Below is the 3rd Chapter in the sequel to THE RIFT RIDERS. This chapter explains how Charon (The Grim Reaper figure) becomes a living skeleton. If you get a chance, leave some feedback- what do you think?
Mid 14th Century BCE: The Realm of Tartarus
Charon saw the craft trapped beneath the stone ceiling that jutted downward toward the cold underground river. He set down his torch, waded out to the vessel and peeked over the bow. Two corpses were inside, a male and a female dressed extravagantly in gold and jewels, undoubtedly royalty. He scanned the boat for the money purse and the items he had requested; the leather drawstrings of the purse protruded from beneath the male. A black cloak was neatly folded under the female, and the long, wooden scythe lay between them, its metal blade reflecting the moonlight trickling down through the darkness.
Ahh, he thought to himself, no more having to wade out into this horrid river. Already he felt the small water creatures chewing the burned flesh from his submerged legs.
Charon hung on the front of the boat until it cleared the overhang, and then guided it quickly to the river’s edge. Pulling the boat up onto the bank, he unceremoniously dumped the bodies onto the rocky shore. He picked up the torch he had laid on a boulder nearby, then greedily snatched up the purse and looked inside. It was full of coins—a small fortune. If he had retained any skin on his face he would have smiled broadly, but the hungry creatures of Tartarus had stripped his face bare the very first night he had spent there; he hadn’t even noticed—he’d been unconscious—dead actually.
He set the purse down and picked up the cloak. Glancing into the water, he stared at his grisly reflection. It never ceased to amaze him that he was alive. He stared at the skeleton that rippled on the water’s surface. Squatting, he placed the cloak on his lap and leaned down close to the water. Two perfectly preserved eyes stared back from within a charred skull. How was it possible? It did not matter. Soon he would not be alone.
He flipped the corpses onto their backs to have a good look at them. They were neither stiff nor bloated as he expected. He brought the torch close to the woman’s face. She was middle aged—not too bad looking. He carefully pulled her eyelids open. He anticipated the clouded pupils of the dead, but her eyes were clear. He nearly dropped his torch when her pupils suddenly contracted.
Soon they will awaken, and I will have companions! he thought to himself. He was surprised the bodies were recovering from death so quickly.
But, what poor Charon did not know was that these bodies had never actually been dead at all. The couple had ruthlessly governed a small village in southern Greece. They had been put into power by the sons of Cronus, and had abused their subjects to such a degree that they had been poisoned by their own people. The poison had been hemlock, and they had been given a near fatal dose. Their subjects were so happy to be done with them; no one had properly checked the bodies. Assumed to be dead, their bodies had been placed in a small water vessel and brought to the River Helikon for the funeral ceremony as Zeus had instructed.
* * * *
Charon had followed a similar path into this cold, damp hell. Many years before the reign of the Olympian gods, the village of Malathria had prospered in the southeastern foothills of Mt. Olympus by the Aegean Sea. The villagers prayed to Pagan gods of the earth and sun and skies, and all was well until the sacrifices began.
Small groups of villagers began holding secret meetings outside the village, and had begun the practice of human sacrifice. It had begun with the killing of captured prisoners that were the result of a skirmish with a nearby village. The residents of Malathria had prevailed, and had burned the other village to the ground. The battle had been particularly bloody and ruthless. Many of the villagers from Malathria had been tortured and killed during the early stages of the battle, and many of the remaining villagers were consumed by rage, loss, and revenge.
Malathria’s leader was a wise and fair man named Charon. He had ordered that the prisoners from the neighboring village be released after they had sat in prison for nearly a year past the end of the bloody battle. Many of the villagers wanted vengeance and, to that end, the prisoners were secretly taken from the prison and burned alive along the shores of the Aegean Sea.
Charon was furious when he discovered what his people had done. He declared that all would be severely punished. He had his loyal scribes make a list of all who were involved. The scribes did so, sealed the scroll with wax, and delivered it to him. Charon, without breaking the seal, delivered the scroll to his guards and ordered them to imprison all those on the list so that they could be punished. Had Charon looked at the list before delivering it to his guards he would not have ended up in his current situation, for many of his guards themselves were on the list, as well as their wives and friends.
Charon ordered his guards to deliver the guilty villagers to him the following day in the center of the village, where he planned to address them. At midday, Charon’s guards were neatly assembled in the town’s center, surrounded by nearly the entire population of the village. He walked out to meet his guards, and asked, “Where are those to be punished?”
His guards all raised their hands in unison and pointed directly at him. Charon was perplexed. The crowd laughed. He turned to look behind himself, thinking he had perhaps walked past the imprisoned villagers, but he was alone.
“I am afraid it is you who are to be punished today, Charon,” said his head guard.
“For what?” demanded Charon.
“For not avenging the deaths of our dear villagers, who gave their lives for you, Charon. For threatening those who sought only to right what was wrong. For betraying the wishes of the village, Charon, we have decided to let you see what it is like to die for the betterment of your village, as did our soldiers.”
“Are you mad!” screamed Charon. “You murdered those prisoners and burned our sister village and all their innocent families!”
The chants of the crowd drowned out his protests. His guards tied his hands and placed a rope around his neck, then led him out of the village toward the nearby Helikon River.
