The river is high again.
It laps up against the greaves of the statues in this chamber this time, the long grasses submerged and waving gently in the hazy waters. Last it took this chamber, it only rose to the top of the pedestals. He wonders if the river’s patterns are changing. He’s learned to see the signs of when the river is about to rush out of its banks to take the chambers: the river grows wilder and the ground becomes soft and damp, water rising up between his toes and hissing into steam where it meets his feet. There are some chambers that are more prone to it than others, and he tries his best to avoid those.
He can still make it across to the other side if he climbs onto the arms of the statues: he recognized the archers’ chamber when he stepped into it, the statues with their bows strung before them. They make a neat bridge over to the other side, although it takes a bit of momentum to leap from one to the next.
He barely catches himself on an outstretched arm when he fumbles a landing, his heart beating fast. He settles for a moment on the arm of the archer, feet dangling above the water. He’ll be glad when the water recedes again. The idea of the water closing above his head makes his chest tight with fear, and he edges his mind away from that, unwilling to touch it.
He peers down. At least it’s handy that the water washes clams up into the grasses. They hold a little briny nugget when he pops them open with the edge of his sword, and they’re surprisingly filling. He’s taken to heating them between the soles of his feet, waiting for them to pop open.
He slings his rod out and catches a few, tucking them into the bundle he made of his cloak.
He checks again that he hasn’t dropped anything in the water before he carries on. He has a few beautiful things, and he would be sad to lose them.
On his shoulder: pin (butterfly-shaped). Threaded onto his belt: pouch (twenty coins, cold and golden, fourteen dark drops, cool and smooth), sheath (sword). In his cloak: five clams and a pomegranate (tasty).
Once he makes it to the other side of the room, the other chamber might be just cleared of water. The high waters turn the ground muddy, which is good, because it catches the wheels of chariots, but turns his footing treacherous, at best. He’s a little tired, and it wouldn’t do him any good to fumble his footing against a spearbearer.
To his surprise, the next chamber is calm, bereft of life. The ground is relatively dry. The water must have receded from here a little while ago.
In the corner of the room, there’s a large helm partially sunken into the ground. He crawls into its eye, curls into the lush moss that grows within. It’s cozy.
He curls around himself. The helm is nice. He isn’t sleepy, but he is tired, and it’s nice to have the dark warmth around him. He drifts.
The imposing statue at the entrance of this chamber is excitingly unfamiliar. He thought he had explored most of the surrounding area, and it’s always a nice surprise to find something entirely new. He stops at its feet, looking up at where the statue’s features disappear into the darkness, then peeks into the urns at his feet. Sometimes there are interesting things in there.
“Stranger,” someone calls out. “I was wondering where you’d been. You haven’t been through in a long time.”
He looks up from the urn. There’s a man in the clearing. He tenses for battle, but the man makes no move to heft his spear, instead waving him over with an open hand.
He finds himself dashing towards him. He’s missed talking, he realizes: the warriors that he encounters most often are not much for conversation.
“Have I?” he says, smiling. He would have remembered a man like this: terribly handsome in his armor, for all that his countenance holds the traces of past melancholy. And yet, the man calls him stranger, which makes sense.
The man inclines his head, a minute movement that somehow seems inviting, even playful. “Yes. I suppose time is fluid as ever in these fields, but I’m certain that it’s been awhile. Come, sit and rest that leg. What news have you made for the House of Hades of late? I believe Achilles is coming later, if you would like to stay awhile.”
The man hands him a leather wrapping: inside, there are three strips of jerky. It’s very generous, and the man seems nice enough, for all that he speaks of things he doesn’t quite understand. He settles by him.
“Thank you, sir. This is a nice place,” he says, for lack of anything else to say.
The man looks around him. “It is, isn’t it? It took me awhile to appreciate it.”
It is nice. Its bright foliage has a quietness to it that settles the rushing of his thoughts. It is only the wide river at the man’s back that makes him nervous. Perhaps he should tell him what he’s learned of its flood patterns, to make sure he would be safe from its waters.
“Tell me, sir, does the river flood, here?”
The man looks a little shaken at the thought. “No. I’ve never seen it do so. Why do you ask?”
That’s a comfort. He’s glad to hear that this man will be safe here, and it is interesting to know that the banks of the river are enough to contain it in certain places. “Oh, good. Do you linger here often, to know this place so?”
The man frowns. “I dare say I have lingered here longer than most.”
The man’s tone is guarded, suddenly. He doesn’t know what he said to make it so, but he wants to fix it.
