The Life of Death
My surroundings were so cold that it left my whole body numb. I couldn’t feel my skin, but the warmth in my chest provided the sensation I needed to continue. This was a new power I’d never possessed, but with it, I knew nothing would stop me from returning to Animus. Nothing would prevent me from seeing Ava’s smile. Even if I only saw it one more time, that was motivation enough to make it back. This feeling was my tether to stay true to the person I had become.
The warmth from within reached my face, the light breaking through the darkness and wrapping me in a gentle glow. I was embraced by the sunlight, the rays freeing me from the infinite void of black as I returned to the world.
“I’m glad you chose to follow me.” Dex said, firmly patting me on the back.
“It wasn’t me that made the decision…” I said under my breath.
“What was that?”
I looked around, the familiar sound of train whistles filling the atmosphere of Arcaya Station. I would never get over the strangeness I felt when exiting a dark passage in public. Normal humans couldn’t see the darkness, but a few still took a double take when a person seemingly appeared out of thin air.
“You’re a weird one always taking the trains instead of using dark passage.” Dex noted, his eyes looking around for something he didn’t divulge to me.
“I don’t enjoy the feeling of swimming in so much darkness.”
This drew a quizzical look from my new ally, his blue eyes studying my face like I was a freak of nature.
“You’re going to have to get used to it quick. The Underworld isn’t accessible without going through a portal of darkness.”
“Fantastic. Well, let’s get on with it already.” I said, motioning for Dex to conjure up a passage for us to use.
“What?” He looked at me like I was crazy.
“Aren’t you going to use a dark passage like Aoki did so we can head to the Underworld already?” I was growing impatient. Every second we wasted, was more time I was forced to leave Ava to fend for herself. The onslaught of deaths was sure to come for her and the thought of her fighting them on her own left a foul taste in my mouth.
“You mean Aoki the Judge? What, are you crazy? I don’t have that level of authority. No, we have to take the path of a common death.”
With that he pushed through the hordes of people, waving at me to follow. I didn’t enjoy crowds. Rubbing against others I didn’t know, even for the briefest of moments, was unsettling. Some had the stench of death on them, as if they’d been recently exposed to this unfortunate part of life. Others smelt of happiness and longevity. It was them I envied. I should’ve felt joy when I crossed paths with people destined for good lives, but my soul wouldn’t allow that. I couldn’t help but harp on the unfairness of this world.
Dex stopped at the platform for one of the scenic trains leaving from the station. It was a less popular area, most of the people boarding elderly couples looking for a nice destination to spend the day. A sign with the train’s heading hung above the platform. It looked worn, the city obviously devoting less funds to this train than to the ones leading to more popular cities and sites.
TO LERNA LAKE
The words were painted in a bright yellow color over the peeling wood underneath. Everything in the station ran on advanced technology, electrical signs the norm for the rest of the platforms. It was like this one had been left out to wither away with the passing of time.
“We’re boarding this?” I asked, looking at the minimalist interior of the locomotive. Dex was already boarding, not at all deterred by my question.
“It’s the only train that leads to the lake, and our gateway to the Underworld.” He pulled me aboard despite my protests, shoving me into an unpleasantly hard, wooden seat.
“Couldn’t you just teleport us there with a dark passage?” I grumbled. The numbness I felt in the darkness was somehow an improvement from this form of transportation.
“Sorry, but judges don’t like to make things easy for commoners. The lake is veiled in a collective Portal Manifestation they created. It’s their way to monitor who comes and goes to the Underworld.” He yawned, leaning back in his seat like it was the most comfortable place to sleep in the world. “It’s too bad they’re hunting you. They’ll be alerted to us entering immediately, so we’ll have to move quick once we’re in.”
“How is it you know so much about how to get in?” My question forced Dex to open one eye in my direction.
“I’ve been planning this for years. I memorized every detail of the Underworld as well as every entry and exit point. This is the best one for us to infiltrate through. Just don’t slow me down once we’re inside.”
The train blew its final whistle before the wheels started to turn. It was a rocky start, the train car shaking as we picked up speed. It was as though the wheels were riddled with pivots and each rotation was more of a struggle than the last.
“Why are you so obsessed with breaking in? I mean, why help me? You’re plenty strong and would have a fair chance to collect my bounty from the judges.” I was only trying to understand him more, but I struck a nerve somewhere along the way. Dex shot me an angry glare before deciding to answer.
“I don’t want anything from those tyrants. Their judgements of peoples’ souls is unjust and too many are subject to live a meaningless afterlife in the Asphodel Meadows.” His response started harsh, but as he spoke, he began to look small. He slouched his shoulders, wedging himself as deeply as possible into his seat. His voice quieted to a whisper as he continued.
