Chapter 16: Styx

Nash walked out of the forest alongside Officer Crupky. In the wide grassy lot behind the hotel, a number of tables were being set up. Gene was huffing and puffing as she moved chairs and tables into place, struggling with stubborn joints and levers. It was afternoon, now, and there was a warmth in the air as she worked. She wore a pair of denim overalls, and a tight white cotton shirt, simple clothes that seemed quite comfortable in the warm summer air.

Ariel was carefully adjusting chairs into place once they had been hauled up by the other Sister. She had dressed in a leather jacket and a pair of torn denim jeans, and wore steel-toed boots as she tromped around. That couldn’t have possibly been comfortable in the direct sunlight, but there wasn’t a bead of sweat on her forehead. Both turned, and smiled as they saw him and Crupky. “Well! It’s about time, we were wondering where you were going to be!” Ariel grinned. “We’ve got a bunch of people set to show up for the feast. Even some of the…” She raised her hands into the air, and wiggled her fingers mysteriously. “Unbelievers.”

Crupky tsked. “It’s not a potluck dinner, you know. There are some standards we really ought to hold to…” Gene frowned at her, and the officer sighed, shaking her head. “Oh, very well. I suppose that we must be willing to tolerate one another. Now more than ever. But they’re all bringing a dish to pass, right?” she asked, as she joined Gene in setting up the large tables. They unfolded the metal legs into place with sharp, metallic clicks, and placed it in the center of the yard, right where the sun cut through the trees and illuminated the grass.

There was a warm, relaxed atmosphere. It was a party. The sort of things people did together. Other people. He shrugged uncomfortably in his jacket. He could still feel the twist in his stomach from the dream. Seeing Ariel and Gene wasn’t helping him. The sight of them, maimed and torn by his own hand, still burned inside his skull.

A soft, warm pair of lips kissed his ear. He turned, surprised, to find Heather there, a large bowl in her hands. “You weren’t thinking of running off, were you?” she asked, smiling softly. “Don’t worry about conversation. Just enjoy a good book, or relax here with us, while we enjoy the food. There is nothing wrong with being alone, so long as you do it together with us.” She winked. “Many of us are introverts. It’s in our nature to seek solitude, as the years wind on by. But it is nice, sometimes, to be introverted with friends.” He coughed nervously, as she stepped past him, to place the large bowl of bubbling fish stew on one of the tables.

“I’ve never been good with crowds. Ever since I was…” He stopped, on the verge of mentioning the day his mother had left. “I sort of got used to being alone.” He frowned around the large group. “Weren’t you supposed to give me some sort of martial arts training?” he asked, changing the subject with all the subtlety of a drawn gun. Heather turned towards him. She was dressed in a delicate blue sundress, hanging comfortably over her shoulders. She smiled warmly, and stepped up to him, squeezing him gently around the shoulders. He remembered the sight of her face, blood streaming down her cheeks, her eyes-

She squeezed him again, and the memories drifted away in the warmth of her embrace. He tried to remember the last time he had been held like that by his own mother. He couldn’t. His breath caught in his throat. “This is a part of the training as well. You are not an engine of destruction, Nash. You are not a weapon. You are not a tool. You are a human being.” She smiled up at him. “This feast is a chance for us to reaffirm why we live together. To come together, and remember that in a lifetime of pain, and death, and fear, there are soft summer evenings with people who care about you, good food, comfortable silence, and all the things a person needs to truly be a person.”

She rested a hand on his cheek, and smiled. “You’re going to do something unbelievably dangerous and noble. I would much rather you didn’t, but I can’t stop you from embracing your destiny. The one thing that I can do for you is ensure that you don’t go into that place dead inside.”

