Chapter 15: Phlegethon

“Why do you dislike me, Cassandra?” Nash asked, as he drove. Cassandra sighed.

“Mister Nash, I’m sure you’re a decent guy and all, but I see things. Alright? And I know how crazy that sounds-”

“Very sane now, actually.”

“Whatever. When I look at you? You look like you were butchered. No eyes. No nose. No lips. No ears. You sound like you had a pipe cleaner shoved down your windpipe. Being around you is bad on my nerves, alright? And I can tell- I can’t explain how, but it is very accurate- that you make horrible things happen.” They drove in silence for a while. “I’m sorry. I know Pearl trusts you. But everything that I can feel tells me that you’re trouble.”

“People ever said that about you, Cassandra?” he asked, keeping his tone jovial and light. He could see the way it struck her, though. She turned her face away, towards the window, brows wrinkled. “I can’t help the way I look to you. I can only try to be a decent person. You can believe me, or think I’m a m… a freak.” He saw her raise an eyebrow at him. “Yeah. Gotta stop thinking in those terms now that I’m around monsters.” He looked across the divider at her. “What are you doing out of your home, anyway? It’s dangerous out here, especially for a young woman who looks like she’s Japanese.”

“My mom’s locked out of our neighborhood. She’s Greek, and she was out shopping when the dome went up.” Cassandra crossed her arms tightly. “That old bitch never thought that maybe, someone might belong under that dome without being Asian. Racist old hag.” She sighed. “I went out to see her. Decided to spend some time helping out Miss Smith for a while, so that she wasn’t alone out there. School’s closed for the time being. So, where are we going?”

“To learn the Eleusinian mysteries. Whatever the hell that means.”

“Hmmm. My mom does that every spring. I think it’s just an excuse for them to get together and drink a lot. She took me once, it was mostly a lot of booze and telling stories.” She looked at Nash, and frowned. “What’s actually happening here, Mister Nash? I know a lot about the people here, but I don’t know what’s really going on. They always tell me I’m too young to know that. Even Pearl… She hints at things, but she never outright says anything. She says I shouldn’t worry about it.”

“She’s probably right about that. I’m sure that they’re just trying to protect you. It can be dangerous to know things. It can make you get involved in them.”

“Yeah. That sure helped Dean Constantinou a lot, didn’t it?”

They drove in silence for a few seconds. Nash thought about all of the times that he had been lied to. All the times people had held things back from him. And he made a rash decision. “This city is full of monsters. Mythological creatures. I’m sure you know some of that. It’s part of this gigantic scheme to hold back the spirit world from the world of humans, so that humans and monsters don’t constantly kill each other. And something, something horrible, a band of psychotics called the Horsemen, is trying to break down that balance. I think the one responsible for this is War. I think she’s trying to pull down this city by turning everyone in it against one another. I think that she got to someone close to Dean, most likely that Onnashi girl, and drove them mad, somehow. Got them to kill Dean. I think that Irayama Onnashi was responsible for stealing his body, and someone else was responsible for burning down the shack. They were trying to hide what really happened. And I think that unless I’m very lucky and very good at what I do, everyone in this city will die. So I’m under a hell of a lot of pressure.”

Cassandra sighed, resting her head against the seat-back. “I knew this was important! I knew it mattered! I knew that this was all happening for a reason! It wasn’t just Dean dying of some random accident, or getting killed for some stupid lovesick reason!” She rested her hands against her face. She was crying a bit, but she was also smiling. “Thank you, Mister N- Silas. I’m sorry I keep freaking out when I look at you. You’re the first person who’s told me the truth in this whole place.” She looked over at him, and though she shivered, she didn’t break eye contact. “You’re going to do it, right? You’re going to save everyone?”

“I’m not a hero. That’s been made abundantly clear to me.”

“But you’re going to at least try?”

“Yes.”

She was quiet for a few moments. Then she leaned over, and kissed his cheek, very gently. He thought of the image she had told him, of someone maimed, of gouged eyes and cut lips and butchered faces. And he wondered just how much it had cost her to show that compassion. How long had she gone tortured by the things that she’d seen? The insane things that everyone told her weren’t there? Just like him. The two of them drove in silence as they made their way through the back woods, but a great deal of the awkwardness had left the atmosphere around them.

