Rivers of the Dead: Book Two

2~1: The Cave

Silence. That was all Caleb heard when he first woke up, a nothingness which transcended even his thoughts. He couldn't hear within his own skull. Nothing but darkness surrounded him except the cold stone beneath him. He could see a bit of light on his left, and realized it was night outside the cave, an overcast night by all appearances.

He struggled to get up, his head aching. He grunted with effort and was grateful to find his ears were at least working. "Liz?" He called to the dark. "Is the . . . is the spell over?"

No answer.

"Liz?" He called again as he surveyed the scene as well as much as possible in the near-perfect dark. The fire was gone along with Liz and her things. He still wore his backpack, which he'd forgotten to remove before the ritual, and somehow the knife had found its way back home into the belt sheath on his left hip.

"Caleb."

The male voice had a melodic quality to it, as if it had intended to sing his name. It came from all around him, permeating the cave and echoing outward then inward, as if the cave itself were speaking and carrying the name on its breath.

"Who's there?" Caleb asked.

"Caleb, come here, into the dark," the voice said.

Caleb held his ground, trying to make sense of where he was and what was going on. "Who are you?" He asked, more firmly than before.

"Come into the cave," the voice urged. "You've sought me, so let's talk."

Caleb glanced outside again, seeing the ominous skies and thinking over the proposition for just a moment. This was frightening, to be sure, but he had expected it to be. He had come seeking death, after all.

He turned toward the cave's inner depths and pulled his backpack off, opening the large pocket. His hand brushed against Ethan's journal. The brief contact reminded him of his purpose there and firmed up his resolve. Withdrawing a flashlight, he switched it on and shined it into the darkness. The cone of light seemed more muted than he'd expected, barely illuminating a few feet in front of him and sometimes even less, as if the darkness were breathing around the light, rhythmically subduing its radiance. Caleb replaced the backpack and walked forward, aiming for where he remembered the back of the cave to be, the place where it became impassable.

He walked for what seemed like an impossibly long time. The floor and walls all appeared the same, and he was certain he'd walked in circles until the darkness began to recede again. He saw flickering firelight in the distance and headed toward it cautiously. As he approached, he realized he was nearing the mouth of the cave again, though it appeared different from before. A dense fog now clouded the entrance, rendering the trees outside completely invisible.

A man in a black suit sat on a log beside the fire, an acoustic guitar sitting in his lap. He had long, chestnut-brown hair, and dancing green eyes. His skin was bronzed, as if he'd spent a great deal of time in the sun, though there appeared a pallor to it as if he were sick, despite bearing no other appearance of any ailment. He strummed out a few chords as Caleb approached, then played a far more intricate melody when Caleb slowed down and stopped. The song was beyond the skill of anything Caleb had ever heard before, and stirred within him a longing for better times and better places than the dreary landscape around him. It drew him into a trance-like state and begged him to lose himself to the music.

In his trance, he became aware of another presence, that of a woman in a long, white robe in the style of ancient Greece. Her black hair reached down to her waist and showed intricate braids in the dim light. A single silver circlet kept her hair from her fair face, and despite Caleb's predilections for males, he could not deny her beauty. She stood behind the musician, staring at him with a sense of longing that fit the mournful tone of the tune the musician played.

Eventually the music stopped, and the man looked at Caleb expectantly, a sly grin on his face. Caleb shook himself from the effect of the music and asked, "What? What is this?"

"Hello, Caleb," the musician said, setting the guitar aside and folding his hands in his lap. "I've been expecting you."

"Where's Liz?" Caleb asked.

"Back in the world of the living," the musician replied, chuckling. The sound of his laughter was just as melodic as his voice had been, for this was indeed the owner of the voice who had called to him in the cave. "That's where you left her, of course."

Caleb nodded slowly. He was in the realm of the dead after all. Everything was beginning to make sense now. Though there remained at least one mystery. "Who are you?" He asked.

"Isn't it obvious?" The musician replied.

Caleb cocked an eyebrow. "A man in a suit with a guitar?"

"The lyre went out of style a long time ago," the musician said with a conceited smirk. "Thankfully long hair is in again. I hated when I had short hair in the fifties. Long hair just feels so much more Thracian."

Caleb's eyes lit up with recognition. "Orpheus."

