"No one knows, do they?" Caleb asked, stepping off the throne to stand before Orpheus.
Orpheus' head tilted to the side. "No one knows what?"
"That you're The Ruler," Caleb said. "The One Who Rules Beneath."
Orpheus' crooked grin would've made glass break if it reflected the image. "You figured that out, did you?"
"Yes," Caleb said. "It doesn't make a lot of sense, what you told me earlier."
"Which part?" Orpheus asked.
"That what I saw here would be a manifestation of my view of Death," Caleb said knowingly.
"How does that not make sense?" Orpheus asked. "Did you not see your image of Death at the very end?"
"No," Caleb replied. "I know how I imagine Death, and it's not like that. That was how I imagined life at its worst. They are not the same thing."
"How do you imagine Death?"
"I imagine Death to be when the human heart fails, when life no longer has meaning," Caleb said. "If The Ruler is my personification of Death, than clearly he stands before me."
"Is that how you see me?" Orpheus asked, chuckling. "Fascinating."
"So, what happens now?" Caleb asked.
"Aren't you going to tell me what you saw?" Orpheus asked. "I'm dying to know." He laughed at his little joke, but Caleb remained calm.
Orpheus grinned. "I'll get it out of you eventually."
"I don't intend to stay," Caleb replied.
Orpheus raised an eyebrow. "And how exactly do you plan to leave?"
"The same way I came in, of course."
"There's just one problem with that, you know."
Three cat-eyed dogs moved through the dark fog at the mouth of the cave, taking up a defensive position behind Orpheus and watching Caleb warily.
"Cerberus," Orpheus replied. "He's not going to let you out."
"He only answers to his master."
"Which is you."
"So, what you mean is you're not going to let me out?" Caleb said, smirking. "That sounds about right."
"You told me it would be a life for a life. I gave Ethan his life back, so you took his place," Orpheus said, grinning madly. "You expect me to go back on my word?"
"How did you do it?" Caleb asked. "How did you become The One Who Rules Beneath?"
"I killed Death, obviously," Orpheus said, shrugging. "The position was vacant, so I filled it."
"You killed Death?" Caleb asked incredulously. "How?"
"And tell you so you can do it to me?" Orpheus scoffed. "I think not, though I do applaud your attempt."
"What do you expect me to do now? Stay in the afterlife? Work for you?"
"I told you, I'd like you to be my new psychopomp," Orpheus said. "The position is still open, even if you hate me. I don't mind. I like you, Caleb. You've come a long way in such a short time."
"You want me to be the one who guides souls to you? You want me to feed your ego?" Caleb rolled his eyes. "I don't know about that."
"There are worse jobs, you know," Orpheus replied pointedly. "You could be pushing a boulder up the side of a mountain for all eternity. I can be creative."
Caleb stared at Orpheus for several seconds of silence. Then he nodded once and said, "I'll consider it, but first you have to do something for me."
"Tell me," Orpheus said eagerly.
"You made an oath on the Styx that I'd find Ethan here, yet we both know he was not here for me to find. You even admitted as much a moment ago," Caleb said. "Drink from the Styx. That's the appropriate punishment, isn't it?"
"Why would I do that?" Orpheus asked. "I don't particularly fancy not being able to speak for a while."
"I don't expect you to go back on your word is all," Caleb said. "Prove to me your oath is really your bond, and I'll believe you."
Orpheus held Caleb's gaze for a long time, and then he sighed and rolled his eyes. "Fine, I'll go drink from the river."
Caleb held up his hand and said, "I have some already." He pulled off his backpack and opened it, pulling out his canteen. "If you remember, you watched me fill the canteen. And you thought I'd never need it."
"You're joking," Orpheus said, groaning. "Did you plan this?"
"No," Caleb replied honestly. "I thought it might come in handy after you told me what it did. Do you not remember watching me fill it? That's when you told me not to drink from the river, and about what the water did." He chuckled dryly and tossed the canteen to Orpheus. "I can imagine getting a great deal of pleasure from making you shut up for a while."
"You mischievous bastard, no wonder I like you," Orpheus said, grinning. He unscrewed the lid of the canteen and held it to his lips, then asked, "Okay, so if I drink from this, you'll take my job offer?"
"If it's still on the table, I agree," Caleb said.
Orpheus threw his head back and upturned the canteen over his mouth. The grey waters of the Lethe, harnessed at the fountain of Eurydice, poured down Orpheus' throat. By the time Orpheus realized he'd been duped, it was too late.
He spluttered and threw the canteen away from him, hacking and coughing as he fell to his knees at Caleb's feet. He looked up at Caleb with murderous rage in his eyes. "What the hell? What did you . . . this is . . . that was Lethe!"
"I must've gotten my rivers confused," Caleb said in mock surprise. "Isn't that just terrible?"
"What have you done!?" Orpheus shouted. "I'm . . . I'm fading, I . . . My mind is eroding to nothingness! Why?"
"Eurydice said you could no longer see your own heart," Caleb said. "The Ruler must be able to see both love and hate; he must be able to tell the difference. You no longer can, and so you are not fit to rule this land."
