The Game of God: Day 158 - part 3
— Day 158, continued —
Castiel paces the endless length of a room that continues forever, the clean white walls studded with doors at precise intervals. Some are open, some ajar, some merely cracked, spilling memories like waking dreams before him, moments out of time or context. The older doors are closed, the oldest ones locked. He pauses, fingers ghosting over the complicated whirls that surround one door, frame built from ancient olive and balsam and citrus wood, extinct for millennia, sealed with seven locks stretching from top to base.
“Copper,” he murmurs, identifying each one. “Tin. Iron. Lead. Gold. Silver. Quicksilver.” There’s neither latch nor knob on the door, nor keyholes in the locks; this door once closed was never meant to be opened again. Pressing his palm to the smooth frame, he breathes a single word: “Cassiel.”
The door shivers, locks trembling with a discordant metal jangle, and he breathes air scented with myrrh and ancient flowers in first bloom as they burn to ash beneath a blackened sky—
“No.” He jerks back, tasting burning ash. “I think it’s best you remain there and I here.”
Turning away, he continues down the room, watching doors pass: some old, some new, some barely formed, some so ancient the wood that formed them died out when humanity still floated in primordial seas.
He passes the Grove, a black haired boy cradling the body of a dead man as the shouting masses reach him. A glimpse of black skirts draws him to a starkly elegant work room, walls pigeonholed for books, washed in the stillness of grief: Diana granted his request, Cornelia Africana. It will be done. A fragile blonde girl rocks on the floor in terrible pain as white-clad maids circle her helplessly. An elderly soldier rides three days and three nights to bring the news to Misenum, his own loss disciplined to another’s need.
Diana in her temple, expressionless: You have no right to question us, Cornelia Africana. We do not answer to you.
A god’s promise was only as good as their desire to keep it, and they didn’t care. It was just a game to them, only one of hundreds, thousands, played by the gods with mortals as their pieces. He bore witness to all of humanity’s history; this was neither the greatest or the least of them played with human souls and human lives.
He glimpses Cornelia in her tabilium with her books, turning one of the most powerful minds this planet has ever seen to a single purpose: this is my offering. He fights the urge to enter and stop her, warn her, but it’s just a memory; his chance to intervene passed millennia ago.
If you can, you should.
He pauses at the sight of a spill of light from a half-opened door. Easing it open, he’s witness to the silent tableau of Cornelia Africana, Sempronia Graccha, Emet, and Sappho surrounding the narrow cot where Claudia Pulchera struggles for each breath. The dark eyes are sunken into darkness, bones in stark relief, and the rise and fall of her chest barely moves the thin sheet covering her.
“It will not be long, Domina,” Emet says quietly, then his head turns, seeing Castiel. The faint widening of the dark brown eyes is the only sign of his perception; Egypt’s priestly caste are very well-trained.
“Be not afraid, Emet of Memphis,” he tells him, pausing the flow of time in this location.
Emet steps away from the cot to gracefully lower himself into one of the hundred prostrations that an Egyptian priest learns as a matter of course. Castiel examines him, satisfied at what he finds: Amon-Ra’s divine spark is present, of course, but the touch of Hippocrates is there as well, given only to one who has far surpassed the requirements of his calling.
“I am called to judgment,” Emet says into the mosaic floor. “I am ready, Balance of the World; my life will pay in full for the harm I have done. I only ask to be permitted to see Claudia through her passage and her mother and sister to their beds.”
“Rise, Emet; we are but a servant, as you are.” He waits for Emet to gain his feet again. “I am not here for you.”
The change is subtle, but the movement is not; Emet inserts himself between Castiel and the bed and women beside it. Mortal behavior is often baffling, but this is not; the light of Hippocrates grows stronger, gleaming with the verdant greens of life woven into the birthright power of a priest of Egypt, fiercely protective. “None here deserve such attention, Messenger.”
Interesting. “It is our natural right. Do you think you can stop us?”
“I do not,” Emet answers steadily. “But I shall try anyway.”
He would, at that. “Claudia Pulchera will not take Charon’s coin.”
Emet nods warily. “She refused.”
“The Shores are infinite and the numbers that crowd them vast; she could search until she forgets herself as well as who she seeks,” he tells Emet. “I will escort her to him.”
Emet’s expression is fascinating; as a rule, the priestly caste aren’t demonstrative. “You—you—will accompany Claudia to the Underworld?”
