Chapter 45: Avernus
Figures converge on Alecto’s abode as waves of peristalsis cycle around the ring of huts, their contractions inducing bands of blue radiance.
We flee head-long into the dark, chasing our shadows down a blue-tinged hillside. The blueness makes me think of police cruisers. It feels like we’re running from the scene of an accident or a crime.
We stumble through the scrub, cross a brook and curl around the blunt end of the ridge separating us from the vale harboring the marshes and Haurvil’s cave.
The random zing of raspy trousers marks Mr. Corduroy’s herky-jerky. Sabonis collapses into a bush, but quickly extricates himself to rejoin us. I lead this parade of cripples with Alecto’s obsidian spear as my baton.
I stop to look back. The spasms contorting Alecto’s dwelling have eased. The flashing has quieted and dimmed.
I had expected a chase, a battle, but see no sign, hear no voices of pursuers. Only the occasional monkey hoot punctures the silence.
The orb leaks enough light to highlight the topography in sepia tones. We cross into the vale and swing wide around the marshes, heading for the narrow neck marking their outlet to the cliffs above Gihon.
Something large passes along the marshy edge of the stream. The smell of rotting flesh wafts over us. Mr. Corduroy, wobbly on his feet, cringes back and almost falls. I ready my spear.
Sabonis peers ahead. “Ah, it’s just a fucking Collector,” he says and brushes past.
I follow close behind him. Mr. Corduroy gives the Collector a wider berth.
The Collector stands stiff and silent, watching us pass; a long pike with a hooked blade propped by his side. His stench makes me gasp.
A dark cube dangles from the man’s waist, jiggling and rustling as if a trapped rodent is scratching to get out.
“Say hi to Hector,” says Sabonis.
“He’s in that box?”
“It’s a good bet,” says Sabonis.
I keep my eyes on the Collector as we cross the stream just above the spot where it dives over the escarpment into Gihon’s gulch. A group of Fringers have set up a rude camp on the other side. They huddle together in lean-tos behind a stockade of sharpened sticks. A sentry steps forward to challenge us, but one look at Sabonis halts him in his tracks.
We climb past, Sabonis straining to stay upright. A feather blow might have been enough to knock him down. We’re halfway up the ridge before he stops to rest, settling slowly down onto a fallen tree.
A series of monkey hoots in the distance unnerves me. I scan the vale for any signs of movement.
“Remember this place?” says Sabonis.
“I was just here,” I say. “I stayed in that cave again. That damned Shade nearly creeped me out of my skin … again.”
“Why’d you come back?” says Sabonis. “I thought you had a one-way ticket to Elysium.”
“Wasn’t me who wanted to go there,” I say. “It was that … thing … inside me.”
“This guy’s awful quiet,” says Sabonis. “What’s the matter, buddy? Cat got your tongue?”
Mr. Corduroy pantomimes cryptically. Sabonis looks at me, as if for clarification. I have no clue what he’s trying to convey.
“Maybe he can’t talk?” I say. I see nothing obvious wrong with him—no crushed throat, no missing tongue—but who knew what harms lurked unseen inside him.
“I wonder why Alecto went after this schlemiel,” says Sabonis.
“He’s … Unfettered,” I say. “This is Mr. Corduroy.”
“This that same guy you saw in Sixwing?”
“Huh,” says Sabonis. “Guess I should have known from the pants.”
“You okay to go on?” I say, nervous. There’s no sign anymore of the blue light, but ordinary fire glow silhouettes the hill from which we came.
“Yup,” says Sabonis, groaning as he pushes himself up off the log. “Gotta keep moving. They’ll be after us, as soon as that hell house of Alecto’s gets her patched.”
I let my cripples walk ahead of me at their own pace. Mr. Corduroy moves like a puppet, flinging his limbs farther than necessary, struggling to regain his balance after every step.
Sabonis, at least, retains some coordination, but even his steps are tentative and shaky, his knees ever on the verge of buckling.
And the higher we climb, the more my own motor impairment kicks in, bringing with it the pressure and pain of Ascent. We must make a pitiful sight to anyone watching.
We surmount the ridge and begin to descend. I am glad to have yet another spur of mountain between us and Alecto. The Loch reflects softly below against the black emptiness of the volcanic uplands beyond. Constellations of campfire outline the estuary of Sixwing and its satellite villages.
“Where’re we going?” I say. “Dilmun?”