He knelt next to Orpheus and placed a consoling hand on his shoulder. "Don't think of it as death, Orpheus. Think of it as waking up at last from a dream you can't remember."
"You bastard!" Orpheus growled, and then the anger faded from his face, the hatred died in his eyes. "I . . . I don't remember why I'm mad at you. I'm very tired."
"Go to sleep," Caleb said gently, sadly. "You'll feel better when you wake up."
"Yes. Sleep . . . sleep sounds delightful," Orpheus said. He fell to the ground, drawing one final breath before disappearing into nothingness. Caleb reached out to where Orpheus' body had lain and felt nothing there.
He rose to his feet and saw Cerberus before him, staring at him as if waiting for a command. Caleb walked toward them and the mist they guarded. When they held their ground, he said, "Back off. I am your master now." The dogs bowed and moved to the side, and Caleb grinned at them. "Good doggies. Might just keep you around."
He descended the mountain much more quickly than he had ascended it. It seemed as if it was only an instant before he arrived at the ferry and saw Charlie reading his magazine. Charlie looked up as Caleb appeared and smiled pleasantly.
"Interesting," Charlie said. "I'd not expected to see you again."
"I am The Ruler," Caleb informed Charlie.
Charlie nodded. "Yes, I suppose you are," he said. "I can feel it in you, now that I'm looking for it. Have our directives changed?"
"No," Caleb said. "Continue to watch and ward. I shall return."
"I can also sense your intent, Ruler. You are leaving the kingdom?" Charlie asked in surprise. "You would bring Death to the above?"
"Only for a moment," Caleb replied.
Charlie bowed. "Be aware of your power, noble one. This is all I ask."
"Charlie, I will be careful."
"Yes, I believe you will," Charlie said. "Are you going to seek your lover then?"
Caleb smirked. "You knew he was above, didn't you? When I first passed this way?"
"I had a suspicion, but it was neither my place to know nor to tell you," Charlie replied, shrugging his great, bony shoulders. "Only The Ruler may make such a decision."
Caleb nodded, accepting this as an appropriate answer. Charlie served The Ruler, so it only made sense that he would not have helped Caleb until he assumed the position. "I think I'm in need of a psychopomp. It appears that Orpheus preferred to serve in that position and kept no others, but I wish to spend more time focused on governing the realm than guiding souls," Caleb said." Do you have any suggestions?"
"Only one who has died yet lives may serve in such a position," Charlie explained. "Only such a being may move freely throughout the kingdom, and then only by your decree, noble one."
"Could you serve in such a position?" Caleb asked. "Not that I am asking, necessarily."
Charlie shook his head solemnly. "I have never died, nor have I ever lived. I am but a manifestation of the gateway, the ferry, and the bridge. I am the path, given consciousness."
"So, that would be a no?" Caleb asked.
"I'm afraid so."
"Very well, carry on."
"I will," Charlie said. "Such is my duty, such is my end."
Caleb no longer required the ferry to cross the waters of the Styx. He knew his power now, knew he could traverse the kingdom as he wished, and so he wrapped himself in the powers of The Underworld and folded into its energy, then traveled through space and time to the other side of the Acheron, and the doorway back into the things betwixt.
He walked into the darkness, and paused beside the reception desk, smiling at the Warden. She gave him a sidelong glance and said, "Caleb, was it? How did you manage to make it back to me?" She looked him up and down and asked, "and why are you naked?"
"I have my ways," Caleb replied, laughing. He hadn't even realized his nakedness. The power within him made him feel invulnerable. He filed The Warden's observation away as a reminder to avoid becoming lost in his own hubris. He pulled on the darkness around him and wove some simple clothing for himself; a plain black, button-up shirt and a pair of form-fitting black jeans.
"Oh, did that pesky Orpheus teach you his nasty little habits?" The Warden asked, glancing at the new set of clothing.
"In a manner of speaking," Caleb said, shrugging.
The Warden rolled her eyes. "Great, and now there are two."
"Actually, there's only one," Caleb observed.
"Ah, I can sense it now," The Warden mused appreciatively. "So, you're The Ruler."
"Did you know Orpheus ruled?" Caleb asked.
"No one truly rules Death," The Warden said simply. "He never ruled, he only thought he did."
Caleb laughed. He happened to agree with her, and he considered amending his title, though her reasoning seemed flawed for another reason. "Yet you address me as 'ruler'."
"That is because I feel you understand that principle," The Warden said, smiling. "You feel different than Orpheus did. There's more than hate to you."
Caleb bowed humbly, and chose not to contest the point. "I need a new psychopomp. Any suggestions?"
"I have too much work as is if you're asking me," The Warden said dismissively. "Besides, I've never truly died."
"Never?" Caleb asked, surprised.
She shook her head. "No. I don't know what lies beyond. I never see the lights."
"You're an atheist. Even after all you've seen?"
She smiled knowingly. "No one truly rules Death."
"Then I'll be going onward," Caleb said.
"You're heading to the realm of the living?" The Warden asked, surprised.
"You know that's a bad idea, don't you?"