“They did it to my mother. She deserved to reach the Elysian Fields with the other human souls that had heroic endings. Instead, those bastards subjected her to spend eternity in the bleak meadows of Asphodel. They’re corrupt, all of them. I discovered their little secret after spying on the judgements they’ve been passing. Ever since I turned into a death, not a single soul has reached the Elysian Fields.”
His face was grim with eyes that shone sadness. Underneath his casual persona lay someone else entirely. He’d been twisted by the hand fate had given him, his sadness morphing into bitterness.
“So, you want to save your mother? How are you planning to do that?” As much as I wanted him to succeed, I didn’t see how he hoped to achieve his goal. Once a soul was judged, there was nowhere else they could go. That was the system.
“I’m going to break the wheel, shatter their system into oblivion. No one is going to be forced to follow their rulings ever again. And as for my mother, I will find a way to get her into the Elysian Fields.” He was adamant, his words filled with conviction.
For a moment, I believed he could do it. After all, his goal wasn’t much different from mine. The only way to keep Ava from being hunted and to free her from the judges’ persecution was to destroy the hand they ruled with. I’d fought with myself multiple times over what that entailed. I was planning to plunge the afterlife into chaos, ending the ways of the dead that had stood for thousands of years. Dex viewed the judges as villains, and perhaps they were, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was no different. I wanted to change the afterlife for my own selfish reasons, and that could be viewed as just as villainous.
You’re right by the way. We aren’t heroes in this story. There is no such thing as a hero after all. We all want what’s best for us at the end of the day, regardless of whether that shrouds the world into darkness.
“Shut it.” I responded to my other self.
“You say something?” Dex looked over, his attention divided between me and his own thoughts.
“No, just anxious about getting there.” I lied. Dex didn’t need to know about the other me, at least not yet. I didn’t want to scare him off before we’d even begun.
“It’s not much longer now. Look, you can see the lake!” Dex said, pointing out the window at the vast body of water drawing near.
The light from the sun sparkled along the water, gleaming like the lake was filled with a million reflective scales. It was stunning to say the least.
The train slowed to a stop, the few passengers in the train car joining us as we clambered out. The doors provided a narrow opening due to their lack of functionality, forcing us to squeeze through the exit.
It was impossible for the torii gate not to be the first thing someone noticed. It stood well over five meters tall, the wood a bright red color. It was an elegant design, the two beams on the side holding up the curved top plank like it was a massive canoe. Two lanterns hung from the curved beam, a brilliant fire burning in each one.
“It's just up ahead. Cross through the gate and walk to the edge of the boardwalk.” Dex instructed, pushing me forward with light force.
It seemed too simple. Surely the Underworld had to have some sort of security. Unless the judges were so confident in their abilities to catch us once we entered. That was a scary possibility.
“We dive in!” Dex answered, his excitement starting to simmer over and burst forth.
“Dive? Like into the lake? You’re kidding. I wasn’t really expecting to enter the Underworld soaked.” I said, tugging at the front of my jacket. With the clothing I was wearing, being wet was going to significantly slow me down on the other side.
“Just trust me.”
As we walked through the Torii, I immediately felt the air change. It was colder, a ghostly presence clinging to every breath I took. It felt familiar, like I was returning to a place I once knew.
My footsteps were heavy, my feet reluctant to push forward onto the boardwalk. The closer I came to the end, the harder it was for my body to move. Every fiber in my being was screaming to run away, to escape the hell that lay ahead. If it weren’t for Dex’s occasional shoves to keep me moving, I was certain I would’ve turned back. I was lucky to have him there.
“Ready?” He asked, glancing into the crystal blue water below.
“As ready as I’ll ever be.”
I dove in, the water’s chilling depths dragging me in further. It felt like slithering hands were latching onto me, pulling me deeper until the light from the sun disappeared and I was left in a sea of black. Bubbles erupted around me, the air in them carrying me back up to the surface. The sun never returned, instead replaced by the eerie glow of blue light.
I breached the surface, my body instinctively gasping for air even though there was no need. Being dead had its perks, and not being dependent on air was one of them.
I looked around, trying to get my bearings as I treaded water. The shore was close and after a few strokes through the inky water I reached land. The sandy earth didn’t cling to my clothing, my body staying remarkably dry even after my swim. There was a splash to my right and a few expletives later Dex was slinking his way back on land.
“I’ll never get used to that feeling.” He said, grumbling as he sat down beside me.
We rested for a moment, catching our breath as we stared up at the raging blue ball in the distance. It cast everything in its glow, like an eye keeping watch over the world. Dex forced himself up, offering me a hand to join him. His eyes were squinted, his mouth in the shape of a bittersweet smile.
“Well Milo, we made it. Welcome to the Underworld.”