Between Two ArmiesA Chapter by Domenic Luciani
It's getting darker as we approach the climax..
It couldn’t be stopped. This was the seventh time I had relieved myself at the lone prickly bush on the other side of the island we were staying at for a few hours. Who knew the dead could have a urinary tract infection? If that bush wasn’t dead yet, it was now, I thought.
We had landed here for some rest as we readied for the last stretch of the journey. It was a rather large island, with a small beach and everything. The sun was getting pretty low in the sky, and I figured we’d be leaving sometime in the night. The sea beyond had become rather calm.
As I returned to our boisterous encampment, I saw that everyone had crowded around each other, telling their own life stories. Avra and Grayson were the only ones standing near the griffins. I suspected the others might have been a little put off the way the enormous black birds squawked loudly and their feathers got all ruffled when anyone got near.
“Are you done over there?” Grayson asked. A rather sick look was spreading across his face. He was already scrambling up and jogging past me, clutching his stomach. I watched him go and then turned to Avra. The only other person feeling somewhat of the same problems was Grayson, but he didn’t have it nearly as bad as I did.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “He hasn’t eaten anything besides a few apples, and neither have you. I haven’t gone to the bathroom once since we got here, but you two act like you’ve been drinking, I don’t know, Drano or something.”
She was right. Something strange was going on, and a miraculously full bladder wasn’t the half of it. I hadn’t told her or Grayson yet, but I had started to make more things disappear. At first it was a pebble or something small, but then I accidentally made an entire boulder vanish. I had been sitting on top of it, and suddenly, I was on the ground with a rather sore tailbone. I couldn’t do it at will, but I was working on it. I had already started daydreaming about vanishing back home in the blink of an eye . . . see my family again.
“Hey,” Avra said, snapping me back to attention. “Are you feeling alright?” She made to put her hand to my forehead. Electricity seemed to shoot through my veins as her skin came in contact with mine. I looked her in the eyes, but she was frowning in concentration and they failed to connect. “That is strange.” She said finally.
“What?” I asked. “Do I have a temperature or something?” I didn’t really believe the dead could get sick, but then again I hadn’t believed in a lot of things before I came to this world.
“No . . . well, yeah, but that’s just it,” she said. Her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “The dead don’t radiate heat.”
“How would you know that?” I asked.
Avra sighed, grabbed my hand and brought it past her dark hair to her own forehead. I almost blurted out a stupid comment, but stopped myself as I realized something strange. Avra’s forehead felt unexplainable. I knew I was touching it, that I was making contact with her skin, but that was as far as the feeling went. It wasn’t cold, warm, or anything in between. It reminded me of something that I couldn’t put my finger on, and her hand was the same way.
When Grayson returned, Avra pulled him to the side as well and sighed. He had a temperature as well.
“I don’t understand what the big deal is,” Grayson said. “So what if I’m a few degrees warmer than you? Maybe you should be worried that your skin feels plaster.”
The argument was settled with a quick pole. Grayson stood up on a boulder and did that fingers-in-mouth whistling thing he does. When everyone was listening, he asked them to touch the person next to them and to raise their hand if that person felt warm or cold.
Nobody raised their hands.
“Alright,” Grayson said. “Maybe it’s a bit abnormal.”
Without any explanations, we were forced to drop the subject, but it stayed in the backs of our minds for a long while after that.
The other children didn’t seem to get hungry, which came as huge relief when we ran out of apples. Instead, they seemed to be engrossed in each other, completely oblivious to outside thoughts. It was like some massive Native American story circle. It was nice to see them laughing and giggling to one another. I had to remind myself, though, that all of them were fully aware of why they were here.
I decided to take a short walk down the stretch of beach. It was short, and the sand was still very hot from sunlight falling upon it for hours longer than it normally would. Avra decided to tag along. I felt myself blush as she hopped down a few rocks to the sand next to me. I had wanted to be alone, but I wasn’t about to decline the company that the dark haired, fair-skinned girl offered, regardless of the skeptical look on Grayson’s face.
The walk could easily be summed up as the most awkward experience of my life. The two of us strode slowly next to each other for a good quarter mile, not saying anything, and not moving closer or farther apart. I could hear the waves lap at the hundreds of boats that had rolled up close to the shore, I could feel the wind on my skin, and even the heat of the sand as it warmed my feet with every step, but the tension was smothering my senses and forced the scenery into a dull submission. The sun was setting and cast a spectrum of oranges and reds on the mirror-like water. It was the perfect setting, but of course, I didn’t have the guts to make the first move. Plus, there were still unanswered questions between us.
Finally, we happened upon a conversation piece, though it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.
Hermes was lying on his boat (which was noticeably larger than the others), though it had been converted to a floating bed. His eyes were closed, his hands were folded across his chest, and the revolting flakes of blackened skin rustled in the wind like dead leaves. His eyes were closed, but his facial expression seemed troubled. Do you think he’s dead? Almost escaped my lips, but that would have been a ridiculous question.
“I didn’t know gods slept,” Avra said.
