CHAPTER 1: DRINKING FROM THE LETHE
The sand was sifting in the wind, and the iron coffin was now half buried beneath the lead-grey grains.
Slumped over the open casket was the withered, stiff body of a Shade. The wind tugged gently at it’s ragged, black garments and the hood had been blown back, revealing the creature’s pale, wrinkled features. Fluid still seeped from the wound in it’s chest, staining the grey sand.
Alive, it had been a snarling, terrifying thing. A harvester of souls and haunter of nightmares.
Dead, it was small and piteous. The face, now that the cruel mouth was slack and the golden eyes dead, looked fragile and very old.
Leading away from the casket was a small trail of prints which led off into the distance towards the huge ebony black mountains. They could be seen making their way up a huge hulking sand dune, like the wake of an ant in a bowl of sugar. And slowly, as the wind blew and the sand swept, the little footfalls drowned quietly, and were gone as if they had never been.
You could see her from a thousand miles away.
Whether against the endless grey sky and sand dunes that mirrored each other in colour like a reflection in a lake or against the great hulking range of obsidian mountains, she stood out like a flame in the night. The wind caught her great bonfire of hair and cast it back and forth so that it looked like she was burning from the head up. See her now; the collar of her dress pulled up over her nose to screen out the sand, and her eyes are a green you’ve never seen before. In her left hand she holds an old bone comb, in her right a blade with a golden handle. She is perhaps thirteen years old. No more.
The storm was getting worse, and the mountains seemed no closer than when she had set out days (weeks, months, years, hours?) ago. This place was unlike anywhere she had ever been, and she had travelled throughout much of space and time in her short life. She had seen the Moon from the inside. But this place…
The sand was grey.
The sky was grey.
The mountains were black.
And nothing more. Nothing changed apart from the wind picking up occasionally. The entire landscape seemed frozen in time. It had even infected her body. Since coming to this place she hadn’t eaten or drunk. Her body no longer made waste. And when she slept, which was rarely, she no longer dreamt.
Nonetheless, it was now getting harder to see, and the sand was getting in her eyes. She bent down and drew her head back into her dress like a turtle retreating into it’s shell. Huddled on the sand, she waited for the desert to calm, and slept.
She was woken by a stabbing pain in her chest. She gasped, and sat up, thinking that perhaps she’d rolled onto a particularly sharp stone. But no, the pain was still there. For an insane second she thought she was having a heart attack. But the pain was in the centre of her chest, between her lungs, a hard little nugget of discomfort. She breathed in slowly and gently, and the pain receded to a dull ache. She slowly got to her feet, made sure she had her comb and blade, and set off again towards the mountains.
The pain was still there, and it was beginning to worry her. What if it was serious? What would she do? There were no doctors here, and certainly none where she was going. Could she even die here?
Was it possible?
She stopped dead. She could hear the sound of running water chiming over the next sand dune.
She broke into a run.
From the top of the dune, she stopped, her elbows resting on the sand. The desert had finally come to a temporary end, giving way to rocky, sandy earth.
The river was in it’s late stages and flowing so slowly as to be almost still. At the base of the dune there was a depression in the ground, and the river had formed a small lake. A little scrub grew here and there.
Marie stared at the water. She was not thirsty, but the thought of a cool drink was inviting nonetheless. She was about to make her way down when a scream almost made her jump out of her skin. Three wild figures burst out from the scrub land and made straight for the lake. They were gaunt, clothed in filthy rags and both rags and figures were as grey as the desert sand . They leapt straight into the water, which only came up to their shins, fell to their hands and knees and thrust their heads right under the surface, gurgling noisily. Finally, one threw his head up and took a deep breath of air. Marie looked at his face as closely as she dared, and saw that his skin and hair were actually grey, and not simply covered with sand. For a moment a look of complete contentment spread over his face. He was young, and his features had a kind of open, easy charm.
Then the smile faded and his eyes glazed over. He began to look around nervously, as if unsure where he was. The other two, a man and a woman, had now raised their heads from the water and were looking similarly confused.
Marie watched them in silence until they began to shuffle away in different directions, and Marie realised they were leaving.
“Wait!” she called out.
The three figures started and spun around to look at her. Their eyes were terrified, and Marie wondered if she might not have made a terrible mistake. Her hand tightened on the handle of her blade.
She spoke again.
“Excuse me?” she asked them “Is this the way to Hell?”
They stared at her.
One of the men looked at the others uncertainly, as if waiting for them to do something. The female took a few steps closer to Marie, tilting her head as she studied her. There was something animal-like about the way she moved and acted.
