On a lonely day on the river, a soul awaited me by the bank. The mists were high, and I saw no others as I angled my craft through the water to the shore.
The seeker entered the river. The hood of their cloak obscured their face. Water crested over their boots and wet their hem.
I reached out a hand. The seeker caught it, and I used my pole as a counterbalance as I hefted them into my boat. Mortals view me as a wizened old man. This is a form only, and my strength is more than enough to bring my passengers in.
“Obliged,” said the seeker in a muted voice. They produced their obol and passed it to me.
I took it up and placed it into an inner fold of my robes. Then I gripped my pole and leaned into it, using my weight to push us off.
My craft pulled achingly away from the banks as if meaning to keep us there. As the current was just about to catch us, I caught notice of a dusty residue on my fingers.
In the millennia I have performed my role, I have seen every currency imaginable. Faded and cheap or crisp and weighty; coin no longer used by the time the seeker passed or coin as commonplace as river stones. Some placed jewels on their tongues, thinking the larger the offering, the kinder the shore. But in their faces I saw all their lives, and knew exactly where they were meant to spend their eternities.
But today, lulled by the current or perhaps the untold years of routine, I had not even looked at the seeker’s obol before accepting it.
My fingers darted back into my robes and fished out the obol. It was a small chunk of barley bread, hardened after days uneaten. I looked up as the seeker did, and our eyes met. As my face tightened, theirs folded into a look of almost-hauteur.
“Well, I tried,” the seeker said.
I drove my pole into the mud, arresting our motion. The seeker threw out their hands against the rocking of the boat.
I admit I was used to more begging. When they said no more, I lunged forward and latched onto the seeker’s arm. I tossed them bodily into the water and felt a glimmer of satisfaction when the seeker cursed and sputtered.
“Was that necessary? My cloak—!”
I anchored my boat and leapt to the bank as the seeker sloshed through the muck onto dry ground.
“Oh,” they said. “I thought you couldn’t leave the boat…”
I straightened, and their eyes went wide. Over a head taller than any seeker on the misty bank, even in the body of an old man I struck fear into the hearts of wise souls.
Unfortunately, I was not standing in front of one.
“Look…” The seeker spread their hands, and finally I identified their disposition. They were unrepentant. Not defensive, not mournful, not desperate. Desperation I saw every day. Those without loved ones, with no one to place the obol in their mouth, knew their fates were sealed. And yet they begged. This seeker had no intention of doing so.
I interrupted them. “This—” I held up the hunk of bone-dry bread, “—is not sufficient fare.”
“And I know that. But you see, I didn’t have anything else and—”
I walked away. Seekers without the fare spend 100 years on the banks. We had nothing more to say to each other.
Or so I thought. But the next day, the seeker waited to board with three other souls.
On the banks, there is but scarce difference between night and day. All is shrouded in mist, and trapped souls must exist in this twilight on the slim strip of land between the river and the cavern wall. Newly arrived seekers huddled together near the single wooden post that marked the pickup point, their shoulders hunched against the mist, protecting their obols.
Despite the dim light, I knew the seeker immediately.
“No,” I said before they could open their mouth.
“I haven’t said anything!” The seeker protested.
I gave them a skeptical look.
This was no hindrance to the seeker. “I know what the rules are, sir, but have you ever thought—”
I boarded my craft and pushed off from the bank as the seeker continued to speak. “—of bending them? There must be some sort of solution—”
The next day, they took a new tack. “You’ll find it was a mistake, sir. You see, my mother meant to place the coin, but a graverobber came shortly thereafter. I saw it all from a ghostly space, too incorporeal to do anything to assist my mother as she fought the dastardly—”
Their voice faded as the boat met the current.
And the next day: “Perhaps I could work for my keep, sir. Pray you rest your weary limbs while I take up the pole myself—”
And the next: “Fancy a wager? We could bet on it. I myself was well known as a card dealer, and would be happy to show you the basic rules of Pitch and Toss—”
And the next: “Is bread not a noble offering, sir? Do our bakers not toil to produce the best? I offer you a piece made of the finest my humble city has to offer—”
Usually, I kept order on the banks with the subtlety of a hammer. Most souls only needed one reminder to adhere to the rules. But this seeker danced out of range on light steps before darting back in for another attempt. Odd as our exchanges were, it was rare for me to have any form of exchange at all, and certainly nothing so upbeat.
