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."
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And to the haunted.
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