I realized that Mark could no longer hear us. It seemed that he was in his own world, the one we were in seemed to hold no more interest for him. He had said his dead son’s name. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but thinking back, Mattie had connected us all in the past, all of us and one more.
“Hey Mark, snap out of it.” I said it, but he hadn’t heard me. His eyes seemed numb and glazed over.
He then laughed, a serene yet genuine sound. “Doctor Jones? It is you, Nannette. I have missed you so much.”
“Mark, stay with us, please.”
“Mister Nicastro, can you hear me?” asked Hornblende.
Mark smiled a sad smile and said, “Mattie, you look so great. Such a big boy, of course I won’t leave you again.”
I grabbed Mark, and he resisted at first. Hornblende came up on the other side and began pushing him forward. There was another slight resistance, but then Mark complied. We didn’t stop him from talking to the dead, but Mark began walking forward with us.
“Maybe we should leave him?” asked Floyd. “This might be Charon’s price of a life, right?
“I’m not leaving him,” I said. I meant it. Hornblende didn’t say anything, but he kept guiding Mark forward, as did I.
The three of didn’t talk much for a time, kept moving on into the unknown with you to be the prize at the end. Soon Hornblende took point again as I alone kept Mark moving forward and Floyd took the rear.
“I don’t want to stay with them. I want to come with you, Nannette.”
Hornblende’s flashlight started flickering, then went out. We paused as Hornblende played with it, flicked it on and off, then began hitting it with his hand before he started whacking it against his thigh.
“Try Nicastro’s,” he ordered me.
“Not working,” I replied.
“Uncle Howard?” said Mark, “Is that you? I haven’t seen you since... You died when I was just a kid.”
Hornblende gave his sturdy black flashlight to Floyd, presumably as a weapon, then gave me the taser that Mark was carrying. He drew his own revolver.
“Will your gun work here?” asked Floyd. Hornblende didn’t answer him.
The mountainous shape in the distance seemed to leak an orange light in places, long spires jutted out into the sky. The light coming from it looked like fire, forever burning in the dark wasteland.
Slowly, there was a light coming from the very atmosphere itself with no discernible point of origin. It wasn’t bright, but it was enough to see faintly by. We continued onward in the minimal light of the underworld, no longer able to see a trail, just the huge mountain in the distance.
“Yes, we can play trains again, Mattie.” Mark stumbled along with his eyes closed. His spirits seemed to be improving the further he lost touch with our personal reality. Mark seemed to be enjoying his new truth.
“There’s something ahead. I can’t quite make it out, but it’s massive.” Hornblende had stopped our group, and stood fixed, pointing his revolver towards the giant rock formation.
“You mean the mountain?” asked Floyd.
“No, in front of the mountain. Something big. It is moving. I can’t tell what it is, but it did move slightly.”
Floyd squinted his eyes, but couldn’t seem to see a thing. “Where? I can’t see anything at all.”
“Use the backdrop of the fire coming from the mountain. There’s a silhouette of something very large, like an elephant.
The atmosphere was getting brighter. I could clearly make out a shape ahead of us but not with much detail, a huge thing, almost like a ball. I could see it expand and retract slightly, as though it was breathing.
“I can’t see anything,” said Floyd.
“Use the fires in the distance. It’s creating a silhouette of sorts,” said Hornblende.
I found that incredibly odd, as I could easily see it, although I couldn’t really make out exactly what it was, almost like a large animal curled up and sleeping as you might see a cat or dog do.
As I looked back at Floyd, I realized that the light, or actually many lights, that seemed to be coming from nowhere were forming into little spheres, balls of light. In the distance some were quite well formed, no longer little balls, but taking on forms, humanoid forms. “Do you guys see the lights?”
“What lights?” asked Hornblende.
“I can’t see my hand in front of my face,” said Floyd.
I glanced at Mark, and he smiled back at me. One of the lights at his side was taking on human form.
When I looked at Hornblende again, his image began to shift and fade. He was becoming blurry as all the lights around me were becoming clearer. “Shit, guys, I think that I’m joining Mark.”
“Joining him?” asked Hornblende.
“There’s something wrong. You guys are fading away.”
“Snap out of it, man.” The shape that was once Hornblende moved toward me. I could barely make out his facial features. They were becoming distorted, almost insignificant, as was he and Floyd entirely. The reason that I went to hell itself was becoming confusing in my mind, seeming less important. “Perry? Do you matter?”
I believe it was you, my love, preventing me from joining Mark’s lapse into the world of the dead as quickly.