I turned away again, but against my will, the corner of my mouth tipped up in a smile.
In the evening, I stowed my boat and returned to my abode. My home was built into the stone of the cavern wall. A little window faced the banks of the river, but overall my abode had a cave-like quality to it. This mattered little to me. I was used to the semi-darkness of the banks.
I had been to the Upper World before and found no enticement there. This home had all I needed: a warm fire to keep out the damp, a pallet to rest on, a store of nourishing food. I did not know why the seekers thought so often of the Upper World. Needs were softer here, less tangible. With time, one did not feel the pangs of hunger as strongly, nor the pain of injury.
And I had my collection. My abode extended back from the main rooms, where a heavy iron door opened into a storage tunnel lined with cases. Within each of these cases lay hundreds of obols in padded rows. All had been cleaned, catalogued, and stored by me. Thousands of years of tolls paid to me for my labor.
I brought out the day’s offerings and began my work. I washed and dried them, sometimes using a pick to clean dirt from the ridges. I weighed and sized the coins, noting their details in thin lines in one of my notebooks. The oil lamp kept a steady light while I used a magnifying glass to examine the coins for fine details and faded faces of rulers and gods. Each was a record of the world beyond, and I glimpsed slivers of it through these tokens. More than a payment, they were a record of a world both intimately close and yet eons distant from me. It pleased me to tidy the mess of humanity into order.
When I was done, I opened a case and placed the coins gently inside, next to those from the day before.
Sometimes, if I had the time, I would unlock the storage tunnel and take down a case from generations previous. I found the corresponding notebook pages as well. I checked for damage or wear, of course, but I also just liked to look. In this way I saw a continuum. Obols gleamed in the light, their form changing from year to year, decade to decade. I wondered what would come next.
The next day, a fight broke out as I helped a line of souls into my craft. Two seekers began to shout. An obol fell to the ground and they lunged for it. I propped my pole against my craft and strode to them. Tearing them apart, I looked in their faces. But neither was the irrepressible seeker. I dropped the two and whirled about.
Sure enough, my boat had been discharged from the shore and was drifting away, helped by none other than the seeker who’d plagued me these last days.
I narrowed my eyes. In the next instant, I stood on the boat. The souls aboard gasped and recoiled, and even the seeker drew back in sudden alarm.
“How did you—”
Their next words were lost as I flung them, again, from my vessel.
By the time they dragged their cold, wet body to the shore, I was already there. Vibrating with anger, I grabbed the front of their cloak and lifted. Their feet left the ground. Their hood dropped back. They scrabbled at the clasp as the neck tightened around them.
The pale light fell on their face. Their left eye was newly blackened, and a cut covered in dried blood ran above that same eye. Had it happened when I threw them? No, the bruise would not have formed so quickly. And now that I looked more closely, I realized this cloak was not the same one as the day before. It was thinner and more worn, and had easily soaked through.
I set the seeker down. “What happened to you?”
The seeker’s face changed, becoming closed and mulish for the first time. “My bad luck follows me even after death, it seems.”
The banks were no easy place to spend one hundred years. Between the mists, desperate gangs roamed. They took what they wanted, seeking the cold comforts of material possessions. Though they did not eat, seekers still felt the echoes of other mortal needs. They fought amongst each other for weapons or clothing, or even territory. Detritus from the river, items they’d managed to carry from the Upper World—nothing was too small to feud over. I ignored these squabbles. Eventually, each soul’s edges smoothed like a rock under the pressure of time.
The seeker was new to the banks, and yet I had seen their whole life’s story when I first looked into their face. They were no stranger to sleeping with one eye open.
“You must better protect yourself here,” I said. The words felt inane even as I spoke them. Why was I assisting a seeker? I was merely their ferryman, whose only role was to take their payment , not become involved in the petty disputes of those who could not afford my services. Familiar as this seeker’s face had become, their existence was not my responsibility.
The seeker gave me a look that confirmed I’d been little help. “Just need a friend or two to watch my back, is all. Everyone here’s a little flighty. Don’t worry about me. I don’t seem to feel hungry much anymore, so there’s no need for all my teeth now anyway.”