She directed him towards one of the seats. He sat down, and perused the trays already set out by the others. Officer Crupky had made a set of biscuits, sweet and chewy, sitting right in front of him. They were hot and fresh, though they’d been under a layer of aluminum. Nash stole one off of the tray, feeling mildly guilty at not waiting for the others. But he was very hungry. The taste of corn and flour filled his mouth as he bit into it, light and fluffy. Gene set down a large bowl, filled to the brim with ice cubes and fresh lemonade. He nodded his head gratefully to her as she poured him a cup. It was tart, with only the faintest hint of sweetness to it, sprigs of mint making his lips tingle. He looked around the clearing as he sipped.

People talked softly, but mostly they sat together, leaning one against another. There was an exhausted quality to their connections, but it was a welcome change of pace from the chaos and nervous energy of the last few days. Gene sat down next to him, and leaned her shoulder against him. He leaned back, and looked down. “I didn’t make anything. Even if I’d known, I wouldn’t have been any good at it. I’m not very handy. I eat out most nights.” She ruffled his hair, and smiled at him. She was perspiring slightly, and she smelled pleasantly of wet clay. It reminded him of rainy weekend mornings, lazy and relaxed.

Gravel crunched, announcing the arrival of more parties. Pearl sat down on his other side, carrying a large tray with a caprese salad on it. Sliced tomatoes, basil leafs, and thick cuts of fresh mozzarella were interlaced and glistened with olive oil and a touch of salt. She used a large spoon to scoop some onto his plate, and he dug in with relish, enjoying the taste. Gene stole a bit of mozzarella from him, and Ariel leaned in from behind, pulling away one of the tomatoes. Together, they quietly ate, enjoying the shared experience as much as the simple revitalization. Cassandra took a seat across from him. “Are you alright, Mister Nash? You looked like you were having a bad time of it when you drank the kykeon.”

He frowned. “You didn’t see anything? I thought the visions were part of the ritual.”

She shrugged. “Nothing big. That’s what I’d always heard from my mom, that it just made everything seem more significant than it actually was.” She looked down at her feet. “I thought I saw something, but it was vague.” She looked somehow annoyed. “Some seer I am…” Before he could ask about that, she grabbed one of the biscuits. She didn’t seem to have eaten in a while, and let out a loud hiccup after she wolfed it down. Nash poured a glass of lemonade for her, and she took it gratefully, draining it in one gulp. “Mm. Thanks.”

Megan Smith took a seat next to her, looking over the food. She frowned distastefully at the caprese salad. “Is that… buffalo mozzarella?” Pearl had the good taste to blush a bit, and Megan sighed. “Just one of the biscuits for me, then. Mind passing them over, Cassandra? Ah, thank you.”

Officer Dio grabbed a plate, scooping up some of the salad, and eating with his fingers as he stood a little distance away from the table. Nonetheless, the man did exchange a bit of polite small talk with Pearl and Officer Crupky. The char-skinned woman was still wearing her loose toga. Dio had switched from his omnipresent uniform to a loose button-down shirt, the sleeves rolled up, and a tie. He looked hardly less at attention than usual.

Heather smiled at him. And he heard her as though she was whispering in his ear, though her lips didn’t move. “Cooking is one of the oldest human gifts. In the ages long past, men sat by fires, and lured the beasts out of the darkness with the promise of fresh-cooked meat. They fed wolves, and made them strong, and made them loyal. In the same way, the bonds between human and monster always began this way, feeding the primordial urges. Meat, drink. Love. It is your great strength. But it is not a one-way road. In order for you to be loved, you must be willing to love in turn.” Her voice was soothing, washing away memories of blood dripping down his hands.

“That is the first of my gifts to you. It is this memory, and this knowledge: That I, and my sisters, love you. Not as we love all humans. We love you, Silas Nash, for what you can do. We give you gifts that cannot be taken back, because we believe you are wise enough to use them well.” And for a moment, the guilt didn’t hurt quite so badly.