"As The Ruler, you bring Death everywhere you go," The Warden replied. "There is no place for you there. You can enter, but there will be consequences."
"I see," Caleb said quietly.
"But, you can go to the edge and peer in," The Warden offered. "There is nothing wrong with that."
"I have someone to meet," Caleb said. "And I believe I know where to find him."
"Ah, your lover."
"Ethan Pallet. I remember him," The Warden said, nodding to herself. "He didn't know where to go. He never saw the lights, like me."
"Do you know how he perceived you?" Caleb asked.
"No. I know nothing, though he did believe enough to see me," The Warden said. "Orpheus could've told you, but . . . if he's gone . . ."
"No matter, I'll ask him myself."
"Are you certain you should see him? He was in a great deal of pain when last he was here. You could open old wounds."
"Or I could close them."
The Warden bowed her head. "I concede the point. Good luck."
"You're a lot nicer now than you were when we last met," Caleb observed.
"You're my boss now," The Warden said, smiling slyly. "I have to kiss up, don't I?"
"What is your name?" Caleb asked. "I wish to call you by it."
The Warden shrugged. "It's not in the records. I've honestly forgotten it."
"So, I should just call you 'The Warden' forever?" Caleb asked.
"If you'd like. Or 'The Grand Secretary'. 'The Divine Keeper of The Records'. 'The One Who Keeps the Unruly Archives of the Dead'. I'm not picky."
"We'll talk it over when I get back. How about that?" Caleb suggested.
"Can I get a raise, too?"
"You get paid?"
"No," The Warden replied. "Maybe you could start?"
"How will you spend the money?"
"Home delivery?" The Warden offered.
"I like your style, Towkuad," Caleb replied, grinning.
The Warden groaned. "Let's not make that the new title, okay?"
"You got it."
He left the desk behind and walked into the dark. In the distance, he could see the crack, the barely perceivable break between the things betwixt and the world of the living. He stepped up to the crack and peered in, and found himself in the back of Cherry Creek Cave.
Ethan knelt at the mouth of the cave, but he looked up as Caleb approached and stood as Caleb stopped at the shadowy line that marked the entrance to the cave. One step further, and he'd bring death to the living world, and he could not do that.
"I'm here," Caleb said softly.
"Why aren't you coming any closer?" Ethan asked.
"If I come closer, you'll die," Caleb explained sadly. "More will die."
"What happened? If you're here, doesn't that mean you've defeated Orpheus? Can't you come back?"
Caleb shook his head and said, "You can't reverse Death, only exchange or fulfill it."
"Then how do you explain me?" Ethan protested. "You brought me back."
"An exchange," Caleb said softly.
Ethan nodded. He had to accept it, if it was the truth. "So you're dead?"
"Close," Caleb chuckled. "I'm Death."
"Yes," Ethan nodded slowly. "I can sense that."
"I wasn't aware that was now a universal skill," Caleb replied, laughing.
Ethan laughed along with him, his eyes twinkling in the way that made Caleb's whole body ache for him. "It might not be," Ethan said. "I'm a bit different now."
"So it would seem," Caleb said gently.
Ethan shifted awkwardly and his foot brushed against a small pebble, sending it rolling toward Caleb's barefoot. Caleb looked down at the pebble sadly and kicked it back to Ethan.
"It's good to see you," Ethan said as he caught the pebble with his shoe. He glanced down at it for a moment then looked back up at Caleb, his eyes misting over quickly.
"Bet you didn't think it'd be this awkward, did you?" Caleb laughed, feeling tears form in his own eyes. "Man, I wish I knew what to say."
"Yeah, you'd think after you die and live again, you'd have an easier time with awkward conversations," Ethan replied.
"What?" Caleb asked, processing the words. "Wait . . . you . . . you died and live again . . ." he laughed so hard he had a difficult time remaining standing.
"Yeah," Ethan said. "So?"
"Fuck," Caleb said, shaking his head in disbelief. "I'm such an idiot."
"Why?" Ethan asked.
Caleb's grin could split the world in two. "Would you like a job?"
Ethan smiled curiously, and the sparkle in his eyes couldn't be brighter. "What do I have to do?"
"I'm sorry for your loss," Caleb said. His arms felt light, and suddenly she was gone, disappearing as if she had never existed. But she remained in Caleb's memory, a fragment of a ghost he'd carry with him as he moved forward. He looked up, fresh tears in his eyes as he imagined the edge of Elysium and walked toward it.
Special thanks to my Patreon supporters: Michael, Bill, Charles, Amr, Don, James, Joe, Jos, Mark, Mark, Paul, Steve, John, Frank, Sam, Jay, Scott, Matt, Haldon, Darren, Richmond, Pete, Peter, Bart, Chris, and YOUR NAME HERE. Couldn't have done it without them or you.
And to EleCivil, for his generous support during the writing process, helping me see the Rivers for what they are.
And to the haunted.
Please consider supporting my work on Patreon for access to my latest stories and additional perks! Writing is currently my sole income, and I could use the support. Thank you! https://www.patreon.com/Cynus