“We don’t.” Avra gasped quietly as Hermes’ eyes shot open and he rose from the bed like a zombie. The whole event seemed like something out of an old horror movie. “Gods do not sleep because we do not need to sleep,” Hermes said, attempting to conceal a yawn. “I was merely resting my eyes.”
“Why don’t you take a walk or something?” I suggested. “The beach is really nice.”
Hermes looked at me skeptically. “I can’t leave the boat,” he said, heartily slapping the side of the boat like a beloved pet. I couldn’t help but feel it was meant to be sarcastic.
“Why not?” I asked.
Hermes laughed, though it was a weak, pathetic sort of laugh that evolved into a quiet sob. “You can see my appearance and I’m not going to sugarcoat how disgusting it is. I don’t look like this because I took the job. Remember that time I told you that deals between gods can’t be broken so easy.”
I vaguely recalled it. “Why?”
“I made a deal with Hades. Don’t ask me what it was; it’s not something you’d understand. Anyways, once I found out Hades had gone on the fritz, I thought maybe the deal might be void. So, I stepped off the boat, and bam! Burning everywhere " just all over the place. I didn’t know what to do, so I climbed back onto the boat. Once the burning went away, I look down and see this.” Hermes gestured to his body. “Moral of the story, kids: don’t make deals with gods, or you’ll get burned.” Hermes smiled as he realized the genius of his own joke.
“But we made a deal with you, and Thánatos, and Hypnos.” I said.
“Yeah, alright, well . . . starting now, don’t make deals with gods; especially Chiron.”
Too late for that one, I thought.
A great noise grew from back along the beach to where the encampment was. The griffins had all shot off into the sky and were making loud growling noises from the air. Avra glanced at me and then hurried off to find out what was wrong.
“Looks like a storms coming.” Hermes said ominously.
Indeed, hundreds of miles away, an enormous wall of black clouds was thundering towards us.
“Should we wait it out?” I asked.
“If we wait it out, then we’ll be tired and stuck in the middle of the river. No, were going to go straight on into it.”
I nodded. Personally, I would’ve rather waited it out, but Hermes had a point. The two of us stood there, watching the storm as it progressed toward the setting sun.
“Do you know how to defeat an immortal?” Hermes asked.
My stomach did a back flip again. How did I not think of that? I suddenly wanted to take Hermes’ oar and beat myself over the head with it. “No,” I said, weakly.
“Well, if they were immortal, then everybody who fell into the Styx would be able to take over the world, and you can clearly see the flaw in that plan. Instead, every immortal has a vulnerable spot. You know of Achilles?”
“Like the tendon?” I answered sheepishly.
“Well, yeah " like the tendon. Anyways, most think that the only way to find the spot is keep stabbing until something lands, but I’ve been thinking. If you set an immortal on fire, wouldn’t it make sense if everything immortal remained undamaged, but the vulnerable spot would be burned.” Hermes paused. “This all hypothetical, you realize. It’s never actually been done.”
I breathed a sigh of relief; at least there was an idea. I would never have been able to come up with one on my own. I was becoming more and more disheartened with my inability to lead.
“Don’t sweat it kid. You’ll figure things out for yourself sooner or later,” Hermes said. He looked over at the setting sun and then over at the coming storm. “I believe there’s time to make a quick ferrying trip. Chiron says I need to take an obolus from those who wait for passage, but I don’t. I haven’t seen a dead person with an obolus in years. Anyways, I’ll be back soon.” With that, Hermes pushed off from the sand and returned to the water with a lurch. He gave me a quick sailor’s salute then pulled away into deeper waters. The rest of the boats magically followed suit"sliding down the sand and off through the water. All together, they vanished beneath the rolling waves.
I returned to where Avra and Grayson were trying to calm the griffins. They were up and pacing, their tails were whipping back and forth in anxiety, and their feathers were so fluffed up, the deadly beasts looked like enormous puffballs. They had come down from the sky that was becoming increasingly cloudy, which was a good thing.
I can’t really say what happened between that moment and when Hermes finally returned with his fleet of death-ships, other than there was a lot of commotion around the campsite as weapons that had been brought along (courtesy of Hermes), and had been stashed in various piles scattered around the area. I happened upon a bow, but when I picked it up; I realized it was far too small for my hands. Annoyed, I placed it back in the pile and searched around for another. Before I could find one, though, Avra came up from the coast and ran over to me, a wild look in her eyes. By now, the sky had become a deep grey, the wind had kicked up a considerable amount, and great masses of clouds saturated with rain swirled in the sky above.
“Hermes is back,” she gasped, out of breath. I stopped looking for a bow and ran past her, down the path to the coast. The other children saw me run and scrambled to follow, picking up weapons as they went. The earth seemed to quake right down to the sand as I ran along it, noticing the ominous black boats had returned " Hermes’ among them.