There was the crunch of gravel as a car pulled into the hotel’s parking lot. Megara and Harry emerged from the alleyway, joining the group. Harry was hauling a large black kettle-shaped grill, and a bag of charcoal. Megara carried a tray, nearly three feet wide, covered with a large selection of cheeses. She set it down, as Harry set up the grill. Nash gently tapped Gene on the shoulder, and she sat up, allowing him to go join the two. “Hey. No meat for that grill, Harry?” he asked, a light smile on his face, taking the brief moment to enjoy a little conversation that wasn’t about death or the imminent destruction of the human race. His eyes were burning with salt, and he hoped he could hold back any tears. Heather’s words had affected him more than he expected.

“Oh, don’t worry about it. We’ve got some coming. It should arrive by the time I’ve got the coals going.” Harry smiled brightly. “Speaking of which. I think I have a way into the dome for you.” He motioned Nash over, and lowered his voice. “It’s not easy. But there is a pathway into Yomi, the Japanese underworld, in the hills here. It is covered by a great boulder, immovable.” Harry grinned. “By most, anyway. I will slide it open a crack, and allow you in. From there, you should be able to find your way to the home of Onnashi.”

Nash frowned. “Harry… Can you tell me, exactly, why the Japanese underworld would hold a passageway into Irayama Onnashi’s basement?” he asked, trying to keep the tone light, and jovial. He failed. The party’s good-natured banter fell into an uneasy hush.

“The god of the underworld would be certain to keep a path to her realm handy, wouldn’t she?” asked a familiar, elderly voice. Wendy and Nooky approached. They were carrying a large cooler between the two of them. “This was going to happen eventually, boy. Every man meets face to face with death occasionally. If you’re a lucky one, you’ll do it while you’re still alive, and you’ll live through it.” Nash looked around the group, nobody willing to look him in the eye. It was Heather who spoke next.

“Irayama Onnashi is the Mother of this community, as Megan is the Maiden, and Megara is the Crone.” Megara’s expression grew dark and stormy at these words, her arms crossing, and Harry went over to sit by her, whispering in her ear. “They are all powerful deities in their own right. Irayama Onnashi is Izanami; Goddess of the dead. The wife died in childbirth, the spurned woman. She’s the one who you must convince.” Heather sighed softly. “She is very possibly the greatest force in this town. She rules over the barriers between life and death, between human and monster, and if you are not wanted in her realm, she will kill you, without a second thought.”

In the silence that filled the back yard, Nash began to laugh, eyes crinkling. The others stared at him as if he was mad, as he leaned his head back, hands on his hips. “Well, god damn. What else is new?” he asked, smiling. “That describes nearly every interaction I’ve had since I arrived here. So she wants to kill me; so it’d be as easy for her as swatting a fly. So what?” He gave a bright grin around the table. “It isn’t enough for me to march into the underworld once. I get a dress rehearsal!” He grinned. “Harry, for god’s sakes, cook up some of that venison, it smells amazing.” He stepped away from the others, still laughing as he ambled down the alleyway, and slipped into his room. He was searching through his closet, when Heather entered, opening the door.

“Are you alright?” she asked, frowning.

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be? I’ve just volunteered myself for a suicide mission, infiltrating the realm of the dead belonging to a goddess who either is responsible for the murder, or is shielding the one responsible. I’m the only one who can do it. I’m the only one who nobody in this fucking town is going to miss when he-!” He felt the tears streaking down his cheek, and his nails pressed against his eyelids, as he closed them tightly, failing completely to hold back the tears. They burned down his cheeks, salt stinging his eyes as he felt the shame bubbling up inside of him. God help him, he was terrified. How many times had he nearly died? How many times had he nearly killed.

“I keep getting thrown into more and more dangerous situations! And it keeps getting closer, every time! And if I don’t die, I’m afraid that I’m going to go completely insane! I keep pushing myself further and further, and I don’t know how much longer I can keep getting lucky, and I don’t want to die! I’m marching off to hell, and for the first time in my life, I don’t want to-” He stopped himself, just a little too late.