“I doubt they’ll refuse me admission,” he answers, wondering if perhaps Emet’s education was lacking after all.
“I doubt you would be denied anything you might want,” Emet answers. “I merely wonder why the Weight and the Balance would accept a task so… common. Or that such a task would even exist.”
He finds himself looking at Claudia, the rasp of her breathing echoing through the room. “We are the Host on Earth,” he says. “All of Creation is our demesne. It is our will, and it will be done.”
Emet blinks, wariness inexplicably draining away, and he bows his head. “Whatever assistance you require, I offer it, and myself as instrument of your will.”
Stepping back, startled, he watches Emet accept the presence of a Messenger within him before returning to Claudia’s bedside. There was no need to take a temporary vessel while she died. But she was afraid and in pain as her body began to shut down, despite the syrup of poppies. He took away her pain and cleared her mind enough to speak to her mother and her sister, so she could give them comfort in their pain as she completed her time on earth.
He doesn’t need to see the rest, but he can’t look away: Cornelia Africana closes Claudia’s eyes and Sempronia Graccha smooths back the dull, grey-shot black hair with an unsteady hand before turning to the comfort of her mother’s arms. On the bedside table lies Charon’s coin, rejected, and the pain of grief is augmented by the knowledge of the horror of what they send her to.
“She won’t be alone,” Castiel whispers. He gathered Claudia to him and passed the Guardian of the Underworld unopposed and unquestioned; he took her to her husband, who all this time clung to enough of himself to welcome her, her brother and sister with him.
It wouldn’t last, of course; the Shores would take them, slowly and painfully, piece by piece, until they were no more than forgotten memories of themselves, truly shades. Yet her joy and Tiberius’s was far greater in their union here than that of any shade on Charon’s Barge on their way to paradise. When he left the Underworld, he left the four of them with one thing: their names, written into their shades for all of time. All else may be lost, but they would know themselves and each other; that much, they would always keep.
“I did not know that Messengers were kind.”
Turning, Castiel sees the face that could have launched a thousand (Roman) ships. “We aren’t.” Kindness is so small; Enochian has no concept of it at all.
“A lie, Messenger: it is vast. It is everything.” She follows his gaze to the darkened room. “You didn’t remember?”
He shakes his head. “Some of it, not all. Not until now.”
“You came to me in my bath,” she says, eyes distant. “You took my knife and held me in your arms in the cooling water and let me feel you and know I was not alone. You spoke to me; you didn’t reproach me for my weakness, but told me that Gaius waited for me on the Shores, and that you would take me to him when my time was done.”
“Why is it that we blame the reed for breaking when the weight placed upon it was purpose-made to be too great to bear?” he asks bitterly. “Blame those that chose to make a weight that you could not carry; the responsibility is theirs, and so is the blame. What was done to you was obscene.”
“And your father.” Her childhood had been a travesty; malicious neglect at best, at worst, the cruel, calculated destruction of a young girl’s fragile mind. She was sold to the highest—and most august—bidder, her value was only in what benefits she brought her birth family at her marriage. “I shared your life entire, Licinia Crassa; there was no flaw in you.”
She smiles faintly. “I remember… you said that, too. Like you, I have forgotten much.”
The bleakness of the Shores unfolds around them, and Castiel stills; the lifeless dirt and dry, empty air are antithetical to all that he was as an angel, and he can feel it still. Worse, however, are the ragged, indistinct grey shapes that surround them like barely-solid mist. He fights the unexpected desire to reach for them, to offer comfort and support; as an angel, his purpose was war, to administer justice in his Father’s name and embody His wrath, never His succor. If you can, you should.
“Why am I here?” he asks, hands clenched at his sides as a shade drifts by, hopeless, helpless, alone.
“I didn’t think you would hear me,” she answers. “Not here.”
He jerks around. “You prayed to me?” For the first time, he notices the loose blonde hair that ruffles in an invisible wind, the white dress that shifts with every movement, the pale feet, the vivid pink of cheeks and lips, the blue depths of her eyes; even at death, shades are rarely so vivid.
“I forgot so much,” she answers, touching her chest, and something gleams silver-gold under her fingers, bright: her name, written into her shade. “But I never forgot myself. You gave me that. I wanted to thank you.”
He looks around the Shores, trying not to flinch as an oblivious shade wanders too close. To doom someone here and deny them even the relief of madness… “Do you call that kindness?”
