by Mark Lawrence
part 1 of 2
After all these years, Jason Konstantinos was finally collecting his just due.
He grinned as he felt the smooth acceleration of his new silver BMW driving up Route 8 into the Litchfield hills on this beautiful spring day. He was on his way to inspect a valuable piece of property his Uncle Apollo had bequeathed him upon passing. The funeral had been yesterday.
Too bad Barbara and Amy aren’t here to enjoy this, he mused. However, that was Barbara’s problem. Just because he had a little recreation with the buxom blonde receptionist at the office, Barbara got all huffy and took Amy back to Maine.
He did miss Amy, though, but he was a lawyer. He would work on that situation when he got back to the city. If Barbara thought that she was going to keep Amy away from him in those potato fields up north, she was sadly mistaken.
Everyone who was anyone in New York City these days had a little place up in the hills for the weekend. Now, he had his.
The town of Litchfield surrounded a rather large Green, tastefully gentrified with quality bookstores, restaurants, antique stores, and, of course, real estate offices.
The largest building fronting the Green was the old Litchfield Jail, a real Victorian style county courthouse and jail, still in use, constructed of solid, native limestone blocks.
A few miles down the winding country road, he saw a faded yellow mailbox on the left, marking the entrance to the dirt driveway. It said ‘Apollo K.’ Jason was home.
* * *
“Holy mackerel!” Jason said, as he pulled into the yard. The place was a junk yard. Uncle Apollo was crazier than he remembered. Apollo had filled the entire yard with bizarre, rusty junk sculpture. Jason saw parts of cars, appliances, farm machinery, pots, cans, and other odds and ends of metal, all welded into strange, wind-driven sculptures and mobiles. They were tinkling, banging, and clonking in the breeze.
It’s going to cost a fortune to get this crap out of here, thought Jason. I hope the house is in better shape.
It wasn’t. From outside, the house appeared to be a neat, timeworn, little colonial. Inside, Apollo had packed it floor-to-ceiling with garbage: piles of newspapers, magazines, empty tin cans, bottles, clothing, boxes, and old food. Narrow passageways wound precariously through the trash, connecting the front door with the living room couch, bathroom, and kitchen. A fetid stink pervaded the entire place.
Jason was about to walk out in disgust when he spotted a hand-printed sign tacked on the cellar door with a downward pointing arrow. It said “SURPRISE,” in hand-printed block letters.
Surprise? This whole damn place is a ‘surprise’. Well, I’ve come all this way. It won’t hurt to look, he thought.
But he had to leave soon. The stink was making him a bit breathless.
The cellar door wasn’t locked but there was no light switch. It was very dark down there. An old-fashioned kerosene lantern hung conveniently on a hook to his right. He lit it and descended the stairs. A tingle shot up Jason’s spine.
* * *
Dark shadows absorbed the light like a sponge. The dirty yellow light from the kerosene lantern cast a dim glow only a few feet around him.
Jason missed the bottom step and fell face-first onto the dirt floor. It knocked the wind out of him. Miraculously, nothing broke, not even the lantern.
Damn it! Now, his new suit was probably ruined. This ‘free’ house was costing more every minute.
Jason glanced up and froze. Unmoving ghosts surrounded him. Once his heart stopped thumping, he discovered people-shaped objects covered with dusty old sheets. He tore off the ragged drapes to see what lay underneath.
They were magnificent statues of pure white marble. From the look of them, they were very old, carved by a true master. It was the whole pantheon of Greek gods, goddesses, warriors, and kings.
Jason knew his Greek mythology. Uncle Apollo made sure that he learned the history and culture of his people as a child. Jason recognized them all.
The translucent marble seemed alive in the flickering yellow glow of the lamp. Gently, he brushed noble Athena’s cheek with his fingertips. Touching it was like caressing human skin. She was truly beautiful.
“Now these are worth a few bucks,” he said. “Things are lookin’ up. But, it’s time to get the heck out of here. Where are those friggin’ stairs? Over here?”
* * *
The cellar was far too large for such a small house. Jason found himself walking down a vaulted, brick tunnel with a dirt floor. He stopped and held up the lantern. The passageway ran off in the distance as far as he could see.
