For the first several minutes of the ride, Jordan did his best to look at everything. The water below the boat was black and smooth as glass, not at all disturbed by the boat's passage or Charon's pole. The cavern walls vaulted like cathedrals, riveted together with massive spikes of stone and vanishing into shadows well before Jordan could discern the roof. He could see no shore in any direction and soon lost any sense he might have had of compass points. There were no lights but the single dim lantern on the boat. It made him think of the way he felt staring at an empty canvas with images bursting in his mind but unable to make his hand translate. Somehow it didn't surprise him that hell turned out to be so blank.
Charon offered no conversation, and Jordan had no words for the ferryman. He settled for closing his eyes and waiting.
Jordan had never made any active use of his psychic ability. For years, he hadn't even realized he was psychic. He had thought the way certain images or knowledge would come to him was a result of his artistic nature. It was only when he noticed that some of the scenes that played out in his mind actually happened that he realized he was psychic. He considered it a rather useless gift but counted himself lucky that it had been nearly fifty years since anyone did more than raise an eyebrow at a psychic. Really, though, he had no idea what he could do. Hades seemed like a suitable setting for experimenting.
He thought about Eliot, about the way Eliot made him feel, not in those first few weeks of torrid passion but later. On gloomy Sunday afternoons while he painted and Eliot sat on the living room floor with his guitar, writing and playing. On weekdays when he would wake up to an empty bed and the smell of coffee. When they fought. When they held each other in the dark. All of it had caught Jordan by surprise, but it never scared him. Leda had scared him. He didn't fit with Leda, and he had always known that. He and Eliot were adjoining pieces of the same puzzle.
When the puzzle pieces slipped together, the blackness began to take on forms. Jordan saw a stage in a dim theater. There were sets bunched together towards the back curtain, a rack of clothes, a table of props. The sets looked vaguely familiar, but they went by too quickly for Jordan to tell for certain what they were. Then, off to the side, huddled in the shadows of the dark curtains in the wings, there was Eliot cradled in the arms of a beautiful blonde man who murmured something about getting out through a back door. Too beautiful to be human. It had to be Ganymede. Eliot and Ganymede had been friends and on-and-off lovers since Aphrodite had turned Melpomene's mask into a man. Jordan had never been jealous of Ganymede, but it made him angry that Eliot was in Ganymede's arms and Jordan had barely started his journey.
A sharp pain just above the bridge of his nose deleted the scene almost as soon as it had appeared. Jordan rubbed the pain away and blinked open his eyes.
Charon frowned at him but said nothing.
Jordan stared out at the endless blackness and wondered where the fuck he was going to find a theatre in hell.
The boat eased up to a dock Jordan hadn't seen approaching.
"Your stop, I believe," Charon said.
Jordan said nothing and sat still.
"I'm out of my league here," Jordan said.
"As you were well warned."
Jordan brooded a little more.
"You can't turn back now."
"I know. But what if I get there and it doesn't matter? If Ganymede just pops in and pops out, all this is an empty gesture on my part."
"Believe me, if Ganymede has gotten to Eliot already, he's done it by means that're bound to have grave consequences. I wouldn't lay good odds on Ganymede being able to do much to get Eliot out. If he's there at all."
"If a god can't rescue him, what the fuck am I doing?"
"I don't know. Why don't you go find out?"
"I think I probably should."
Jordan clambered out of the boat with some difficulty, his knee groaning protests and shooting bursts of pain half way up his thigh and half way down his shin. By the time he turned around to thank Charon, Charon was already gone, the pinprick light of his lantern winking from miles away and then winking out.
Jordan started to hobble off the dock. As soon as he put weight on his right leg, his knee gave out. He crumpled to the dock, his eyes burning with tears of pain. He lay still for a moment, and when the initial shock of pain faded into a hot, miserable throb, he sat up and put his hands around his knee. It didn't feel any more damaged or skewed, but the pain was about as intense as it had been the night the mugger swung a tire iron at his leg.
