"Why?" Caleb managed to ask as the gruesome image of Ethan bore into his soul. "Why do you do this?"
"You can't escape me now," the figure replied, digging its bony fingers into Caleb's cheeks. "I am truth, I am death."
Caleb felt something, a trickle at first, and then a torrent of energy filling him. He knew it came from outside, from the realm of the living, because the energy had a distinct signature. It was love, pure and simple, and love was not a common force in The Underworld outside of Elysium.
At first, he thought it was Liz, but within a second he realized the exact source. Ethan had reached him, and had given him the energy to fight. Knowing that Ethan stood on the other side of the veil cheering him on gave Caleb all the courage he needed to face this demon that wore Ethan's face.
"I love you," Caleb said to the energy, but the image of Ethan laughed in his face.
"What do you know of love?" The figure asked. "Death has no place for love."
Caleb reached up and gently pulled the bony hands away from his face. They came away easily, unable to resist his gentle touch. He could see in this being a reflection of himself, of all his fears, his despair, his woe. He could see his self-loathing, his desire to escape the pain. And he could see the rivers.
Above all else, he could see the rivers and knew that he had to drink.
He caressed Ethan's image, brushing his fingers softly against its cheek. The figure shuddered at the touch, and a single tear fell down its face. Caleb leaned forward quickly and kissed the tear before it fell from the figure's chin.
"By your tears, I drink of the Acheron," Caleb said consolingly. "Your sorrow, your pain, is mine."
"Who do you think you are?" The figure asked, backing away from him.
Caleb followed, step for step, pursuing the figure until it backed into the throne. He pressed in urgently, passionately, kissing the figure's lips and tasting of its saliva.
"By your lips, I drink of the Cocytus," Caleb said longingly, "your despair, your misery, is mine."
"Who do you think you are?" The figure sputtered, falling back onto the throne. It trembled now, in fear, sweat forming on its brow.
Caleb climbed atop the throne, straddling the gaunt figure as he gently pressed forward, kissing its forehead. "By your sweat, I drink of the Phlegethon," Caleb said, "your vileness, your bitterness, your suffering, is mine."
"Who do you think you are?" The figure screamed in Caleb's face, lifting its bloody arms in a vain attempt to fend Caleb off.
But Caleb merely kissed the figure's wrist instead. "By your blood, I drink of the Styx," Caleb said lovingly. "Your hatred, your loathing, is mine."
The figure shifted then, its gaunt features filling out, the blood fading back into its skin, the wispy hair glowing, growing full of its golden sheen once more. Ethan sat on the obsidian throne, or at least the perfect image of him just as he'd been when Caleb had known him, down to the eyes filled with the detached disillusionment they'd shown when Caleb and Ethan had faced each other on the sidewalk.
"Who do you think I am?" Ethan's image asked.
"You are me," Caleb said. "You have always been me, as I have always been you."
Ethan's image shook its head. "I am not fully a part of you."
"No," Caleb said, feeling the love from the real Ethan burning inside of his chest, "but soon you will be."
"How?" Ethan's image asked dejectedly. "Consume my essence and you'll consume Lethe, for that is all I have left."
"Is that so?" Caleb asked. "I see things differently."
He wrapped his arms around the image of Ethan's shoulders, hugging their naked bodies tightly together. He whispered in the ear so like that of his beloved. "By your soul, I drink of the Mnemosyne. Your madness, your insatiability, your thirst, is mine. I transcend Lethe, for I hold no expectations, only accept the mysteries your soul will open up to me." And then he reached into the image's flesh, grasping at the essence behind its creation, the River Mnemosyne, manifest physically before him.
"By your will, I drink of Death," Caleb shouted to the room, "and I have become its Ruler!"
"Not quite, I'm afraid," said a melodic voice from the mouth of the cave.
Caleb smiled and turned toward his guide. "Orpheus."
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
"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.