“I do,” she answers. “It was a gift, its value beyond measure. I wanted to tell you that, and that I used it as such a gift should be used.”
He thinks of those locked doors. “Some things should be beyond memory.”
“Don’t be afraid, Castiel of Chitaqua,” she says, a smile in her voice. “You’ve been many and now are one, but that one is a multitude. You were, are, will be a thousand people before you’re done.”
The shades are now profound; truly, he lives in a time of absurd miracles. “That sounds familiar.”
“Practice what you preach, Messenger.” Her lips tighten, smile fading. “Even here, time is short and I cannot stay long—”
“I would say I was surprised you can do it at all,” he says. “But I’m not, or at least, less than I should be. It’s not just a side effect of the backlash caused by the collapse of the warding around Kansas. The Door has been unguarded since the murder of Cerberus.”
“That is not all.”
Of course it’s not. “The Misborn are the natural heirs of Cerberus.” She nods, shoulders slumping, and he wonders briefly how he could have overlooked this possibility; it’s the worst possible, so it’s inevitable that it would happen. “That’s how they pass between the living world and the dead without the Morningstar’s assistance. Cerberus didn’t have time to designate an alternate heir, as Charon did.”
“Until now, it didn’t matter; the living world has no more appeal than those of the dead. Living or dead, prey born mortal are of equal weight; their hunger cannot be satisfied by either.”
“Something in the mortal world makes them hungry,” she says slowly, forehead creasing in thought. “Something they can eat.”
There are so many possibilities, all of them equally terrible. “I don’t suppose we’d be fortunate enough for it to be me?”
“I know not,” she answers. “Castiel—”
“Not that it matters,” he continues brittlely, thinking of Lucifer; he bred monsters of gods and never thought what that meant. Even if he had known, he doubts Lucifer would have cared. “If they can hunt the mortal world with impunity—”
“They won’t,” she interrupts. “They can claim the Door, yes, but that does not mean we will let them.”
“’We’?” Castiel looks at the masses of shades surrounding them, their despair and fear and pain endless, terrible to behold. As an angel, he could have helped them: if he’d thought of it, if he’d cared, if he’d even seen them. As an angel, he saw this and did nothing. If he were an angel now… but he’s not. “And would this be your army?”
“There are worse things than pain.” Licinia stiffens as her eyes fix on the River, and Castiel follows her gaze. “There’s forgetting why you endure it.”
Before his eyes, the River changes, calm robin’s-egg blue and spring green swirling through it until it’s the color of a calm summer sky, inviting. As one, the massed shades rush toward it, throwing themselves onto the muddy banks and thrusting hands, mouths, and even their heads beneath the tranquil surface, drinking deeply.
“Lethe,” he whispers as one of the shapes staggers upright and turns toward them. The pale suggestion of a face is reduced to little more than a hazy blank oval set with dimly sketched eyes that seem to look through him; nothing exists behind them, nothing at all. “They take—”
“Your pain,” she says tonelessly. “Your fear. Your anger. Your grief. All you must do is offer it yourself, whole and entire.”
He swallows back bile as more crowd forward. Licinia gazes at the water lapping only inches from their feet, blue eyes dark.
“It is hard,” she whispers. “To see it within reach of my arm, to know there my pain can be left. All I must do is drink.”
He glances at her; the longing is as sharp as pain.
“My husband was betrayed and murdered, his body butchered, his shade condemned to wander the Shores, and I was driven mad,” she whispers. “I see what they did to him, night and day; I see them cut off his head and gouge out his eyes and cut out his tongue. I see them open his skull and fill it with gold to claim the reward offered to the man who brought Opimius his head.” She looks up at him blindly. “Sometimes, it’s all that I can see.”
“But you don’t take the waters.”
“Lethe will take my pain, but for their condescension, my offering must be all else,” she answers as she looks at the water again, hands fisting at her sides. “Licinia of the Crassii, made happy wife of the last of the Gracchi sons, mother of Sempronia, sister of Sempronia and Claudia, and daughter of Africana. I must give up the man who believed I had no flaw, the daughter I bore to him in our marriage bed, the sisters who were my greatest comfort, and the woman who welcomed me as a loving mother.” She swallows. “And I must give up the woman I could have been in life, had I been strong enough to claim her.”
The choice is breathtaking in its cruelty; it’s one they’re forced to make every single day, until they forget there’s a choice at all. Hell would approve.
