Ethan struggled to his feet, brushing off branches and snow from his clothing. He stared back at Orpheus, who glowered at him from the binding circle at the mouth of the cave. Ethan saw the recognition in Orpheus' eyes, but even if he hadn't, he would've known his familiarity from the level of malevolence Orpheus projected from his being.
"You know who I am," Ethan said. "You know why I've come."
"Ethan Pallet," Orpheus confirmed. Yes. I recognize you from Caleb's visions. You are the thorn in my side, who will be plucked and crushed beneath the heel of my boot."
"You know Caleb," Ethan observed.
Orpheus' eyes narrowed. "I know all who inhabit my realm, fool."
"Fool?" Ethan echoed. "I have called you here, and now I have bound you."
"Hah! Binding death itself!" Orpheus cackled madly. "You are a fool, indeed. What makes you think you can hold me here? You're a fledgling mage facing the force of He Who Rules Beneath. You are pathetic."
"Give me Caleb," Ethan said, refusing to be intimidated, "and I'll let you go."
"I told you, Ethan, you cannot bind me," Orpheus said. He raised his hands and a loud crackling reverberated through the cave. The stone beneath his feet cracked open wide, breaking the circle Ethan had carved into it. The runes were unrecognizable, as if someone had taken a pick to the rock and broken them all to pieces.
Orpheus paced the line of the cave where shadow met light, remaining on the shadowy side. "Now, let's talk business."
"You're willing to make a deal?" Ethan asked, his eyes hopeful. He tried to ignore the seed of doubt planted within him at Orpheus breaking the binding spell, but it was there, and it began to take root.
"No," Orpheus said, "Not for Caleb. You cannot have him."
Ethan felt pure rage surge within him, halting the spread of the doubt's influence upon his will. "Why not?" Ethan snapped.
"He's mine, and I protect what's mine," Orpheus replied. "I keep what's mine. I own him. I've fought for him, I've guided him, and I've pulled him from the brink of destruction. What have you done for him?"
The words slammed into Ethan, disrupting the rage he'd built up as a defense, giving water and light to the seeded doubt. It began to grow, slowly overtaking his soul. Ethan ditched his original plan, he couldn't cast like this. So there remained one option, a bargain. "A life for a life, then. I'll give up mine for his."
Orpheus scoffed at the notion. "And what would you do for me? Blow yourself up chasing after the mysteries of the universe? Who do you think you are?"
Bargaining would get him nowhere, Ethan realized. It was time for plan C. He'd expected to have more time to implement the earlier plans, but he was running out of options quickly and needed to see this through. He collapsed to his knees, bowing his head humbly. "I just want Caleb back. Tell me what I have to do, please."
"And already you're reduced to begging," Orpheus said, laughing callously. "Can you be any more pathetic? I can't imagine Caleb would even want you back."
Ethan looked up, his eyes wild as the doubt blossomed. "Why are you speaking to me like this?"
Orpheus shrugged then answered sarcastically. "You called, I answered. You made a bullshit request of me."
"Why won't you take my life for his?" Ethan whined. "Please, please . . . I have to save him."
"Save him?" Orpheus chuckled. "He understands the mysteries I offer him. He will serve me well. I saw the potential in him from the moment he first approached my threshold and sought to save you. If only I could get him to stop seeking after you, he'd become one of my greatest servants. But still he refuses to let go. Still, he only wants you."
"He's seeking me?"
"Oh yes," Orpheus said bitterly. "No matter how much I try and get him to let go of his foolish quest, he's still convinced you're obtainable."
Ethan nodded in understanding, certain he'd found the loophole he was after. "Then perhaps I'll die so he can find me," he said. "Then you won't have him after all."
"You'll die?" Orpheus asked in mock disbelief. "Of course you'll die, we all die. And you think I'd let him find you after that? In my realm? My, your foolishness never ceases to amaze me."
The blossoms of the tree of doubt began to bear fruit and slowly ripened with every word. "You can't . . ." Ethan protested. "You can't do this."
"Oh, dear Ethan, I'm afraid I can," Orpheus said sadistically. "I bend the afterlife to my will, it does not bend to yours."
