Step by step, I walk through the rushing waters of the Cocytus river in bare feet and shame. I push the souls howling for my aid, and my mind wanders to find understanding. How long had I been swirling in the darkness of night? How long have I’ve been here, standing in drowning waters in the company of mortal souls?
My feet dig into the ground of the outer bank. The sand-like substance squishes between my toes and scrapes the soles of my feet. The sand here consists primarily of broken-down bones. The decay of mortals. Broken bodies and broken souls. Everything about this place is broken. I imagine that’s why I sought to spiral here. To be in the company of decay brought familiarity, and there is such comfort in familiarity.
The bone dust sticks to my feet, and I wear decay as socks. I’ve worn dead before, but this feels sickening. I try to escape from the river, and the souls panic, digging their spirit hands into my calves. They are losing hope as I shake them off. Their false savior is fleeing, and there will be nothing left to reach out to and beseech.
I find my hands falling to the solid land, and I cannot believe the weakness that radiates throughout my body. My muscles have atrophied in my time away. My legs are wobbly, and my attempt at balance is futile without aid. My power is minimal, and I am weathered but do not dare say broken. No, not yet. I heave and gasp for breath making movements that should come with ease but do not. I crawl.
“Do you need help?” someone asks.
I look up to find the presence of a soul extending an arm. Unlike the other souls, this one aims to lift me. What an odd thing this is. I reach for its ghostly hand, cold and barely there. With its strength added to mine, I can balance on my feet again. I want to stare into their eyes and thank them, but there is none to connect with. There is nothing more than a sheet of fog with a presence.
“Thank you,” I say.
The figure gives a slight bow at the waist and turns to walk away. I reach out to prevent it from leaving so quickly, but my hand moves through its body.
“Wait, do you know how long I have been here?” I ask.
It stops in its path and turns to face me with its eyeless gaze. It shrugs.
“Not sure. It’s been dark here for a while. As if nighttime consumed this portion of the river. Time moves weirdly here. It feels both like an eternity and a single day all at the same time. I would not be able to decipher which.” Its voice is a whisper and floats on the wind. I struggle to hear it before it all drifts away, whispering of the tales of a lost soul.
“Do you know where we are?”
A gust of wind blows hard enough to spray bone dust into my face. I cover my eyes and feel the flying splinters scrape the back of my hand. The soul’s presence glitches and fades but remains. We are in the desert of the Underworld. There is nothing but sand in either direction.
“The Underworld, I suppose.”
“Yes, but where?”
“I don’t know. I awoke in that river just like you. I drowned over and over, trying to escape for what felt like an infinite amount of time. And one time I didn’t fight it, and then I just appeared here on the bank. It’s as if fighting not to drown is what caused me to drown. But ever since I got out, I’ve been wandering in the desert.”
“Wandering to where? Where do you plan to go?” I ask in curiosity. I’ve never paid much attention to the souls. They are a part of the Underworld, like how trees are a part of the earth. The trees provide oxygen, and the souls provide godly stature. You don’t think much about it. It just is.
“I don’t know. I suppose I search for a way out. I’m hungry, I think. I know something feels off, and I know I can’t stay here, I think. There must be something more than this, right?”
I nod in agreement. The soul is in search of comfort. However, there is no fast food down here. The comforts of the mortal world are not accessible to any soul, as far as I know.
Again the soul gives a slight bow at the waist and turns to walk away. This time, I do not wish to stop it. Their journey is no more or less important than mine. We are both stuck here, deserted, and looking for comfort. And in a few moments, the soul dissipates into the desert mirage and disappears. It’s hard for me not to imagine their next steps, if there is a next step.
However, I have little hope for the kind soul. It may have lifted out of the river, but it remains trapped, bound to this world. The Underworld has that effect on mortal souls. Even when they escape, they stay stuck. That’s the cruelty of this realm. There is nothing more. Only gods will reign and thrive. The souls can only watch and hope. The power difference is what makes a god.
I manage to balance on my own, my feet grounded, and look around at the desolate flatlands. Bone crushed sands and dust clouds swirl around. The air burns my skin and pierces my airways. Normally, I’d travel through the night or with the aid of my wings. However, I am too tired to command much of anything at all. I must walk and wander as if I am another soul seeking the unknown exit. I am seeking the comfort of a past life and normalcy. What could be more mortal than that?