Rivers of the Dead: Book Two

3-9: Purpose

The headwaters of the Styx were wider than the Acheron. Caleb couldn't even see the other side, but he knew it was there. He knew that in the dark, misty distance lay the answers he sought. Somehow, he knew that the only way he'd get the truth from Orpheus would be to journey there, to approach the seat of Death itself, even though it walked beside him.

"The Styx, mightier than all," Orpheus observed. "Hate is the strongest force in the afterlife."

Caleb gave Orpheus a sidelong glance. The words rang hollow on his ears, and he remembered Eurydice's admonition. Death cannot see its own heart. He didn't like it, but he mourned for Orpheus then. "I've always heard that love was the strongest force," Caleb replied.

"Perhaps in the world of the living, but love feels forced within these lands, wouldn't you agree?" Orpheus replied.

That much, in Caleb's experience, did appear to be true. Yet he remembered the kindness Eurydice had shown him, but kept that to himself. He had to maintain the appearance of the game. "Yes. It seems that way. It's just ghosts and memories."

"I'm sure you can see why most people drink from the Lethe in the end," Orpheus said, almost wistfully. "They want to be back in the world where Love reigns."

"Don't you love anything anymore, Orpheus?" Caleb asked.

Orpheus shook his head solemnly. He bent down at the riverbank and stuck his hand in the black waters of the Styx. He withdrew his hand, and the water made a sickening slurping sound. Some of the flesh seemed to have disappeared from Orpheus' hand but it quickly regenerated. "No. I left love behind long ago."

"Eurydice?" Caleb dared to ask.

Orpheus hung his head. "Yes."

"What happened?" Caleb asked.

"What do you mean?" Orpheus said. He shook his head and stared out across the waters. "You know the myth."

"Myths lie," Caleb said with conviction. "They always exaggerate."

Orpheus gave Caleb a critical look, then laughed bitterly. He rinsed both his hands in the Styx and then stood, shaking the water off as his flesh regrew. "I suppose we have some time before our ride appears," He said. He bowed his head as if in prayer, then lifted his gaze again to Caleb's face. He cleared his throat and then began, "The truth of the matter is Eurydice survived. See, when she died the first time, I made a trip into The Underworld to rescue her, I played beautiful music for its denizens, I made Hades cry . . . and he gave her back to me because I'd made him feel again. Or so I thought . . ."

"What happened?"

Orpheus smirked. "It seems the office of Ruler comes with a certain degree of Sadism, or perhaps it's more a desire to bring people to the same understanding of the futility of life that you've come to see. Those who challenge death, death wishes to make them understand the folly of their challenge, so it teaches them a lesson."

This intrigued Caleb more than anything Orpheus had said to him so far, and so he asked, "And what did you learn?"

"I journeyed with Eurydice through the afterlife, following her. Yes, I know the myth says it was the other way around, but as you said," Orpheus' eyes twinkled with a bittersweet light, "myths lie. I followed her, and she was the one who was not allowed to look back at me. We crossed the rivers, passed through the darkness of the things betwixt and found ourselves at the edge of the cavern, where light divided living from dead. She crossed the threshold and I slammed right into it."

Orpheus cleared his throat and stared down at the Styx, his eyes clouding over. "Death, you see, had its grip on me, and refused to let go. It seemed Hades had a different fate in mind for me. He freed her soul, but he took mine in her place. Death, you see, can only be exchanged or fulfilled. Those are the rules. Eurydice turned back and saw me, stuck within this realm, and then I faded into the dark."

"And so, I stayed," Orpheus said, lifting his eyes again and staring at Caleb. He gestured out to the Styx, then behind them to Elysium. "I became one with this realm, I learned to harness its power for myself, in the hopes that I would one day escape it, but I could not. Eurydice must have come here eventually, but I never saw her. I assumed she drank from the waters of Lethe, bitter in her inability to find me, and moved on to her next life."

"And now you're here, still," Caleb said quietly. "Why do you not drink from the Lethe and continue onward?"

Orpheus scoffed. "What would be the point? To cease to exist when I already feel as if I do not, when my heart died before the world even knew my name? What would be the point?" He shook his head ruefully. At least, like this, I have some meaning. I have a purpose. And how can I abandon it?"

Caleb saw an opportunity to allow Orpheus to come clean. "The purpose of guiding souls through the afterlife?" He asked.

Orpheus shook his head, and for a moment Caleb thought he'd get a straight answer, but ever murky as the Acheron, Orpheus replied, "To help souls find their purpose, and hope, in the end, I'll find mine along the way."

"Help me cross the Styx, and I will help you in turn," Caleb said. Even though Orpheus had steadily misled and manipulated him, he couldn't help the feeling of empathy building within him. He wanted to help Orpheus again, and perhaps in doing so find a purpose of his own.

"You'll become a Psychopomp?" Orpheus asked hopefully.

"If that's what helping you means . . ." Caleb sighed and stared at the river, "yes. But not until I've spoken with The Ruler and he has heard me out. Not until I'm certain he has released Ethan's soul."

"Caleb, there's one thing you should know about The Ruler," Orpheus said.

"What is that?" Caleb asked, hoping this would be the moment that Orpheus chose to tell him the truth.

"When you see him, he will be the manifestation of everything you believe Death to be," Orpheus replied. "He'll take the form of your absolute darkness."

So, no truth, then. Caleb sighed and looked down at his feet. "It can't be worse than at the Cocytus."

Orpheus shook his head resolutely. "Yes. It can."

"I have to move forward. I can't stay here any longer," Caleb said, feeling determination grow within him. "This city has nothing for me. I need answers."

"I had a feeling you'd say that," Orpheus said. He pointed out into the water, where a single longboat was moving toward them, a robed figure pushing the skiff through the water with a lengthy pole. "Our ride is here. You remember Charon, don't you?"

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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.