Ethan crawled forward, his hands together in supplication, desperate as the fruits of doubt began to fall from the tree. They hit the ground and broke open, spreading their seeds into the now fertile ground of Ethan's soul. "Please. Please, I need him."
Orpheus met Ethan's gaze, and Ethan saw nothing but cruelty and death in the eyes of The Ruler. "Love is fleeting. Let it go. For your sake and his." He turned and walked away, heading deep into the dark of the cave.
"No, please! Please don't go!" Ethan called, clamoring to his feet and staggering after Orpheus. "Please give him back to me!"
"No," came Orpheus simple response from the dark. "Go home, mageling."
Ethan sensed Orpheus' presence one instant, and then in the next it was gone. He collapsed to the floor of the cave, his body wracked with frantic sobs as he hugged himself against the cold December air. He felt everything now and couldn't believe the pain.
All the buildings looked the same, but Caleb was certain he was heading in the right direction. It was as if he could sense the Styx flowing ahead of him, could sense the end of The Underworld. The farther he walked, the more he understood, the more he could see.
And he was beginning to understand, even as the world shifted around him, he could see the pattern in the shifting. He felt, if he studied it long enough, he could learn to manipulate it, to bend it to his will and recreate the land as he saw fit should he find the will to do so.
"Caleb, where are you going?" Orpheus asked, appearing at his side.
Caleb smiled at him. He understood Orpheus, too. Now more than ever. "Orpheus, I was wondering when you'd come back. Where did you go?" Caleb asked.
"Official business of The Underworld," Orpheus replied. "I needed to serve as witness at the Grand Tribunal."
Caleb knew it for the lie that it was. He'd reasoned out the hidden meaning of Eurydice's words. The Ruler stood before him now, but why? Caleb knew, but he had to play the game a little longer, he had to learn why The Ruler would choose to masquerade in such a manner. "Is that one of your official duties as psychopomp?" He asked.
"Yes. I'm often called for such things," Orpheus replied with a casual shrug. "A certain warlord and tyrant has recently arrived in our realm. The three judges wished to commit him to Tartarus, and all psychopomps are to be made aware of such a verdict."
"I see," Caleb replied. The answer was as vague as he'd expected, but he no longer expected anything less. He needed answers, and he no longer trusted anyone. Though Eurydice had seemed clear that he should still seek the seat of The Ruler, and so he would. As long as Orpheus offered guidance, Caleb would accept it.
"You'll learn," Orpheus said, "should you become one of us. Until that moment, you are not allowed in those chambers."
Caleb ignored those words. He didn't care about becoming a psychopomp. He didn't want to serve Orpheus. He couldn't. But the answers, those motivated him, and so instead he said, "I'm seeking the Styx."
"What for?" Orpheus asked.
"I believe The Ruler is now the only one who can help me find answers," Caleb replied. "Ethan isn't in Elysium."
"You're sure?" Orpheus asked. He sounded so sincere, so concerned, but Caleb knew. He knew Orpheus had duped him from the beginning, but why?
"Yes. I'm sure. I've searched with my heart and I know it's true. I can see things much more clearly now."
Orpheus laughed. "You've drunk more deeply from the Mnemosyne, I see."
"So, you seek The Ruler and, what then?" Orpheus asked.
"I officially offer to exchange my soul for Ethan's," Caleb explained. That's what you said I had to do, right?"
"Do you earnestly wish to offer your soul to The Underworld?" Orpheus asked. Caleb recognized it for the dangerous question it was. If he answered yes now, then his fate would be sealed. If he answered no, then Orpheus may stop wasting time on him.
He needed to tread carefully, for he now knew the danger of his opponent. There was only one type of answer he could give, for only one answer would give him the freedom to see this through.
"Once I know that Ethan's fate is secure, yes," Caleb replied.
True to form, as soon as Caleb said he would accept his new position, Orpheus' face lit up like a kid receiving presents. "Then I know the way to the Styx. Come, let me show you."
Caleb didn't need to look back this time to know that the cat-eyed dogs were stalking them, watching his every move. He could feel them in his soul. He was dead, and they knew it as surely as he did.
Ethan arrived on Liz's doorstep, shivering from head to toe. He'd barely made it out of the mountains alive, wrapping himself in the emergency blanket his mother kept in the car. The roads had been treacherous, and he'd been forced to take them slow, as he could barely move his fingers and toes to operate the vehicle.