Which meant he wasn't going to be walking any time soon.
Funny how that one bad decision was continuing to cost him what he loved the most.
He lay back on the dock and shoved the heels of his hands against his eyes. His tears weren't just pain now. Frustration, anger, grief. He wondered if this was blow back from Melpomene's curse. It had still been in play when he and Eliot met, after all, and Jordan saw no reason for the removal of the curse to be retroactive.
He hated Melpomene for what she'd done to Eliot and what she tried to make him do to Ilya and Sebastian. He hated her for what she'd done to Ilya. In fact, he just flat out hated her. He hated all of the Olympians. They were just trumped up spirits, and all of them were as fickle and spiteful as a pack of teenage girls.
Jordan closed his eyes and slammed his fists down on the dock. "Fuck all of you!" he shouted. "I'm gonna find Eliot and take him home, and if any of you fuckers try to stop me, I'll kill you."
Beneath the dock, Styx whispered. Jordan sat up on his elbows and looked down at the obsidian water. River of hate, river of unbreakable oath. Why the hell not? he thought.
It would have been less risky to just stick his legs in the water, but Jordan wasn't thinking of less risky. He undressed quickly and dropped himself into the river.
He knew the water would be cold and the current strong, but he wasn't quite prepared for how cold or how strong. He got his arms around the stanchion before the current could grab him, but it threatened to rip him away from the tenuous tether. The cold was more of a problem. It took his breath away, and Styx crashed into his lungs.
* * *
The sensation of panic was familiar. Jordan's whole body contracted with it; his brain took up the mantra no no no no no; even in the deep chill of Styx, he could feel the pinprick heat of adrenaline at his pores and the helpless trembling of his body.
Yes, it was exactly the same as when Leda said she was leaving. He knew (he could admit to himself now) that he would never see her again. Her or Zoë. He hadn't asked what he could do to keep her from leaving. He knew he couldn't change her mind. He had betrayed her trust. They were already drifting apart by then. It was only a matter of time before one of them said, "Enough of this bullshit." But they still had that trust. They had a child, after all, and regardless of their feelings for each other, they loved their daughter and wanted to raise her together, and that took trust. He'd broken that. Irreparably. In time, they might have stitched the wound closed enough to continue raising Zoë together, but they wouldn't have been husband and wife.
In the first moments after Jordan's confession, Leda had been almost violently angry. As violent as she could muster anyway. Jordan had felt her anger like a iron-cored pillow beating against his mind as she stood in the hospital room, silent, tears building in her eyes, her cheeks blossoming ugly roses, her concern for him evaporated by the truth he thought he owed her.
"Was it worth it?" she had asked, her voice and clenched fists shaking. "Was Britt's dick worth all this?"
Then, shocked at the brutality of her anger and the question, Leda had turned and run from the room before Jordan could say anything at all.
After a moment, the energy of the room still churning with their potent emotions, Jordan had said, "No, it wasn't worth it. He wasn't worth it."
So it's not life that flashes by when you're dying, Jordan thought. It's just the things you wish you could take back.
His grip on the stanchion loosened. He clawed at the wood, driving splinters into his fingertips, but he couldn't gain purchase, as if the stanchion were smooth glass covered in slick oil. Then he was clawing at water, his movements slowing, everything growing dark, still, cold. Everything except the regret that crept over the panic.
He wasn't, and never would be, sure of what happened next. He felt something pushing him up, and then the back of his head smacked the underside of the dock. He thrust his fingers into the gaps between the planks, tore the planks away and heaved himself up onto the dock. He coughed the river out of his lungs as he knelt there, shivering, not with cold now but with the remains of his panic.
When he was calm again, still and breathing normally, it occurred to him that he'd been pushed towards the surface by a pair of hands with whose touch he was intimately familiar. He looked at the silk ribbon of water, but if Leda's spirit swam in its depths, he couldn't see her or feel her presence.