“I will give Lethe nothing,” Licinia breathes, jerking her gaze from the waters and looking up at him. “So here I stand and here I remain; I refuse their offer. I reject it.”
The sight of Lethe is almost lost behind the shades crowding the banks, kneeling in the churned mud, their agony vanishing with every desperate gulp of water. He thinks of Dean and Bobby, of Andy and Gary, of Kellie and Ray, Alicia dying in that field, of needles and smoke and pills and the thousand ways he learned to forget. “I don’t think I could.”
“Do you not?” The blue eyes meet his, and he finds himself thinking of the flicker of a match when it catches, the tiny gleam of endless blue, heat and potential on the brink of realization. “The water is before us, yet here you remain.”
She smiles, and he understands why Gaius loved her, why Cornelia mourned her so bitterly. She brought such joy to her new family, joy that had been long absent with Tiberius’s terrible death, Scipio’s betrayal, the reveal of Sempronia’s suffering: joy that was so desperately needed. Her fragility made her all the more precious, and as much as her sons, Licinia’s death left a scar on Cornelia’s heart that never quite healed.
Licinia has existed on the Shores over eighty times longer than the length of her mortal life, cast here with the sum of all she was to the moment of her death, but nothing more. Potential unrealized—the incalculable possibilities of would and could and should—was lost forever, like the last light of a dead star. It is from the tiny sum of that short mortal life—a drop in infinity—that the Shores take, and take, and take, until nothing remains. Yet looking at her, he doesn’t sense any loss. In fact, he would almost say that there was—
“It’s hard,” she says, reaching out a hand and pulling a shade to her side. Not formless, however; deep brown eyes, half-hidden behind the glossy masses of black hair, look at him shyly, olive skin flushing rose. “But it’s easier when you’re not alone.”
“Claudia.” The pinkening lips part in a surprised smile, and the hideousness of her slow death, the pain and fear, are almost submerged beneath the young woman before him, bright and eager.
“That’s not how I remember it,” she says softly. “You held my hand; you took my pain and fear; you gave me those last hours with those I loved most to give them comfort before I passed. When my time was done, you took me to my sister, my husband, and my brother, so that we might be together for all time.” Her expression hardens. “It is that which Lethe wishes to take; they will not have it. I give Lethe nothing. So here I stand, and here I remain.”
“I was beaten to death on the Capitol during tribal assembly. The mob was incited by my fellow Senators who feared the loss of their power,” a deeper voice says, and she glances up with a shy smile at Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus as he rests a hand on her shoulder. “I died in the service of the People of Rome; I would do it again without regret. The waters of Lethe may not have it. I refuse their offer.”
“In the Grove of the Furies, I was murdered by a mob led by my enemies in the Senate,” a familiar voice says as a man steps to Licinia’s side. “Like my brother before me, I gave my service to the People and to Rome. I died for them and I did it gladly; there is nothing I would change.” He slides his fingers through Licinia’s. “I reject Lethe’s waters; they’re a lie. It’s hard, yes, but we’re never alone.” Gaius Sempronius Gracchus smiles at him. “Thank you, Castiel.”
He’s surprised by his own smile, something bubbling up from somewhere deep that feels bafflingly like hope. “It is good to see you, Gaius Sempronius.” Gaius tips his head, eyebrows raised, and Castiel fights the inexplicable urge to laugh. “Yes, of course, I almost forgot; I did as you asked.”
Gaius nods seriously. “And?”
You said the worst of you was not all you were, that they could be the best, and I would meet better than you.
I Fell for them, and they feared me. I trained them, and they hated me. They stalked me through the camp for the length of a day and when full night fell, they tried to kill me. I’m angry—no, I’m pissed. I’ve been pissed for two years, I’m not over it, and for a very long time, I didn’t want to be, and humanity could fuck itself with my questionable blessing. It didn’t matter what I did; Dean would die and so would I, we would lose, and the world would end. Even knowing that, I knew I would make the same choice again, I would Fall and survive, forced to live this miserable life, and that pissed me off most of all. You might say I didn’t take it well, but I’d like to see anyone else do better.
