"Why are we still on this fucking causeway?" Caleb asked after what seemed like hours. The city still appeared to be as far away as ever, and when he glanced back at the gate it was just a speck on the horizon. He didn't understand how the river could possibly be this wide, whether it was a mystical river or not.
Orpheus shrugged and kicked a small pebble from the causeway into the river. The water eagerly lapped up to swallow the rock before it even touched the surface and hungrily sucked it into the current. "Maybe because you're still holding onto that knife?"
"I gave it to Charlie, what the hell are you talking about?" Caleb asked. "This is getting to be ridiculous."
"Caleb," Orpheus caught Caleb's arm and said firmly, "Let go of the knife."
Caleb wanted to protest yet again, and his hand started to clench into a fist. As soon as he did so, he could feel the weight of steel in his hand. He looked down, expecting to see the knife there but found his hand empty. "I don't understand."
"The knife, Caleb," Orpheus said, "Not the one you gave Charlie, but the one you keep thinking about. The one that brought you here. The one that killed Ethan."
These words struck Caleb hard, and he stared at Orpheus in denial of the truth. As silence began to overtake them, the Acheron babbled to him once more. Telling him of all the woe he felt inside. He considered the reflective surface of the dark water and after a moment he could see the bloody knife lying in the grass superimposed over the water. The knife Caleb had given Ethan and which Ethan had used to kill himself.
"I gave it to him. He used the knife I gave him," Caleb whispered.
"Yes," Orpheus replied, "And you have to let go of that. Leave it behind you and walk forward."
Caleb nodded dumbly and closed his eyes, breathing deeply as he tried to force the image from his mind. Hadn't Liz said over and over again that he should stop blaming himself? His mind latched onto a happier memory than the suicide: the day Caleb gave the knife to Ethan. It had been done in a spirit of love, knowing how much Ethan loved the great outdoors.
And then Caleb realized the truth of it. Ethan had used that knife not out of spite for Caleb, but because he wanted to feel close to Caleb in his final moments. In his own twisted way, he'd done it out of love.
Caleb could be at peace with that. He opened his eyes and walked forward.
The causeway ended abruptly, emptying out onto rolling plains full of golden grass. It reminded Caleb of Ethan's golden hair, waving in the wind. He reached out with his hand and let it caress his skin, lulling him to thoughts of even more happier times in the land of the living.
"Where are we now?" he asked Orpheus. "Will I be tested here as well?"
"The plains between Acheron and Cocytus," Orpheus said, looking out across the plains as if searching for something. "It won't take us long to cross them," he added, pointedly ignoring the second question.
"Let's get going then," Caleb said, glancing again toward the distant city. He sensed a presence there, and knew it was where he belonged. The sooner he reached it, the better.
A dirt road wound through the plains which they stuck to quite diligently, even though it appeared to be quicker to travel cross-country. Caleb felt more secure in reaching his destination if he stuck to the path, because from what he'd seen of the afterlife so far, when one didn't play by the rules, it surprised you.
They came to a small, clear brook, with a narrow footbridge crossing it. The sight of the water reminded Caleb that he'd been walking for several hours with nothing to drink. He knew better than to trust a stream in the middle of nowhere, but the water seemed so pure he decided he might as well risk it. He had little to lose, after all, considering once he found Ethan he would spend the rest of existence in the afterlife.
As Orpheus started across the bridge, Caleb stopped by the side and pulled his canteen out of his backpack. He knelt beside the stream, dipping the canteen in to catch some water.
"What are you doing?" Orpheus asked, stopping on the bridge to look down at him. His expression was unreadable, though his eyes were inquisitive.
"I'm thirsty," Caleb said, lifting the full canteen. "I need a drink, and I'm out of water. It's not like we're at a river."
Orpheus smirked. "Don't drink that water unless you want to stop speaking."
"This is the Styx?" Caleb asked incredulously, looking down at the small stream. "I expected it to appear much more ominous."
"Hate doesn't always appear dark. Sometimes it's entirely invisible and hides in the open. People are pretty good at sneaking hate in wherever they want to."