“You will heal,” I said. “Faster than you would have in the Upper World.”
We stood in silence.
“You will adjust, seeker.”
When the seeker spoke, they did so grudgingly. “My name is Achem.”
“You have no name here, seeker,” I said as I turned. “Everything you were is gone.”
They spoke to my back: “And yet the pain feels all the same.”
In the morning, the seeker leaned against the prow of my upturned vessel where it was stowed on the shore.
“So, this is where you go at night.”
Their voice had returned to its usual bright tenor. Their bruise had lightened already. Seekers did not often find my abode. It was far from the populated areas of the banks. That, and most souls preferred to give me a wide berth. But given this particular seeker’s resourcefulness, I was not surprised to see them here.
“What is today’s ploy?” I asked guardedly.
The seeker chuckled. “I thought I might rest a day. I can afford to take a day off if I’m going to be here one hundred years.”
The morning was light, and the mist had cleared somewhat. The day felt almost fresh, despite the mugginess brought by the river and the looming cavern walls, and the fact that the sun never shone here.
“What happens if your boat is damaged?”
“Or stolen?” I asked with some indulgence. Maddening as Achem was, their resourcefulness had begun to charm. The seeker flashed an unrepentant smile. “I have the means to fix it, in my abode.”
“You manage all yourself?”
Taking the sides of my boat, I turned the whole thing over so it sat right side up. Before I could make to push it into the water, the seeker began brushing off sand and mud from the edges. Though my vessel was a sacred thing, I confess to never having cleaned it. It was much the worse for wear.
The seeker completed their task as best they could, and then helped me push my craft into the water.
They clapped their hands in satisfaction. “When you return, I can spend more time on it. I bet we could make it look much better.”
I frowned at their attentions. I did not think I had done anything to deserve them. But I did not refuse the help. I left them and poled down the river, to the path from the Upper World and my new arrivals.
Almost every day, some souls came whose one hundred years had concluded. They were free to mount the ferry to their final destination.
On this day, two were there. I recognized them without effort. They had not aged, of course. But they were hollowed. Their personalities had become worn and thin. These shades no longer fought amongst themselves. They felt nothing, not the cold, not the pain. Their mouths and hands twitched and grasped, seeking unknown succor.
I let them mount first, so they would know their place was guaranteed.
When I looked into their faces, I saw nothing left.
After the day had ended, I returned upstream to my abode. On the banks, souls who had arrived late begged to be ferried away, but I ignored them.
I dragged my craft to the shore. The seeker, Achem, appeared almost at my elbow. They bounced on their heels with an exuberance I had come to expect from them, no matter the task.
“Do you have cleaning supplies?” Achem asked.
I collected some tools from my abode while Achem inspected the boat. They gave me an arch look when I produced a bucket containing a random collection of rusted and disused boating implements.
I was surprised to feel a sheepish flash of emotion. “I may have more inside.”
Achem followed me back to my abode this time. They lingered at the threshold while I went to my desk, where I kept the tools I used to clean my obols.
“What is that for?” Achem asked curiously.
I explained as I rifled through my things. “My work station. Where I care for and sort my collection.”
Realization dawned on Achem’s face. “Your collection. Every obol is here?”
“Of course.” I gestured at the iron door that led to the storage tunnel. “Where else would they be?”
“So this whole time… you’ve just had a collection of riches in there? You must have millions of obols.”
I moved the case I’d been working on the night before and grabbed the stack of rags behind it. “I suppose.”
“Are they protected? By magic or other powers?” Achem asked.
“Yes,” I responded. “Me.”
Chuckling, Achem accepted the new tools as I ushered them out and closed the door behind us.
They checked each item fastidiously, then selected two scrapers. “I’ll take the left, you can start on the right.”
Bemused, I obeyed the instructions.
“You have no experience with boats,” I said as we toiled. It was not a question; I knew the broad details of their life in the Upper World. And yet, they worked with confident strokes across my craft.
Achem shrugged. “It’s the same as cleaning anything else. And meditative, don’t you think?”
I agreed. I had begun to realize the task was similar to the care of my obols, and was surprised to learn Achem felt the same sense of peaceful purpose.
“Do you know everything about me?” Achem asked after a time. “The others say you can see our lives.”
“I know it from the moment I see your faces.”
“And you remember everything? Everyone?”
