Darkness enveloped Caleb, although he noticed a light ahead. It seemed to be calling to him in some primal sense, drawing him forward. As he approached, however, he realized there were more lights in every direction, like stars in the night sky. There were even some beneath and above him, and each one called to him the same way.
He felt something solid beneath his feet, but when he looked down he saw nothing, but the sea of blackness filled with stars. He didn't know what to make of it, or, more appropriately, he didn't want to make anything of it; he just wanted to get out of his current situation. He'd expected to see Orpheus as he entered the cave, for hadn't the musician promised to be his guide? Didn't he call himself a psychopomp and say that meant it was his duty to guide souls in the afterlife?
"State your name, please," a gravelly female voice said from somewhere and everywhere all at once. Caleb looked around and saw a peculiar sight where there had been nothing but stars before. A large reception desk sat in the dark, a single, boxy computer sat on the desk, with several filing cabinets erected behind it. A woman sat at the computer, her curly, wispy, grey hair framed a wrinkled face. The woman peered over the top of her glasses as she stared at the computer screen, typing away.
"Who are you?" Caleb asked.
"That is not your name," the receptionist said with obvious disdain as she turned to look at Caleb, pushing her glasses up her nose to see him more clearly. "No one has that name. Unless it's spelled something like H-U-G-H-A-R-Y-U. Is that how you spell your name? In that case, can I call you Hugh?"
Caleb gritted his teeth in irritation. First, he'd had to deal with a cryptic musician, and now he faced a smart-ass receptionist. He was getting nowhere quickly. "I didn't come here to be treated like—"
"Then why did you come?" the receptionist interrupted. "You're dead, you're not . . ." She paused and leaned over the desk, staring at Caleb critically. "You're not quite dead . . . Interesting. Well, that does change things, doesn't it? How did you get here? You should be out in the living world, enjoying your life."
"Who are you?" Caleb asked again, hoping her new realization would get him some answers.
"But still you remain uncooperative," the receptionist said, sighing. She returned her attention to the computer. "State your name, please."
Caleb groaned and replied, "Caleb."
"That's it?" the receptionist asked. "That's how you want to be remembered for all eternity in my histories? There's plenty of Caleb's. Why couldn't you choose something more interesting?"
Caleb tapped his foot impatiently, crossing his arms over his chest as he growled, "Are you going to answer my questions or not?"
"He's an annoying one, isn't he?" Orpheus asked as he stepped out of the darkness to lean against the receptionist's desk, smiling at her. She gave him an exasperated glare in return.
"Orpheus. What are you doing outside of Elysium?" the receptionist asked.
"Caleb and his witch friend summoned me, so I'm here," Orpheus said with a little bow and a flourish.
The receptionist grunted in response. "How'd you get past me?"
"Wouldn't you like to know, Warden?" Orpheus said, grinning mischievously. "Funnily enough, I think I'll keep that part to myself."
"Pity," the receptionist replied. "There are already far too many people sneaking out of the afterlife. It's enough to make one believe the afterlife doesn't exist."
"You guard the gates to the afterlife for worlds without number. How many have gotten past you in the last thousand years? A handful?" Orpheus asked skeptically.
"I'm talking about the reincarnates," the receptionist growled. "They keep getting out, and then they come back, and I have to record a new name for them. When I took this secretarial position I never knew I would have to dig up my archived files every time someone dies."
Orpheus snorted. "Everyone reincarnates eventually. You knew that before you took the job."
"Everyone?" the receptionist asked. She smiled hopefully at Orpheus and said, "Will I be seeing less of you soon, then?"
Orpheus glared at her for several seconds, then slapped the top of the desk and looked at Caleb. "Caleb, have you told this bitch your name, yet?"
"Yeah . . ." Caleb said, shaking his head at the weird bantering between these two denizens of the Underworld. He didn't understand, and didn't want to, he just wanted to find Ethan, so he could rescue him. But then he realized the answer to what was going on might be exactly what was needed to get him what he desired. "Someone want to tell me what the fuck is going on?"
"You're at the entrance to The Underworld," the receptionist said, speaking in the monotone manner of an employee at the Department of Motor Vehicles. "Ahead of you lies the path to your afterlife. You see that light?"
"Which one?" Caleb asked, staring at her stupidly.
The receptionist dropped the DMV act with an expletive. "Shit. Atheist or Agnostic?"
Orpheus cackled with delight as the receptionist stared at him with barely contained rage. Caleb, on the other hand, was simply confused. "Excuse me?" He asked.
"Are you an atheist or an agnostic?" the receptionist asked.
"Um . . ." Caleb thought for a moment. "I'm agnostic, I guess."
"Oh, so you just see lots of lights then . . ." the receptionist said. "at least that's easier."
"Yeah, that's kind of why I asked which one you wanted me to look at," Caleb replied, giving her an impatient glare.
"Like I said, Warden, he's annoying," Orpheus said. He flashed her another wicked grin and added, "But I knew you'd love him."
The receptionist swiveled back to Orpheus to glare at him. "Bite me, Orpheus."