They arrived at the graveyard, where a handful of people had gathered around a tombstone. Nash recognized Megara and Harry. Pearl was standing there, as well, and Officer Dio, and an unfamiliar figure. She was black. Not a comforting shade of chocolate, like Heather. She was black like a burnt effigy, her skin the color of coal, and as she turned around, he’d swear her eyes were red. She waved cheerfully, as Cassandra stepped out of the car. Nash approached, and indeed, her eyes were red, and not really at all suited for the excitable cheer she showed as they approached. Nonetheless, he smiled back. If Cassandra could smile, so could he.

“Excellent! Cassandra, I’m sorry your mother couldn’t be here, she told me she was going to be busy. Remember when we did that spring initiation for you a few years back?” The woman grinned. “This will be the other side of that ritual.” Then she turned, her eyes growing hard, towards Nash. “You, on the other hand, are not invited. You have not performed a part in one of the Lesser Mysteries. You are not one of the people. You are not a believer.” She sniffed. “You are not even Fated. What right do you claim to stand here?”

Megara frowned. “Crupky-”

Officer Crupky turned on her heel to face Megara. She was wearing a voluminous white toga. It exposed one breast, but it was hard to find that appealing on such a fierce figure. “I do not counsel you try that tone on me, Mother. I know your position. I know your strengths. But I am the last hierophant of the mysteries of Demeter still standing. The Eleusinian Mysteries are mine to shepherd. Why should I give this outsider, this fool, a chance to learn the truest of secrets? The power over life and death? The understanding of what lays beyond? Do you have an answer, Fire-Bearer? Do you have, Hero of Heroes? Do you, Wounder of Gods? Do you, Mother of Monsters?”

Her eyes cast across the crowd in silent judgment. And in a moment, it all snapped into place for Nash.

“Everyone has a right to understand these Mysteries, if they should choose to exercise it. Because everyone will need it. After all, we all die eventually, don’t we?”

The officer turned, a smile on her face. “Well, well. Know a little something about the Mysteries, do you? Not a bad point. That’s what the Lesser Mysteries teach. There is one other thing, however.” She placed her hands on her hips. “The first thing that we must do, before we travel, is the sharing of a joke. At a certain spot, we must share jokes, in honor of Iambe. And they must be ribald, dirty, base. Do you have a joke that you can share with us?” she asked, a smirk spreading across her face. Nash considered the question for a moment. He then smiled, and leaned against one of the gravestones. It had always been his favorite joke.

“Alright. There’s a certain bar, in Ireland, sitting on the cliffs of Dover. Its first floor has this wide open window, set over the cliffs, and there’s a tremendous wind that blows up across the cliffs, creating this constant rushing wind. One day, around nine AM, a pair of men are sitting in the bar, nursing their shots. One of them looks out the window, and says, ‘You know, the winds here are so strong, you can step right out there, and hover in them.’ The other man says ‘Yeah, right, pal. Why don’t you step out, then?’ The first man nods, stepping over to the window, and hops out. He hovers in mid air, arms stretched out as the wind blows around him. He steps back in, and the other man yells ‘I’ve got to try that!’ and runs over to the window, stepping out, and falling into the ocean. The bartender gives the first man a look, and says ‘Superman, you’re a mean drunk.'”

There was a moment of silence. Harry was the first one to laugh, slapping his knee, and Crupky followed soon after. Megara tried to look disapproving, and Cassandra took a moment to get it, but even Dio cracked a smile. Crupky slapped his shoulder. “Come on, then!” She smiled. “It used to be this ritual took place over ten days, but some people…” She frowned, looking across the group.

“There’s just not the time there used to be for festivals.” Megara agreed, nodding. Dio, Pearl, and Harry all looked vaguely guilty as they began walking. “It used to be twenty-one kilometers, too. A proper distance for a devotional.” Harry handed out large branches cut from pines. “And we used fennel.” She sniffed. “At least you found ones with pine cones still attached.” Nash took his, and watched as the others swung them. They fell into a loose processional, and he took the chance to step up next to Pearl.

“Is it alright to talk during this?”

“As long as we don’t interrupt the dirty jokes halfway through. I have this for you.” She took out the pink book. “I translated it for you. Japanese. An interesting read.” She smiled. “Now seems like a good time to examine it. What did you want to ask me?”

