The hollow-eyed priestess led Calamachus to a deep cleft in a rocky outcropping three stadia away from the temple. No altar or statue denoted the unremarkable opening to the underworld. A stack of crude torches and a paltry fire-pit were the only indication that people came there at all. The wind was still and Calamachus, though battle-hardened, shifted uncomfortably in the silence. They said the priestess did not eat, that she lived on wine and visions from the Gods. The silent woman did indeed seem to peer into his soul but she needed no magic to divine the grief of the man in front of her. Calamachus was pale, eyes rimmed in red — broken.
Just ten days before, he stood with his sacred troop of warriors covered in sweat overlooking a battlefield littered with Spartans. The iron reek of their enemy’s blood was a testament to the prowess of Thebes. Celebration was wine-gloried and robust. Ecthion was by his side, their hands clasped, breath hot and quick, their rough bedding a place of complete union. Neither of them gave any thought to a slash on boy’s foot — the perils of battle. But the Fates wove their web of illness around Ecthion until they strangled his life and Calamachus’ heart along with it. He could not accept it. He would not accept it.
He would face death and bring Ecthion back from that dark country.
With trembling hands and a clenched jaw, Calamachus offered the priestess a flask of wine in the purse that dangled from his belt. She shook her head, bowed graciously and retreated toward her hut. He was alone on the grim mountainside. His sandals creaked. His tunic, though light and simple, felt smothering. Calamachus took a deep breath, plucked a small torch from the meager pile nearby, lit it and then squeezed into the rough slash of the cave’s opening. He was greeted with a cool shot of fetid air from the decomposing bodies of sacrificed boars, chickens and lambs. His eyes watered from the stench as he limped down the uneven path and into the earth.
There was a scuttling sound, quick and sinister and Calamachus gripped the short sword strapped to his waist. The beetle was larger than he could have imagined. A stray piece of rotting flesh dangled from its clicking pincers as it rushed towards him. He parried and the monster missed its target, giving the Theban time to counter and drive his blade through the soft flesh below its truncated neck. A black puddle formed on the ground as the beetle struggled fruitlessly for its ugly life. Calamachus sheathed his sword and spat, thanking Athena for his victory — a good omen.
He pressed on, meter after meter, his skin thrashed by unexpected corners while the echoing of his footfalls pursued him like a phantom hunter. Above, clusters of shuddering bats clung to the rock and waited for nightfall.
Calamachus arrived at a thick river where Charon, the ferryman of the dead, stared at him from under a hood. He steadied himself and approached the grinning skeleton with lightless eyes, a gold coin at the ready. Charon’s frigid, gray hand snatched the coin and flung it contemptuously into the depths; he would accept no payment from a living man. He pointed Calamachus toward a decrepit raft moored nearby. He would have to cross the River Styx himself.
The current was unforgiving and Calamachus battled to prevent being swept far downstream by the surging, serpent-infested water. He arrived at the foggy, far shore winded but grateful to be one step closer. He braced himself and bravely plunged into the mist, thinking of his vows. Their vows.
He and Ecthion were bonded on the boy’s 20th birthday by the glow of firelight at the temple of Iolaus. They had been growing in affection for a year and in the strange closeness of training for war, found themselves holding the other’s gaze for long moments. Now, two years later, with blood and love between them, Calamachus stood on the knife’s edge of glory and grief.
The mist thinned but it failed to prevent him from tripping over a massive pile of fur — one of the four paws of Cerberus, the three-headed dog that stood between the worlds of the living and the dead. Calamachus quivered as the fog retreated, revealing a grizzled, fanged beast of extraordinary proportions, its golden eyes alight with anger. The warrior slowly reached for the traditional offering, a honey cake he had kept in his pouch for this very moment — but he never presented it. Cerberus, enraged at the weakened but still living man before him, issued a growl that shook the earth and hurled himself toward his prey. Calamachus stumbled but managed to slash the foreleg of the beast as it lunged toward him. It was a useless wound; unfazed, Cerberus had pinned him to the ground. All Calamachus could see were teeth and all he could feel was shame. He had failed.
He was sure the warmth on his neck was a torrent of his own blood mingled with the hot, menacing breath of the monster but when he opened his eyes, Calamachus saw the sun. He was standing in field of poppies that stretched toward the horizon, their bright, red petals nodding in the breeze. A hand on his back made him swivel, his fear still piqued. In front of him though, stood Ecthion, his tumbling curls and bright smile lit with a radiance that exceeded even his lover’s glorified memory. Ecthion was warm to the touch, his presence a balm for the senses.
“We are not shadows?” Calamachus wondered aloud.
“Mortal life is the true shadow, “ Ecthion said. “And you are a ghost no more.”
The smell of flowers, the hum of honeybees, the touch of understanding skin: perfection in fact, not theory. Eternity lay before them, the cruel losses and vicious desires of men lay behind — the nectar of the gods made manifest. They kissed.
Kevin Thomas Conroy is an aspiring writer living in Los Angeles. By day, he sells antiques and fine art. By night, he thinks about things that make him shiver then writes them down.