Caleb sighed and said, "Look, I'm not trying to get to my afterlife, I'm trying to get to, well . . . to Ethan's afterlife?"
"That won't get you what you want," Orpheus said.
"It won't?" Caleb asked, to which Orpheus responded by shaking his head solemnly. Realizing Orpheus would be of little help here, Caleb turned to the receptionist and said, "We're seeking The One Who Rules Beneath. I'm here to demand that he, or she, release my best friend's soul."
The receptionist raised her eyebrows. "So?"
"Excuse me?" Caleb asked.
"What does that have to do with me?" She asked. "Listen, Ca-leb," she accentuated both syllables and then raised her hands. The darkness receded for a moment as if in response, and suddenly there were thousands upon thousands of people standing near him. All of the people were wandering around and barely avoiding each other. Some were standing at the reception desk, berating the receptionist with questions, and some were opening doorways in the distance and disappearing from view. All at once the darkness returned, and Caleb stood alone with Orpheus before the receptionist. "At this very moment, I am handling thousands of people who all need to be pointed to the right tunnel ending in the right light to get them to the right afterlife. You're easy. Pick a light and walk toward it. They'll all get you to where you want to go if you're seeking The Ruler."
"Any of them?" Caleb asked.
"Don't worry, she makes it sound simpler than it is," Orpheus said. "Are you done with him? He told you his name."
"Yes, just . . ." the receptionist shook her head. "Orpheus, please stop pretending we're friends."
Orpheus patted the desk consolingly. "I'll bring you coffee later."
"Yes, please. Two sugars," the receptionist said absently.
Orpheus took a step away from the desk and nodded behind him toward one of the lights. "This way, Caleb."
Caleb moved to follow Orpheus as the desk suddenly vanished. They appeared to be in a tunnel, heading toward a speck of light which no longer seemed like a star, but a doorway in the distance. He hoped answers lay on the other side of the door, because he was impatient at not having any.
But at least he was now moving forward, and that made him relax a little bit. He'd been at this for less than an hour by his reckoning but felt a distinct sense of urgency. The quicker he brought Ethan back to the land of the living, the quicker Caleb would feel better.
Walking in silence, however, did not seem like the best way to make time go any faster, and so he decided to have a conversation with Orpheus. "So, I have to say, I had no idea what I would find in the afterlife, but a reception desk with an overworked secretary wasn't what I expected."
"A part of you did," Orpheus replied.
"What are you talking about?" Caleb asked.
"A part of you expected it, I mean," Orpheus explained. "Otherwise, she wouldn't have appeared that way to you."
"How would she have appeared?" Caleb asked. He considered the question she'd asked him and realized it hinted at her identity. "Is she like Saint Peter?"
Orpheus shrugged. "Sort of, and I suppose some Christians might see her that way. Sometimes people don't appear before her at all, they just end up in a dark tunnel heading toward a bright light and she asks their name. They say their name and then enter the bright light and BAM!"
"What?" Caleb asked.
Orpheus grinned. "They're in the afterlife."
"And then what?" Caleb asked, expecting something more dramatic.
"Well," Orpheus said, "the afterlife sort of becomes exactly what you make of it. It's a little complicated, though really quite simple."
"So, tell me."
"The afterlife is, however, you perceive it. It's also how everyone else perceives it. It's both at once yet also neither, and always will be. I may walk through the Elysium fields, cross the river Acheron, and then play music for Cerberus, but that doesn't mean everyone does," Orpheus explained. "A Christian might enter through the pearly gates at the same place I met Charon. They might spend time with their loved ones in 'Heaven' where I'd have Elysium, and, if they have any level of guilt or negative emotions, there's likely going to be some measure of hell for them as well."
"You just mentioned 'Heaven'," Caleb said. "Doesn't that mean there is an above? I thought you said you don't know."
Orpheus shrugged. "I imagine people who firmly believe in such things might ascend instead of descend, but I'm Greek. I live beneath. It's all Greek to me." Orpheus grinned at his double entendre.
"Okay, two questions," Caleb said, "First, if the afterlife is entirely determined by your imagination, why don't more people just imagine the perfect place to be?"
"Two problems with that. First, they don't know the secret, and, besides, how exactly are you going to tell them?" Orpheus laughed incredulously. "You're currently here, and not out there with them, so communicating with the rest of the living is pretty much out. And, should you make it back, you're going to tell them what, that all their fondest dreams will come true when they die? I'm sure they'll all believe you. People will be lining up to kill themselves just to make it happen."
Caleb grunted. "You don't have to be an asshole."
"Actually, I sort of do. It's my nature," Orpheus said pointedly.
"Fine. What's the other problem?"
"It's not imagination which creates the reality, it's belief. It's will."
"Like my friend, Liz says, 'will' is a fundamental of magic," Caleb reasoned.
"Probably. Is she the one who sent you here?"
"Then yes, will," Orpheus explained. "Or faith. Or whatever you want to call it. The principle by which one exerts mind over matter. So, if you don't devoutly believe there's something waiting for you . . ." He trailed off, gesturing for Caleb to finish the thought.
"There won't be," Caleb said, nodding in understanding.
"You've got it," Orpheus replied.
