Poling a boat around black rivers in the gloom of an eternal night can be pretty damn boring. In fact, I think the last time I wasn't bored could have been about . . . well, actually, I can't remember back that far.I think I wasn't always so good at boating. Everyone has to start somewhere, right? So I fell in Lethe, the River of Forgetfulness. Once. Maybe twice. I don't remember. But I'm not the only one to forget things. I honestly don't know what's gotten into people Up There lately; all they seem to know about is the River Styx. Figures, since that one's all about hate. Once in a while they remember the River Lethe. Ironic, that; but my sense of humor isn't what it used to be. But Acheron (River of Woe), Cocytus (River of Wailing), and Phlegethon (River of Fire)? No. They never have any idea about what those are. I get a little annoyed about that, because Phlegethon can be beautiful when all the rainbow colors are dancing in the flames; at least I think I used to think so. These days it's all old hat. The wailing, the crying, the screaming, the tortured moans of the dead; the laughter of the not-dead-but-not-alive that poke and prod them. I haven't seen or heard anything new in a damned long time. No pun intended, really, but laugh if you can. I've forgotten how. And nobody looks right at me – maybe they're afraid of pissing me off? I don't know. Sometimes I want to tell them I don't decide where they're headed, they do; they probably wouldn't listen, so I don't bother. But that's mainly why the girl caught my attention. She was alive, for one thing, all blond hair and blue eyes, a perfect little warrior out of a Norse mythos, and those wide eyes were trained right on me, like she wanted my attention. I was as close to between runs as I ever get, on my way back from the last drop at the end of Phlegethon; the Docks were already getting crowded. Not that I ever get a break, but I've long considered the empty ride back relatively restful. It's nice when they're not screaming right in your ear. Cocytus is especially bad for that. This girl wasn't at the Docks, though; she stood a little ways off, on an odd little island just to the right of the Docks. It took me a minute – although time really doesn't apply here, it's a convenient metaphor to explain the situation – to see what was so odd. When I figured it out, I turned the boat and headed right for her. There isn't an odd little island to the right of the Docks. There isn't even a 'to the right of the Docks.' They're Endless and Eternal and stretch for Infinity. I just pick a spot to land at and the cargo climbs on in one great, funneling mass. But there she was, and there, very clearly, was the end of the Docks. And there was grass growing on this island, as if a tiny chunk of a meadow from Up There had transported itself into the middle of The River. I paused, holding position for a moment. How had I known what grass was? I'd been poling souls around the grim and lifeless scenery of Hades for as long as I could remember. I'd never even thought about grass and meadows and sunshine before. But now it was there, in my mind, bright and cheerful and completely at odds with the darkness around me. She was trouble, I could see that much. Deciding the Eternal Guard needed to handle this, I pointed at her and spoke the words to set a soul-binding in place. She crossed her arms and tapped her foot impatiently. "Will you quit waggling your fingers and come here?" she yelled, loud enough for the eddying mass of newly arrived souls to look our way, drawn from their usual self-absorption. I didn't understand why the binding hadn't worked. Had I done something wrong? Trying again, and again, yielded nothing more useful. Approaching with caution, I stopped the boat beside her little green island and said, "What do you want of Charon?" She snorted disdainfully and said, "You're not Charon. You're the Keeper of the Eternal Keys." "No," I said, "I'm the Boatman for the Dead. In Hades. The Greek underworld. I think you're in the wrong mythos." I couldn't remember if the Norse myths had anything about keys. It didn't seem likely; I wasn't entirely sure they'd even had locks back when they were inventing their gods. She looked around at the river and at the lost souls crowding along the Docks, and pouted. Somehow, it wasn't a cute expression at all. "Maybe I am," she admitted. "But then, so are you." For the first time in I can't remember how long, I was surprised. I actually said, "What?" She didn't bother repeating herself. "You're not Charon. Charon dunked you into Lethe and told you to pole his boat around. He's been sunning himself in Tahiti for hundreds of years." "That's impossible," I said, rather shaken for some reason. Obviously a lie, but . . . she looked awfully familiar. And the living never came here. Well, almost never. "I don't really care," she went on. "I mean, you were stupid enough to try hiding out here, you deserve what you got. But I need the Keys. You took them with you when you came here, and I want them back." "I don't have any keys," I said. "I've never had any keys." She made a disgusted sound. "He must have taken them to make sure you couldn't escape. I thought you were being unusually dense, staying here all this time." Keys . . . something about keys . . . I couldn't quite remember. And I'd seen her before. I was almost positive. She was far too young to be one of the misguided