“Can you understand me?” Marie asked.
The woman reached out and Marie pulled back slightly.
The woman started and the two men jumped. But the woman reached out again, slower this time, and took a lock of Marie’s hair in her hand. She studied the hair intently, mesmerised by the colour. And then she laughed, a happy giddy little child’s gurgle of a laugh, and dropped the hair as if it no longer mattered.
Having realised that she was not a threat, the two males went back to splashing around in the water.
Marie watched them dumbly for a few seconds. It was clear that none of them were going to be any help whatsoever.
She bent down and peered into the grey pool. The water ran over a bed of smooth pebbles and seemed clean enough. She dipped her hand in the water and raised it to her lips.
“Don’t drink!” a voice behind her shouted.
Marie spun around to find herself looking up at a tall, thin woman. She had a lined, angular face, and Marie would have placed her in her forties. Like the others, her skin and hair were as grey as the sand, but her eyes were sharp and intelligent. She was making her way barefoot over the rough scrubland to where Marie crouched.
“Why not?” Marie called to her.
“Do you want to end up like them?” the woman asked sadly, gesturing to the three pathetic creatures who were splashing aimlessly through the water.
“What’s wrong with them?” Marie asked.
“This is the river Lethe.” the woman explained “If you drink from it, your mind is washed clean. You forget everything, your life, your friends, old memories and new. Past joys and old sins. Everything.”
Marie felt the pain in her chest spike. She had just come very close to losing everything that made her who she was. It was a terrifying thought.
“But…” she stammered “They threw themselves into the water. Why would they do that?”
“Can you truthfully tell me you have nothing you would not like to forget?” the woman asked her.
Memories swam into Marie’s head like shark’s following a blood trail: A dead man hanging from his neck. A dear friend holding a knife to her chest. A black mask. A devil in the rain.
Suddenly the Lethe seemed less menacing.
“Poor idiots.” the woman muttered under her breath as she watched the three “Well, I suppose there’s nothing for it. Tristan, Hannah, Geoff, come here.” she strode towards them, beckoning with her outstretched arms. They huddled together nervously, unsure of whether to go towards her or flee. She took them by their shoulders, one by one, and steered them back the way she had come.
“What’s your name?” she asked Marie as she herded them past.
“Marie.” she answered keeping pace “What’s yours?”
“Angela.” was the reply. She stopped and looked at her, and Marie realised that she was studying her skin and hair.
“You’re…you’re not dead. Are you?” she said a little uncertainly.
“No.” said Marie. There didn’t really seem a better way to put it.
“But how did you get here?” Angela asked.
Marie thought. That would take more explaining than she was able for right now.
“Alright.” said Angela, sensing her difficulty “Where are you going?”
“I’m…trying to get to Hell.” Marie explained.
Angela studied her for a few minutes.
“What part?” she queried.
“The outer ring of the seventh circle.” said Marie “I’m travelling to the lake of boiling blood where the souls of murderers are tormented for all eternity.”
“Ah, avoiding the touristy areas. Very wise. Seriously, are you mad?”
“No. Is this the right way?”
“Why are you going there?”
“I have to.”
“Because it’s not as nice as everyone says.”
“Is this the right way?”
“You see those mountains?”
“They form the border between here and Hell. You reach those, they’re just a massive black wall miles high.”
“I’ll climb them.”
“Those mountains are black glass. They’re too slippery to climb. And even if you did, you’d be cut to ribbons on the peaks. There’s no way in through there.”
“Is there another way?”
“Will you tell me what it is?”
“Because my job is to keep people as far away from there as possible.”
She once again began to usher the three mind-wiped adults away from the Lethe, gently coaxing and prodding them.
“Why would you even want to go there?” she asked.
“My father’s in there.” Marie said quietly.
“And…what, you were going to rescue him? Fight your way through all of the Legions of Hell and somehow find him amidst the trillions of damned souls kept there?
“Yes.” said Marie simply.
Angela snorted “You are mad. You have no idea what’s in there.”
“Yes I do. My father. That’s all I need to know.”
“No, you need to know about the things that will torture you for an eternity on a whim. You need to know about the monsters so terrible that to look at them will drive you mad. You need to know about oceans of fire and nations of smoke. You need to know about pain and misery and unending death and darkness. I don’t think you know these things.”
Marie didn’t answer for a while.
“Where will you take them?” Marie asked after a while.
Angela looked at the mindless three. The female had crouched down and was playing in the sand, her eyes lost in simple wonderment.
“Back to the city.” Angela sighed “They’ll have to learn everything all over again. They’ll have to remember everything they lost. And maybe the next time they’ll be strong enough to handle it.”
