Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Before gathering Phemonoe for her Peklonic journey, I sent a handful of messengers to Maas Taeful so Hasda could prepare for our trip after. I didn’t tell him anything beyond our destination, and that it was business only. No need to worry him about Jade’s situation or set his expectations about seeing her there.
On the way to the High Oracle’s temple, I swung by Thane’s to ask after the spirits of the previous Oracles. He wasn’t in his temple, or in the vicinity of mine, but in a far too self-evident turn of affairs I found him in Azoria’s inner chambers. They were decent, because Thane was sick, but if he hadn’t and I’d forgotten to knock there was a high likelihood they wouldn’t have been. I plowed through the awkwardness and ignored his feeble attempt at giving me the Scythe again to make my request.
The spirits had migrated through the second tunnel to the third. When a soul came to Peklo, it crossed the Xekoili Lake and traveled through Sisiranga–six tunnels–on its way to its eternal resting place. The oldest souls in our pantheon had only reached the fifth, although a few of the lighter ones had raced all the way to the mouth of the sixth.
The fact that the Oracles had only reached the third meant they had clumped together and were traveling in a pack. It wasn’t unusual for a spirit to resist the descent, and some had even returned to previous passages, but very rarely did multi-generational souls band together. At least it would make finding them easier, once we were down there. Bidding Thane health and success on his endeavors, I set out to meet Phemonoe.
She was waiting for me on the steps of her temple. Long hair bound in curling bundles, she wore simple robes and had foregone her jewelry. Not even a simple hoop bracelet or chain necklace adorned her. The only exception was a silver needle, capped by a polished diamond, that pinned her pile of curls off her neck. Bags under her eyes deepened the already dark shade of brown, although her face held its color today.
I met her rueful smile with a confident one. “Ready for the underworld?”
“I must confess a bit of nerves about the whole affair.” She absently tugged at her sleeves and watched a pair of three-legged cyclops cross the road. “It feels strange to enter Peklo with the God of Death before my time.”
Grunting, I took her hand and led her down the stairs. “I’m not the God of Death anymore–”
“Yet,” she said, a glint in her eyes.
“–and even if I were, I wouldn’t keep you there against your will. Peklo is no place for the living.”
“Your ability to instill confidence hasn’t changed a bit,” Phemonoe said, a nervous laugh slipping out.
Putting my back to her, I scowled as I opened my portal.
She reached up and patted my shoulder. “You tried. I appreciate that.”
“How familiar are you with the depths of Peklo?” My portal flared open with surprising ease, the orange line sparking as my fingers traced the air. It opened to a dimly lit beach of russet sand, guttering torches ensconced in the stone. I’d kept the opening far enough away from the lake that its noxious fumes wouldn’t belch out, but I could do nothing about the heat.
“Enough to know that it’s unpleasant,” she said. Her nose wrinkled as the humid air wafted over us. “Will we be going far?”
“Not too far, but still a considerable distance.” Stopping my nose, I pulled Phemonoe after me into the cloying heat. The stench hit us the moment I closed my portal. Even with my sense of smell plugged, the fetor of the underworld tickled my gag reflex. I extended my aura to shelter the High Oracle against the smell as best I could.
Phemonoe held her sleeve over her nose, her eyes watering. “Does that get worse?”
I nodded. “Once we’re past the Xekoili Lake and into the tunnels it will recede, but only slightly. It gets less acidic and more rank the lower we go into Sisiranga, though.”
“Lead the way.” Tears escaped her eyes, and she clamped the other sleeve on top of the first.
We shuffled awkwardly across the sand, not daring to breathe more than the minimum. Open-mouthed didn’t help much, as the odor crept up our throats and invaded our nostrils from the rear. Many bends and a short eternity later, the sand finally found the shallow waters of the lake. Putrid water the color of bile lapped the shore. Where waves crashed, filmy piss-colored bubbles frothed, floating on the surface for long minutes before popping one by one. The jagged walls bowed above us, bending together to form a dome surprisingly free of stalactites. In all my centuries the dangling stone spears had yet to form, despite the omnipresent drops that fell like beads of sweat from its uneven ceiling.
Noses clogged, we plunged into the waters, wet up to our ankles. The lakebed squished underfoot, the dark sand mixing with clay. A few souls appeared and floated along beside us, vague outlines of pale steam. One of the more energetic departed raced ahead, angling for the cavernous mouth on the opposite wall. When it reached the opening, it dissipated as a cacophony of honks heralded its arrival.
A rustle of feathers preceded the appearance of Xinva, the giant four-winged goose that guarded the entrance to Sisiranga and one of the few divine beasts closely associated with our pantheon. Brown feathers traced with white lines covered his wings, while his throat and body were covered in white, downy feathers. A stripe of chocolate feathers coated the back of his neck like armor, and a bulbous black protrusion stuck out above a matching beak. His feet, a loud, bright blue, stood at odds with his somber plumage and surroundings, but seemed fitting for the raucous fowl.
Spreading his double wings, Xinva squawked and snapped at the approaching spirits. They quaked, as all new arrivals did, at the sight and sound of the goose. When they found themselves still intact, despite his snipping and honking, they pulled themselves together and passed through the gateway. With the specters gone, Xinva turned his head sideways and stared at us with one beady eye.
I stood barely to the base of his neck, but I still carried an aura that dwarfed his imposing presence. Even without the display of power, Xinva recognized me and shuffled back, fluttering his wings and chirping. I patted his chest as we passed, earning a contented hoot.
Phemonoe looked over her shoulder several times long after we’d left Xinva far behind.
“Impressive, isn’t he?” My voice rebounded in strange ways off the wet walls. They’d traded their ragged texture for a lumpier one, and the diameter of the tunnel shrank and grew in irregular intervals as we descended. Ambient light, a sickly red hue, filled the tunnels from no visible source.
The Oracle frowned as her next step squelched. “Will we see him again?”
“You don’t like birds?” I glanced down at her.
She gave a nervous laugh. “There was just something…unsettling about him.”
I nodded. “He bars the worst of the spirits from the underworld, and binds the remainder to their journey onwards. But he won’t follow us, so you’ll just have to wait until we leave to get another peek.”
Lips pursed, she gave me a sour look. My joke was appreciated, then. I smiled, and we continued on.
Before we reached the Sisiranga, we traveled down a tunnel that was nearly vertical. A lone lantern hung from the ceiling above, the only visible light source emitting a glow that flirted with orange. Contrasted to the red haze that clung to the craggy surfaces, it was the warmest light in Peklo. Once we finished our spiral down the lumpy stones that passed for stairs, it would be hidden from sight, and none would take its place. In all my centuries, I’d never discovered the source of Peklo’s omnipresent, scarlet glow, and at this point I wasn’t sure I wanted to.
We reached the bottom, Phemonoe slightly dizzy from the winding. A dark opening beckoned us into the first of the tunnels. Feeling the spirit of the Apkalla chill in my bones, I stopped with the Oracle at the threshold.
“I have a brief bit of business to attend to on the way.” I pulled up my sleeves and sloughed off my skin. With the Scythe, I wouldn’t need to shed the pounds to pull the soul from my bones, but for now, my skeletal form would do.
Phemonoe politely ignored my melting flesh.
“Also, don’t pay the Avoso any mind.” I squirmed under my robes and shook them to get the muscle off faster. “They’ll only bother the spirits, but try not to touch them.”
“And they are?” she said.
I gave her a lipless grin. "You’ll see.”