Valkyries that wandered through now and again, so that wasn't it. The howling from the souls on the Docks started to grate on my nerves. I worried that one of the Eternal Guard would come to find out what the delay was. Not that they ever had before, but then I'd never paused like this. I tried to remember who had told me to watch out for the Eternal Guard in the first place. I couldn't. I started to feel really unsettled, and decided I wanted her out of here before she caused more trouble. "Look, I have a job to do," I said. Saying that brought a deeper feeling of worry. Something about a job was important. Another job besides playing ferryman. Playing? Where had that come from? I was Charon. This was all I did. There was no other job. I was losing my mind. But was that even possible? What if she was right? If I wasn't Charon, who was I? It was a trick. The other mythic structures were trying to take over this one. That had to be it. I relaxed again. She rolled her eyes. "That's always been your problem," she told me. "No matter how nasty the job, you've always felt compelled to just do it once it's handed to you." "Someone has to," I said. "I'm sorry I can't help you, but really, you need to move on before I call out the Eternal Guard. Go find someone else to pester. I've a full day ahead of me, and it's not getting any shorter." "There's no time here." "It's a metaphor," I said hastily. "Go on, shoo." I started to pole the boat away from her. She jumped and landed square center in the boat. It rocked. Both feats astonished me all over again; nobody should be able to get on Charon's boat without his permission, and it certainly never rocked. "This is important," she snapped, glaring at me. "You're coming with me. You're an idiot, but if Charon has the Keys, I'm going to need your help to take them back." "I'm not going anywhere." She raised a small hand on which a strange gold ring glittered and snapped her fingers three times fast. "Yes, you have," she said cheerfully. The Docks had vanished. The River was gone. And sunshine warmed my shoulders. Real sunshine, not the refracted flames of Phlegethon. I looked at the pole in my hand and slowly laid it down in the bottom of the boat. "This is going to cause a terrible problem Down There," I scolded. "Won't be the first one you've caused," she said, and grinned at me. "Oh, you mean in the Greek Hell? They'll get over it." "Hades," I corrected absently, "Not Hell. That's another–" I stopped. It had been so long since anyone made fun of me that I'd missed the barb at first. I scowled at her. Or tried to. Can a skull scowl? I reached up to touch my face, curious for the first time, and realized in surprise that it actually felt like a normal human face. With a beard. Strange that I'd never noticed before. It was an awfully long beard. It reached all the way to – oh. Wow. Charon definitely shouldn't have that. "Quit fondling yourself and hurry up already," she said, and hopped out of the boat onto dry land. "There is time, here, and I don't want to waste it." I sighed and followed her, setting foot on real grass for the first time in, if she was telling the truth, hundreds of years. It felt good. Prickly, soft, slimy, liquid and exciting all at once. I could have stood with my toes in the grass forever. But the grass also brought back memories. And suspicion. I did know her. She was . . . the exact relationship escaped me. But I knew her. And she wasn't a good person. Or as young as she looked. "Hey," I said. "You look like you're a little kid, but you sure don't act like it. And if you knew me hundreds of years ago, then how–" "Oh, boy," she said, and turned to face me, hands on hips. "You're no smarter now than you were back then, are you? I thought maybe you'd have learned a thing or two about time. I mean, why do you think I need the Keys? Or do you not even remember what they do?" "I think I fell overboard once or twice," I mumbled, then wondered just why exactly I was letting myself be bullied around by a snotty little kid. She just rolled her eyes and started walking away. I followed her, not sure why, other than that I couldn't think of anything better to do. "So what is it you plan to do?" I asked. "Ouch!" I hopped on one foot, startled at the stinging sensation in the other. "Look out for that sharp stick you just stepped on," she said, not looking back. "You're going to get the Keys back from Charon." "How?" "That's your problem," she said. "I imagine you'll beat him up." "Assuming you're telling the truth that I'm not Charon," I said, "how in the world am I supposed to beat up an immortal being?" "That's–" "–your problem," I finished with her. "Thanks so much." We kept walking. Eventually the grass turned to sand. As my feet sank into the grainy, raspy bits of pulverized rock, I remembered more about my past. She was right. I wasn't Charon. I was . . . something. Someone. I wasn't sure what yet. But it was important, she was right about that. People were waiting for me somewhere. Depending on me. I couldn't remember for what or why. I stopped at the edge of the beach, looking around at the tall green-brown grasses waving at one edge and the blue green shades of the water washing against the other. Between the two edges lay sand, white as bone, stretching for what seemed infinity to the left and right. I knew better, of course, I'd seen real Infinity; but in human terms this came