The Hornblende shape moved erratically. I felt... something. I realized that Hornblende was slapping me, trying to bring me back. I didn’t feel at all like someone was hitting me, more like there was a slight disturbance as though someone was lightly tapping my face while in a deep sleep. “Wake up!” His words were distorted and I had trouble understanding any meaning behind them.
I glanced back at Mark. The light next to him was clearly human, a woman. She was pretty, had Asian features. It was Nannette.
A low growl disturbed the air. The massive creature that was ahead of us awoke. It had the head of a wolf, glaring at me.
“Is there a wolf in the Underworld?” I asked.
Floyd responded, but it came garbled and mostly unintelligible: “...Guardian...Cerebrus... dog...” Floyd spoke for a good five seconds but my brain only registered those three words at the time.
All around me were the dead, coming back to life, or some semblance of it. The lights were clearly human now. Thousands of souls were about, wandering, speaking. I couldn’t quite make out what they were saying, but it seemed they were all locked in their own conversations. Multiple voices created a cacophony of confusing noise. Looking at Mark, Nannette was fully formed. She smiled, but there was a deep sadness behind it, a forlorn emptiness and beauty.
Another wolf head appeared behind the first. They both had red, glaring eyes that seemed deep, sinister, and highly intelligent. I thought that I probably couldn’t see the second wolf because it was lying down behind the first. The first wolf rose to its feet, a massive creature the size of an African elephant while lying down, it now towered over the ground it once slept on, an elephant into a whale it was.
Floyd had continued talking, practically invisible to my eyes, his speech even more garbled, almost inaudible to my ears: “...three-headed...” was the only word that I made out of his speech.
With the creature, Cerebrus, clearly standing on all fours, there was no other behind it, yet two heads remained looking into my very soul. The only possible way that a second one could be there was if it stood perfectly behind the first, each leg right in unison exactly behind the first wolf. I remember once being at Mark’s apartment, his pug, Eddie, just sat and stared at me for a solid five minutes, occasionally wagging his little butt, as he couldn’t quite get his tail to wag without it. As he stared at me, I wondered what was going through his mind. Was there something akin to intelligence behind those dark brown eyes? In the realm of Hades, faced with Cerebrus, I had no doubt whatsoever that a vast intelligence existed behind those red eyes.
I looked over at Mark again. “Mark, hey man. Mark!” I was positive that he could hear me, but he was all wrapped up in a fully formed Nannette. And...was that little Mattie? He looked the same as he had when he went missing, forever young. That would have been much more interesting to me under other circumstances.
Hornblende and Floyd were gone. Completely wiped out of existence, or at least my current existence.
The creature growled again and turned its entire body to face me head on. A third head appeared. No other creatures behind it. Three heads and necks jutting out of one massively large body. Cerebrus.
Cerebrus began walking toward us. Hornblende had seen him, so whatever separate reality the other two were in, it was coming toward them as well. I wanted to fear the monster and I felt I should, but I didn’t. A slight euphoria had come along with these new sights.
“Fool!” a rough and metallic voice cut through the sounds of the dead. All souls ceased their chatter. Even Cerebrus paused in his advance.
I knew he was referring to me. I sensed it. I also knew who it was. That voice could not be confused with any other even if completely trapped in the deepest confusion known to man or in the middle of the deepest slumber.
“When I proclaimed four should come it was not just to have payment, or coinage, for Charon’s ferry!” Out of the lights of the souls and the gloom and the madness a black, robed figure appeared. The voice was familiar to me: Thanatos.
“I came when you wanted,” I said. “I did what you asked. I brought what I was told to bring. What more could I do?”
“You can listen to those you chose to bring. You should have heeded the advice of the one who has knowledge of this place. Contact with Styx would have prevented you from joining the dead.”
When exactly he had appeared, I don’t know. It seemed that he was suddenly just there after I heard his voice. He stood near motionless, his hooded robe covering his body save his cold, glowing white hands, only his voice giving away his displeasure at my actions.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s no matter. You are fortunate I have been watching...waiting. I admit, I was under the assumption that you might make it further than you did. All your companions could have fallen, but I only stepped in for the one who owes me, the one with whom I had a deal.”
“Mark has fallen permanently? He is gone?”
“What is your choice in his fate?”
“Bring him back, please.” He then reached out one of those terrifying hands and touched my forehead. The cold was brilliant and wonderful and terrible like a freezing, molten electric shock to my system. Within seconds he had gone over to Mark to touch his forehead as well.
“What now?” I asked.
“You came to see Hades and his new bride, to get your mortal woman back, if at all possible. Yet, I require payment as well. My services are not free of charge.”
“You want the coins?”
“Again you speak as though you have no wits about you in the slightest. What use have I of human coins? No, has your mortal mind lost remembrance so swiftly and easily? I require an answer to a question.”