Rivers of the Dead: Book Two

3-10: Out of the Cave

Hypothermia turned out to be easier to handle than Ethan expected, and he didn't even have to use magic to beat it. All it took was some expert medical advice from Ethan's scouting days as Liz took care of him. Not that he could have worked any magic if he'd tried.

His will had been broken, his emotions were no longer pure, and all the knowledge in the world was useless to him without those two things. He didn't mind much, not really. All magic had gotten him was a series of brutal dead ends and the realization he was worth almost nothing in the universe.

That, and eternal youth, which at least held out the hope of some perks, anyway.

It was now late March, and Spring was just around the corner. He'd spent most of the last three months with Liz and Jake, who were generous enough with their free time to help him through his emotional crisis. He didn't want to kill himself anymore, at least not during every waking moment, but he didn't particularly care to live, either.

At his parents', and counselor's, urging, he'd managed to get his grades up to a passing level, and his home situation had mellowed out to some degree, though it was still far from perfect. His parents insisted he needed more therapy, and he insisted that if they tried, he'd move in with Liz. They compromised, and he spent more time with Liz when he wasn't at school.

But usually, he spent that time at Liz's house, which is why he was surprised to find Liz arriving at his house on a bright, Saturday morning before she went to work. She was a week shy of eight months pregnant now, and she looked every month of it. She'd been told to not travel very often, but that was almost impossible for Liz who never stayed in one place for long.

"Hey, are you going to invite the fat chick inside?" Liz barked from the front porch.

Ethan laughed. "You're stronger than me, so I don't think refusing you is in my best interest."

Liz rolled her eyes and stepped inside, then reached into her bag at her side and handed two red envelopes to Ethan. "One is for you; the other is for your mother."

Ethan nodded and said, "Have a seat in the living room. I'll make some tea if you'd like."

"No, thank you," Liz said as she moved past him to the couch. "I already have to pee too much as is. I really could do without more liquid in me."

Ethan laughed and sat down next to her. He opened the envelope and pulled out the card, eyes skimming the contents as a knowing smirk graced his face. "A baby shower, huh?" He asked. Liz nodded, and he continued. "For some reason, I never expected to see you at a baby shower. Honestly, I never thought you'd have children."

"Me neither, and I definitely didn't think I'd have them with Jake," Liz groaned. "But that fucker doesn't know how to use protection, even if he can pull off some of the craziest spells I've ever seen. I'm starting to think that the prosperity spell Caleb and I cast way back when connected me to Jake in ways I wasn't expecting. Maybe this pregnancy is the universe's way of slapping my wrists for thinking I could bend it to my will. Instead of letting me pay him back, it made me 'prosperous' for him." Her eyes lit up as she realized what she said, and she looked around anxiously.

"Don't worry, my Mom's not home," Ethan said, laughing hard.

Liz nodded to herself. "Good. I love her, but I'm already dreading having her at my baby shower. I had to invite her to be socially proper, but . . . she's not going to fit in with the rest of my friends."

"I'll tell her that maybe she should just send a gift with me," Ethan said. "But speaking of you and Jake, you guys have chemistry, it's undeniable. He's definitely rough around the edges though."

Liz snorted. "Remind you of anyone you know?"

"Yeah," Ethan said, giving her a half-smile. "Hey, do you . . . do you still practice?" They hadn't spoken much about magic since Ethan's run-in with Orpheus, but he'd been wondering about Liz and Jake for a while. They seemed to be doing far too well for a young couple with a baby on the way for there not to be a little dark arts involved.

"Sometimes. I use magic in moderation, you know? I don't want it to overtake me. It doesn't have to if you're careful," Liz replied, smiling encouragingly. "How's the sobriety going?"

"Not well," Ethan said, acknowledging the truth out loud for the first time. "I don't mean I've slipped up, but . . ." he shook his head firmly. "It hasn't been easy."

"It's for the best, you'll see," Liz said.

"Yeah, but I don't really . . ." Ethan sighed heavily. "I don't know how to keep doing this."

"You're not talking about the magic anymore, are you?" Liz asked.

Ethan hung his head and laughed mirthlessly. "Nope. Caleb, he's . . . he's trapped there, because of—"

Liz's eyes narrowed dangerously. "My threat still stands."

"Because he chose to give himself up for me," Ethan finished. "I wasn't going to . . ." he smiled meekly and finished the thought. "I wasn't going to blame myself."

Liz's mouth quirked into a knowing half-smile. "But you still feel it's your fault."

Ethan chuckled. "Hard to stop."