"So, what happens to atheists then?"
"Well, depends on if they're really atheists or not. You clearly aren't, since you saw something. Most people really aren't. I think most atheists are not people who devoutly believe there is nothing after death. I think most atheists are people who believe that it is an unknowable thing until it can be experienced," Orpheus paused and shrugged, "at least, deep down within their souls I think that's the case."
Caleb nodded. "So, what happens to them?"
"Some probably wander in the darkness for a while until seeking an answer or deciding to not exist. Some probably see a light, some hidden belief they didn't know they had. Some probably see lots of lights, like you did—the potential realities that agnostics, pantheists, and a few select others see. Some probably are immediately reborn, their consciousness fading into the nothingness they devoutly believe in, which to me means they drowned in the waters of the River Lethe, and they get reborn somewhere."
"Got it. So, my second question . . ." Caleb shook his head. "No, I have a follow-up question first."
"Knock yourself out."
"So, everyone reincarnates? That's what you said to The Warden."
"Eventually, yes," Orpheus confirmed. "Matter cannot be created nor destroyed, or so the laws say . . . it's all about transference. The matter of the soul and consciousness may exist on a slightly different plane, but they can't be destroyed, either. So, once they're done here, they move on."
"Is it possible that Ethan's already reincarnated?" Caleb asked.
"I doubt it, but yes," Orpheus replied solemnly. "Was that your second question?"
"No," Caleb said firmly. "My second question is this: how are you able to move freely through the afterlife? Shouldn't you be stuck in your Greek version?"
"Hah!" Orpheus laughed heartily, and clapped Caleb on the shoulder with enough force to send him stumbling forward. He caught himself and glared back at Orpheus, but the musician was already moving on with his explanation. "There's a classification of people whom the Warden hates more than anyone else, and I happen to belong to that classification."
"Assholes?" Caleb asked acidly, rubbing his sore shoulder.
"Close. Nihilists," Orpheus replied with a knowing smirk. "I can't say I always was one, but once you've taken a journey into the Underworld and understand how it all works, it's really hard not to see things with a blanket of pure skepticism."
"So, you have a supreme lack of belief?" Caleb asked. "Then how does anything function down here for you if it's run by belief?"
"On the contrary, I have the devout belief that the world is entirely what I perceive it to be, that I am the God of my story, and thus I'm the only one who can decide my fate. I make the world my slave. Or at least, this world," Orpheus replied.
Caleb considered Orpheus' response for a moment before voicing his next thought. The answer appeared to contain a great deal of wisdom, though, at the same time, a hint of sarcastic bitterness ran through it as well, as if Orpheus didn't truly believe that his nihilism brought him any degree of happiness. He didn't see the world as real, so it was just a toy, but that didn't mean it fulfilled him. "That thing you were saying about everything all being a dream . . . that's how you see it, isn't it?"
"Something like that, yeah," Orpheus said, shrugging. "Although, there is another reason I'm able to move this freely at the moment."
"And that is?" Caleb asked.
"You and your friend called to me specifically. Usually they call Hermes if they're invoking Greek gods . . ." Orpheus replied, his smirk returned. "He's the one who brings souls to the Underworld. On occasion, they call me, and that means I get to act as a guide."
"Get to?" Caleb asked.
"Yep. I may be an asshole, but interacting with the world of the living is the most fun I ever get to have," Orpheus said, bowing humbly. It was the first genuine emotion Caleb had witnessed in him, and he found himself wanting to know more about the psychopomp. "Thank you for the opportunity to serve as your guide."
"You actually sound sincere," Caleb observed.
"I usually am when it comes to matters of life," Orpheus replied.
They had reached the doorway, light shining brightly through it, enveloping them in its glow. Caleb wanted to reach out and touch the light, but he feared what would happen, especially since he couldn't make out anything beyond it.
"Where to next?" He asked shakily.
"Touch the light and find out," Orpheus said with a shrug. "I don't know exactly what you'll see, but in case you didn't notice—" Caleb reached out and touched the light and it exploded around them, cutting off Orpheus' next words. Covering his eyes against the glare, it took a moment for Caleb's eyes to adjust, but he realized instead of darkness, daylight illuminated everything.
They now stood on a rocky hillside, not unlike the terrain near the mouth of Cherry Creek Cave. A forest rose up in all directions except directly ahead, where a rocky trail descended the mountain toward a river with dark green water.
"When did we get outside?" Caleb asked. "Am I back in the world of the living?"
Orpheus pointed down the hillside. "Hardly."
Where Orpheus pointed stood a shining, golden gate at a causeway which crossed the river. A tollbooth stood next to it, a single guard in a brown forest service uniform sat inside, reading a magazine. He seemed unaware of his unusual placement, so far away from any part of civilization.
Beyond the causeway, on the other side of the river, Caleb could see the hints of a grand city shrouded in mists, the buildings brightly lit against the gloomy fog. It appeared welcoming, despite the obscuring clouds, and he knew he wanted to go there, that he belonged there.
"What's that?" He asked, pointing at the city.
"With any luck," Orpheus said, "It's where you'll find Ethan."
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