“It’s time to go,” he said. His voice seemed troubled, but I ignored the expression on his face and motioned for the others to shuffle in. The children had gathered on the shore and hesitated only for a moment before following one another into the boats. After a few minutes, Avra, Grayson, a few others including Sarah McDonald, and I were left standing alone on the beach. Hermes pushed off again, his cargo in tow, and soon we were on our way as well. We hovered near the boats as Hermes led us a little ways out to sea, and then straight forward. I still hadn’t found a suitable bow, but I figured I wouldn’t be so picky when it came to the fight.
The first cracks of lightning brought me to attention. I wondered if they were just illusions, but the way I could feel the deep pulses of thunder resounding within my heart like war drums, I had a feeling that they were the real deal. Jack screeched as if challenging the storm and Hermes was laughing; his voice bellowing against the waves that had begun to rise to enormous heights.
Throughout the storm, winds battered our forces, both in the sky and on the sea. Waves rose fifty feet and crashed down upon Hermes and his boats with mighty force. More than a few of the children looked sick to their stomachs. It wasn’t much better in the air. The wind was horrifying. It came at different angles and brought with it, rain in an unimaginable torrent. Even with Jack keeping his head low, I still had to keep my eyes squinted so that all I could see were slivers of the scene that was unfolding before us.
For miles, it didn’t let up at all. If anything, it got worse. The curtain of grey had grown darker and darker until we were only black dots in the sky, and Hermes wasn’t even in sight. We needed him to guide us; after all, he was the only one who knew the way. I could still hear him though, shouting over the wind, “Bring me your worst, Chiron!” and followed by laughing manically. Sometimes, when the lightning would flash and make everything unbearably bright, I could see the group of boats, and Hermes fighting the waves as if they were demons in need of slaying.
We landed once, but it was a brief stay. I relieved myself (which was not an easy task given the wind), and the others went about their business. When we left again, I could feel my hands start to go numb. I rubbed them together, feverishly. For a moment, I was thankful that I didn’t have to carry a bow for the entire journey, or worse, a different weapon. To make matters worse, I was hungry again. Though I tried my best to gather a few thoughts and some last minute battle tactics, the cold, the rain, and the wind were all making it impossibly hard. I couldn’t think for a minute without Jack diving out of the way of a close bolt of lightning. It was clear that none of this was natural. Chiron had made this storm just for us " of that, I was sure. I felt bad for Avra, who wasn’t all that great with flying in the first place. A few times I thought I could hear her screaming over the noise of the storm.
I was relieved when the darkness let up somewhat and returned, slowly, to a dull grey. It wasn’t much, but there was a comfort in the thought that our journey was almost over. Sure enough, the brightening of the clouds brought with it, the first signs of land. First there were only a few jagged rocks that threatened Hermes, but he guided himself and the other boats into a lengthy single-file line and wove around the dangerous rocks like a needle through thread. Closer to shore, I saw something that made my heart race.
Hades palace looked exactly how I had remembered it; with its high towers, enormous size, and intricate carvings of battles between strange monsters that dotted the trimmings and scaled down the walls. However, the rest of the area was not how I had remembered it. The cliff with the winding pathway was gone " replaced with an enormous coastline that stretched far back, towards the palace and then turned to black-bladed grass the rest of the way. I wondered if this was Chiron’s doing again. At the edge of the coastline and the field of black grass, a large group had gathered. All of the people in it were children, all were in perfect rows, and all wore armor and carried spears with deadly points. At the very front, a man stood. He wore no armor and carried no weapon. He wore exactly the same outfit he had been wearing the very first time I saw him: a black suit, black tie, black pants, black leather shoes, and a white dress shirt. I couldn’t see his eyes from where Jack and I were, but I could feel his steely red glare aimed directly at me.
I landed at the very edge of the water. It was as close as I would go to Chiron’s army of immortals without some backup. Thankfully though, Hermes was only a second behind me. I hardly dared to look away from Chiron; or rather I was transfixed upon him. I heard the crunching of white sand and the loud shuffling of hundreds of feet as the children stepped onto it. I stole a quick glance at Hermes who nodded reassuringly to me and when I looked back, Chiron had moved halfway between his army and me.
“Remember, kid. Don’t make deals with gods, least of all, Chiron.” Hermes said.
“Don’t worry,” Avra said, touching my shoulder from behind. “We’ll be here when you get back.” I nodded to her.
I stepped forward, at first unsure of my footing, but confidence seemed to grow inside of me rather quickly, and soon, I was striding over to Chiron, who wore an enormous smile on his face as If someone had said something funny. Maybe he thinks I’m a joke, I thought.
I met Chiron between two armies . . . between two fates. With one sentence uttered from Chiron’s snake-like mouth, I knew that within a few moments, I would either be at war or something even worse.
“Well, well, well,” Chiron said with a menacing grin. “How nice to see you again.”
© 2010 Domenic Luciani
Added on May 28, 2010
Last Updated on May 28, 2010
The River Styx and the Lord of the Dreary Coast
AboutThat is my real name, and that is really me in the picture. Like Patrick says, I'm not in the witness protection program. I mostly write books and stories. I like fantasy, or fiction, but if.. more..
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