Chapter 3

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PACING THE BANK OF A PLATINUM RIVER, a man crossly muttered to himself from a pair of pale, thin lips. He wore black from head to foot, with what appeared to be a leather cape draping down his back and clasped over his clavicle like the knuckles of two fingers. His pale skin was the hue of a fresh cadaver and his eyes pallid azure. His jet hair, perfectly coifed, framed a mature yet ageless face, both handsome and cruel. Much like his appearance, his presence in the strange land, which was so imposing and desolate, seemed contradictory in the sense that this did not seem a habitable place.

The atmosphere around him was heavy and warm, carrying the smell of burning decay on gusty winds. A low ceiling of purple clouds eclipsed the rock barrier that sealed him inside Jahannam, but the radiance of early evening reached through the distance from some indiscernible source. The flat plain pushed toward a sandstorm cloud. Red dust and scattered rock wended east and west into a bleak horizon. Black to the east and fire to the west. Lightning flashed above and behind. The only structures were a worn wood dock jutting into the water and a boulder shack upon which rested a pointed scrap-wood roof. A gothic lantern swung from one of the brittle piers.

The silver river this man wandered marked the border of the wasteland Sheol and as far as his kind could go without being harassed by lightwalkers. The man toed the water lapping the shore. It  foamed angrily against his boot. He rubbed his palms together and then scanned the far bank. A mist  shrouded the other side from view and the land beyond—the Asfodel Fields—was wreathed in black shadow. Beyond that lay the Avernus, a barrier that kept out the light and the prying eyes of King  Adonai, he who cast their race into the shadows, a place that would eat their very being. Poking from the shadows was the sterling head of a weeping giant, coined the Old Man by some, it was the  guardian Yahweh, ever watchful over the dark dominion. The old seraph had encased himself inside of the statue, which was submerged to its elbows in a wide body of water. The rest of the seraph's prison lay cloaked in the spray of some liquid pouring from the hand-covered eyes. The effect elongated the statue's hair and robes. He recalled an era when the tears trickled and the rivers threatened to dry up. Many starved, for the liquid was suffering and thus life to Jahannam.  Now great suffering poured in from Samsara, thanks to the many gates they'd forged to encourage the flow. Yahweh never fought them. Instead, his tears fed the acrid lands and broad, swollen rivers in his world. The danava would not starve again with such abundance pouring in from their gatekeeper. More than likely the seraph's atman had spent its last centuries ago and was a useless lump sealed inside. That or Yahweh had taken sides with Jahannam.

Whatever the man upon the shore waited to see remained hidden from him in the khajala barrier across the water. He grew impatient for the first signs of his expected delivery. The water lapped the shore more vigorously, suggesting that moment had at last come. He stopped muttering to himself and watched the ripples. Something indeed moved on the water.

"Lethe bring me news," he said.

A ghostly high-bowed skiff slipped from the khajala. The gleaming stem of the ominous vessel branched from the water like the elegant scroll of a violin. A crust of mineral circled the sides at the waterline. When the vessel drew closer, the structure was revealed to be composed of the twined bodies of souls in varying states of death. Their putrefying skins were dry and stretched tight on their bones despite the water. The forms writhed to break free, but were lost in the crippling stupor that  enslaved them. The stem was also a corpse lashed into a gruesome figurehead, no doubt with an equally gruesome history. The ship's captain, Kharon, was an esthete collector of souls.

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