The cavern tilted downwards into a dark and winding tunnels. Alexander and I crept forward along the passage with our torches gripped tightly in our hands. The silence in the air brought a clammy chill to my skin, along with a fresh sheet of goosebumps. My footsteps echoed off the rough walls as my boots inched over the uneven ground.
The rocks in the earthy walls were covered with a thick layer of cobwebs. The harder I focused at the rocks, I came to realize they weren’t rock at all but rows and rows of skulls. Skulls of the dead that had been unable to pay the Ferryman’s price, trapped between worlds. I swallowed back a whimper but moved closer to Alexander’s side.
We sneaked passed the water seeping through the walls, creating standing pools of scummy liquid and shadowy patches. The moist atmosphere tasted stale in my dry mouth, I pulled the collar of my leather jacket up around my neck as the air grew more frigid by the step.
Suddenly, Alexander leaped into the air with a womanly shriek. I whirled my torchlight onto the spot on the ground he had flinched from. I watched as a mouse scampered across the ground in front of us, leaving claw marks in the settled dust. I felt my rushing heart-rate return to normal, “Seriously?!” I hissed furiously, pressing my lips together in a thin line.
Alexander’s appearance was harried and wild as he laughed nervously, “Sorry,” He bit down on his bottom lip, “I’ve never liked mice much.”
I rolled my eyes and gathered myself together once more, gritting my teeth together I proceeded to stalk along the passageway. I could taste my own fear in my mouth in the form of bitter flavored saliva. My left fist was clenched together so tightly I could feel the pinch of my nails digging into my sweaty palm.
My whole body was rigid as my muscles tensed, my legs ready to run. We continued cautiously along the tunnel but, to my surprise, it didn’t get any darker the deeper we delved. I looked up and noticed thousands of candles floating far above our heads, the ceiling so high up I couldn’t see it.
We were now passing roots of trees, signifying that we were deep underground. “Alex,” I ran my hand over the withered bark, “Look.”
“Yes Ivy, that is what we call a tree,” He whispered back sarcastically.
I tutted at him, “No, I mean really look.”
Alexander leaned closer to the roots in the wall, then recoiled, “Ew, Ivy!” He yelped, “That’s a Shadow!”
“A dead one,” I retorted.
Alexander shuddered, “That’s still disgusting.”
“It’s a graveyard.” I stated, ignoring the crawling feeling over my skin, “We must be getting close.”
As we descended further into the passage the air around us grew thicker and the tunnel started to become thinner. Towards the end I banged my head on the lowered ceiling whilst squeezing through a gap, scraping my elbow along the crumbling rock of the wall.
I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand to rid my face of dust, dirt and sweat. I straightened up and saw we were in a large cavity of the cave, stretching out so far I couldn’t see where it finished.
That’s when I saw it.
It was eerily still and flat, like a mirror. Its murky water was almost black, filled with rotting vegetation and slime-coated rocks. A curling mist caressed the surface giving the lake a ghost-like feel. The heavy silence was interrupted by a burp as a gas bubble of trapped air broke through the top of the water, filling the stagnant air and my nostrils with the retched smell of decay and rot. It smelt like death.
The River Of Woe.
“We made it,” Alexander breathed.
Stood still, like a statue, in the center of the lake in a boat was the figure of a man wearing a cloak. He was an elderly gentleman with a small, stumpy head and waxy complexion. His skin was so wrinkly it looked like old, sagged leather and his eyes were glazed over as if empty.
I marched forwards along the lake’s bank, the slurping mud sucking at my boots as water seeped through the fabric, towards the Ferryman. His jaw was clenched and his watchful eyes were wary of me, following me with his skeptical gaze. Along the weak line of his saggy skin he had scraggly patches of white whiskers, they twitched nervously as I approached.
“Take us to Hades!” I demanded, scraping at the splotches of mush and sodden leaves that were stuck to my trouser legs.
Charon waggled his bony finger and clicked his tongue at us, “You two shouldn’t be here.”
“What do you mean?” I frowned, perplexed and agitated. My clothes were sticking to my moist skin from the hot air and I could feel a drop of sweat running between my shoulder blades.
“Well, you need to die and then come back.” Charon grinned wickedly, showing no teeth.
“Show him the Obels,” I nudged Alexander in the back as I watched Charon slowly row away, my flesh crawled as the lake didn’t even ripple.
“Wait,” Alexander called after the Ferryman, “We have these,” He held out the two silver coins, his fingers were chalky from all the dust in the air.
Charon’s white eyes widened, glittering with excitement, “Oh, my apologies.” He snatched greedily at the coins, “Come aboard.”
The boat had no mast or sails, I hoisted myself over the side and my feet thumped against the wooden deck. I crouched down onto my knees as there were no plank benches to sit on. I expected the boat to start swaying underfoot as we began to sail over the water but, to my utter surprise, the journey was smooth.
Charon sailed us across the lake in complete silence, the stern of the boat glided over the lake rather than in it and there were no ripples in the water. The river took us through the giant gates, made from bones, and over the Underworld. There were flickering orange flames that licked the walls of the giant chasm below like a hungry snake, smoke billowing upwards cloaked Alexander, Charon and I. The stench of burning meat was pungent in the air, the ash drifting down from above swirled in an air draft and I could make out the scene of horror under the boat.