"The one and only," the musician replied with a bow and a flourish of his hand. "Well, there are others who have had that name, of course, but I'm the one you sought, anyway. I'm pretty certain I'm the only Orpheus who traversed Hades, and your friend was quite specific."

Caleb nodded, then gestured with his head toward the woman standing behind Orpheus. "Who is the woman standing behind you?"

"There's no woman there," Orpheus replied, his smile tightening along with his eyes. Caleb opened his mouth to protest, but as he looked for the woman again she was nowhere to be found. She'd been too close to have escaped into the fog outside or the darkness of the cave without being seen. She had disappeared into thin air.

"Where'd she—" Caleb began, but Orpheus cut him off quickly.

"You came here for a reason, didn't you?"

"Yes," Caleb said. "I want to bring my best friend back to life."

Orpheus nodded slowly, his smile slowly returning to its earlier strength. "You said during your ritual that you wanted to exchange your life for his. The Ruler is capable of granting such a request."

"An exchange . . ." Caleb said slowly. He would die to save Ethan, it was true. Even though he'd thought those words in a moment of passion, it didn't make them any less true. "Yes, I am willing to do that. How do I save him?"

"Are you familiar with my story?" Orpheus asked, rising suddenly, placing his hands behind his back. He began to pace the mouth of the cave on the opposite side of the fire.

Although he could be more familiar than he was, Caleb felt confident enough to say, "Yes. Mostly."

"Mostly, huh?" Orpheus replied, chuckling dryly. "It's important so listen up. My wife was killed by a snake bite on our wedding night. I was heartbroken and full of anger at nature, the gods, at whoever's feet I could lay the blame. I ventured into Hades, I overcame the obstacles, played music to calm the heart of Cerberus and met with Hades himself. Are you with me so far?"

Caleb nodded and replied, "And you managed to convince Hades to let Eurydice go."

"Eurydice . . ." Orpheus sighed and strummed once on his guitar. "I don't often speak her name, but yes. She was an unrivaled beauty, with a heart to match. With her as my muse I played music for Hades and he cried from the beauty of the song, a beauty which convinced him to let me have her soul." He paused and looked at Caleb expectantly. "If you're familiar with my story at all, then you must know what happens next."

"You were told not to look back until you'd exited The Underworld, and if you didn't she would follow you all the way out," Caleb replied.

"Then why do you think I can help you?" Orpheus asked. He paused and stared into the flames. For a brief moment, Caleb was certain he saw the woman standing behind him again. It seemed as if Orpheus craned his neck just enough to almost look over his shoulder, but instead he turned back to the flames and the woman disappeared once more. "I wasn't exactly successful in my endeavor. I failed to rescue my wife."

Caleb remembered the story well enough to know that much was true. Orpheus had looked back when he stood at the edge of The Underworld, against the express orders of Hades, and his wife had been lost forever. He'd been but inches away from saving her life and had failed. Caleb refused to believe he would share Orpheus' fate. "You almost were," Caleb said defiantly.

"That's the thing," Orpheus replied with a mirthless chuckle. "It's always an almost."

"You mean, no one has been successful before?" Caleb asked, feeling a knot form in his stomach.

Orpheus looked up, his eyes flashing with something Caleb could not identify. "I didn't say that," Orpheus said.

"Stop being cryptic," Caleb snapped. "I'm ready to do anything I can to bring him back, so let's get going."

Orpheus nodded. "You must really love him."

A low growl escaped Caleb's throat. "Tell me what I have to do."

"What if this is only a dream?" Orpheus asked, not the least bit intimidated by Caleb's display of anger. He returned to his pacing, walking back and forth twice before stopping beside his guitar and picking it up again. He strummed a few more chords, then began playing softly and slowly as he added, "What if none of this is real and it's all brought on by magic-induced insanity?"

"Are you trying to talk me out of it?" Caleb asked.

"Someone should," Orpheus said, pointedly stopping his strumming to look Caleb in the eye. "Trying to convince Death of anything other than itself is risky business. Life makes mistakes by hungry greed, but death waits patiently, paying no heed. Life takes all and has no friends, but Death gains all when at their ends." He wiggled his eyebrows at Caleb then strummed a few hearty chords for effect, as if making a joke. Orpheus laughed, and the sound filled Caleb with a gloomy sense of morbidity.