Heather wrapped her arms around him from behind. “It’s been a very long time since you wanted to live, isn’t it?” Her voice was soft, and gentle, her arms wrapped tightly around him. “You almost forgot what it was like to have something worth living for. You poor child. Who did all of this to you?” she asked. He couldn’t answer. His breath came in heaving, wracking sobs. He couldn’t help it. It hurt, to be so vulnerable, to be unable to hold it back. He’d never been able to hold it back when it really mattered. The anger, or the pain. Just another wedge driven between him and everyone else.

“It is alright. Tears are another gift of the Ocean. There’s no shame in them.” She smiled softly at him, and pulled his face against her chest. His forehead rested against her collarbone, and he heard the beat of her heart, slow and steady as waves on a beach. He let the tears flow for a while, stinging on his cheeks.

“I don’t deserve this.” He muttered, and she shushed him, her fingers running through his hair. He choked a bit on his own tears. There was no dignity in it, no proud and solemn expression of stoic pain and silent tears. Just sniffling and disgrace. “I don’t deserve days in the summer sun with kind people. I don’t deserve to have a reason to live. The only thing that matters is bringing Dean back, and if I’m afraid of dying, how can I do this?”

“Everyone deserves to know they are loved. Few good things come from loneliness. You have been hurt by the ones that you’ve loved. Like Megara was hurt by the murder of her children, time and again. Even when she thought she had lost all of them, she discovered her heart still had room for another cut. Like Harry was hurt when he learned that despite all of his strength, he cannot shield those he loves most. Everyone loses the things that matter to them, eventually. It is the cruel reality of life. All good things must come to an end.”

She rested her hands on his cheeks and lifted his head up to look her in the eye. “But it does not have to end today. This is not a suicide mission, and you will not die while you are in Yomi, because I will walk beside you. Do you understand me? So long as you live, you will never be alone again. Izanami is a goddess, but I am a part of life itself. The realm of the dead runs deep and dark, but not deeper than the Ocean.” She smiled softly, and held him. And he hugged her back.

“This is important. I know that there is a fearsome, impossible task in front of you. And though your tears sting, I am grateful for them. Because you are starting to cherish life again.” She smiled softly. “The fear of death is the love of life. And it will guide you through the underworld.” She held him for a long time, until the tears were gone. Finally, he relaxed.

“What if I need to fight?” he asked, softly And she smiled.

“It is always that way with you, isn’t it?”

“I don’t want to fight. I hate hurting people. But I don’t get much choice in this town, and if I fight, I have to win.” His voice was regaining a bit of its strength.

Heather laughed softly, and smiled. “What we offer is power. But you aren’t being given the power to fight, are you? You’re being made strong enough that you don’t have to fight. Think of the gifts you were given. The speed of wind and the perfect footing. Useful in a fight, but even more useful when you need to run. The speed to outpace any pursuer, and to avoid being dragged into a fight by the terrain. The power of earth. Strength enough to break blows upon your body, to give your opponent no choice but to surrender, because they cannot hurt you. And my power. The strength to read, and to know others. It will serve you well in avoiding hurting anyone. You don’t have to fight.” She rested her hands on his cheeks, and he frowned. She smiled sadly.

“But life is seldom so easy, is it? You aren’t running away anymore. You’re protecting those who can’t run away. So remember this. When the flow is yours, there will be no enemy in this world who can lay a finger on you.” She smiled. “Not even death.”

He took a deep breath. He had avoided love. That desperate yearning for another. He’d lived on his own. He’d been happy that way, he’d thought. Relationships with others always ended with betrayal, worse every time. “It hurts when you get close to another person.” His voice was soft. “Who was the first person who you loved? The person who convinced you that it was worthwhile? And…” He bit his lip. “Why would you ever love a human, knowing that they would die and leave you behind?”