Several times he'd had to stop and let the heater warm him up just to be able to move, and in those moments his emotions had nearly overwhelmed him. He'd had to drive to escape himself, for movement was better than letting the reality of his situation overwhelm him.
When he arrived back in town, Liz's was the only place he could go. He didn't know who else to see, who else could give him some measure of clarity. He hated himself for going to her, but survival instinct took over. And so he rang the doorbell, hoping she would even see him.
She opened the door and stared at him, her eyes widening by the second. Her belly clearly showed her pregnancy now, and she was dressed in warm-looking maternity clothes. "L-liz . . ." Ethan said through chattering teeth.
"Ethan?" Liz asked. "Ethan, are you okay?"
"No, I . . ." Ethan gulped back his emotions and explained, "I failed."
"Come in, come in . . ." Liz said, holding the door open wide so he could move inside. He eagerly took the invitation and stepped into the house. Liz's home smelled like Christmas, and a large tree dominated a corner of her living room. A roaring fire danced in the fireplace, and Ethan staggered toward the two-seated couch closest to it. "It's so cold out there," Liz said as she shut the door. "What are you doing out in this chill?"
Ethan sat down and stared at the fire, unblinking. His mind raced back to the fire he'd created in the mouth of the cave. "I hiked up to Cherry Creek Cave, I summoned Orpheus . . . and . . ." He stopped, unable to continue. He was certain he'd slipped into shock, and only his mental training over the last year prevented him from becoming fully catatonic.
"What?" Liz asked as she sat down next to him. She wrapped her arm around his shoulders, holding him tight. "What happened? You look like hell!"
"Where's Jake?" Ethan asked distractedly. "I want to tell him, too. He deserves to know that he was right."
"He's working," Liz explained. "He's getting out of the drug business and needs something else to keep him busy. He started working as a real mechanic last week."
Ethan nodded. It made sense, getting out of a dangerous business. He needed out, he could see that now. He needed to get as far away as possible. Maybe death was the answer, maybe-he stopped and considered where his mind was going, trying avoid falling over the precipice.
"I see," he said neutrally.
Liz smoothed back Ethan's hair, placing her hand on his forehead. He realized she must be checking his temperature. When she was apparently satisfied, she said, "Ethan, please, just tell me what happened."
Ethan turned to Liz at last and spoke the words he'd been denying himself since he left the cave. "Orpheus says he has Caleb's soul and refuses to give him up."
Liz stared at him as if he'd lost his mind. "What?" She asked, processing the statement, staring off into space as she tried to absorb it. "But Orpheus isn't Lord of the Dead. That's Hades, or The Devil, or Hel, or . . ." She looked at Ethan in disbelief. "Orpheus?"
"Yes," Ethan confirmed. "He said he has plans for Caleb and won't let me interfere. I've never felt such power before, it was like . . ." He shuddered, a tremble overtaking his entire body like an earthquake. "It was like touching Death itself."
Liz wrapped both her arms around Ethan and hugged him tight, pulling him into her bosom as well as she could. He could feel her warmth, her tenderness. He wondered why he'd rejected it so thoroughly before now. Why he'd let her drift so far away from him. "Ethan, I'm so sorry . . ." She whispered.
"What am I supposed to do now, Liz?" Ethan asked, sinking into her as her warmth slowly rejuvenated him physically. His soul would take longer. "All this time, all this wasted time . . ."
"I wish I had an easy answer for you," Liz said. She sniffled, and Ethan realized she was crying. The sound opened the floodgates of his own tear ducts, and soon his eyes and cheeks were red from more than just the cold. "I really do, Ethan. I wish I could tell you everything you needed to hear."
His head nestled atop her distended belly. He could hear her heartbeat, could sense her life force. It was so comforting, to hear something that so clearly wasn't dead. It wasn't comforting enough to keep him from touching the sorrowful depths of his soul, depths he'd tried to keep hidden since he'd come back to life. "There's no way to bring him back. It can't be done. I was certain I had the power, but Orpheus had so much more than I did. So much more!"
"No one can overcome death," Liz said quietly. "They can only bargain with it."
"But . . ." Ethan whispered, "I was so certain."
