Normally quite aloof and stoic, this place was even getting to Hornblende. All he thought real, all he believed about life and death, was untrue. The truth was still something he could barely grasp, and he liked to consider himself to be prepared for anything. It turned out that he wasn’t. He had just seen a demon tear apart the soul of a man. Hornblende was no stranger to death, having dealt it out more than once, but even that unnerved him tremendously.
“Your request has been fulfilled,” Hades said to Nicastro, then looked at the police officer. “What is your request?”
Hornblende looked around at his two remaining travel companions and shook his head. “You two are so damn selfish.” Yes, he had gotten a bit emotional when he found out what Benson had done, but he never would have made the types of requests that Phileus and Nicastro had. “Fix the world,” he said to Hades. “Make it back into what it was before all this, before the oceans came in to swallow the land.”
“These requests...are just that, requests. I can choose to decline them. There is something else in play here as well. I am powerful compared to the likes of you, but there are some things that cannot be undone.”
“You can’t fix the world?” asked Hornblende.
“I didn’t say that I cannot do it, but it would merely shift forms into something else.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Mortals rarely do. Zeus, my younger brother, he is not like he has been portrayed in all the mortal stories that your former companion studied. He considers himself wiser at this time, a steward to Gaia. He has called for a culling of the humans, so that is what is to be. He can even control me to an extent. All that occurred, it was the will of Zeus. The original Persephone leaving me, Demeter cancelling winter, it all happened because that is the way Zeus wanted it to happen.”
“If he wants a culling, then why not just kill a certain number of people? Why go to all these lengths?”
“That is the way of things. All these deities that have been created, all these daemons, they all have roles to fulfill, things to do. There is a natural order to things that need doing, work to be shared by many.”
“You won’t stop it then?” asked Hornblende.
“All I can do is to postpone, but nature and the gods will just make it come back in another form. I, myself, find this way a bit cruel. There can be a quicker way to get this done, less hard on the mortals, less suffering.”
“Is there any way we can change it? Make it not happen?”
“It is man’s way to destroy his environment, hurt our mother Gaia, bring pain and death to his own kind. Zeus believes that we need to reduce the numbers of man. I cannot say that I disagree or that it would even matter if I did. You see, the realm of the living is not my concern. To answer your question, there is nothing to be done. The damage must be paid for and controlled in the future.
“One day this will all end. Time itself will cease and even the gods and Gaia and the universe will cease to be. Until that occurs, we simply go on, simply exist.”
“Does eternity get boring? The same things over and over, with no end in sight, not being able to die, not truly living?” asked Nicastro.
“Yes, it does. When all the living come here, they have memories of what once was, of mortality. If you are born a god, you do not have these memories to hold onto. Yes, eternity can be boring.”
“So that’s it?” asked Hornblende. “Request denied?”
“I did not say that,” replied Hades. “I merely pointed out that it would only postpone what is imminent. Throughout your history a great many horrible things have happened. Do not feel so lost because it is happening in your brief lifetime. You can choose to accept it, embrace the fact that you are living through a great, historical event. It is a culling, a reduction of numbers, not a complete elimination. Would you not prefer a way to gain advantage in this situation?”
“No,” said Hornblende. “I want to keep my request the same. You have already taken a number of lives in this. Will Zeus consider it enough? Can I stop it a little early and save more lives?”
“I know not, but I do doubt that Zeus has been satisfied with the numbers I have collected so far.”
“Why are you trying to talk me out of this? When others spoke, you didn’t let them retract their words. You are allowing me to change my request. Why?”
“This will be difficult, maybe I care. Maybe you can get yourself some wealth, live exceedingly well for the rest of your life instead of altering the way we cull your species. This will be your last chance. Do you wish to alter your request?”
Hornblende sighed and looked at Oren, who seemed lost in his thoughts, then Mark, who merely seemed curious. “I can’t change it. My request stands. Will you please stop the events happening on Earth?”
“Very well,” said Hades, “I can try.”
“Yes, just try. This is Zeus’s bidding, and he is the ruler of us all. I do have an idea of how to go about it. For mortal futures I can discern things, even with minor gods. With the Olympians? I cannot see what will happen. Even I have certain limitations, and the living world is not my realm with which to meddle.” The dark god seemed deep in thought for a time, then looked at the woman seated next to him on the smaller throne.
Persephone had mostly seemed uncommunicative throughout their time in the Underworld, yet sensed the gaze of Hades and looked at him. She said not a thing, but nodded at the giant seated near her.
“My dear, you have another decision to make.”
Mark had always considered Oren luckier than himself, if not exactly better. Sure, he was more talented, but because things had always seemed to come easier to Oren, he was much more of a dreamer than a realist. It seemed that Oren’s dreams had come crashing down around him now. He loved the guy, but a tiny part of him, maybe out of jealousy, was not completely upset to see Oren get a bitter taste of what can be sometimes, what can happen to a person in the natural course of just living.
He hoped that Oren would reconsider a few things, adjust. The man still had an incredible amount of talent to show the world. Mark had always felt that Oren gave more to his marriage than his wife ever had.
After Persephone’s second decision was determined, Hades began to rapidly lose interest in the mortals. Maybe he was busy, ruling the land of the dead and all.
“I believe our encounter has come to an end,” said the god. “You should try to find your way back to the world of the living. I would invite you for another concert, but I doubt you will risk the journey again.”
Oren seemed to be in a bit of a fugue, dazed and not completely coherent. “Why does it have to be this way?” he asked.
“Other mortals have suffered far more than you have, Oren Phileus. You may not have acquired all you set out for, but I have given you the gift of confidence. Use it well.”
“Where do we go? How do we get out of here?” asked Mark.
