Rivers of the Dead: Book Three

4~6: Duty

On the third to last day in April, Ethan knew. He could sense Caleb needed him, and soon. He told Liz that morning, telling her it could wait no longer, and she understood. She told Jake to call in sick and called an emergency meeting.

She hobbled around the kitchen table to hand Ethan a small package, wrapped in plain brown paper and simple string. Ethan unwrapped it to find a beautiful, large quartz crystal attached to a black cord. He slipped it around his neck and noted that it felt like Liz hugging him. He sensed her energy within it and knew that it would boost his own will if he drew on it.

"It's the best I can do," Liz said softly. She kissed Ethan's forehead and stepped away. He'd noted that she'd chosen to wear her cat-eyed contacts today and smiled, knowing Caleb would appreciate it. They twinkled now in the dim light hanging above them. "You know I wish I could go with you," Liz added.

"You're going to have a baby any minute now," Ethan said, eyeing Liz's large belly. "I don't expect you to be anywhere near me when I do this, especially not hiking a mountain."

"Are you sure you don't want me there for protection?" Jake asked, sipping his coffee as he watched the exchange of looks between them.

"Yes. Jake, you've done a lot, but you should be here with your soon to be wife," Ethan said. He laughed and added, "I'll still take the ride, though." He sighed and returned his gaze to Liz. "I hope I don't miss the birth."

"If you do . . ." Liz said, reaching out to him. "Ethan, please. One more hug?"

"You've got it," he said, standing and embracing her as well as he could manage in her current condition. He kissed her on the cheek and whispered in her ear, "I love you, Sis."

She kissed his cheek in return and said, "I love you, too, Ethan."

Ethan stepped back and glanced at the clock. It was only four in the morning, but he had to leave. After the séance, he'd set up a spell to track Caleb's spirit and learn if it was in danger, and just thirty minutes earlier the spell had rung the alarm in Ethan's mind. There wasn't any time to waste.

"You ready to go?" Jake asked, watching Ethan's eyes.

"I have to be. I know it's time," Ethan said. He smiled one more time at Liz. "Wish me luck."

"You don't need it," Liz said. "Just have faith."

"I always preferred the word 'will'," Ethan said, laughing.

"Yeah, but you need to have faith in Caleb, and yourself," Liz said. "I wasn't just referring to the magic."

"Thanks," Ethan said. If he said anything else, he'd become a blubbering fool, for the emotions chose then to surge and threaten to overwhelm him. There was a good chance he wouldn't be returning, but he wasn't intending to die. The spell he intended might not even work, and if that happened, he'd come back, knowing he'd done his best.

They said goodbye one more time before Ethan climbed into the passenger seat of Jake's car and headed toward the mountains. Jake looked like he wanted to engage Ethan in conversation but simply remained silent. They both knew Ethan had to maintain his focus as well as possible; the entire trip proceeded without a word.

It wasn't until they parked at the trailhead that Ethan finally broke the silence, opening the car door and grinning. "Jake, see you around?"

Jake laughed and said, "Bro, you're the most badass warlock that ever lived. You take care, you hear? Shit . . ." He shook his head and blinked back some tears. "Wish I could go with you."

Ethan felt his own eyes moisten and knew he had to get out of there before he lost his cool. "Take care of Caleb Ethan Sanders, and if I don't make it back, you make sure he hears about his uncles, got it?" Ethan climbed out of the car and turned back, one hand on the open door and the other on top of the car, peering in at Jake.

"You bet," Jake said, laughing. "And Ethan?" Ethan nodded, and Jake continued. "I'm not too good at this, but," his voice broke, and he laughed at his own emotions. When he could finally speak again, he nodded once and said, "I love you, buddy."

"I love you too, Jake," Ethan replied, sniffling. "Thanks for everything."

Ethan closed the car door and stepped away from the car. He waved Jake on, and Jake drove off, smiling sadly. As soon as he was gone, Ethan turned toward the trailhead and took a single step. Then he smiled and pulled out his cellphone, dialing his mother's number.

"Mom," Ethan said when the call connected.

"Ethan," Mrs. Pallet said groggily. "What are you doing calling so early?"

"Mom," Ethan said gently, "I might not see you for a while. I'm leaving."

"Where are you going?" Mrs. Pallet asked, suddenly alert.

Ethan chuckled and said, "I need to take a bit of a spiritual retreat."

"You're going to speak to God?" Mrs. Pallet asked.

"In a manner of speaking, yes," Ethan replied. It was close enough to the truth. "I'm going to the wilderness. I have something to do."

"Be careful," Mrs. Pallet said. "And know that I love you."

"I know, Mom. I love you, too," Ethan replied, smiling. "Say goodbye to the family for me, would you? I can't stay around long enough to say anything to them. I have to leave today."

"Will do, honey," Mrs. Pallet said, then added more seriously, "Be careful."

"I will," Ethan replied.

They said their goodbyes, and Ethan shut his phone off, putting it in his backpack. He adjusted the quartz around his neck, feeling he needed another hug from Liz, and then started up the trail.

As he ascended the mountain, he sifted through his thoughts, carefully discarding every stray doubt and worry that came his way, feeding them to the void in his mind. He purified his mind, keeping his whole being centered on the task ahead. He made it to the cave in no time, and as soon as he walked inside, he felt a chill settle over him, despite the warm temperatures.

"So, this is what potential death feels like?" Ethan mused, staring at the dark. "I've been here before, it shouldn't be so bad."

His voice echoed back at him, and he laughed at the foolishness of it. "Yeah, cave, I'm talking to myself. You have a problem with that?"

He didn't waste any more time. Kneeling at the mouth of the cave, just outside the line of shadow that marked the border between the regular world and the cave's interior, he faced the crack at the back of the wall. It would be his sole focus as he reached toward the Underworld, aiming to touch Caleb's soul, just as staying outside the cave would help him remain in the living world.

And he let love fill him. The pure love of friendship from Liz and Jake, still fresh from their morning together. Liz's love for him and Caleb, contained within the crystal around his neck. And, most importantly, Ethan's undying love for his best friend, who had sacrificed himself to bring Ethan out of The Underworld. No love was purer than that, Ethan knew, and he wielded it like a sword now, slashing into the beyond to reach Caleb.

He spoke the words in his heart. He hadn't rehearsed, trusting the emotion to guide him and his will to make use of the power it generated. "By my power, and the love in my heart, I reach across the aether, to the spirit realm. I reach beneath, to The Underworld, to find the heart of my true love, Caleb Nield. I give my strength to him, my will and my heart, that he may use it as he sees fit. Take my soul, Caleb, and use it to power your own. By our combined will, let us make Death tremble."


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And to the haunted.

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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.