“Sir? I meant no offense, whatever I said. I’m glad to be able to share this space with you, but I can go, if you prefer to be alone.”
There is a long silence. He fidgets, passing his fingers through the grass and ripping up a few blades.
“Stranger,” the man says carefully. “What did I give you, last you came through?”
A strange question. He laughs. “I would remember passing by this place, surely. You cut a striking figure, sir.”
The man’s brow furrows further: concern, not offense, he sees with relief. “What do you mean by that?”
“Ah, only that you are memorable, compared to most of the shades in this place? It’s nice to sit with someone who isn’t trying to run me through.” He tilts his gaze up to the man, trying to gauge his reaction. He feels as though this conversation is made of hidden pitfalls, and he keeps falling in them inadvertently.
“I see. And if I call you prince, does that mean something to you?” the man says, careful, so careful, his expression deliberately smoothed out.
He should go. He takes to his feet, brushing off his chiton. He should go, and he feels it like a hook through his gut, insistent and undeniable.
The man reaches out to him. He has beautiful, strong-looking hands. It seems as though it would be nice to be held by him.
He smiles through the hooks as they pull him to the edge of the clearing. Perhaps he’ll run into this glade again. He sets the tall statue in his mind to remember it.
“I’ll try to find you again! It’s been nice to meet you, sir.”
He turns away. Fire springs to his feet when he dashes forward, comforting in its warmth. The man is moving towards him, a hand outstretched. Perhaps he’s lonely too, but he can’t stay, can’t stay, can’t stay
He’s in a clearing. The ghostly silhouettes of shields and spears surround him, and his feet are sore, as though he ran long leagues. There’s a long, ragged cut in his upper thigh. He’s alone.
He drops to sit in the grasses with a sigh and wraps his thigh with a strip torn off of his cloak.
That done, he checks that he left nothing behind. On his shoulder: pin (butterfly-shaped). Threaded onto his belt: money pouch (twenty coins, cold and golden, fourteen dark drops, cool and smooth), shealth (sword), a leather wrapping (three strips of jerky).
The jerky is new. He’s not sure where he got it. It’ll save him some fishing later, which is nice.
The floods come again, sooner than expected. His usual resting place in the helm is underwater for long hours, and he’s grateful that he didn’t leave anything important in there, although he’s a little sad to lose the mat he wove from dried grasses.
He sits at the feet of the spear-wielding statue that is above the waters, watching the water ebb gradually from the room. When the water is clear, he takes his sword to the longer grasses and lays them out to dry over the outstretched spear. He’ll weave them together when they’re drier, but still pliable enough to bend. Maybe he can even make a basket for his fish.
When he steps into the next chamber, it seems familiar, although he’s sure that he would have remembered it: there are only two other chambers that hold statues this large, and they are far from here. When he steps into it to peer into the urns at his feet, he hears two voices talking low. He has to strain to hear them.
“I spoke to Theseus. He says that the, ah, daemon hasn’t come to challenge them lately. Asterius was concerned about the lad, too.”
“Gods. Thanatos says even Nyx herself is blind to his presence. Cerberus has torn the passages above to shreds trying to find any hint of him, and Meg is cutting a bloody swath through Tartarus. You’re the only one who’s seen him.” The gentle voice sounds despairing. It hurts his heart to hear it. “Pat, I don’t know what I would do if—”
The voice stops. “Did you hear something?”
He is resting in the helm clearing when a flash of green light pierces through the openings of the helmet. A tolling sound resonates inside his chest, sends his heart flying quick and fast.
He peeks out: there is a young man swathed in black, his feet barely brushing the high grasses, so beautiful that he can’t help but gaze open-mouthed.
For all his beauty, the young man looks haggard, the cut of his hair against his cheek ragged. He looks around, his gaze flitting about the clearing, perhaps looking for something.
His heart goes out to him, and he wants to help him, wants to call out to him, wants to touch the sharpness of his cheek, and yet something pulls him back, leashes him, makes him curl further into the darkness.
His fingers close around the pin at his shoulder (butterfly-shaped). He tips the contents of his pouch out to still his fidgeting hands (twenty coins, cold and golden, fourteen dark drops, cool and smooth).
The young man’s head drops with a breath that shudders wetly from his chest. Then, he seems to gather himself once more, the shadow of wings casting above him.
When the young man leaves in another flash of green light, he crawls out.
Perhaps he could leave him a message. Ask him what it is he is looking for. He would like to help, and he knows the area well enough that he could perhaps be of aid.