"I know, Ethan," Liz whispered back, rocking him in her arms. "Believe me, I know."
He knew what she meant. Even though she'd managed to rescue him in the process, she felt the same way about losing Caleb. Ethan finally understood her pain and her position. He'd played with the powers of life and death and lost, just as she had. It wasn't meant to be.
A jolt to his cheek brought Ethan back to the present. He bolted upright, staring at Liz's belly. "What was that?" He asked.
"The baby kicked," Liz said sweetly, wiping away a tear with her hand.
Ethan latched on to this new distraction. "Wow, really?"
Liz saw his excitement and reached for his hand. "Yeah . . . He'll probably do it again if you want to feel." She guided Ethan's hand back to her belly, and within a minute it happened again. Ethan smiled; it felt good to smile.
"Little baby Caleb, huh?" He said, grinning.
"Jake told you?" Liz asked.
Ethan nodded. "Yeah. About a month ago."
"I wish I'd had a chance," Liz said. "I didn't want to distract you. I wanted . . . I wanted to believe you were right."
"How far along are you?" Ethan asked.
"Four months, going on five," Liz replied.
"It's wonderful. I can't believe he's so . . ." the baby kicked again under Ethan's hand, and he chuckled. ". . . lively."
Liz let go of Ethan's hand and wrapped her arm around Ethan again. "It kind of puts things in a different perspective, doesn't it?" She said gently.
"I can't bring him back," Ethan said, returning his thoughts to his failure, but it seemed different now. He felt less of the pain of loss, though it was far from gone. "Orpheus wouldn't even accept an exchange," he added bitterly.
"So what are you going to do?" Liz asked, running her fingers through his hair.
"Live, I guess." Ethan shrugged, and sniffed. He was certain he'd contracted a cold, but that seemed like such a minor nuisance in the face of everything else. "Do something. Try not to kill myself."
"Ethan. I love you," Liz said. "Please don't go anywhere."
"I won't. I want to, but I won't." Ethan sighed and settled into the crook of Liz's arm, staring at the flames. "I just don't know what to do."
"It'll get easier," Liz said gently. "Believe me."
The headwaters of the Styx were wider than the Acheron. Caleb couldn't even see the other side, but he knew it was there. He knew that in the dark, misty distance lay the answers he sought. Somehow, he knew that the only way he'd get the truth from Orpheus would be to journey there, to approach the seat of Death itself, even though it walked beside him.
"The Styx, mightier than all," Orpheus observed. "Hate is the strongest force in the afterlife."
Caleb gave Orpheus a sidelong glance. The words rang hollow on his ears, and he remembered Eurydice's admonition. Death cannot see its own heart. He didn't like it, but he mourned for Orpheus then. "I've always heard that love was the strongest force," Caleb replied.
"Perhaps in the world of the living, but love feels forced within these lands, wouldn't you agree?" Orpheus replied.
That much, in Caleb's experience, did appear to be true. Yet he remembered the kindness Eurydice had showed him, but kept that to himself. He had to maintain the appearance of the game. "Yes. It seems that way. It's just ghosts and memories."
"I'm sure you can see why most people drink from the Lethe in the end," Orpheus said, almost wistfully. "They want to be back in the world where Love reigns."
"Don't you love anything anymore, Orpheus?" Caleb asked.
Orpheus shook his head solemnly. He bent down at the riverbank and stuck his hand in the black waters of the Styx. He withdrew his hand, and the water made a sickening slurping sound. Some of the flesh seemed to have disappeared from Orpheus' hand but it quickly regenerated. "No. I left love behind long ago."
"Eurydice?" Caleb dared to ask.
Orpheus hung his head. "Yes."
"What happened?" Caleb asked.
"What do you mean?" Orpheus said. He shook his head and stared out across the waters. "You know the myth."
"Myths lie," Caleb said with conviction. "They always exaggerate."
Orpheus gave Caleb a critical look, then laughed bitterly. He rinsed both his hands in the Styx and then stood, shaking the water off as his flesh regrew. "I suppose we have some time before our ride appears," He said. He bowed his head as if in prayer, then lifted his gaze again to Caleb's face. He cleared his throat and then began, "The truth of the matter is Eurydice survived. See, when she died the first time, I made a trip into The Underworld to rescue her, I played beautiful music for its denizens, I made Hades cry . . . and he gave her back to me because I'd made him feel again. Or so I thought . . ."