“Got a better idea?” says Sabonis.
Mr. Corduroy hustles ahead of us to get our attention. He traces the shape of a mountain with his hand and waggles his finger at the uplands across the Loch.
“The volcano?” says Sabonis. “Fuck that. Who the hell would wanna go there?”
An ember flares in me. “Maybe that’s his land route … back to life.”
“You believed that bull crap?” says Sabonis.
“He gave me chocolate.”
“So? We got a bottle of rum. Most likely from the same source.”
But I can’t shake this tingly feeling. “Why not give it a shot?” I say. “What else are we going to do?” I say.
“Build another boat?” says Sabonis.
“Not like Andali’s,” says Sabonis. “Not like my cat.”
“So let him show us his way. What could it hurt?”
Sabonis looks at me like I’m a buffoon. But as he thinks about it, the hard edges erode from his expression. He grimaces and inhales through his teeth. He looks Mr. Corduroy in the eye. “Okay, fancy pants. Show us your land route.”
The orb has begun to brighten by the time we cross to the other side of the Loch. We pass halfway down its length towards Sixwing when Mr. Corduroy abruptly veers up into the hills.
Sabonis pauses and sighs, but follows after him. “Never liked coming here much,” he says.
“This place have a name?”
“Akron,” says Sabonis.
“As in … Ohio?”
“S’got lots of names,” says Sabonis. “Guides call it somethin’ sounds like Akron or Acorn. The old farts call it Sheol. There’s Avernus, too, but … that’s a whole ’nother story.”
The slope is paved with brick-sized, jagged stones mottled pink and gray. They tinkle when they knock together and are half as light as they look, like movie props.
Yellow wildflowers poke from trapped patches of dirt. Little, rust-furred rodents pop out to chitter and scold us as we disturb the tidy piles of grass they have spread out to dry.
The afflictions that throttled me on Mt. Abdiel are absent here. Nothing punishes my climbing but my own bodily limitations. I could have been hiking in the Adirondacks.
Mr. Corduroy has picked up the pace. His movements have gotten better coordinated, as if he has re-learned how to use his body. Sabonis is stepping stronger as well.
“Notice somewhat strange about this guy?” says Sabonis, whispering.
“I dunno. He just seems a bit off.”
“You’re asking the wrong person,” I say. “Everyone in Lethe seems a bit off to me. I’m a bit off.”
Mr. Corduroy is all smiles as he pauses to let us catch up. Sabonis’ comment leads me to examine him more closely.
In the burgeoning light, I see what Sabonis means. There is an uncanny vacancy behind Mr. Corduroy’s eyes. He’s missing that bit of sparkle that every living, breathing creature should possess.
We plod on up the tinkling ramps of stone, and into a bowl floored with volcanic ash packed and set like concrete. Rotten egg smells spill down the slope. Fumaroles near the rim spew vapors that the wind catches and spills over us.
Mr. Corduroy plows on ahead, humming.
Sabonis stops. His posture stiffens. “Oh Lord, I should have known.”
“What’s wrong?” I say.
“Can’t believe I let this fucker bring us here.”
Pale globes, like ostrich eggs, lie half-buried in the ash. I tap at one with the base of the spear. It sounds hollow, but its walls are thick.
“Stay away from those!” says Sabonis.
Mr. Corduroy continues up the ash slope, humming an oddly familiar melody.
“That song!” says Sabonis. His pale cheek bones flush pink. He seizes the spear from me and dashes after Mr. Corduroy.
Sabonis slashes him behind the knees before he can react. He cries out, collapsed and rolls.
“What the hell?” I run up and try to grab the spear back, but Sabonis wrenches it away from me.
“Look at him!” he says.
“I said, look at him!”
A Shade has jarred loose from Mr. Corduroy, peeling away at the legs, seeping out of his head and torso.
“Shades don’t come loose that easy, unless they’ve glommed onto the wrong body. Your Mr. Corduroy has left the premises. This is Alecto’s pet we got here.”
Sabonis jabs him with the spear point. “Why’d you bring us here? Speak, you fuck!”
“I know not why you baw-thare wis zat spear,” says Haurvil. “I can feel nussing.” He slithers free of Mr. Corduroy’s corpse.
“Who told you to bring us here?”
“I volunteer,” says Haurvil. “Avernoos is where you belonk.”