Caleb shrugged and screwed the cap shut on his canteen. "Still . . ."
"You're taking some anyway?" Orpheus asked, surprised.
"Yeah, why not?" Caleb shrugged. "It might come in handy. Who knows when I might need to threaten someone with it? It's more useful than an empty canteen anyway" He laughed and replaced the canteen in his backpack.
"I suppose there's some logic in that," Orpheus replied, "though I don't know when that would happen."
"Maybe someone will break an oath to me?" Caleb said, remembering Orpheus' tone on the causeway over Acheron. He'd heard the words about death taking as long as it should, and he no longer trusted his guide even though as of yet Orpheus had done nothing to break that trust. He grinned to take the venom out of his words, not wanting Orpheus to think he was suspicious. "I might have to make him drink it."
"You're terrible," Orpheus replied. He nodded resolutely, and his eyes seemed sincere once more as he said, "We'll find Ethan."
"Well, our first place to look is right ahead. Cocytus," Orpheus said, pointing down the path. Caleb hurried to join him on the bridge and followed Orpheus' finger to a dark line meandering through the plains less than a mile away. Although it had seemed impossibly distant before, the misty city now appeared to be just on the other side of the river.
Caleb started down the other side of the bridge and the rushing of the Cocytus filled his ears. He was certain they'd been much further, but now the river appeared only a few dozen yards away.
"That didn't take long at all," Caleb observed, eyes wide.
"No, it didn't. Normally people pass this way in almost an instant," Orpheus replied. "But you are searching for something, which makes it take longer."
"I see," Caleb said, remembering his earlier thoughts about breaking the rules of this place. He would have to keep better track of his thoughts if he wanted to stay in control here. "So, can you see all those waiting on this side?"
"Yes," Orpheus said.
"Show me," Caleb requested. "Do that thing The Warden did."
"Lift the veil?" Orpheus asked. Caleb nodded and Orpheus raised his hands dramatically.
All at once, people appeared out of nowhere, all milling about near the banks of the river. He heard a cacophony of noise, many of them speaking in languages he recognized but did not understand, many more speaking in languages he'd never heard. He walked through them, occasionally catching snippets of English every so often.
"My children don't care that I'm dead!" An old woman cried, screaming the words at the river.
"Why?" someone said. The voice was familiar, and Caleb latched onto it, parting through the crowd in the direction he'd thought the sound had come from.
"My mother never loved me!" a middle-aged man screamed in Caleb's ear as he passed, causing Caleb to trip over his feet, clutching at his ringing ears. He struggled to his knees, his hands still over his ears as he staggered forward.
Somehow he still managed to hear the familiar voice again. "Why?" It asked once more. He knew the voice, it was Ethan's. Caleb looked around frantically, removing his hands from his ears.
"Ethan!?" He called, searching everywhere for a sight of golden hair. He found some, but none of them belonged to his true love. He dashed forward, looking everywhere.
He caught sight of a T-shirt and jeans similar to the style Ethan wore when he died, and he reached for the arm of their owner, only to find an old man who screamed at him in agony. "They're selling the business! I spent forty years building that business!"
"Why?" Ethan's question rang clearly in Caleb's mind, calling him toward it, but Caleb didn't know where to go.
"Cremation? Cremation!?" A middle-aged woman cried as she bumped into Caleb and bowled him over, seemingly oblivious to his existence. "My body had to be whole for me to enter paradise!"
"Why?" The question seemed closer this time, and a drop of red liquid landed in the dirt in front of Caleb's face. Several more drips followed, and Caleb followed them upward, seeing the source: Ethan's open wrists, deep furrows gleaming with sticky crimson. He followed Ethan's arm up to his shoulder, then his neck and face, and the eyes which bore into Caleb's soul and promised an eternity of suffering.
The image was temporarily distorted as a young man with shaggy blonde hair walked through the image of Ethan shouting, "I can't believe they buried me in a suit. Didn't they read my will? I wanted Hawaiian shirts for everyone. I'm a beach bum, dammit!" It would have seemed comical to Caleb had he not been staring into the empty, dead eyes of his true love.