Orpheus smirked. "It seems the office of Ruler comes with a certain degree of Sadism, or perhaps it's more a desire to bring people to the same understanding of the futility of life that you've come to see. Those who challenge death, death wishes to make them understand the folly of their challenge, so it teaches them a lesson."
This intrigued Caleb more than anything Orpheus had said to him so far, and so he asked, "And what did you learn?"
"I journeyed with Eurydice through the afterlife, following her. Yes, I know the myth says it was the other way around, but as you said," Orpheus' eyes twinkled with a bittersweet light, "myths lie. I followed her, and she was the one who was not allowed to look back at me. We crossed the rivers, passed through the darkness of the things betwixt and found ourselves at the edge of the cavern, where light divided living from dead. She crossed the threshold and I slammed right into it."
Orpheus cleared his throat and stared down at the Styx, his eyes clouding over. "Death, you see, had its grip on me, and refused to let go. It seemed Hades had a different fate in mind for me. He freed her soul, but he took mine in her place. Death, you see, can only be exchanged or fulfilled. Those are the rules. Eurydice turned back and saw me, stuck within this realm, and then I faded into the dark."
"And so I stayed," Orpheus said, lifting his eyes again and staring at Caleb. He gestured out to the Styx, then behind them to Elysium. "I became one with this realm, I learned to harness its power for myself, in the hopes that I would one day escape it, but I could not. Eurydice must have come here eventually, but I never saw her. I assumed she drank from the waters of Lethe, bitter in her inability to find me, and moved on to her next life."
"And now you're here, still," Caleb said quietly. "Why do you not drink from the Lethe and continue onward?"
Orpheus scoffed. "What would be the point? To cease to exist when I already feel as if I do not, when my heart died before the world even knew my name? What would be the point?" He shook his head ruefully. At least, like this, I have some meaning. I have a purpose. And how can I abandon it?"
Caleb saw an opportunity to allow Orpheus to come clean. "The purpose of guiding souls through the afterlife?" He asked.
Orpheus shook his head, and for a moment Caleb thought he'd get a straight answer, but ever murky as the Acheron, Orpheus replied, "To help souls find their purpose, and hope, in the end, I'll find mine along the way."
"Help me cross the Styx, and I will help you in turn," Caleb said. Even though Orpheus had steadily misled and manipulated him, he couldn't help the feeling of empathy building within him. He wanted to help Orpheus again, and perhaps in doing so find a purpose of his own.
"You'll become a psychopomp?" Orpheus asked hopefully.
"If that's what helping you means . . ." Caleb sighed and stared at the river, "yes. But not until I've spoken with The Ruler and he has heard me out. Not until I'm certain he has released Ethan's soul."
"Caleb, there's one thing you should know about The Ruler," Orpheus said.
"What is that?" Caleb asked, hoping this would be the moment that Orpheus chose to tell him the truth.
"When you see him, he will be the manifestation of everything you believe Death to be," Orpheus replied. "He'll take the form of your absolute darkness."
So, no truth, then. Caleb sighed and looked down at his feet. "It can't be worse than at the Cocytus."
Orpheus shook his head resolutely. "Yes. It can."
"I have to move forward. I can't stay here any longer," Caleb said, feeling determination grow within him. "This city has nothing for me. I need answers."
"I had a feeling you'd say that," Orpheus said. He pointed out into the water, where a single longboat was moving toward them, a robed figure pushing the skiff through the water with a lengthy pole. "Our ride is here. You remember Charon, don't you?"
Hypothermia turned out to be easier to handle than Ethan expected, and he didn't even have to use magic to beat it. All it took was some expert medical advice from Ethan's scouting days as Liz took care of him. Not that he could have worked any magic if he'd tried.
His will had been broken, his emotions were no longer pure, and all the knowledge in the world was useless to him without those two things. He didn't mind much, not really. All magic had gotten him was a series of brutal dead ends and the realization he was worth almost nothing in the universe.
That, and eternal youth, which at least held out the hope of some perks, anyway.