I nodded. This was a lie on my part. I remembered everyone, that was true. But while I could see their lives, the details were not clear, not in the way the seekers assumed. I grasped impressions and fleeting scenes, much in the same way their memories were constructed.
And while I knew where on the far shore to deposit the souls, it was not I who made the judgment. Their actions while alive sealed their fates. I simply delivered them to their destinations.
After some time, Achem cleared their throat. “You didn’t see Joa pass through, did you?”
The moment the name was said, a seeker’s face rose to my mind. Their history played before me, but this time a familiar face appeared in some scenes—Achem, full of life.
“He’s… he’s not on the banks, is he?”
I shook my head. “They paid their fare and I ferried them across.”
Achem sighed, their shoulders dropping. “Well… good.”
“You are not pleased.”
“I… am. I mean, he vanished, you know? I never saw him again. But I had hoped… I had some sort of dream. That he’d gotten out. And was living an idyllic life. Maybe as a farmer.” Achem laughed harshly. “That was stupid, I see now.”
They grieved, but I did not see why. “All of that is gone now. None of it matters anymore.”
Achem was silent for a moment. “That isn’t quite true yet.”
We worked together in contemplative silence, first scraping, then waxing using wax found in a forgotten corner of my storage room, then cleaning out the interior with broom and cloth. Achem did not tire until the job was done. Finally, they sat back and spread their hands. I could only assume they were pleased with the job, even though no amount of care could disguise the vessel’s advanced age.
I had been lulled into a calm as the evening pressed on and the shadows deepened, but now I wondered if Achem would expect something for this work.
My worry was short-lived. Achem returned the tools to the bucket and declared the boat had probably never looked better. “Until tomorrow,” they said with a wave of a hand.
This time, I was left behind, while Achem went on to a mysterious destination.
I spent the next day on the river with a full boat. It pleased me to see it renewed by Achem’s attentions. The seekers did not seem to notice.
Once ashore, I went directly up the bank to my abode. With all the attention given to the boat, I had not had the time the day before to finish attending to my obols, and I was eager to begin again.
I paused on the threshold. The air had been disturbed.
One long step, and I crossed to the storage tunnel. The door was locked, as always. Turning, I looked next to the corner where my work table stood.
Sure enough, my tools were scattered and my notebooks toppled. Some were flung open and discarded to the ground. Several obols had bounced and rolled across the tabletop.
I stood immobilized beside the destruction, rage choking my throat.
The case I’d left on my table was gone, along with the rows and rows of obols it contained.
And I knew just who had taken it.
Dusk had fallen, not with the setting of a sun but with a thickening of the dark. The banks kept a dim light that glowed from who knew where, and so I found Achem easily enough. They were seated with their back to a shelf of rock, legs stretched out. They examined a cloak in their lap.
At the sound of my approach, they looked up.
“Ah, you’re back. Look, I retrieved my cloak. Never let it be said I’m not resourceful—”
“Give it back.”
Achem’s dark brows drew together. “Sorry? The cloak?”
I rose to my full height, so that I clouded the area around us. My shadow darkened this nothing corner and enveloped us. I made for Achem’s throat, but this time they were faster.
They sprang from my reach. “Wait, now, wait! What’s happened?”
“You know what happened. You spent all evening yesterday at my abode. Now I find a case is missing.”
“What case?” Achem asked, now with the gall to sound exasperated.
“A case from my collection of obols. Someone has taken it.”
“I didn’t!” they protested.
I detected no falsehood in Achem’s voice, but they did not speak with their usual confidence. A thread of guilt ran through their words.
I blinked from one space into existence in the next, so quickly Achem had no chance to escape. I slammed them into the stone wall and pinned them there by the neck. Achem’s fingers pried at mine to no avail.
“Where is it?” My voice boomed.
This at last ended Achem’s resistance. They made a noise of surrender.
I dropped them.
Achem crumpled to the ground, their legs giving out.
“Where is it?” I asked again.
Hand pressed to their throat, Achem managed. “I’m not sure. I did not take it. I only mentioned—” Achem winced with the strain of speaking through a bruised neck. “—they were saying you kept everything locked up behind an iron door. I just told one of them… I said it was possible the work station would have a half-full case on it. Enough riches for one person…”
“Why did you not go yourself?” I demanded. But I realized the trick now. Achem had hoped I would not be able to read any guilt in them, if they sent a proxy. “You sought to avoid blame.”