Heather laughed, and took a seat on the bed. He sat down on the only chair in the room, as she leaned back on her hands. “He was a surfer, as it happened. Long, long ago. I’m not sure of the exact year. But I had been in a violent mood. I threw waves at a coastline, I forget which. And as I stewed, I felt something cutting through the waves. A human, riding a long plank of wood. He laughed in joy as he rode my waves. I threw larger and larger swells at him, determined to cut him down for his impudence, but he only grew more bold.” Heather smiled softly. An aura of indefinable age had slipped away from her, and her eyes looked very young.

“Every day when I grew enraged, I would throw waves at his beach. He would ride them, and I grew fond of the ritual. So I kept throwing larger waves, until one day, he mis-stepped. He was plunged deep into the water, among the jagged stones. And I realized, to my horror, what I had done. I pulled him from the water, and he laughed, and kissed me.” She rested a hand on her lips, her face flushed.

Nash sat back. “Why does it seem that every romance I’ve heard about in this city seems to be filled with violence?”

“There isn’t much room for weakness in the love of monsters. Our emotions are furious, and our powers are great. His resilience was part of what I loved about him. He could ride out my fury and find joy in it. He smoothed out my emotions, because when my fury rose, he could weather it. When I was at my worst, he was at his best.” She laughed softly. “Thus always is it between humans and monsters. And so, I became a woman, because that was what he desired, and that was what he thought of me. And I have never stopped, because I wanted to be the woman he dreamt of.” She stared into an impossibly distant past, her eyes misty. “He knew the way my heart flowed. And when he stood upon the water, he was never at risk.” She smiled softly.

“… How did he die?”

Heather laughed softly. “How do heroes always die? He was brought low. War wormed its way into the heart of his brother, who was jealous of what my lover possessed. And so in the night, the brother cut his throat.” She smiled, but the smile was pained, now, as she wiped tears out of her eyes. “However good the reason for killing another might seem, it’s almost never worth it. The world is full of terribly bad people who could have been good, if they had simply had someone to believe in them.”

“… Is that something you want me to keep in mind when I’m face to face with Dean Constantinou’s killer?” he asked, frowning. “Do you think it was really War’s fault alone that he died?”

Heather was quiet for a few seconds. “It is something I hope that you keep in mind at all times. Anger happens in a flash. Don’t ever let it fester into hate.” She smiled softly. “I wish that more people could be at this feast. Perhaps next year. So make sure you come back.” She leaned forward, and kissed his cheek gently. “Now. Let’s go join the others. Alright?” He nodded, and then remembered what he’d been looking for. He reached into the closet, and felt around in one of his jackets. He took out the silver ring, with its emerald inset. He slipped it into his pocket, and smiled at her.

“Let’s go have a really good meal.”

The two of them walked out, and he stepped over to Megara, as Heather went to join her Sisters. Their shoulders were bared by the clothes they wore, and the four tattoos were visible on their shoulders, as they spoke in soft voices. Megara stood next to Harry, Wendy, and Nooky by the grill, as Harry and Wendy argued over whether the meat should be medium rare, or blue rare. “Megara.” Nash spoke softly, under his voice. He held up the small ring, with its silver band, and its emerald inset. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t tell whose ring this was. I thought it was best that you have it.” Megara took the ring, and stared at it.

“You know, I never quite considered Dean my son. I knew how Harry cared for the boy, and I knew that I cared for Harry, but all I could ever think of Dean as was a foolish child who didn’t realize the danger he was in.” She gently spun the ring in her fingers. “I knew that he was angry at me, that he resented me for taking the place of his mother, and I did not realize how poorly a job I did of it. I did not tell the boy that I loved him. I did not even know that I did, until the day when I discovered he had died, and I found that it hurt as deeply as the first time one of my children died.”

She stared at the small inscription, and tears pooled in her bright eyes, running down her cheeks, and gathering together at her fine chin. “I thought I was done being a mother, that it was behind me. That I could not bother to love anymore.” She looked up at him. “I suppose that you think me a monster for being so callous.”