It was now late March, and Spring was just around the corner. He'd spent most of the last three months with Liz and Jake, who were generous enough with their free time to help him through his emotional crisis. He didn't want to kill himself anymore, at least not during every waking moment, but he didn't particularly care to live, either.
At his parents', and counselor's, urging, he'd managed to get his grades up to passing level, and his home situation had mellowed out to some degree, though it was still far from perfect. His parents insisted he needed more therapy, and he insisted that if they tried he'd move in with Liz. They compromised and he spent more time with Liz when he wasn't at school.
But usually he spent that time at Liz's house, which is why he was surprised to find Liz arriving at his house on a bright, Saturday morning before she went to work. She was a week shy of eight months pregnant now, and she looked every month of it. She'd been told to not travel very often, but that was almost impossible for Liz who never stayed in one place for long.
"Hey, are you going to invite the fat chick inside?" Liz barked from the front porch.
Ethan laughed. "You're stronger than me, so I don't think refusing you is in my best interest."
Liz rolled her eyes and stepped inside, then reached into her bag at her side and handed two red envelopes to Ethan. "One is for you, the other is for your mother."
Ethan nodded and said, "Have a seat in the living room. I'll make some tea if you'd like."
"No, thank you," Liz said as she moved past him to the couch. "I already have to pee too much as is. I really could do without more liquid in me."
Ethan laughed and sat down next to her. He opened the envelope and pulled out the card, eyes skimming the contents as a knowing smirk graced his face. "A baby shower, huh?" He asked. Liz nodded and he continued. "For some reason, I never expected to see you at a baby shower. Honestly, I never thought you'd have children."
"Me neither, and I definitely didn't think I'd have them with Jake," Liz groaned. "But that fucker doesn't know how to use protection, even if he can pull of some of the craziest spells I've ever seen. I'm starting to think that the prosperity spell Caleb and I cast way back when connected me to Jake in ways I wasn't expecting. Maybe this pregnancy is the universe's way of slapping my wrists for thinking I could bend it to my will. Instead of letting me pay him back, it made me 'prosperous' for him." Her eyes lit up as she realized what she said, and she looked around anxiously.
"Don't worry, my Mom's not home," Ethan said, laughing hard.
Liz nodded to herself. "Good. I love her, but I'm already dreading having her at my baby shower. I had to invite her to be socially proper, but . . . she's not going to fit in with the rest of my friends."
"I'll tell her that maybe she should just send a gift with me," Ethan said. "But speaking of you and Jake, you guys have chemistry, it's undeniable. He's definitely rough around the edges though."
Liz snorted. "Remind you of anyone you know?"
"Yeah," Ethan said, giving her a half-smile. "Hey, do you . . . do you still practice?" They hadn't spoken much about magic since Ethan's run-in with Orpheus, but he'd been wondering about Liz and Jake for a while. They seemed to be doing far too well for a young couple with a baby on the way for there not to be a little dark arts involved.
"Sometimes. I use magic in moderation, you know? I don't want it to overtake me. It doesn't have to if you're careful," Liz replied, smiling encouragingly. "How's the sobriety going?"
"Not well," Ethan said, acknowledging the truth out loud for the first time. "I don't mean I've slipped up, but . . ." he shook his head firmly. "It hasn't been easy."
"It's for the best, you'll see," Liz said.
"Yeah, but I don't really . . ." Ethan sighed heavily. "I don't know how to keep doing this."
"You're not talking about the magic anymore, are you?" Liz asked.
Ethan hung his head and laughed mirthlessly. "Nope. Caleb, he's . . . he's trapped there, because of-"
Liz's eyes narrowed dangerously. "My threat still stands."
"Because he chose to give himself up for me," Ethan finished. "I wasn't going to . . ." he smiled meekly and finished the thought. "I wasn't going to blame myself."
Liz's mouth quirked into a knowing half-smile. "But you still feel it's your fault."
Ethan chuckled. "Hard to stop."
"Ethan. It's always hard to stop the things we're addicted to," Liz said, reaching out and touching his arm gently. "You've felt guilty your whole life, or at least the last half of it. It's just what you're used to. You'll find your way through."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Ethan said sincerely. He was ready to change the subject, so he raised the party invitation and said, "So, next month, huh? You ready for motherhood?"