Achem nodded stiffly. “She was desperate enough. It did not take much urging. I did not know she’d taken it already. She was supposed to come to me first. I only wanted one obol, as a payment for my tip.”
“First?” I said. “Where are they going?”
A grim smile livened their pallid features. Then, they pointed upwards. “Where else is there to go?”
“The Upper World? Don’t be ridiculous. What are they thinking, to go gambling one last time?”
A preposterous idea. While it was possible for a determined soul to make their way back up the path, the risk was great and the reward small. Even if they could find the way back to their homeland, upon reaching it they would realize how distant they had become from the living. They could not exist there for long, and eventually death would pull them back to the river.
Achem shrugged. Their voice rasped but was recovering. “Up there’s the only option that makes any sense. What were they hoping to purchase down here? I’ve noticed a distinct lack of pottery…”
They would not be able to purchase anything in the Upper World either, not as incorporeal beings. But to a frightened soul, it would be the most logical option.
I straightened. Much as I wanted to punish Achem now, I could not afford to delay. “Stay here. I will return to deal with you.”
“Hey, wait!” Achem, predictably, hustled to follow. “Are you sending hellhounds to drag them back?”
“No,” I answered. A storm of anger still surged through my voice. “For this, I will go myself.”
Achem followed like a puppy as I retrieved my pole and made for the path. I made no attempt to prevent them. Let them see the result of their poor choices.
The path was hardly a path at all, at first glance. Just a break in the cavern wall that could be mistaken for a cleft of rock. It was easy for the seekers to forget they had walked down here, and of their own volition. But if one followed the edge, the break became a gap. And then, in the space of a blink, we were on the path.
Achem whirled around, but the mists had closed in, and neither the banks nor the walls nor the river were visible any longer. That said, though we saw no other features, the path itself left no other option but forward. We walked its white curves and switchbacks side by side. I used the pole as a staff. My beard, white as the mist around us, swayed with each step.
We passed some others, seekers on their way down to the river. In their dreamlike state, they did not pay us any mind. Death washed the expressions from their faces and the individuality from their bodies. Most newly-deceased souls were docile. The path acted almost like a river itself, sweeping them downstream.
Some, of course, fought the current. Even those who arrived with obols wanted to return to the sunlit worlds, not realizing nothing waited for them there anymore. I rarely pursued these obstinate few. Eventually, they accepted the inevitable.
I charged along as fast as the path would allow. My thoughts raced on ahead of my feet. What if the thief had dropped the case? What if my obols had scattered irretrievably? My fingers tightened on my staff, knuckles whitening.
I wasn’t sure yet how I would punish Achem and the other soul, but I had no doubt the answer would come to me. First though, I needed to secure my obols.
“Can I—” Achem attempted to speak once.
I rebuffed them with a glare, and their lips sealed shut. After that, they were occupied keeping up with me.
The path ended.
We came out into the Upper World on a cliffside. The sun blazed above us, warming the tan rocks and green shrubs. A warm breeze blew strongly from the sea—and what a view of it we had. From this vantage, the crystalline water stretched deep into the horizon, turning from a vibrant shade of turquoise to a jewel blue.
Achem laughed and turned their face to the sun. Their cloak slipped from their shoulders as they spread their arms. The sun brought out the warmth in their skin, and they almost looked like one of the living.
The thief, however, stuck out from the land in a swatch of darkness. They crouched a few yards away from us. Their clothing was ripped and faded, their hair wild, their eyes equally frantic. They seemed to have been stunned still by the reality of the Upper World and had not made it far from the path. In their grasping fingers, they clutched my case.
They did not try to run, and regardless, I was beside them in a moment.
“Thief,” I said.
The seeker quailed. Their fingers loosed on the case and it landed in the dust.
“It was Achem’s idea—!” the thief began their weak defense, but I interrupted.
“I do not need your guidance or your excuses!” Anger at the transgression still raged through me. I laid down the sentence that had taken form throughout our walk up. “You will not spend a hundred years on the shore,” I intoned. “You will spend a thousand. Your body will fade and your mind with it, until you are as insubstantial as the mist. But first, I will tear you limb from limb.”
