Charon’s Oar


Below and beyond the Shadowlands, in the space and non-space known to the living ghosts as the Tempest, the storm grew fiercer. In the realm of the dead emotions were physical reality, the winds composed of shrieking frustration and despair that whipped the sea of regret and misery, of Shadows, into a foaming frenzy. The few dead eyes that watched the sea saw the storm as a furious writhing mass of currents, like torrent of black and grey, growing and vanishing and enveloping the beholder. The water below the winds seemed darker and solid, but much the same feeling of something you would never escape from.

A wraith was lost in this very storm. Her body was adrift on the waves clinging to the shredded ghost of a mattress, as both had fallen through the cracks of the familiar surface world. Their essence was battered and lacerated. Her Shadow, feeble but sadistic, whispered continuously in her mind of cowardly despair and misery. The continuous assault of the storm was ready to overwhelm her, to drag her to Oblivion, when she felt another presence closing. As it came, the winds grew docile and the sea stopped churning. When she opened her eyes she saw a light and focused on that. It seemed like a small star, but it hung from a curved pole and illuminated both her and the small reed boat that carried it. She felt herself letting go of the mattress, and an arm helping her into the vessel, and with the last of her energy spent she curled up in a comatose slumber.

When she regained consciousness, the first thing she saw was the calmness of the black water below. Next was the small and flimsy boat she was resting in, and the shape that was holding up the light she remembered as her savior. She sat up and backed away to the prow of the small boat, while watching the figure with curious fear. She wondered if what she saw was not conjured up by her subconscious mind to inspire terror, as it matched the image of the Grim Reaper she never saw back when she died. The black robes and cowl seemed to hide a tall and gaunt human male, and the long curved scythe rested calmly in the man’s hands as he used it to pole the boat across the water. His face was covered in shadow.

"There’s no need to be afraid." The figure spoke in a thin amorphous voice, the sound as grim and theatrical as its owner, the accent indistinguishable. "I won’t harm you. Consider yourself a guest of mine, for now."

The female wraith had to examine the words in her head for several long seconds before she was able to accept them. She had not heard words like these for an eternity, she felt, nor had she spoken them herself.

She had to cough a little before she was able to reply, kicking her plasmic body back into civilized function. "Thanks." Her English was northern Britain and middle-class. Her word was followed by a pause, in which she thought she probably had more to say than that. "I don’t know why you pulled me up from there, but I appreciate it and will pay you if that’s how it works." She managed to surprise herself by the last addition to the sentence. She was used to her subconscious playing tricks on her, through the whispers of her Shadow, but this felt different. Her Shadow seemed to be cowering in fear inside her, and something higher having taken its place.

The Ferryman nodded. "Good. But in due time."

The following silence did not sit well with the wraith, and after a while she spoke again, with the safest approach she could think of. "My name is Sibyl."

The Ferryman nodded again. He took one hand from the scythe, and with it made a slow sweeping gesture to draw her attention to the ocean around them. "And where do you wish me to take you, Sibyl?" He let his hand linger for a second, letting her eyes and mind focus, then returned to moving his vessel along.

Sibyl only now noticed that the storm, which she had assumed had died down, was still raging in full force, only the wind and water both became placid as they came within a few yards of the boat and the figure. She was momentarily stunned by the sight.

When she had convinced herself that she was safe, she slowly turned to her cowled benefactor, and answered his question while staring at his pale, though not skeletal, hands.

"I was in London just before we set out… I just want to go back. Can you take me there? The Shadowlands of London. Please." Her voice wavered a little with painful and violent memories, but she remained in control and set her goal with determination. Her host only nodded his head and continued on the course. Sibyl sat in the boat quietly, staring at the lashed reeds at her feet.

After a time Sibyl looked out at the waters and saw jagged rocks breaking the water’s surface, followed by reef and what looked like a small island. The Ferryman stopped the boat’s slow movement and inclined his head down towards her, and spoke. "Follow the path up the shore of this islet, and it will lead you to a portal, a nihil that will take you towards your destination." She nodded her head and felt her head grow light at the expectation of going back, to being able to see the places she knew rather than the endless searing tempest. He continued. "As for payment – I’ll require only a memory." Sibyl tore her gaze from the rocky shore to look at the gaunt Ferryman with a mix of gratitude and surliness. "What kind of memory…?" she asked.

"There’s a reason you ended up where you did, needing my help. You were fortunate, you companions were not. I require the memory of those you traveled with." He paused. "They will not be forgotten."

A few tears started to flow from Sibyl’s eyes while she stared into the boat with fury, but eventually her initial quenched rage at the suggestion was replaced by a quiet acceptance. She stood still, nodded, and a few seconds later it was over. She stepped over the side of the boat and into the low water.

She could feel the carnivorous winds again once she had left the boat, but close to the island they were less fierce, and she stumbled onto the shore feeling less safe but closer to returning to sanity from this nightmare.

The ground beneath her feet felt like porous dirt, and huge serrated rocks littered the uneven surface. Ahead of her was a vague beaten path. She turned her head and looked back towards the Ferryman and his vessel, but all she could see was the storm. She sighed, and started walking.

After a minute or two of walking uphill Sibyl felt that she was reaching the summit of the island, and further ahead she could see a construction against the tempestuous skyline. It looked like a stone cairn, oval boulders balanced on each other to form a heavy tripod. Something else was closer, however, and demanded her full attention. Halfway between her and the cairn stood the figure that had just transported her and left her on this island, or something nearly identical. She recognized the cloak, the cowl and the scythe, only the lantern was missing. Curious but wary, she approached and called out.

"Hello again.. is something wrong?" As she got closer she was certain that the shape of the one before her was identical to that of the boatman, but other details didn’t fit. This robe seemed dirtier, and the scythe was rusty and battered. She paused. "Can I help you?"

The figure made its first movement and looked towards her. Its face, as the other one, was covered in darkness. It proceeded to raise its arm and extend a hand towards her methodically. She noticed the fingers as being torn and rent, the tips being nothing but bone, as the index finger bid her to come closer. Sibyl froze, her senses and spine tingling, struck by a sudden and paralyzing terror.

From within the deepest recesses of her mind, Sibyl felt the presence she had been able to ignore since her rescue well up and sink its claws into her soul, as if her brain was shot through with barbed thorns. Her Shadow’s voice thundered in her ears, telling her to get on her knees and submit. She screamed, but without sound. She wanted to run, but stood still. All she could hear was the slavering hiss of her dark side taking over, flexing her limbs and turning her head to look at the cowled figure. She could feel the mental command of the thing, in the same voice as the boatman, to come closer and follow. She watched as the figure made the ground in front of it crumble, falling into a black pit seemingly leading below the world, below the Tempest. She watched the figure half-walk half-crawl into the hole, and felt herself follow willingly, spurred on by her Shadow. As the Labyrinth embraced them, the ground above them grew closed, leaving the island deserted and only the Tempest to mourn her catharsis.

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