, his eyes slowly adjusted to the dark. He glanced back once and saw that a wall of dark fog now covered the entrance of the cave. He'd seen fog like that before, at his first meeting with Orpheus. He turned around, expecting to find the musician waiting for him.
Instead he found an obsidian throne, appearing as if it had been built from frozen chunks of the Styx. On the throne sat a boy of seventeen, naked and emaciated, his gaunt features regarding Caleb with sadistic curiosity. Ethan appeared much as he had at the Cocytus, blood flowing freely from his arms, the cuts so deep Caleb could see the bone beneath. The figure laughed, the taut skin around its skull breaking from the effort of the movement.
Caleb covered his mouth to suppress his gasp. He fell to his knees, unable to look away from the ghastly sight ahead of him. The figure rose up from its throne and walked toward him, skeletal fingers raised in accusation, "You've come for me, Caleb?" The figure asked. It stepped in front of him, then cupped his chin in its bony fingers. "You wished to save me? From this?"
The figure lifted Caleb to his feet with inhuman strength, wrapping its fingers tight around Caleb's throat. "Who do you think you are, Caleb? To think you could ever save a soul. You think you understand death, but you cower in its presence. I will consume you, and not even Lethe will want your remains."