Then I met this Dean and he met me; then Dean died but I did not, because I had to save this Dean’s life; then the world didn’t end and we didn’t lose, or at least, not yet. Between then and now, he tried to die as stupidly as possible before my very eyes, asked me to shoot him in the head, taught me to play poker when we both realized we hated chess, and while I’m still angry—pissed, so very, very pissed—I keep forgetting that and no longer even want to be. I never regretted what I did, but now I’m grateful—grateful of all impossible things—that I survived, that I lived, and far, far worse, if I could do all of it again, I would change nothing. He’s my best friend and my commander and my lover, and while I would always have died and killed for him, now I find I want to live for him, too.
Memories of Erica’s expression when he trained her, Luke’s on every mission, the fear and revulsion and horror of the camp those first hideous days after he emerged from his cabin alive but mortal intrude, garish in their intensity. More follow eagerly: the horrific day he watched his own death for the endless hours until nightfall, the sound of gunfire that never seemed to end, grief and rage changing Dean into someone he barely recognized, the dull, bitter, hopeless years that followed. That was then, but now there’s more: the nuns he didn’t know existed and didn’t save, that died horribly in that church; the betrayals of his body that he could neither control nor correct; Andy, forced to die twice before their eyes; Gary’s cooling body in that hall in the basement and Mark barely clinging to life; and the discovery of Alicia’s betrayal, a wound he somehow failed to expect despite a mortal lifetime learning from humans to expect nothing else.
Lethe is so close; they run only inches from his toes.
“No,” Licinia says urgently, and a warm hand takes his. “That’s not all; that’s their lie. That’s not even most of it; there’s more.”
There’s Vera, falling asleep in the protective curve of his body every night for weeks because she knew he wouldn’t sleep, that he’d keep her safe; caustic commentary at odds with gentle hands and bone-deep worry as she re-learned her profession and discovered her own vocation on his body; her laugh, easy and affectionate and trusting, the first time he took her to his bed. There’s Jeremy, who looked at him like a savior when Vera took Castiel to pick him up outside of Chitaqua; waiting impatiently on the training field after dusk to be reviewed on his skills and to talk about his strange adolescent problems that were like glimpses into an entirely different world; wandering into Castiel’s cabin at any hour, unthinking confidence in his safety and welcome no matter Castiel’s mood that day; shaking in Castiel’s arms after he and Joelle escaped that demon outside Ichabod, leaning into him for the comfort he’d somehow known Castiel would give.
There’s Amanda, the student he didn’t know to even dream of given flesh, who could learn anything he could teach and pass it to others; facing him on the training field, never understanding she was supposed to be afraid; lighting up moments before they went to battle, one of the few who can fight beside him and fewer that want to; in Dean’s room, turning to him for comfort as the only one who understood her loss. There’s Alison, sitting on her porch the night after their first disastrous meeting and a terrible party, hostile and tired and unimpressed by the infinite being seated beside her; the wonder on her face when he showed her herself; offering up her mind for his use without hesitation to save those children, unshakably certain she could survive it, that he could protect her when she couldn’t hope to protect herself; deep in their discussions on the anatomy of sheepapodes and the horrified debate between whether propagation involved eggs or live birth (separately or in combination, with or without water, and/or the involvement of a pouch); a woman who fears neither angels nor gods nor man, only herself.
Joseph and his obscure Yiddish jokes, love of historical mockery, sangfroid no matter the circumstances, and a bond with Dean he doubts either man expected, much less would guess its still-growing strength; Mel’s practicality in the face of insane plans and gifts of weed when he ran out; Sarah standing over him holding a blood and sulfur stained rifle after climbing down the wall when the gate wasn’t opened fast enough and she couldn’t wait; the feel of Jaya, warm and heavy in his arms, and Sudha’s hopeful claim of the right to call him family; Teresa and Manuel and Tony and Njoya offering friendship and trust; Haruhi’s and Derek’s easy companionship; Rosario and her determination and uncertainty and the untapped potential within her that he wants very much to watch her fulfill.
And there’s Alicia.
A flash of her outside his cabin is replaced by her dancing with her knives for him in a blur of euphoria and controlled violence, without flaw; enthusiastically straddling him in his bed still bloody from a mission and only pausing long enough to strip off her muddy jeans; at his stove making Chitaqua toast and gossiping over coffee at the kitchen table; slumped in the infirmary breakroom wallowing in her own guilt; facing Erica and Micah and all her own mistakes and fears to save people who destroyed themselves; I was going to survive. And prove it. That I was sorry.; asking him not to hate her before taking her last breath surrounded in bloody snow after refusing Erica’s offer of her life.