“There’s a city here?”
“Yes there is. Around twenty miles that way.” she gestured with her hand.
“What’s it called?” Marie asked.
“Just “the city”” Angela shrugged “We never needed another name for it. I’m sure there are other cities, we’ve just never made contact with them.”
“What is this place? I thought it was Hell when I came here first.”
Angela laughed at that “It’s a little depressing, I’ll grant you that, but it’s hardly that bad. This is…are you Catholic?”
“Yes.” said Marie.
“Then this is Purgatory.” said Angela “The others don’t like us calling it that, but that’s what it is.”
“Are you dead?” asked Marie.
“Dead as I’ll ever be. Does that bother you?”
“No. I’ve met dead people before.” said Marie “Well, a person anyway.”
“Really? Since you came here?”
“No. Back home. He was a ghost.” said Marie simply.
“Huh.” said Angela, as if that was only vaguely interesting.
Ahead of them, the three figures began to meander off in different directions, Angela shepherded them back with practised skill. They were entering the desert again, and Marie felt her feet sink into the soft cold sand.
“How do we get to the city?” Marie asked.
“We walk.” said Angela simply.
“Is it far?”
“For us? Two days. With them? Maybe four.”
“You walked all that way? Why?”
“I was trying to catch them before they drank from the Lethe. But they were too fast for me.” she said sadly.
“This happens a lot?” Marie asked.
“Not “a lot”, but it happens. Usually I can catch them in time.”
“Yes, I know the route well and most of them have never seen the Lethe before, and even if they have they don’t remember it.” she laughed bitterly.
“Why do they do it? Are their memories really so awful?”
There was a chill in the air. Snaking trails of sand began to blow over Marie’s feet.
“It’s not their memories as such.” explained Angela. “It’s their sins.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t blame you. It’s very complicated. Well, look at it this way. People who are good, who were loving, caring, kind, courageous. Who didn’t judge or belittle their fellow man, who didn’t inflict cruelty and who made the world better for their presence are doing the will of Yol, the ultimate good. When they die they return to him, to the Yoli-awhey, to Heaven. Their opposites, the cruel, the malignant, the spiteful and violent reject Yol and end up there…” she pointed towards the great shining peaks of black glass and red sky “….in the Goli-awhey. But think of most of the people you’ve ever known, were they all good or were they all evil?”
“No. A few were good and some were bad.”
“But what about the rest?”
“They were just…I don’t know…people.”
“Exactly. That is why this place exists. The people here weren’t good enough for Heaven. They didn’t try to help their fellow man overmuch. They didn’t worry about helping those worse off than them. They didn’t care. But at the same time, they didn’t actually do anything wrong. So they come here, to this place. But they don’t have to stay here forever. Here they can choose to try and be better, to become better people and eventually leave and ascend to the Yoli-awhey. Or, they become bitter, and hateful and their old flaws become worse and worse and eventually a Shade comes and carries them off screaming over the black mountains. Or they just stay here, getting no worse or not better, just living out a grey, dreary existence that will never end. I run a school in the city, for those who’ve decided they want to leave. We do good works around the city, helping people, building homes, that kind of thing.”
“And who are they?” Marie asked, pointing to the three amnesiacs.
“They were, are, pupils of mine.” said Angela sadly.
Tristan had tripped on a rock and cut his knee. He lay on the ground, confused by the pain, grey tears welling in his eyes. Angela gently helped him to his feet, consoling him gently.
“Why would they do that to themselves?” Marie asked her.
“Because the closer you get to a state where you could actually be ready for Heaven, the more painful your past deeds weigh on your mind, the more guilt you feel for them, the more you wish you could have spent your time alive more wisely. These three were so close to Heaven. But the guilt became too great and they must have decided to end their pain. The Lethe took away all their memories. They’ve forgotten everything.”
“So what’ll happen now?” Marie asked.
Angela shrugged “They’ll be brought back to the city, taught how to speak and think again and maybe they’ll recover their memories in time. Until they do, they can never leave here. There are some people in my school who have come close to enlightenment four, sometimes even five times, broke under the strain and drank from the Lethe.”
“If it’s so terrible, maybe you should just leave them as they are?” Marie said.
Angela snorted “There’s no life for them here. What waits for them on the other would be worth ten times what they go through.”
“But you’ve never been there. How do you know?” Marie asked.
“I have faith.” said Angela coolly “And I find it somewhat amusing that you’re actually standing in the afterlife and yet still manage to be sceptical.”
They continued on in silence.
The wind was getting stronger.