“You got some balls there buster, a Shade like you, taking us to the pits.”
“Ees no problem … for me,” he says. “I am immune.”
“Yeah, well I’ve got half a mind to cram your ass down one of these holes to see how immune you really are.”
“What are you talking about?” I say, perplexed.
“This place is a dumping ground for Shades and wannabes. Where Collectors come to empty their little black boxes.”
We rest among the ash heaps. Sabonis is really dragging now, depleted by our jaunt. I feel aimless and dispirited, perhaps even suicidal, if such a fate was possible in Lethe.
Haurvil roams free of Mr. Corduroy’s corpse, flitting around us like a fly. “My meestress, she will find you,” he says. “You are doomed, no matter where you go, no matter what you do.”
“How did a pest like you ever manage to finagle immunity?” says Sabonis.
“Alecto … she like me,” says Haurvil.
“Een life, I was singer,” says Haurvil. “Famous … in Burundi and Belgium. Alecto, she remember, she feels sorry when she sees me here. She make sure, I never be Collect.”
I get up and wander across the bowl. The ash field is studded with glassy hunks of obsidian as big as my head. Dark pits, elliptical and regularly spaced like spiracles on a maggot, slant down the rim of the bowl. Curious, I head for the closest.
“Stay away from those,” says Sabonis, his voice rising in pitch.
I ignore him, drawn by a vacant curiosity. A fluttery feeling envelops me, like a shroud of silk has dropped over my head. I smell bagels baking, Szechuan pork, diesel exhaust. A soft rumbling emanates deep within—a subway.
I move closer. Summer in Cortland wafts up to greet me—lighter fluid on charcoal, barbecued chicken. A thunderstorm rumbles in the distance, promising a changeover of cool air to make for easy sleeping.
Hands seize me and pull me away from the pit.
“Get your ass away from there!”
“But … I smell … burnt marshmallows. This might be the way back.”
“It’s not,” says Sabonis.
“How do you know?”
“Because I’ve been to Avernus. And you wanna know what I smell right now? I smell the sea. Rockaway Beach. Coconut tanning oil. Chanel No. 5. Joanne’s perfume.”
“Same reason you catch rats with peanut butter and sardines.”
“It’s bait. This place is a fucking trap. Like I said, Mr. Haurvil’s got him some balls bringing us here. This place is a black hole for Shades and fools who can’t hang on to their flesh.”
The orb has come full on, having gone through the rapid transition that passes for dawn in Lethe. We rest again, having climbed down out of the bowl, away from the temptations of the pits.
Haurvil stands out on a promontory, basking like a pterodactyl in the orb light.
“I thought Shades didn’t like daylight,” I say.
“They usually don’t want to be seen,” says Sabonis. “Apparently this guy doesn’t worry about that shit.”
My Avernus-triggered delusions linger. I sense gritty salt and heirloom tomato on my tongue. A hint of crumpled basil hovers in the air.
“How’d you get out … of Avernus?”
“Got kicked out,” says Sabonis. “Didn’t have to do shit. Must be because I’m what they call ‘Unfettered’. I’m the lump in the gravy that won’t dissolve, the scum that rises to the top.”
“So … Avernus is basically … Hell?
“No such thing,” says Sabonis, sneering. “Avernus is just a mixing pot. It rips apart the bits that make up your soul—memories, ideas, likes, quirks. Mashes and mixes them up with all the bits of every other soul.”
“But not yours.”
“Nope. Fucking place didn’t want me. I drifted farther from the swirl until I just kind of budded off, pinched out into Lethe.”
“So how come you’re not a Shade?”
“Not a clue,” says Sabonis. “Don’t know why, don’t know how. When I came to my senses, I had flesh.”
Haurvil, standing on the ledge, spreads his arms wide and flaps them like he’s about to take wing.
“What’s this doofus up to?” says Sabonis. He stands and looks out over the Loch. His face ripples and freezes in a scowl. “The bastard!” He bounds over and bats Haurvil off his perch, arms trundling like a maid clearing cobwebs.
I scramble over and see five figures sprinting along the Loch’s shore, weapons bouncing in rhythm with their strides. “Alecto?”
“We gotta run,” says Sabonis. “We got the edge on them, if we cut over the top to Dilmun.”
But something catches my eye in the other direction, towards Sixwing. A familiar sail has blossomed in the harbor with the sunken caldera.“Hey, isn’t that your boat?”