pretty close. "This is Tahiti?" I asked. “I don't know. It's what Tahiti should be, so what's the difference?" She pointed to the left. "There he is." Only one person – being, I should say – occupied the beach. Surrounded by the remnants of several hundred beer and liquor bottles, he seemed to be taking a nap in the shade of a huge, colorful beach umbrella. I realized I was alone again. The little girl had darted back into the cover of the beach grass. She waved for me to advance on my own. "Great," I muttered, and walked forward. By the time I reached him, I had no doubt that this really was Charon. For one thing, he had no tan; bone doesn't generally tan, it bleaches. He was so white he would have glowed in the dark. For another, he wasn't asleep; skeletons don't generally sleep. How he'd managed to get drunk I couldn't figure, but he very clearly was and had been for several hundred years. The smell alone – rotting, yeasty, salt and mold caking the empty bottles – confirmed that part. You don't get a bad compost heap stench like that overnight. He looked up at me with empty eye sockets and grinned with perfect teeth. "Hey, don't I know you from somewhere?" "Yeah," I said, "you tricked me into poling your boat around Hades." "Oh, yeah," he said with the idiot amusement of a very, very drunk skeleton. "Yeah, you're the moron–" he burped. "Moron," he repeated, as if unsure what he'd been about to finish the insult with. "Yeah." "I want my keys back," I said firmly. This close up, I could see a great big key-ring with several iron keys hooked around one of his ribs, like some weird bony version of body-piercing. He rolled his head from side to side. "No, you don't." "Yes," I said, "I do. Give them back, and take your damn boat back while you're at it. I quit." He sat up. "Wait a second," he said, not sounding drunk any more. "You left the River unattended? You didn't dupe someone else into the job before leaving?" "No." "You moron!" "I think we've already established that," I snapped. "Give me the keys!" "You'll regret it," he said, standing up and unhooking the key ring from his ribs. "And there's no need to be so fierce about it. You're the one who gave them to me for safekeeping." "Huh?" He paused, keys still in his bony hand, and stared at me. "You don't remember? Well, of course not. I dumped you into the River Lethe, after all." He laughed, a horrible, rattling, dry sound. "If you hadn't left the River unattended I might have told you about your evil little sister and how you'd faked your own death to escape her attempts to kill you and take over the kingdom. Which was stupid, when you think about it, but then you're a moron, so that's all right. Wups." He hiccuped. I realized he wasn't sober after all. "Thanks," I said. "Sorry for the trouble I've caused you." "Well, at least it'll be interesting to sort out," he said, and snapped his bony fingers. The Boat appeared, drawn up on the beach not far away. He hiccuped again. "Vacation gets as boring as Hades after a while," he added. He tossed me the keys. As soon as the key ring hit my hand, I remembered everything. Our father had died; I was next in line to rule. My little sister had decided she'd suit the Eternal Throne better and tried to kill me. I'd run; the chase had taken us across several mythic structures before winding up in the Greek. Hades had seemed a safe hiding place, but I hadn't expected to be there quite so long. I looked at the keys in my hand and laughed. "Keys to the kingdom," I said. "I was so literal back then." "Humans generally are," Charon said. "Do you remember your way home now?" "Yes," I said, jingling the keys. For a set of allegorical constructions, they were surprisingly hefty. "You know, I'd like to give you something for all your help. Perhaps a helper?" "You're not that stupid," he said. "No, not me," I said. "But my sister's hiding over there. I bet if you dunk her in a certain river and tell her she belongs with you, life – so to speak – would be pretty interesting for a while." He grinned at me. "You've learned well from your time in Hell." "Hades," I said automatically. "That wouldn't rhyme properly." He snapped his fingers and my little sister landed heavily on the sand in front of him, glaring at me. If I tilted my head just right, I could see the nearly invisible soul-bonds Charon had put on her. She couldn't swat a fly unless he allowed it. She made a good try, though. Charon had to pay attention to what he was doing for a few moments, until she gave up fighting. "You're so mean!" she screamed at me. "I should have killed you!" "That's always been your problem," I said. "You're bloodthirsty and whiny. It's an unattractive combination." She pouted again; and this time it did look kind of cute. "You'll get wrinkles," I told her, thumbing through the key ring for the one that would take me home and put my kingdom back into the mythos stream where it belonged. The worlds didn't know what they'd been missing all this time. "And hey, thanks, Char." "Don't push it," he said, and tossed my sister into the Boat. "See you around." I laughed. "Well," I said, holding up the key to my kingdom, "not if I can help it."
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A new story about an ancient god . . . just what anotherealm has been mything. Save your groans and write your comments to our BBS (and don’t forget the coins for the eyelids, please). -GM