Jordan's knee was still misaligned, but the pain was gone. He took a few experimental steps. He still had to rely on his cane, but there was no pain, not even the tiniest twinge. That wasn't the only thing that was different after his skinny-dipping adventure, but it was the only thing that mattered. Dressed and ferociously determined, he hobbled on.
* * *
At first, Cerberus looked no bigger than a bulldog. Granted a three-headed bulldog, but that was a manageable size. After a few more minutes, Cerberus was as big as a large workhorse. Still manageable, Jordan thought, although he had no idea what he was going to do to get past the guard dog regardless of its size.
From horse to elephant. From elephant to whale. From whale to dinosaur. From dinosaur to holy fuck what am I supposed to do with that?
By the time Jordan was close enough for confrontation, Cerberus filled the entire passage. The three heads bent low. Three mouths peeled back to reveal three sets of vicious teeth. Three throats rumbled and made the rocks quiver. Jordan didn't hear a sound.
"Get the fuck out of my way before I start ripping your heads off," Jordan said.
Cerberus didn't move except to vaguely twitch one eye on the middle head, as if it were amused.
It should have been amused. How was Jordan going to rip off a whisker much less a whole head?
Orpheus had sung to Cerberus to get past it. Heracles had wrestled the thing. Psyche and the Sybil had fed it cake. Jordan had no doggie treats. Cerberus was too big for him to wrestle, and Jordan wasn't much of a singer. Cerberus must have been just a puppy back then anyway.
Jordan pulled Darya's flask from his pocket and took a swallow of vodka. He didn't need the alcohol, just the moment.
"Okay, pooch. You won't move on your own, I'll make you move," Jordan said.
Three noses snorted in derisive mirth.
Jordan hobbled over to the side of the passage. He propped his cane against a spike of stone and ran his hand over the wall. It wasn't completely smooth, but it was smooth enough. He glanced over his shoulder. Cerberus was watching. Jordan took his pencil from his pocket and began to draw.
The stone was a bad canvas. The pencil lines were barely visible on the graphite-colored rock and rubbed away at the slightest touch. Jordan erased his first marks with the palm of his hand and started over. He pressed down hard. The pencil tip bit effortlessly into the rock.
As it always did when he drew, the world went away as Jordan carved a story on the wall. Lines flowed in the rock. He watched them move ahead of where he held the pencil, and he followed. He barely noticed what unfurled behind the movement. He didn't need to see it on the wall when he saw it so clearly in his head.
He started with a reproduction of the sketch he'd been working on when he saw Eliot for the first time. The figure of a man rising, engulfed in flames, from the wreckage of a car (yes, he was rising then, about to breathe again for the first time in two years). From there, Jordan carved out the entire story, from the fire he and Eliot had kindled that day to the moment Eliot vanished from his arms. The splinters worked deeper into his fingertips, and he bled into the lines. He focused on that fraction of his mind that was psychic, felt it shatter like a vessel of fragile glass and bled that into the lines as well.
When he was done, he sat down hard enough to bruise his tailbone. Exhausted, he pressed his forehead to the wall and wept. His hands ached. The pencil was a useless stub, but he couldn't make his fingers release it. His fingers were torn from the splinters and the edges of the lines he had carved in the rock, and there were slivers of stone under his skin with the wood. His chest ached as if he'd held his breath while he'd carved. But for all that and the tears pouring from his eyes, he felt calm and free.
Behind him, Cerberus began to howl mournfully.
Jordan stood up, grabbed his cane and hobbled on, not giving himself time to wonder how such a monster could be so easily moved.
* * *
Jordan walked and walked and walked some more. His knee never once complained, and his various other injuries gave him no trouble either. He felt nothing but the calmness that had come over him after the rock drawing and a sense of urgency. He was running out of time. He could see Eliot on the stage, the wound in his shoulder ripped open and bleeding steadily. Eliot was pale, unmoving, and his skin was already beginning to cool. If Jordan didn't get there soon, Eliot was going to die.