"Ethan. It's always hard to stop the things we're addicted to," Liz said, reaching out and touching his arm gently. "You've felt guilty your whole life, or at least the last half of it. It's just what you're used to. You'll find your way through."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Ethan said sincerely. He was ready to change the subject, so he raised the party invitation and said, "So, next month, huh? You ready for motherhood?"

Liz snorted. "Fuck no. But I wasn't ready for pregnancy, either, and I survived that."

"I'll be there," Ethan said, brandishing the invitation again. "Isn't it traditional for women only to be at a baby shower?"

"Ethan, have you ever known me to be traditional?" Liz asked.

"No," Ethan replied, then more forcefully added, "Never."

Liz smiled at him and stroked his arm. "I love you, kid."

"Kid?" Ethan echoed, raising an eyebrow.

Liz wiggled her eyebrows and said, "Hey, you're the one who wanted to stop aging."

"Fair enough," Ethan conceded. "Does that mean I should call you 'Mom' instead of 'sis'?"

"Don't confuse the baby, Ethan," Liz replied. "Besides, you have a mother."

Ethan rolled his eyes. "Yeah, don't know for how much longer. After all that acting out . . . they're talking about evicting me after I graduate. If I graduate."

Liz smiled gently. "You can come live with me and Jake if that happens."

"Thanks," Ethan replied, his eyes twinkling. "I've already considered it."

They spoke for a while about more pleasant things, catching up with plans for the next week, and then Liz left. Ethan walked her to her car and stepped back inside. Although March was far warmer than December had been, it seemed every time there was the slightest chill he wanted to hide away from the world. Cold air seeped into his bones and touched him like a ghost from beyond.

As soon as he was inside, he headed up to his room and threw himself on his bed, sliding under the covers for warmth. The cold also made him tired, in an almost supernatural way. Within a few minutes, he was fast asleep, heading toward one of his common afternoon naps. Before he knew it, he was dreaming.

He stood at the mouth of the cave. He didn't want to be there, but he had to be. He didn't know why, didn't know what pulled him from the safety of his home and told him to drive here, but here he was. And now something was supposed to happen.

The trees moaned behind him in the wind. A storm was coming, thunderheads on the horizon. He wanted to seek shelter, but the only shelter he could find was the cave ahead. He knew what awaited him there, what would happen if he walked in; he would die, and he would be lost forever. Then there would be no more Liz, no more Jake, no more baby Caleb.

No more Caleb. No, that was what the cave represented. That was the secret it held. It had showed him that months ago, and earlier, almost a year ago. The cave promised him a tragic existence without love, full of woe, of lamentation, of fire, of hate, and of sweet oblivion. It would use his memory against him, it would destroy him slowly until he had nothing left, no memory of Caleb, no memory of love.

But a call rose on the wind, a voice familiar yet too distant to recognize. "Ethan . . ." It cried, calling his name like a sweet caress. It had a melodic quality to it, like wind chimes answering the call of the ghosts that haunt the storm after dusk.

He took a single involuntary step toward the cave. That call was personal, drawing him in, and he wanted to answer it. Something in him needed to answer it, to find the source of it. "I'm coming for you, Ethan," the voice said, closer now, as if it came from within him.

Ethan walked forward, his eyes drawn deep into the dark. He knew a crack existed in the back of the cave, an impassable crack which led somewhere deep beneath the Earth, a world underneath everything, where secrets lay.

"Come back to me," the voice called. And then it took form, a young man walking out of the darkness. His eyes were dark, but his face was smiling. If it weren't for the darkness which hung about him like a robe, he'd be naked, his vulnerability exposed for the world to see.

But Ethan knew him for what he really was, could see the love in his eyes, the humanity in his form. He took another step toward the cave, then two more, then he sprinted up the mountainside, aching to jump into the arms of the man he loved, the one who had given all for him that he may live and walk the earth.

Ethan seemed incapable of reaching the voice; the mountain was impossibly high, and seemed to grow larger the harder he ran. He reached out, desperately calling to the man in the mouth of the cave, crying for the man to meet him halfway, that at least they could touch one last time . . .

Ethan woke in a cold sweat, bolting upright as he stared ahead at his bedroom wall. He could still feel the dream, though it was quickly fleeing from him. He breathed heavily, a cold chill seeping into his bones.

"Ethan, I'm coming for you," he heard the voice, and he was no longer dreaming. He vaulted out of bed, his eyes searching the empty room for some sign of his love.

"Caleb?" He asked the void, but the void did not reply. 

End of Part 3

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"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.