"Why?" Ethan's visage asked, and this time Caleb could see his mouth working, could practically feel the force of the word as it left Ethan's throat. He wanted to crawl away and hide, to get as far away from this ghastly scene as he could.
"Turn it off!" He shouted, praying that Orpheus could hear him.
"What?" Orpheus said. He was standing nearby, and regarded Caleb curiously.
"Turn it off!" Caleb screamed. He met Ethan's eyes again, could see all the pain and suffering Ethan had ever suffered swimming in those orbs. And Caleb was certain he'd been the cause of all of it. Somehow, he knew that he'd been the one to ruin Ethan's life, to cause his death, to bring about this terrible fate.
"I'm sorry, you'll have to speak up," Orpheus said, putting a cupped hand to his ear.
Caleb struggled to his feet and charged Orpheus, gripping the front of his shirt and screaming in his face, "I said turn this fucking thing off!"
And then the people were gone, and Caleb and Orpheus stood alone on the bank. "I'm sorry, what's the matter?" Orpheus asked. "Didn't you say you wanted to look for Ethan here?"
"He's not here," Caleb said, shaking his head firmly.
Orpheus raised an eyebrow as if he didn't quite believe it. "Are you sure?"
"Yes. I looked at their faces . . ." Caleb said, denying the image he saw as forcefully as he could manage. "I saw their eyes, they were so . . ." He shook his head, trying to force the grisly image from his mind.
"Hopeless?" Orpheus finished for him.
"Yes," Caleb said, shaking. "They were so hopeless. Ethan doesn't . . ." He trailed off, knowing that Ethan's eyes had been far more hopeless than any of the others' had been. He couldn't think about it, didn't want to think about it, he just wanted to rescue Ethan from this terrible fate.
"You just don't want to believe Ethan looks like that," Orpheus said. "But he did, didn't he?" He lowered his voice and nodded in understanding. "You heard him calling, didn't you?"
"Yes, it was his voice . . ." Caleb said. He closed his eyes, but that was worse, as he instantly saw the image of Ethan again. "He wanted to know why."
"Ah . . ." Orpheus said. "It wasn't him."
Caleb gave Orpheus a sidelong glance. "It wasn't?"
"No," Orpheus replied. "That was you."
"Yes. Ethan's must be the voice you accuse yourself with. The Cocytus heard your inner lamentation and whispered it back to you," Orpheus said, and he walked down to the bank and crouched beside the water. He reached his hand over the river and held it there, every so often the water would lap up and splash his hand, as if it were reaching out to him. "I still hear her sometimes," he whispered.
"It was . . ." Caleb whispered, trying to comprehend the manifestation of his own guilt. "It was me?"
"The rivers," Orpheus said, standing straight and facing Caleb again. "They can destroy your soul, if you let them. All six of them."
Caleb stared at the river. It was wide and rushing quickly, with jutting stones poking from its murky surface wherever he looked. But, despite the ominous appearance of the river, all Caleb had to do was look across at the edge of the city to know he needed to reach the other side no matter the cost. "How do we cross it?"
"The Cocytus is shallow," Orpheus said, staring at the water with grim determination. "We can wade through."
"I have to enter it?" Caleb asked. The thought sent a shudder down his spine, and he took an involuntary step backward from the bank.
"Yes. Come on, there's a path. It won't take much. Just a little courage." Orpheus started down the bank, but Caleb held his ground, staring at the dark waters.
"What do others see here?" Caleb asked.
Orpheus stopped and turned back his way. "I'm sorry?" He asked.
"What do others see here?" Caleb repeated. "At this river?"
"It depends on whether they have anything to lament or not," Orpheus replied. "Some are at peace and never see this river, or see only a small stream they can hop over." He glanced back at the river, and his face fell, his eyes filled with a foreboding sense of familiarity. "For some, it's as wide as the Acheron. For you, the Acheron was greater, but you still hold on to the life you had before. You still want to hold on, so the river is wide and laments your refusal to let go."
"I can't forget," Caleb said. This was true as much because he refused to forget as it was truly impossible to do so. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw Ethan's tortured visage and bleeding arms. He doubted that image would ever go away.