“First things first. I left my gun in your patrol car. Have you seen it?” She shook her head, frowning. “Shit.” He muttered softly. “That’s not good, because I think I know who has it. War left me her… I suppose you’d say calling card. A bullet from my clip, with the words she keeps saying to me.”

“She’s been speaking to you?” Pearl asked, a frown on her face.

“Yeah. Is that a problem?”

“I’m not sure. It’s odd, at the least.” Pearl shook her head. “I talked with Megara and Harry. They mentioned your conversation, your thoughts about death. It was an inspired thought.” Silas was only half listening, turning his head towards the pile of bones still lying bleached in the sunlight. He realized, abruptly, what had been worrying at his subconscious for some time. He ran up the hill at a jog, catching up with Harry, and Megara. His fingers fished, but didn’t find the ring in his jacket.

“Megara!” Pearl jogged up after him, and Crupky gave a disapproving look down the hill at them as Megara turned to face him. “I found something, a few nights ago, when I fought those skeletons. It was a ring, silver, with an emerald set into it. It was on one of the bodies, here. It had your name, and…” He frowned, looking over at Harry. “Well, it looked like a wedding ring.”

Megara’s eyes misted over, as she laughed softly. “Oh, those things… Crupky, do you still have yours?” Crupky grunted. “They were gifts, for my children. I see them so little, nowadays, but they all had them. Little things to remind them that they were mine. I made them for each of them. And when, inevitably, they passed away- Well, I let the rings pass on with them. Crupky’s the only one who still lives on from that time, and…” Megara looked up the hill. “She hasn’t been my little girl for millenia.”

Nash nodded, slowing his pace. Another little mystery solved. He’d known that this case would be hell. At least he had an idea about the tattoos that Gene and the others had, now that he knew what they shared. He smiled at Pearl. “Thanks. So, the Eleusinian mysteries… This is about Hades and Persephone, right? That talk about Demeter?”

Pearl nodded. “The Rape of Persephone.” She saw the raised eyebrow. “Oh, it’s an old word. It meant the carrying off. It was a rather common Greek wedding ritual, then. Demeter was… somewhat too attached to her daughter. Imagine if your bride’s mother insisted that she come back to live with her eight months out of the year, or she would freeze the world. Anyway. These are her mysteries. The secrets of how to bring the dead back to life, and how to experience a happy life in the underworld. It’s the most important lesson anyone can learn, because it’s the one thing everyone’s guaranteed to need help with.”

She smiled. “Don’t tell anyone its details. It carries a penalty of death. But feel free to tell people they can learn it here. There used to be thousands of initiates, and many could use the comfort it offers in these modern times.”

Nash nodded, as he walked along. “Convenient that it should happen just as I’m desperately in need of more information about breaking the barrier between the living and the dead.”

“Same time every year, in early September. Or perhaps it’s convenient that this should happen, this death, all of this chaos, at such an opportune time?”

He frowned, and opened the book. It started with five words: Legend of the White Snake.

Once, Lu Dongbin, one of the eight immortals, stood on the Broken Bridge of the West Lake, and sold rice dumplings. A boy, Xu Xian, purchased one, and ate it, not knowing that it contained the pills of immortality, a gift from Lu Dongbin. After going without hunger for three days, he went to complain to Lu Dongbin of stomach-ache. The man laughed, and slapped him on the back. Xu Xian vomited into the lake, the pills falling into the waters below.

There, a white snake, a practitioner of martial arts, seeking enlightenment and immortality, ate them. She attained great power, and was enlightened, and felt great gratitude to the boy. A terrapin nearby saw her eat the pills, and was filled with anger at her refusal to share them, and so determined to make her life miserable. Soon after, the white snake saw a beggar, preparing to kill and eat a green-scaled snake on the broken bridge. She changed her shape into that of a woman, and saved the green snake, and called her sister.

Years later, a great festival came to the bridge. The white and green snakes changed their shape, and joined the festival, only to run across Xu Xian. In the rain, he lent them his umbrella, and walked with them, and the white snake, Bai Suzhen, fell in love with him, and he with her. They met, time and again, and eventually, were married, moving from the lake. The terrapin, however, had mastered the arts as well, and took the shape of a monk, Fahai.