As they approached the river, Charon noticed a funeral barge had been assembled along its shore. He panicked and tried to run, but the rope round his neck prevented his escape. His guards dragged him to the river’s edge. His legs were then bound, and he was carried to the barge and placed atop the pile of dry twigs and branches that had been piled high on the small barge.
There was nothing he could do now. The crowd had become silent, and as he was laid on his back on the pyre, he stared into the sky above. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining brightly, and wisps of feathery clouds glided overhead. A small fire was burning along the bank a few feet from the barge, and the smell of smoke snapped Charon back to reality. By the gods, they are going to burn me alive!
The head guard pushed the contents of the small fire onto the back of his shield, and two other guards carried it quickly to the barge and dumped its contents into a small opening under the assembled twigs and branches. The small twigs snapped and crackled as they caught fire. Charon found himself crying as he had not since his childhood. The two guards waded out several feet into the river, then pushed the barge ahead of them until the current caught hold and swept the burning pyre and its lone passenger downstream.
Charon remembered the pain of the searing heat as his body was ever so slowly engulfed in flames. He died a slow, painful death that day, and the Helikon River swept his charred remains underground a few miles from the village.
That was many, many years gone by now, and Charon had not seen another human face, save one, in all those years. He had learned to survive in this cold, dark underground world. Nearly all the creatures of this world were sickly white, creatures of the darkness. Charon could not have imagined more hideous creatures if he had tried.
Large reptiles lived here, the likes of which did not exist on earth. Their multiple heads darted this way and that atop long serpentine necks. Enormous wings somehow lifted their considerable girth from the ground and enabled them to fly throughout the nearly lightless caverns. They fed on other large reptiles that lurked in the shadows. Charon had called them drakons, which was a Greek name meaning fierce warriors.
There were large nine-headed reptiles whose necks were so long and flexible that they reminded Charon of snakes. These creatures lurked in the deep underground lakes and rarely ventured from the water. Charon called them hydras, which means water.
To Charon’s great relief, the large creatures had no interest in him. He had only bits of meat on his bones, and no longer reeked of death. Many years later, when the other humans arrived, their horrid stench would fill the caverns. The dead were reanimated in Tartarus, but they were in a continuous state of decomposition, strangely never worsening nor improving.
It was the smaller scavenger creatures that had tormented him—especially the bats. The white bats, with their oversized razor sharp teeth and ridiculous under-bites. When he had first arrived in Tartarus, the bats were attracted to the stench of his seared flesh. During that first horrific night, they had hounded him without reprieve, swooping down, sniffing, and gnawing off the few bits of flesh that he still retained.
* * * *
Charon left the two bodies lying on the rocky shore. He righted the boat and sat down on the chest of the male body.
What other supplies should I request? The torches were his top priority. He hated the darkness; it was always dark. Small streams of light fell into the chasms that pocked this world’s surface during the day cycle; however, the heavy darkness soon diffused the light, and little reached the depths of the caverns in which Charon lived. It was like living at the bottom of a cold, dark well.
Charon used his piece of charcoal to list a few other items. He requested wine, sandals, and a few favorite foods that he had enjoyed when he had been whole. Reaching over the woman, he grabbed his flask of wine, opened his mouth and poured some wine onto his tongue.
Thank the gods I still have my tongue! The wine felt cool and refreshing as it poured over his palette and ran down the vertebra of his neck. Though his chest was pure bone, without skin or organs of any kind, he somehow could achieve a state of drunkenness if enough wine was poured into his mouth and allowed to run down and soak his dry bones. Charon assumed his bones must absorb the wine somehow. How completely strange his life was now…
Eating food was even more bizarre. He would chew the food and savor its flavor with his wonderfully preserved tongue. Bits of food then fell out of his mouth onto the ground, where strange spider-like creatures fought over the leftovers.
Charon was lonely, of course, but he had at least one companion in this icy hell. It had found him that first morning in Tartarus. His burnt body had washed into the shallow waters of the River Styx; he was quite dead. A cloud of the albino bats had settled onto his corpse and picked it clean of whatever flesh remained.
Life slowly returned to Charon’s charred body, and as he became conscious, he realized, to his horror, that he was being eaten alive. He screamed and flailed his arms back and forth above his skeletal torso as a thunderous roar and growl bellowed from nearby.
Charon feared he would be swallowed whole by the howling creature, which was obscured by the white haze of hovering bats. A large, shadowy form jumped and danced above and around him. The bats began screeching crazily, and suddenly they were gone.
He sat up, and a huge three-headed dog sat beside him. Dead bats littered the ground around him, and the dog was bleeding from a multitude of bites and scratches. One head chewed on a captured bat, the other two tilted their heads and whined at him.
He reached out to pet the creature, and it was in that moment that he realized his condition. He shrieked when he saw his skeletal hand from which all flesh had been removed. Charon curled and uncurled his fingers in confusion. His hand contained no muscles or flesh, yet he had complete mobility and function. It made no sense. His hand felt completely normal—there was no pain. He could feel the dog’s soft fur with his skeletal hands.
Charon named the dog Cerberus, or demon in the pit, which he thought appropriate for the beast. The creature became his constant companion until he had traded it for the girl…