"Forgetting and letting go are not the same thing," Orpheus said. "Come on, Caleb. Let me guide you. There is a path."
Caleb nodded and followed Orpheus down the bank, keeping his eyes on the dark water, hearing its gurgling and feeling its whisperings reach out to his mind. The river teased and taunted him, pulling at each part of himself he despised; it sounded like Ethan whispering in his ear, telling him dark secrets. Telling him it was all worthless.
And then Orpheus stopped at a place where the river was more narrow, and the rocks jutting from the surface appeared to be evenly spaced so as to be used as stepping stones. With a nod of encouragement, Orpheus started onto the first rock. He made two more jumps before turning to see if Caleb was following.
With a heavy sigh, Caleb jumped onto the first stone. The whispering of the river increased by several decibels, the water lapping around the stone splashing eagerly toward his feet. And then the murky water started to change color, becoming a deep, blood red. He stared at it with horror as it took on a reflective sheen, and Ethan stared back at him from beneath the surface.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Ethan whispered, his dead mouth quirking to the side, as if he were attempting to smile. It felt like a mockery of Ethan, but Caleb was still disturbed, and needed to get away as quickly as possible. He jumped to the next two stones before he had to stop and catch his balance.
As he righted himself and prepared to jump again, a skinny, bloody arm with a deep cut down its length reached out of the river and clutched at the stone he stood upon. In his mind, he heard Ethan whisper, "Why didn't you save me?" The arm sank beneath the rapids, struggling for purchase until it disappeared completely.
Caleb jumped again, then two more times, until he slipped on the stone he landed on and he went belly first onto the rock. His face was inches away from the river, staring directly into Ethan's eyes. The reflection's lips pursed as if they wanted to kiss him, and two arms snaked out of the water to wrap themselves around the back of Caleb's head, pulling him toward the image. He struggled to get away and was able to escape, but the image offered a pouty, "Why don't you love me?"
His heart was pounding, but he stood on shaky legs and looked ahead, seeing Orpheus standing on the bank. There was only one more stone to cross. He prepared to leap to it when two hands shot out of the water, gripping the edge and pulling Ethan's naked body out of the water to stand upon the stone. Ethan stood tall, nothing but skin clutching tight and emaciated around thin bones, dripping with blood from every angle. His hair, also caked in blood, hung in wispy trails, and his sunken eyes were filled with utter despair.
"Why do you love me?" Ethan asked.
Caleb couldn't jump for the stone, so he aimed as close to the bank as he could, looking away from Ethan and hoping he wouldn't land in the river. He pushed off with all his might and landed several feet from the shore, the water reaching up to his knees. He tore toward the shore as quickly as he could, the water laughing at him as he sprinted, and all around him chanting, "Why? Why? Why? Why? Why!? Why!? WHY!?"
He came out of the water, pulse racing and breathing heavily, collapsing to the rocky shore, his chest heaving as he desperately pushed away the image. The river's whispering slowly quieted, but Caleb's mind continued to race, filling his heart with such misery at the terror of Ethan's broken form he could do nothing but cry and wail until his soul ran dry of tears.
Eventually, as he lost the ability to breathe, the waters of Cocytus retreated entirely. Caleb rose up on his hands and knees, sobbing between breaths, forcing the feeling of despair to slowly dissipate.
A hand appeared before his face—the calloused fingers of a guitarist. Caleb looked up into Orpheus' sympathetic eyes as the musician said, "Come on. We've arrived."
Caleb took his hand and allowed Orpheus to pull him to his feet. He stood at the edge of a magnificent city, towering skyscrapers as far as the eye could see, glistening in some unseen sun. People were everywhere, milling about and speaking to each other, exchanging pleasantries as they went about their business. The sound of laughter filled the area, and everyone appeared to be happy.
But it wasn't quite enough to drown out the inner voice that told Caleb everything was worthless. He glanced back at the Cocytus, half expecting to see Ethan standing there, blaming him for everything. Instead, he saw the three cat-eyed black dogs, sitting on their haunches on the three nearest stones.
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