Two pale figures in dark armor and cloaks approached out of the darkness ahead of Jordan. He knew what they were and pressed grimly onward.
"Halt," one of them said when Jordan was close enough to hear them. The guards had stopped in the middle of the passage, which was much smaller here than back the other way. They didn't block it completely, but they blocked it enough that if Jordan decided to stop, he wouldn't have been able to move past them easily.
Jordan had no intention of stopping, no intention of letting the guards escort him to an audience with Hades. He didn't have time for that.
He didn't change pace as he approached the guards. At first they tried to hold their ground, but they saw quickly that that wasn't going to work. They walked backwards, still blocking his way but not impeding his progress, as if they intended to herd him into the throne room.
"I said -- "
"I heard you," Jordan said.
The guards looked at each other. They stopped. Jordan pushed past them and heard the sound of swords being drawn. One of them grabbed his arm, jerking him to a stand still. He thought they were going to try to talk reasonably to him, swords or not. The one who held his arm was even opening his mouth to attempt a dialogue.
"I don't have time for this!" Jordan said. He yanked his arm free. The other guard sprang forward, grabbed Jordan by the hair and held the edge of his sword at Jordan's throat.
"You won't go any further without permission from Lord Hades," the guard snarled in Jordan's ear.
Jordan looked past the sword, and without any attempt to talk his way past them and hardly a thought, he lifted his cane and jammed the tip of it down on the guards foot. It punched through the guard's greave and his foot and pounded a shallow crater in the stone floor.
Howling, the guard dropped his sword and his hand from Jordan's hair, but Jordan kept him pinned there for a moment before he wrenched his cane out of the man's foot. As soon as he did and stepped away, the other guard rushed at him with his sword level in front of him to run Jordan through.
Jordan stood still and watched the guard come at him with something like disbelief but far darker, more cynical. The guard, a man killed in an ancient battle, was about to die again and for good. Jordan raised his cane. The guard looked bemused at the seemingly ridiculous defense, but a second later, he'd impaled himself on the cane, and his sword had crumpled like tinfoil against Jordan's chest.
Jordan let go of his cane and let the body fall to the ground where it instantly shattered and turned to dust. When he turned to face the remaining guard, cane in hand, the guard, although he'd picked up his sword, made no move against Jordan.
"I swore I'd kill anyone who tried to stop me," Jordan said.
The guard glanced down at the dust that was his companion, already blowing away on the gusts of ghosts' breath. Then he looked at Jordan, weighing duty against survival. He wasn't as cavalier as his partner and lowered his sword.
"The theatre is still a long way," the guard said. "Walk for another hour to a split in the passage and bear left. You might be there in half a day."
"I don't have that kind of time," Jordan said. "How can I get there quicker?"
Jordan clenched his jaw and looked away from the guard. His urgency was decaying into panic again. Even if he could run at top speed for a full day, he wouldn't make it. He looked at the guard again. "Do you have any idea why I'm here?"
"The only reason the living show up here is hubris."
"My lover isn't dead, and I'm not leaving here without him. He's hurt badly, so I don't have a lot of time. I have no intention of letting him die, but you're expendable. You tell me how I can get there or take me to someone who can tell me, or I'll ride you like a horse all the way there and back, and if you die along the way, I'll bring you back and keep riding."
Jordan thought the threat sounded silly, but the guard didn't seem to think so. He looked at Jordan with fear in his dead eyes, and for a moment, Jordan wondered if he was turning himself into someone Eliot would be unable to love.
"Take it up with Hades," the guard said.
"I told you. I don't have time for that."
"It's the only thing that might get you the time you need."
It wasn't really a choice. If he hobbled on, he'd never get to Eliot.
"All right," he said. "Take me to Hades."
To be continued ...