Thousands and thousands of corpses being burnt alive, some were crying between gasping breaths, some were screaming without breaking but all of them were begging for my help. They were swimming in a pit of molten lava and were in various stages of burning, the magma swept across the ground in a fiery sheet.
My wheezing breath ripped at my raw throat as I inhaled, doubling over I coughed only to breathe in more smoke. I watched the writhing people below me, “Help me, Ivy!” They called out to me with their crispy arms outstretched. I felt a tear trickle down my cheek, carving a track through the soot on my face.
I reached out to help one, clinging on to the side of the boat, but as soon as the tip of my finger touched the tortured soul I snapped my arm back. My entire hand started to blister with a searing burn, the heat was intense against my skin, the burn spread up my arm to my elbow.
“If you touch one, you will burn along with them.” The Ferryman said through the haze of smoke surrounding us.
My shoulders bowed forwards due to exhaustion and I slumped to base of the boat. A spark spluttered from the fire and I slapped at it to extinguish it before it burrowed into my clothing. I closed my eyes, tried not to breathe in more smoke and ignored the crackle of flame from below.
It seemed like hours had passed when in reality it had only been a few minutes, before the many screams of the souls damned for all eternity faded away. I didn’t even feel the boat come to a halt but the Ferryman cleared his throat and said, “We have arrived.”
I opened my eyes and got to my feet. I was greeted by the sight of a wrought iron gate, cushioned between two towering pillars made of grey stone. A pair of gargoyles were perched atop of the pillars, glaring down angrily and so realistic it wouldn’t have surprised me if they started thrashing their beastly wings together to take flight.
I stepped out of the boat and onto solid ground. The gate churned inwards, opening to reveal a dead garden. The trees and flowers had turned to ash, even the weeds were withered. There was a single wandering pathway of cracked soil, overrun and wild with brambles. A stale breeze, smelling like death, stirred the swirling fog and rotten leaves on the ground that held no colour.
“What happened here?” My voice was soundless.
The Ferryman replied, “The Queen misses home. Persephone tries to grow flowers but they die here. Everything dies here.”
I swallowed excessively and turned away from Charon, without bidding the Ferryman goodbye I began to pick my way through the dry, dusty soil with Alexander hot on my heels. The ground was littered with dead insects that were yet to decay into the mud. Leafless branches and skeletal twigs of the trees loomed above us, their limbs reaching out and snagging my hair.
Trying not to tremble I wrapped my arms tightly around myself to calm the tension in my body. The air was stagnant as I fought my way through the undergrowth of the garden, thorns scratching my skin and catching on my clothes. We passed a crumbling archway of collapsing stone, the wilting stalks of decrepit vines winding their way around the structure in an attempt to choke it.
A bat flapped by my head with its wings beating deafeningly close to my ear and I jumped slightly before regathering myself into my steady, pouncing stance.
“Seriously?” Alexander’s tone was heavy with sarcasm.
I eyed him watchfully, my torch illuminating his beaming face through the darkness. “I’ve never really liked bats.” I retorted, though my voice was strained.
Alexander chuckled, shaking his head.
There was a resounding shriek from behind us, turning my blood cold. My head snapped up and all my muscles froze. I whirled round, my grip so tight around my flashlight my knuckles turned white.
“Shadows,” I snarled, tasting grit my own sweat in my mouth.
Alexander’s gaze shifted from my face and swept across the garden, trying to sense any unexpected movements from within the brush. I found that my eyes were also, automatically, darting back and forth along the misshaped bushes but I could see nothing but the shadows. I choked down the vomit that threatened to rise up from my throat, ignored the cold perspiration sitting on my skin like morning dew and braced myself for battle.
Alexander and I stalked forwards like hungry cats with our bodies pressed low to the ground and our footsteps light against the crunchy leaves. My senses were sharpened and my body felt twitchy, ready for action as we crept slowly forwards together and the all-too-familiar chill crept over my skin, my hairs stood on end and I readied myself to pounce.
The Shadows were quick, soundless and wouldn’t hesitate to kill us.
“Ivy...” A voice rasped. It could have been mistaken for an air current whispering through the dry, papery petals in the lifeless garden.
My pulse grew faster in my chest as adrenaline kicked in and the torchlight in my hand started to flicker, the battery running low. Sweating copiously, I smacked the flashlight against my sticky palm desperately and, thankfully, the beam stayed strong.
That’s when I saw it, stood right in the line of my torch.
It took me a moment to realize, I could actually see them, clear as day in front of me. Every single, disgusting detail and it wasn’t going away. The demon just stood there, not combusting into dust. Horror followed my sudden realization, the Shadows weren’t dying. I held back a scream and threw my Elderberry blade at the demon, slicing at its shoulder.
The Shadow looked at its wound then looked back at me with those hollow, obsidian eyes. It smiled to show all the rows of sharp shark teeth and began to laugh. Its spine-chilling figure lumbered towards me with its two giant hands, with ten knife-like claws, outstretched towards me.
“You can’t kill us here Ivy,” It hissed through its jowls, “We’re already dead.”