I bore down, reaching for the mortal’s throat.
I had forgotten about Achem. I ignored them and felt the satisfaction of my fingernails piercing the skin of the thief’s neck.
“Charon, don’t!” Achem shoved me back, sending the thief sprawling while I staggered. I was twice their height now and the assault did not affect me greatly, but my eyes narrowed.
“Move aside, Achem.”
“No! It’s my fault. Do not punish this person.”
“I’ll punish a thief in any way I see fit. Move aside!”
With this, I pushed them away. Achem stumbled as I passed by, reaching for the thief once more. I thought Achem would attack me again, but a moment too late I saw their arm flash downward, and then they had seized the case.
I lunged, but they skittered out of the way—right to the cliff’s edge.
“No!” I cried, unnecessarily. Achem had stopped at the edge. The sun glittered on the waves far below.
“Do you really want a thief wandering your shores for a thousand years? Is that the only solution you can think of?”
“I have nothing to fear from a seeker,” I snapped, my eyes never leaving my case. If they let their guard down for even a second, I would be on them.
“It would never have worked,” Achem went on. “We cannot stay up here. She would have returned below. And I… it was my idea. Not hers.”
“Come to your point.”
“Show mercy. Let her cross the river.”
I scoffed. “Let a thief cross the river? And one with no fare?”
Achem’s gaze grew steely, and their countenance more serious than I’d ever seen before.
“Show mercy, or I throw this into the ocean.” They hefted the case.
I snarled, “I have reached the end of my patience. Bring me my case. Bring what is owed to me!”
But my threat was empty. If they threw it, I would never be able to reclaim my lost treasures. Even if the case did not open and scatter its contents, the ocean would take it, and I could not leave my post for the years it would take to search. I tried a new approach. “The moment you step away from the cliff, I’ll take it from you.”
Achem shrugged. “Then I’ll sit here while you deliver her.” They inclined their head at the thief, who’d had the intelligence not to speak again.
I sighed. “I will only say I have done it, and you will have no proof.”
“I know,” said Achem, still in that voice of steel. “Which is why you must swear you’ll do it. Swear on the Styx.”
A wave of helpless fury flooded me. Such an oath would bind me blood and bone to my task. But there was nothing I could do. I cared more about my case than my revenge. Through gritted teeth, I said, “I swear.”
The thief shook with fear as we walked the path. Perhaps they did not know I had never hurt a passenger, even when I was not oath-bound. A seeker without payment might meet my wrath, but a soul with passage booked fell under my protection. My charges were safe in my hands.
That said, I made no effort to allay their fears. My thoughts stewed on Achem. I hadn’t thought I’d ever see them the way they looked on the cliff. So different from the smiling person who’d cleaned my boat. Their eyes had been wild with that familiar emotion: desperation. I’d been shocked to see it there, in someone who had acted so collected in the time I’d known them.
As we boarded the boat, I helped the thief as I’d helped all others in the millennia I’d done this work. Finally looking into their face, the arc of their life unfolded before me.
I’d expected to see desperation, but instead saw only a normal life. Their only sadness had been to die alone, with no one to place the obol. I did not like the thought that my world, the banks of the river, had changed them so utterly. How had they gone from the person I saw in their past life, to the faded soul now in front of me?
When I returned to collect Achem, they sat facing the ocean, watching the setting sun gild the waves.
“Now,” I said, feeling no more indulgence.
Achem stood, straightened their shoulders, and handed my case to me. I breathed a sigh of relief.
They took one last lingering look at the sea and sky. Then we descended the path.
When we reached the banks, Achem had not softened. Nor had I.
“You will remain on the banks for a thousand years,” I finally said, though the words came out flat and tired.
When Achem’s face turned to mine, their mouth was set in a bitter twist. Seeing the lack of remorse there, my anger resurfaced.
“What right have you to resentment?” I snapped.
“I am sorry,” they said.
My jaw clamped shut in surprise.
Achem continued stiffly, “I did not come to your abode meaning to find a way to rob you. It was… opportunistic, not nefarious. Hopefully you can understand why I had to try.”
In their face, I saw grim acceptance, rather than the emotional contrition I had hoped for. My response was sharp. “You had to steal from me?”