“Nope. This ain’t it,” he mumbled, turned to leave, and smacked right into a solid brick wall. “What the...?” There was no door, no entryway, no cellar, just the end of the tunnel.
How the hell did he get in here? Someone must have closed a door or somethin’, but there was no door. A shiver crept up his spine. This was all wrong; was someone was playing a stupid prank?
“All right, wise guy!” he yelled. “That’s enough! Let me out of here or I’m gonna kick some butt!” Silence, absolute silence, he couldn’t even hear himself breathe.
There was only one direction left to go, down into the tunnel. Grudgingly, Jason wandered into the darkness holding his lantern before him, like Diogenes of Sinope, seeking an honest man.
* * *
“Mommy, can I have a crayon?” six-year old Amy asked.
“Sure, Honey,” said Barbara. “There’s a box in your toy chest. Why?”
“I’m going to draw a picture for Daddy.”
Tears welled up in Barbara’s eyes, “That’s nice, Dear.”
How do you tell a child she might never see her father again? Barbara hadn’t heard from Jason in weeks, not a phone call, letter, card, nothing.
He was too busy making money, for his Russian employers of that import company. Barbara turned away so Amy couldn’t see her tears.
* * *
The passageway was very old. The builders had lined it with reddish, colonial-style brick cemented by crumbly lime and horsehair mortar. It was hundreds of years old, perhaps part of the Underground Railroad or something. There must be a way out.
After walking a hundred yards or so, Jason noticed a feeble whitish light ahead of him. It became stronger as he grew near.
Thank God, he thought. That’s gotta be the exit. This place is creeping me out.
The light didn’t look right. It was a vague and watery sort of glow that, although it was present, really didn’t illuminate anything.
Something was moving between him and it. Dimly outlined in the glow, was the shape of a person. Jason could feel the hair rise on the back of his neck. The silhouette was familiar.
“Uncle Apollo,” Jason said, “is that you?”
“Far’s I know,” responded a jolly chuckle, and the thing started walking toward him.
“You’re dead,” Jason said. “Get away from me!”
Slowly he backed up the tunnel; swinging the lantern threateningly toward this thing that claimed to be his uncle.
“Now, now,” it said. “Is that any way to greet your old uncle... the one who raised you?”
“But, you’re dead!” Jason said.
“Well, I’m standing here, aren’t I?” Apollo said.
He reached out and grabbed Jason’s arm. Apollo’s hand was freezing cold. Jason jerked away. There was a strong, musty odor in the air: dirt, mold, rotted old cloth.
“Look, if I’m dead, I can’t hurt you, can I?” Apollo said.
“If you want to get out of here, follow me. Oh, and by the way, leave your lantern there,” Apollo said, pointing to a rusty iron hook in the wall. “You won’t need it from here on in. I’ll show you the way.”
Reluctantly, Jason hung the lantern on the hook, and followed Apollo down the tunnel.
“Where are we going?” Jason asked.
“To meet yourself,” Apollo replied.
* * *
As Uncle Apollo and Jason walked onward, the tunnel sank deeper and deeper into the earth, gradually widening out until they were in a cavern so large, that Jason couldn’t see the ceiling or the walls.
That same strange, sickly glowing light filled the void, moving like a mist or heavy fog. The light came from everywhere and from nowhere. It concealed rather than revealed.
“Where are we?” Jason whispered.
Uncle Apollo put a finger to his lips, motioned for Jason to follow and to stay close.
An icy chill shot through Jason like a knife. The gently swirling mist had taken on shapes, forms that congealed and dissolved before you were quite sure what you were seeing.
Men, women, and children, were reaching for him, pleading, begging, whispering. Miserable shadows without light or hope formed and faded before his eyes.
“The unburied dead,” Apollo said. “Ignore them. They will eventually dissolve and return to the world of the living. No one cared enough to place at least three handfuls of soil upon them when they died, so they can not cross.”
“Can not cross what?” Jason asked.
Around them, the shadows darkened and a greasy smoke filled the cave. Apollo and Jason stood perfectly still.