He sets his feet into the ground long enough to turn the grass to ashes, exposing the dark earth beneath. The grass grows fast here, but that can mark his passage well enough for a moment.
HELLO, he marks, step by step. ARE YOU LOOKING FOR SOMETHING?
He would like to say much more, but it takes a long time to write like this. He surveys his handiwork and deems it good enough, if a little crooked. The young man can surely find a way to respond.
When he wheels back to the helm grove later, he finds that the grasses have taken most of his writing, making it illegible.
He finds a centaur heart nestled in the grass. The stems were woven around it to keep it in place, blood staining the grass red around it. It’s still warm and beating. He looks around, but there’s no sign of the young man.
When he bites into it, vitality flows through him. A lingering wound on his ribs closes over. He feels at last as though he can take a full breath.
THANK YOU, he burns into the grass, because it seems only polite.
Again, the floods: wilder, higher, this time. The helm is underwater once again.
In search of shelter, he stumbles into a chamber with a roiling mass of butterflies fluttering above the water, the bright smudges of their wings reflected in the water as they dip close to the surface to make ripples. He reaches out for one of them from his perch on a pedestal, and it lands on his shoulder.
It tears at his skin, drawing blood. He crushes the bright, delicate wings and scrambles across the rest of the room. He’s gasping and breathless by the time he loses them, a sharp stitch in his side.
He only wraps the larger bites: he’s running out of the fabric of his cloak. He has his new basket to carry his catches, but he should conserve the fabric for the more debilitating wounds that the bright warriors are care capable of inflicting.
He wonders if he could perhaps find the handsome man in the statue grove again. Perhaps he would be willing to trade for fish.
The statue grove proves elusive. It’s strange: he knows these plains well, but it’s as though his own feet turn him from it, even when he leaves marks in the grass to show his passage.
A shout tears out of him in frustration when he finds his own marks at the entrance to another grove, as though he looped back on himself.
He finds his eyes wet. He scrubs his hand across them, taking a breath.
A flash of green, turning the foliage almost too bright to behold. He whirls around.
“Zagreus,” the cloaked young man gasps. “Oh. Oh, gods. There you are.”
The hook in his chest says, run, leave, you can’t stay, you have to run, you can’t
“Hello,” he says, instead. “Thank you for the heart—I think that was you, wasn’t it?”
The young man reaches out, wordless, and brushes the pin at his shoulder. Maybe he’s asking for it.
He fingers the golden coins in the pouch at his belt and holds one out to the young man instead, pressing it into his palm. Perhaps the young man can bring him to the grove. “Can I pay you for passage? I’ve lost my way, you see.”
The young man’s grave look seems to collapse in on himself. His hand closes over the coin.
“I. Yes. Please, let me—let me take you. We’re going home.”
He bares his throat to this beautiful presence. “Okay. That sounds good. Thank you for your help.” Doesn’t know what it means, only that he wants it, wants it more than anything else. “Let’s go home.”
The touch of the scythe against his throat is cold and light. He barely registers it through the embrace around him, the dark folds of cloth, the firm presence of a body.
Darkness, warm and comforting.
He washes up on blood-red shores, the hard edges of a stairway at his back. A wet nose snuffles up against his chest with a whining sound.
He buries his face in Cerberus’s fur, clutches at the thick ruff of his neck. His doggy smell is warm and familiar.
“Oh, fuck. I missed you, boy, I missed you so much. Sorry for being gone.”
And then there’s a lot of shouting, and Zagreus feels a little overwhelmed. There’s Hypnos’s curly head, and the quick step of his mothers coming up behind him, and Meg’s tight grip on his arms, and Dusa hovering anxiously, and Achilles leaning heavily on his spear, and Thanatos bent over him, looking as though he might weep. It’s a lot.
There’s lost time waiting to wash over him like a tide. He can’t let himself look at it too closely, lest the waters of the Lethe close over him again and fill his lungs, taking everything with them when they spill back out.
The scent of candles and dried blossoms is all about him, familiar and pungent. He’s so glad to be home, for once.
He fends off Cerberus’s enthusiastic licking. “Uh. Hey, guys. Sorry for making you worry. Can I give you all a hug? I know I’m covered in dog slobber, but I’d really like that—”
He sinks into Meg’s fierce embrace and clutches at Than’s cloak wrapped around him, and he laughs, feeling it thick in his throat. Nyx strokes his hair, as though he were a child again. It feels really good.
The river laps at Zagreus’s feet, and he steps out of it onto dry land.