Achem sighed deeply. In the slope of their shoulders, I saw I had made the wrong response. But what could I have said? Surely they had not expected me to forgive them, not after such an apology. I saw no justification for what they’d done. Was it my fault no one had placed the obol for them?
But before I could begin to correct Achem as to the error of their thinking, they turned their back on me and walked away.
Days passed. I did not see Achem. I spent my evenings in my abode. But my new obols piled up, and I had lost my taste for cataloguing. A strange feeling clung like spiderwebs to my psyche. I kept seeing Achem turning away from me. Kept feeling their disappointment.
I had to admit my own fault in the matter. Was it truly because of Achem that I had been too tired to properly store my obols? Or was it part of a trend? My own weariness—no, my apathy, increasing over the years—had caused me to slip.
I had thought all seekers to be desperate, grasping people. But the thief had not been that way in life. The banks of the river had made them that way. My river.
What would it make of Achem?
For some reason, I couldn’t help but think of Joa. I could see the years of their friendship playing out across their lives. Before, my ability to see seekers’ lives had felt like knowledge. I saw a few moments and thought I knew enough to cast judgment. But I had never asked how these moments strung together, or how each was a step toward change or growth. I had been incurious about the fullness of their lives.
Achem’s actions had felt like betrayal to me because I had some illusion about our connection. But it was not their falsehood that had ruptured the bond. I had always been in a position of great power over their fate. I knew this, but the fact of it was so unexceptional to me I had not examined it. After all, I was only the ferryman. I had always thought seekers made their own choices, and the gods decided the rest.
Achem had faced 100 years of suffering. Small wonder they had sold out our burgeoning relationship for the chance at escape. Could I really lay the blame on the banks, the river, or the other souls?
I had made Achem desperate. And I did not like the way that realization sat with me. It meant I had made others desperate. It meant others had suffered unduly because of my apathy.
I traced memories, searching for an answer to my troubled mind. All I knew was that something must be made right.
In the end, I searched my shelves for the right case, and took out a cheap iron obol.
Achem sat wrapped in their cloak. They seemed to have acquired a knife as well. They had built a small fire in an alcove. With the wall on one side and the mists obscuring anyone else from sight, they had achieved a homey, intimate feel.
Sensing I might receive no invitation, I stepped up to the fire without one.
Achem grumbled at my presence, but without the malice they’d displayed at the clifftop.
I passed them the little coin. Surprise flitted across their face.
“You mean me to have this?”
I inclined my head. “It was Joa’s obol.”
Now Achem was truly shocked. They sat forward to examine the obol by the firelight.
“They are all valuable to me, you know. I care not whether they are gold or iron. All are precious.”
Their fingers closed around it. “You are giving it to me?”
Achem bowed their head. Their eyes squeezed shut as emotion swept them. I waited for the shudders to pass.
When Achem lifted their head, I said, “I’d like to hear about Joa, in your own words.”
Achem’s thumb rubbed against the obol. “Why?”
“You are a person who can always find friends,” I explained. “You must have had many. Why ask after this one?”
After a long pause, Achem said, “I liked who I was when I was with him.”
“A rare gift,” I said.
They spoke no more, and I chose not to press. I allowed Achem to spend a few minutes lost in their memories.
They changed the subject. “I want to stay and help the others on the bank.”
Regretful, I shook my head. “You will lose yourself, seeker. Become a shade. You cannot help anyone that way. All must board my craft eventually. This is your time.”
Achem leaned back against the cave wall. Firelight played over their features while they turned the obol over in their fingers.
“Why did you change your mind about me?” they asked.
I shifted my stance, and answered slowly. My thoughts were still swirling, unsettled, in my mind. “I thought there was a way of things. But now I see only a pattern of suffering, and myself just a link in a chain. I may yet break my own link.”
For once Achem had no comment.
“Come when you are ready.”
Some grow so used to the cold, hard existence on the banks they forget peace awaits them. Achem, who had felt the sun so recently, was not one. It took only a few days for them to arrive at my craft. Silently, I helped them in.
As we crossed, the gentle rocking of the boat cleansed the souls within. Soon the bank was shrouded by mist, and those aboard all but forgot the suffering they had experienced there. Achem’s gaze met mine one last time as the sky lightened with new promise. Then their eyes turned toward the farther shore.