Out of this black smoke, slowly emerged seven tattered, rotted creatures. The creatures stood in a line before them, blocking their way. Some of them appeared to be human, with head, arms, and legs, the others - less so. Now Jason knew for certain, that he was in real trouble. He recognized them.
“These are the guardians of the entrance to the Underworld,” said Uncle Apollo. “Their Greek names are: Malakia, Geras, Aphobos, Limos, Thanatos, Agonia, and Hypnos. Have you forgotten your Greek, Jason?”
“N... No...” Jason said, pointing to each in their turn. “Disease... Old Age... Fear... Hunger... Death... Agony... and Sleep.”
Death was but a tattered shadow, wielding a bronze ax. Hunger was a tall, thin man with teeth so rotted, he was unable to eat, every bone visible beneath his skin. Sleep was a veiled woman wafting a stupefying opium perfume, and Agony, a creature slowly burning alive, while being eaten by worms. Jason was terrified speechless.
Uncle Apollo simply laughed. “You do remember. Which one is yours?”
Jason knew that too. He pointed to a patch of featureless gloom, the unknown, the dark, the fear that stalked him his entire life. “Aphobos: Fear,” he said, “that which enfolds all.”
“Yes, Jason,” Uncle Apollo said, nodding in approval. “Now, kill it.”
Kill fear? How does one kill Fear? he wondered.
Jason stared into the vacuous fold - until finally he saw a small frightened child hiding under the blankets up in his Uncle Apollo’s small attic bedroom in Maine.
Why had his parents left him? Didn’t they love him? They said it was because they didn’t have enough money to keep him. Well, if they needed money, he would get lots of it when he grew up, no matter what he had to do to get it. Then they would want him again. But, what if he couldn’t get enough? Would anyone want him ever again?
Jason was stunned. He had forgotten all about that vow. So his fear was about money?
The vision of young Jason dissolved, as the guardians slowly drifted back into the shadows. Jason saw Death beckon to him as he faded into the gloom. For a brief instant, he felt an overwhelming urge to follow, but Uncle Apollo broke the spell.
“Let’s move,” he said. “We’ll be late.”
Jason put his hand to his heart; he felt nothing. Except to speak, he didn’t breathe. His skin was cold as ice. “So I’m dead?”
Uncle Apollo laughed, “Not yet boy, not quite yet. You might survive but, frankly, your chances are rather slim. You didn’t trip at the bottom of the stairs. You had a heart attack and collapsed. However, the Gods are giving you a final opportunity, albeit a small one, to redeem yourself.”
“How? I want to live!”
Uncle Apollo only smiled, “Come now. Don’t be so glum. There’s a lot more to see.”
Just beyond the creatures, Apollo and Jason’s path was blocked again, this time by an endless pool of putrid, oily, black water. A thick, dirty fog slowly drifted and rolled across its surface.
Emerging from the mist, a filthy, knurled, old man poled an ancient wooden skiff toward the shore. Dressed in rags, his stink preceded him.
“Ah, there’s our ride: Charon,” Uncle Apollo said. “Got any change, Jason?”
Wordlessly Jason pulled a couple of quarters out of his pocket. The skiff grounded and they stepped aboard. Uncle Apollo handed Charon the two quarters. Charon pushed off, back into the center of the mist.
Jason tried to dip his hand into the water, but Apollo grabbed him.
“No,” said Uncle Apollo. “This is the river Styx, the river of Unbreakable Oaths. If you touch the water my boy, you may find yourself bound to it.”
Jason numbly stared into the murk. Surrounded by the sickly white fog, it was impossible to tell where they were going, or if they were going anywhere at all.
After an indeterminable period, they passed patches of bog grass and reeds. “Acherusian Lake and the Stygian Marsh,” said Apollo. “All the waters of the Earth, including the waters of this marsh, originate from Tartarus, the lowest abyss beneath the Earth. Plato taught that Tartarus is as distant from the surface of the Earth, as the surface of the Earth is from the sky. He said a dropped anvil would take ten days to fall to the bottom.”
Jason stared into the oily black depths. Was that his fate?
“Ah,” Apollo said, “take heart. We are almost there.”
* * *
Copyright © 2008 by Mark Lawrence