“You tried, as hard as you could, to protect your son and care for him.” He gave her a bracing grin, and to his surprise, it felt genuine. “It was the first time you were being a mother to a human, right?” He looked down at the ring. “You cared about him, even though he wasn’t yours. You loved him. I don’t know about monsters or humanity, but I think that speaks well of you. Do you want to keep the ring?”

Megara studied the ring for a few seconds. “No.” She held out a nail and it elongated, pointed like a talon. It glittered red in the sunlight as she reached with infinite delicacy and cut along the inside of the ring with all the care of an expert jeweler. She smiled softly as she finished. “I never acknowledged Dean as my own. If you should find his body, I beg of you.” She placed the ring in his hand. “Place this on his finger. So that Hades, and all the afterlife, will know that he is my child, and Harry’s. And that any who should forget that will know my wrath.” She smiled softly, and wiped her hand across her cheeks. Harry had gone quiet, watching the two of them. Nash checked the inscription. ‘To my dearest Dean. We will love you in this life, and every other. Megara and Harry.’

“I will.” He nodded. “Harry, Megara, what do you two know about Yomi?” The two were exchanging a frown when Cassandra approached them. She was holding a cup of lemonade, and her arms were crossed tightly in front of her chest.

“My dad used to tell me stories about it. It’s black. Totally black- Not like the darkness of night, or even the shadows. There’s no light in Yomi, no way to see unless you bring in light, or you can See.” Cassandra sipped from the lemonade. “I’m going along with him. He’s going to need someone to guide him. And maybe, if Irayama still cares about people, she’ll be less likely to try to kill him if I’m around. She wouldn’t want to kill me, too, right?”

The party broke out in arguments, people raising their voices, a confused mass with the same tenor of ‘no chance’. And Nash watched as Cassandra’s eyes grew hard and dark. “Hey!” Everyone quieted down, turning to face him. Pearl, Megan, and Megara had furrowed brows. Ariel and Harry had slight grins. The rest all seemed to fall somewhere in-between anger and interest.

“Cassandra’s a part of this town. She’s got a right to worry about this, just like all of us. If I don’t succeed, if I die on the job, then it affects her, just like everyone else. And she’s got vision. She can see what’s really there, in a way nobody else can. She knows me for what I am, and I’m glad for that. If she’s willing to take the chance, then I won’t turn her away.” He looked towards her. “Are you sure you want to do this? It’s going to be dangerous. And while I’d be grateful for your help, I don’t want you hurt for my sake.”

She smiled wanly. “I know the path I’m supposed to take. I think it’s what I saw during the mysteries. I need to come along with you. Besides, if I’m not there to guide you, you’ll die in the dark. Trust me, I don’t need you. You need me.”

“I promise. I’ll protect you, no matter what happens.” He looked around the group. No one argued about it. Some of them clearly wanted to, but none of them could muster the words. He realized, suddenly, how young he and Cassandra both were. Maybe that was why he’d spoken up for her. She’d been given no respect, no information, no recognition for what she could do. He would never subject her to that. “Then for now… Let’s have a great meal.”

They sat down, all together. The scent of cooking venison filled the air. Plates were piled high with slabs of deer meat, hot biscuits, the caprese salad, the hot bouillabaisse of Heather, and other delicious things. They talked and laughed, and Nash savored the feeling of not being alone. For the first time in a long time, he felt utterly at ease around everyone in the crowd, as they exchanged jokes, stories, talked, and lived. Cassandra sat with him, looking nervous, and he cracked a few jokes with her, bringing a big grin to her face. Heather kissed him on the cheek, and Harry cuffed him on the shoulder, and Dio shared stories from a war that nobody could quite recognize.

They all celebrated being alive together. A makeshift dance floor was set up, and Harry got out his old guitar. Wendy and Nooky danced like teenagers, shaking and headbanging, laughing merrily as Crupky and Dio danced a tango to the same beat. Dio disappeared and reappeared with a bottle of wine that predated the internal combustion engine, and everyone stood together in a circle with a glass. Even Cassandra, despite Pearl’s half-hearted protests.

