I stood on the riverbank and fought to keep my eyes open against its susurrus of a lullaby. Were I to close my eyes, relinquish myself to the Giver of Dreams, I would be easy prey for any of the creatures that prowled the banks of the Lethe. Or I might even sleepwalk into its embrace and lie down in the water. To be honest, the second possibility scared me more — devouring would hurt, but it would end, and I would find myself back on the riverbank, albeit in a less-than-corporeal form.
The Waters of Oblivion would wash away all that I was, until I was but another eddy.
Through the mists that swirled over the waters I could make out a dark shape approaching. That would be the Ferryman, come to bear me across. The pale outlines of people that drifted along the empty plain started to gather, drawn toward him like moths toward a flame. I stayed back, keeping my distance from the specters. If I drew to close they’d scatter. They knew what I was.
The ferry fetched up agains the bank, blackened timbers in sharp relief against the bleached white-gray of the land we stood on. The lost souls pushed against each other in their haste to board. The Ferryman looked up from under his cloak. A grinning skull stared out from beneath the folds. I suppressed my laugh. Did he imagine such a form would frighten me? Me, who had made my life’s work the study of Death?
“Back again, Necromancer?”
I smiled, but didn’t speak. Charon’s obol sat heavy under my tongue, making speech clumsy and lisping. I hated the way it made me sound. I had worked hard for my accent – clipped and crisp and dripping with class – and I loathed the way that it disappeared every time I crossed into the Underworld. But “under the tongue” was traditional for a reason — it was the safest place to carry the precious coin.
“Come on, then.”
I boarded the ferry, wrapping my arms around myself against the clammy mists that clung to me as we pushed away from the shore of the living world. I did not watch it recede, but turned my gaze toward the far bank. It was mostly obscured by mist, but if I strained my eyes I could just make out my destination: The House of Hades, seat of the Lord of the Dead and his dread Lady.
Soon enough we arrived. The spirits fled as soon as the bank was within reach, leaping into the shallows to escape my presence. I made to follow, but Charon grasped my arm with one skeletal hand.
I turned back, raising an eyebrow.
“Have a care, Necromancer. One day, you will forget your coin, and you will be mine.”
I pulled away, shrugging off the threat, and strode off into the dark streets of the Bone City. But my heart hammered within my chest. I ran my tongue over the obol again, reassuring myself of its presence.
Legends say that the coin is to bribe the ferryman to carry you over. That’s patent nonsense; Charon is only to pleased to take souls into the dark heart of the Underworld, and cares not one whit if they are living or dead. You don’t need a coin to ride the ferry to hell.
You need the coin to come back.