The monk approached Xu Xian, and told him that his wife was lying to him, and that if he wished to learn the truth from her, he should give her wine during the festival. Xu Xian, weak in the way all men are weak, wished to learn what secrets were kept from him, and did this. When Bai Suzhen drank the wine, she took her true shape, that of a great white snake, and Xu Xian died of fright.

Bai Suzhen, and the green snake, Xiaoqing, journeyed to the mountain Emei, and-

Nash frowned. He next few pages had been torn out. The next pages still intact were a journal. He scanned through the pages, reading them as the group walked. It was simple enough. The diary of a young woman, full of nerves, tension, fears, hopes, and dreams. It was pedestrian, in the extraordinary way a life can be. Then, at the eighteenth birthday, it took on a new turn. She wrote about being frightened about what would happen to Dean when he found out ‘what she really was’. He thought of the story. It must have preyed on her terribly. She had been comforted by her friend, Susan, who had arranged for the two of them to meet.

The last entry was the night that Dean was supposed to have died. He frowned. It only read ‘I can’t do it. I’m just going to leave while he’s asleep.’ He closed the book. Not a great deal of help, but another part of the puzzle. It certainly painted a picture of how Dean might have died. Nash took the bottle that Pearl was offering him and took a sip. It tasted as though a buckwheat smoothie had thrown up into a vat of shiitake mushrooms. He winced, passing it on. “What the hell was that?” he asked, looking over at Pearl. She was wearing the Roman Centurion’s helmet from the night of his hallucinations, and smiling pleasantly.

“Potum veritatis.” He stared at her for a moment. Night had fallen. Quicker than he would have expected, in fact. Quicker than it had any right to. Blackness surrounded him on all sides, and he found himself walking alone through the dark. He cursed under his breath, and kept walking, trying to keep to the path. Soon it faded in the underbrush, and he found himself stumbling through the thick of the woods.

He was searching for a princess. Someone fair, and gentle, caught in the grip of a dragon. They were an innocent in all of this, twisted by the cruel desires of another. He had to save them. He wasn’t exactly certain of his reasons, but there was no questioning this. It was the same thing that compelled him to breathe. It was the same thing that made his heart beat. It was a part of who he was.

There was a roar, great and terrible, that shook his bones. The spine of the hill cracked, and opened. The blood of the earth spilled forth, red and yellow, glowing violently, as the great dragon tore itself free. Its scales were the red of fresh-spilled blood, its teeth were gunmetal, and it roared into the air, a mushroom-shaped jet of flame rising from its mouth as the woods were lit aflame. It cackled with the sound of the woman in red, and the great pine trees were set aflame, as the flames poured forward. The heat was impossible, but he walked through it without being burned, stared the great beast in the eye as it laughed at him. And he laughed back, his voice reaching the same fevered pitch.

Ariel appeared. She had pretty eyes, and pretty wings, ephemeral like those of a dragonfly’s, four of them. He tore them off of her as she screamed, and wrapped them around his fists and his feet. He moved with the speed and grace of the wind as she bled. Gene rose from the ground, and he reached into her chest, tearing the ribs from her with sounds like crackling branches. He pressed them against his chest, and wore them like armor. Heather walked by his side, and he gouged out her eyes, and wore them over his own. And Pearl smiled, pale as milk, as he tore the blood from her veins and shaped the red cruor into a blade. He laughed wild defiance, and left them on the ground as he chased the dragon, into the sky. It wheeled on him, and he charged through its flames. They didn’t burn half as hot as he did.

The sword sank into the dragon’s throat. It tumbled from the sky like a wounded sparrow, landing among the blackened, smoking trees. He landed on top of it. His fists sank into its chest, and pulled out a heart that burned like a star. He gorged himself on it, biting, chewing, swallowing. The taste of the dragon’s blood was familiar, and horribly bitter. He stared down at the beast’s shrinking form, as it took on the shape of the dark-skinned woman in the red dress. War lay there, a shocked expression on those gunmetal eyes and those sharp iron teeth, her hair guttering like an ember about to go out. Not a dragon, not a demon, just a frightened, dying woman.