Liz snorted. "Fuck no. But I wasn't ready for pregnancy, either, and I survived that."
"I'll be there," Ethan said, brandishing the invitation again. "Isn't it traditional for women only to be at a baby shower?"
"Ethan, have you ever known me to be traditional?" Liz asked.
"No," Ethan replied, then more forcefully added, "Never."
Liz smiled at him and stroked his arm. "I love you, kid."
"Kid?" Ethan echoed, raising an eyebrow.
Liz wiggled her eyebrows and said, "Hey, you're the one who wanted to stop aging."
"Fair enough," Ethan conceded. "Does that mean I should call you 'Mom' instead of 'sis'?"
"Don't confuse the baby, Ethan," Liz replied. "Besides, you have a mother."
Ethan rolled his eyes. "Yeah, don't know for how much longer. After all that acting out . . . they're talking about evicting me after I graduate. If I graduate."
Liz smiled gently. "You can come live with me and Jake if that happens."
"Thanks," Ethan replied, his eyes twinkling. "I've already considered it."
They spoke for a while about more pleasant things, catching up with plans for the next week, and then Liz left. Ethan walked her to her car and stepped back inside. Although March was far warmer than December had been, it seemed every time there was the slightest chill he wanted to hide away from the world. Cold air seeped into his bones and touched him like a ghost from beyond.
As soon as he was inside, he headed up to his room and threw himself on his bed, sliding under the covers for warmth. The cold also made him tired, in an almost supernatural way. Within a few minutes, he was fast asleep, heading toward one of his common afternoon naps. Before he knew it, he was dreaming.
He stood at the mouth of the cave. He didn't want to be there, but he had to be. He didn't know why, didn't know what pulled him from the safety of his home and told him to drive here, but here he was. And now something was supposed to happen.
The trees moaned behind him in the wind. A storm was coming, thunderheads on the horizon. He wanted to seek shelter, but the only shelter he could find was the cave ahead. He knew what awaited him there, what would happen if he walked in; he would die, and he would be lost forever. Then there would be no more Liz, no more Jake, no more baby Caleb.
No more Caleb. No, that was what the cave represented. That was the secret it held. It had showed him that months ago, and earlier, almost a year ago. The cave promised him a tragic existence without love, full of woe, of lamentation, of fire, of hate, and of sweet oblivion. It would use his memory against him, it would destroy him slowly until he had nothing left, no memory of Caleb, no memory of love.
But a call rose on the wind, a voice familiar yet too distant to recognize. "Ethan . . ." It cried, calling his name like a sweet caress. It had a melodic quality to it, like wind chimes answering the call of the ghosts that haunt the storm after dusk.
He took a single involuntary step toward the cave. That call was personal, drawing him in, and he wanted to answer it. Something in him needed to answer it, to find the source of it. "I'm coming for you, Ethan," the voice said, closer now, as if it came from within him.
Ethan walked forward, his eyes drawn deep into the dark. He knew a crack existed in the back of the cave, an impassable crack which led somewhere deep beneath the Earth, a world underneath everything, where secrets lay.
"Come back to me," the voice called. And then it took form, a young man walking out of the darkness. His eyes were dark, but his face was smiling. If it weren't for the darkness which hung about him like a robe, he'd be naked, his vulnerability exposed for the world to see.
But Ethan knew him for what he really was, could see the love in his eyes, the humanity in his form. He took another step toward the cave, then two more, then he sprinted up the mountainside, aching to jump into the arms of the man he loved, the one who had given all for him that he may live and walk the earth.
Ethan seemed incapable of reaching the voice; the mountain was impossibly high, and seemed to grow larger the harder he ran. He reached out, desperately calling to the man in the mouth of the cave, crying for the man to meet him halfway, that at least they could touch one last time . . .
Ethan woke in a cold sweat, bolting upright as he stared ahead at his bedroom wall. He could still feel the dream, though it was quickly fleeing from him. He breathed heavily, a cold chill seeping into his bones.
"Ethan, I'm coming for you," he heard the voice, and he was no longer dreaming. He vaulted out of bed, his eyes searching the empty room for some sign of his love.
"Caleb?" He asked the void, but the void did not reply.