“To Silas. Long may he live!” Harry yelled, grinning.

“To Agent Nash. May the gods watch over him as he walks in strange lands,” Megara said with a smile.

“To the white boy. May he not lose any fingers!” Wendy cackled, three sheets to the wind.

“To the sweet young man. May he know when to heed the wisdom of others, and when to ignore it.” Nooky winked at him.

“To Nash. May he heal the things that we cannot,” Megan Smith said, a solemn expression on her face.

“To Agent Nash. May he always feel Athena’s hand guiding his.” Officer Dio saluted.

“To Agent Nash. May he feel too full to eat of the food of the dead.” Officer Crupky gave him a sharp-toothed grin.

“To the G-man. Here’s hoping he doesn’t choke.” Ariel tossed back her wine in one quick gulp.

Gene simply toasted, a smile on her face, as she flashed him a thumbs up.

“To Nash. May he find a nice young lady to settle down with.” Heather’s cheeks were flushed with booze, and she giggled as the others rolled their eyes.

“To the Champion of Zion. May he find a cause worth living for.” Pearl raised her glass high, though she didn’t drink from it.

Cassandra looked around at the others. “To Mister Nash. May we not screw this up,” she muttered, but she smiled as she did.

And he held up his glass. He thought for a few moments about what he’d say. Then he shrugged. “To living.”

It was a perfect evening. Eventually, twilight fell, and the others drifted away until Harry, Cassandra, and Nash were the only ones still standing in the lights from the hotel. Harry looked between the two of them. “Last chance to back out. Nobody would judge either of you harshly, you know.”

“Not a chance.” Nash said, at the same time as Cassandra. Fortified by wine, and good food, and the cheer of friends, they smiled. Harry grinned.

“That’s the spirit. We venture forward to a far and sunless land, my friends. You must carry the world of the living in your bellies, and in your heart. Come on, then.”

The three of them walked, for some time. At a certain point, Nash noticed that he couldn’t see the stars above anymore. Harry led the way, with his storm lantern illuminating the ground ahead. A chill fell over them as they walked, and mist began to pool in the hollows of the ground. Yet as they walked, Nash felt the gentle touch of Heather, Ariel, and Gene. They seemed to walk with him, even in the darkness, and he smiled. He rested a hand on Cassandra’s shoulder, and she reached up to squeeze it gently.

And the two of them kept walking, until they reached their destination. Harry had set down the storm lantern, illuminating a boulder. It was twenty feet across, leaning against a mountain, vaguely ovoid in shape, sunk deep into the soil. “I won’t be able to come in with you. I can’t open this more than a crack, or bad things will happen. From here on, you two are on your own.”

“No, we’re not.” Nash said, and smiled.”We’ll be back.” Harry grinned, and nodded.

“Well said, my friend.” The big man braced himself, setting his legs shoulder-length apart as he sank his fingers into the stone up to the knuckle. The giant of a man let out a low grunt, as his thighs bulged, his shoulders rippling. His plaid flannel tore across his back as he heaved. The boulder was still for a moment. Then, with a glacial pace, it inched into the air with a sucking sound as it tore free of the mud. The storm lantern shined through the gap. There was nothing visible beyond.

The stone moved first an inch from the ground, then two, until Harry held the massive boulder fully three feet off the ground. Every tendon stood out on his body like a steel cable, sweat pouring down his forehead. Nash and Cassandra slipped in under the rock. They crawled in the dark hollow, until their feet were on solid ground. The light barely illuminated this side, but they were past the boulder.

“We’re through, Harry.” Nash whispered. There was an almighty thud, and the light was cut off, as the two stood in the darkness. Nash realized that he didn’t know which way to go. Then, Cassandra took his hand, and began to walk. And the two of them entered Yomi, as the black shadows poured down around them like ink.

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