“You found your way in here, albeit with some help, perhaps your road home will be the same?”
Mark realized that he had not seen Thanatos in some time. Maybe he had, but quite a bit had happened since they arrived in the great hall, including violently losing one of their members. He looked behind him, and there stood Thanatos. Mark wasn’t sure if he had been there the entire time or had just reappeared. “Can you take us out of here?” he asked of the god of death.
“I require a better answer to my question,” said the robed god in his eerie voice.
“About living?” asked Mark, “About what it means to be alive? I’m not sure how to answer that.”
“It is not for you to answer.”
Mark and Hornblende both looked at Oren. The defeated man just shrugged. “Give it a try, man. I doubt we’ll be able to get out of here without his help.”
Oren sighed. “Living means to just die someday. It means that one day all you love will be gone. We can convince ourselves that these fleeting times will make us happy, or at the very least, content, but all things go in time. All things end. There is no happily ever after. There is no hope.”
“That is what it feels like to be alive, you believe?” asked Thanatos.
“Yes...no...sometimes...I don’t know.” Oren wiped his face, then rubbed his eyes. “Maybe that is what it has been like for Mark. It seems he has hope now where I have none.”
“It’ll get better, man,” said Mark. He was about to continue, but one glance from Thanatos made him realize that the god preferred that only Oren speak.
“I know now, living doesn’t mean as much to Mark as it does to me, or did to me. Look at Hornblende. Living to him seems to be about revenge or justice or something. Floyd wanted power, or revenge. Is it about vengeance? I don’t think so. I don’t feel that I want any. I don’t think Mark does...anymore. To be alive means to try to meet your goals before you die. Everyone is different and the goals aren’t always the same, but we have them, until we lose them. To be alive means to try. We do things because we want to, not because we have to, maybe we feel we need to.”
“That is an ill-prepared answer.”
Suddenly the deep, booming voice of Hades interrupted the man and god. “Go. Now.”
Thanatos looked around the great hall, seemingly in thought. Mark considered the possibility that the god might be considering whether to take them or leave them. In a brief moment, the god grabbed all three men, and they were off. The sickening travel occurred again and in both less than a second and more than an entire eternity the men were travelling and then arriving at their location.
“Here I’ll leave you,” said Thanatos.
Mark looked around the immediate area and realized that he recognized where they were, still in the kingdom of Hades, near the river Acheron. In the distance he could see the ferryman out on the river, paddling toward them. “Are we on the wrong side of this river?”
“Wrong is a poor choice of words. You are on the inner bank of the Underworld.”
“Closer to Hades?”
“Space is not what it seems here. Physics, as you understand it, doesn’t exist in the same way in this place. If you are asking if you need to cross, yes you do.”
“We can find our way back from here,” said Hornblende.
“Oren Phileus,” began Thanatos, “We will meet again, whether it is Keres or myself who brings you back, I will see all of you again. Your answer was better, but I still consider you owing me one with more thought. You have the rest of your life, for long or short, to prepare an answer that I consider suitable.”
“You don’t know when I’ll die?” asked Oren.
“You don’t know when you’ll die. I never stated that I don’t. I am not Hades, but this is my role.”
“Thank you?” Oren stammered.
One moment Thanatos was standing amongst them, the next he wasn’t. And it suddenly felt as though he hadn’t been there at all.
The three stood silently until Charon reached the shore. “The living must pay with a life,” said the boatman.
“Again?” asked Hornblende.
“The living must pay with a life,” Charon repeated.
“I suppose Benson was our payment coming here,” said Hornblende. “Do we think that we don’t really have to plan it out, that the gods will just take one soon?”
“Maybe,” said Oren.
“Let’s not leave it up to the gods,” said Mark. “I’ll stay.”
“No,” Oren was quick to answer.
“It’s fine,” said Mark. “I don’t mind.”
“You said you had affairs to settle, shit to get in order, man.”
“Just shit for the government bureaucracy, my Internet company, trash, electricity, just stuff to be polite that everyone does when they move. Except I’m not moving anywhere else on the planet anyway, I’m heading back down here. Also, the world is a bit more than fucked now, so I doubt people are paying much attention to the proper way to do things anyway. I think it was closure I was looking for, and maybe a beer or two.”
“Hades said that we can’t die down here,” said Hornblende.
“No, he said it was difficult to die down here. I bet I could find a way. You two have more to live for. I just wanted to maybe eat a pizza again, or get drunk. Fuck it, you guys go ahead and live your lives.”
“Come on man, don’t leave me. You may not be blood, but you are the brother I would have chosen. We played together. That was awesome, man. That was fun. You can come back to the band. It won’t kill us to have three guitarists. This could be the beginning of something great.”
“That was fun playing together, Oren. Yet, that wasn’t a new beginning for me. That was my swan song.”
“No, Mark, please come with us.” said Oren.
“What about Malbourne?” asked Hornblende.
“It doesn’t matter. If he lives a few more years, that is nothing compared to forever. We know now that he’ll be punished. Hate is an ugly thing to live with...uh, to exist with.”
Oren sighed, getting used to the idea. “I wish you would come.”
“I know you do, and I do too, just not as badly as you. It’s better not to risk one of you two leaving too early. I’m ready. Besides, you know that we’ll meet again now. We know what happens when we die. Just live your best life.”
As the two got on the ferry, Mark embraced his friend Oren. When Hornblende attempted to shake his hand, Mark hugged him too. “I’ll see you again,” said Oren.
“Yes,” said Mark. “I imagine that at that time, we’ll have a lot of catching up to do.”
Mark stood on the bank of the supernatural river until he could no longer see Charon and the two men crossing Acheron, back toward reality, then turned around and began walking, in search of the dead that he loved.