A pair of hands clasped around his. Cassandra stood next to him. She looked old, terribly old and wise, hair white, eyes pale and milky. “It doesn’t have to end this way. There’s another way. You can save everyone. You just have to trust me.” It was very dark, but he felt calm. He watched as she released his hands, and lifted a knife. And then, Nash vomited out the contents of the morning’s meal onto the ground.

He was standing in the middle of an ancient stone amphitheater, set among the woods. Crupky rested a hand on his back, patting him. “Let it out. Let it out. Christ, you’ve got a merry little mind there, don’t you. You were really screaming.”

He slumped down, panting. The trees stretched above them. His head still swam with the strange, loose significance it had before, but now he had slightly more control over himself. The other members of the party, Dio, Pearl, Megara, Harry, Cassandra, were looking at him with some concern. He gave them a weak smile. “Bad trip,” he muttered, as he stood up, stretching his back, dragging cold air into his lungs. Trying to drive away the memories. Crupky nodded, but gave him a careful look as he moved to join the others in the circle.

“What I do now, I do to share the secrets of life and death with you. Outside of this circle, you may not speak of what happens in specifics. You may not say what is inside the *kiste*, or the *kalathos*. You will not share the things done, the things shown, or the things said.” She took out a box. He drew something forth from it. He worked it. And he placed it in the large open basket that she proffered.

As long as he lived, he never spoke about what he saw in the amphitheater. He didn’t share what they did. It wasn’t anything particularly shocking, and it didn’t change his life in any vast and significant way. It did not make him a believer in the Olympian gods. It did not make him an instantly better person. All it did was give him an idea.

The others separated, going their different ways, but Silas caught Crupky by the shoulder. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” he asked, smiling. “I would like to learn a little bit more. About death, and the afterlife.” She frowned, but nodded, and took a seat on one of the stone benches. She motioned to one next to it.

“What would you like to know, then?” she asked, smiling warmly. Despite the fearfulness that surrounded her before, she was amazingly personable. He had quite enjoyed the voices she had put on during the things that were done.

“The story of Orpheus. The story of Persephone and Hades, and Demeter. The story of Sisyphus. The story of all those who went to Hades, and came back.”

Crupky nodded slowly. “They were all heroes, you know. Every one of them who made it into that foggy land and returned, they were Heroes of the highest caliber. I don’t know if you could enter there. I doubt you could return.” She frowned. “The thing about Hades is… He was a romantic. He was a lonely king in the Underworld, where none could reach him. His brothers were easily able to find companionship, but his realm was gloomy by nature, and so, he was enamored with tales of romance and lost love. Odysseus, Orpheus, Heracles, and Psyche, those who entered the Underworld and left it whole and unharmed. They were the ones who entered seeking redemption, or love lost. Those who tried simply to trick the king of the Underworld were punished, often brutally.” She rubbed her chin. “Have you lost someone you love to all of this? What exactly is your stake.”

“People keep asking that. Isn’t it enough to not want the world to end?” he asked, shrugging.

“Not particularly, no. That’s a big, broad thing, you know. Why don’t you want the world to end?”

“Because… There are plenty of happy people in the world. Megara and Harry. Cassandra’s got a bright future ahead of her. Pearl and the others are good people. They don’t deserve to die.”

“So, other people. But how close are you to them? Are you going to be willing to fight, as hard as you possibly can, to save them?” The woman gave him a long, hard look. “Because those heroes, they didn’t do it to save the world. They didn’t have high-minded ideals like that. Ultimately, their reasons were rather selfish. They did it because they cared, personally.” Crupky shook her head. “Perhaps it isn’t the noblest thing. But when you’ve got skin in the game, you’ve got more of a reason to want to succeed.” She crossed her arms. “You need the love of your fellows to succeed. You may not be a hero, but perhaps you can be a champion.”

He frowned. “I suppose it’s worth a try.” She grinned at him.

“Then let’s go join the others. It’s time for the feast.”

One thought on “Chapter 15: Phlegethon

  1. “[…] we must share jokes, in honor of Iambe. And they must be ribald, dirty, base.”

    That you didn’t take this opportunity to create your own version of The Aristocrats is truly a great tragedy.

    Also, it is quite a coincidence that a snake named Bai Suzhen met a man named Xu Xian in a story Nash reads a few days after he meets a teenage girl named Susan Xian; it is also quite the coincidence there has been no small amount of snake-related shenanigans going on. Hmm.

    Like

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