But he remained undeterred and stood his ground. "If this is a dream then what do I have to lose by going forward?" he asked.

"Sweet child," Orpheus said, shaking his head, "there is much one can lose in a dream, for dreams themselves can be lost and often are."

Caleb heard the warning in the words, but he was determined. He'd come this far, and he would press on until Ethan lived again. "A dream can only be realized by chasing after it. I'm going after Ethan."

Orpheus strummed one more loud chord and stomped his foot along with it. He put the guitar down and clapped his hands in delight. "Very well, a splendid choice. You have courage, I'll give you that," he said, laughing. "I suppose I'll have to guide you. Understand, I can do nothing more than guide; I only exist here for that purpose and cannot lift a finger to help you more. I am but a psychopomp."

"A psychopomp?" Caleb asked. "I'm not familiar with that word."

Orpheus smirked. "Probably because it originates in the Greek. It means one who guides a soul through the afterlife."

"I understand," Caleb replied. "I'll accept your guidance."

"Then let's begin," Orpheus said excitedly. "First up, there are two ways you might be able to bring your love back to life, but both will require a journey."

"To where?" Caleb asked.

A mischievous glint entered Orpheus' eyes. "To speak to The One Who Rules Beneath."

"Hades?"

"We're not in Greece anymore. That may have been our name for the entity you seek, but you do not worship the Greek gods, do you?" Orpheus asked.

"No," Caleb replied. "I have no religion."

Orpheus pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Interesting . . . she's going to love you."

"Who?" Caleb asked.

"You'll meet her soon enough," Orpheus said with a determined nod. "But to answer your earlier question, you are seeking Death. Not Hades, not Irkalla, not Hel, not any person or place in specific. You seek The One Who Rules Beneath."

The official sounding title gave Caleb pause. "Is there one who rules above?"

"I do not have the answer to that question," Orpheus said, bowing his head in defeat. When his head lifted again, his grin was impish. "I am beneath."

"So, what if Ethan's in heaven?" Caleb asked, hoping the answer wouldn't be too unsettling.

"Is he Christian?" Orpheus asked.

"His family is," Caleb replied.

Orpheus laughed. "Interesting."

"Why?"

"My, don't you love to question!" Orpheus exclaimed, sliding the strap of the guitar over his shoulder as he turned toward the fog. He strummed the beginning of a new melody, and the fog shifted and swirled in response as if dancing to the tune.

"If you won't answer my questions, then tell me: what do I have to do?" Caleb asked impatiently.

"Go back into the cave," Orpheus said over his shoulder. "She's waiting for you."

Caleb sighed and turned, thinking he'd get little more from Orpheus but figured he'd attempt one last question. "Before I go, what are the two ways I can bring him back?"

In response, the tune shifted and Orpheus sang in a happy tone, "My mission was to make Death cry, and when I failed, I had to die. The result is the same, no matter the way; Death always has the final say."

"What?" Caleb asked, annoyed at yet another cryptic response.

"Go back into the cave. She's waiting for you," Orpheus said. And then he started to turn back to Caleb, but as his body turned sideways it seemed to flatten, becoming two-dimensional until he disappeared into a thin line of nothingness.

"Wait!" Caleb shouted, but Orpheus was gone.

Caleb stared at the fog, wondering if he should risk entering the mist and going back to the world of the living or doing as Orpheus had bid him and traveling into the cave. As he started to turn, he caught movement from the fog. A large, black dog trotted out of the mist and sat on its haunches, watching him. A moment later, two more dogs came through the fog and sat down next to it. Each one regarded him with intensity, though there was no menace in their cat-like eyes. Cat-like eyes like Liz's.

He approached the dogs and they rose up on their haunches, eyes narrowing. The look in those eyes made Caleb's pulse quicken and sent a shiver rippling through him. He pulled up short, eyeing the sharp, white teeth he could see through the dogs' curling lips.

"Strange . . . I suppose if I try and go out this way, you'll stop me?" Caleb asked the strange dogs. The dogs remained silent, but Caleb knew the answer already; he could read it in the slits of their eyes. He was stuck here, and there was only one way to go.

With a sigh, he turned his back on the dogs and walked back into the cave. Within seconds, darkness enveloped him, and he doubted he'd ever see the light again.


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