It wasn’t because she didn’t want to live.
Everyone may have a price, but that doesn’t mean that everyone can be bought, he told Dean, and while he knew that was true of Alicia, until yesterday, he didn’t know why. Alicia is not and will never be for sale, not for any price in Creation; two years ago, she sold herself to Erica for safety, and at her order, picked up a gun to take two lives. Her guilt could have destroyed her, and in a way, he supposes it did; Alicia is the person she built from what remained, and he can’t say she didn’t do well. A hunter who chose to devote her life to saving others; the only mortal who feels the blade as he does, that he could teach the most personal of his skills; the mole in Erica’s team that protected Joseph when he went to the border; the woman who chose to follow the very people who had injured her to Ichabod’s outskirts and try to save them, to confront the woman who had betrayed, broken, and tried to destroy her; if I’m supposed to pass judgment on whether they deserve it first, consider this a blanket statement for everyone, forever: they deserve to be saved. Alicia can’t be bought: what she lost, she fought to take back; what she became, she fought to create; what she is, she cannot, will not give up for any price. He doubts that now, she even knows how.
Alicia still thinks forgiveness is something that must be earned, paid with pain in full measure, and not simply given: he can’t blame her. Until now, he’s not sure he realized it himself.
Lethe may flow bearing poisoned temptation as they will, to his very feet if they feel so moved, but there is nothing, nothing they could offer to match what has no price. “And here I remain,” Castiel murmurs and sees Licinia smile. Squeezing his fingers, she lets go. “I stand corrected,” he tells her. “ And yes, you were right as well,” he tells Gaius. “About people. Sometimes, they don’t even realize how much better they’ve become.” Then, unable to stop himself, “I did meet better than you as well.”
Gaius laughs. “Really?”
“Very much. Then again, I also think he is better than anything in Creation and may be the reason it exists—so he can be in it—so my objectivity may be questionable. You would like him very much; you’re alike in many ways.”
“I would very much like to meet him,” Gaius says, looking intrigued.
“He said the same of you.” He finds his smile widening in response to Gaius’s. “Thank you.”
Abruptly, he notices the growing number of shades lingering near them, ignoring the presence of Lethe only feet away. The misty forms grow stronger as he watches, more intact, the smudges becoming faces with eyes that seem to be looking at him. Others break from the rush toward the waters, joining the hovering shades and they, too, seem to grow more solid, more here. Before he can wonder if perhaps he’s imagining it—and for that matter, has somehow acquired an imagination—the nearest one meets his eyes and smiles.
He looks at Licinia. “What—”
“To answer your question,” Licinia says, “this is my army. Kindness is everything, Castiel of Chitaqua. You gave us a gift, and we did with it as you would expect; we spread it to all who wanted it.”
“You spread it—” He looks back at the smiling shade and sees it: a glint of silver, small but strong. Searching the dozens of shades around, he sees them shining on each and every one. When he looks at Licinia again, her smile widens. “How could you…”
“I read what you wrote into me,” she answers, touching her chest where he wrote her name. Five symbols surround it, the only protection he knew that no one but a human soul could ever claim, that the Underworld would be unable to break. “I didn’t understand it—I barely understood myself—but I couldn’t stop trying. I wrote these symbols in the dust of the Shores a thousand times, and each time, I felt understanding hover closer, just out of reach. Then, one day—I was so tired, Castiel, and to Lethe I went, and knelt, and let the water fill my hands. I looked at it, then at those around me, and finally, I understood: what those symbols meant was what Lethe wanted to take.”
Five symbols, that make the base of every ward and protective spell in Creation, the creation of which marked the origin of humanity itself.
The most accurate description would be the definition of self; in short, each person belonged first to themselves, discrete and separate from one another. The first claim a human made of ownership was to themselves, and thus, you became self-aware. My Father created you in his image, but that moment is when humanity created itself.
They can’t be translated, of course: they aren’t words; they’re barely more an idea. But if he tried, he might say they meant—
“I am.” Her fingers trace over the five symbols, each lighting beneath her touch. “That was what Lethe wanted in exchange for my pain; not just my joy, my memories, and my name, but an idea, my idea: the idea that I am me.” She looks at him. “Even with this, I’d almost forgotten.
“It wouldn’t happen again; I would not let it,” she continues. “Upon the Shores themselves, I knelt and wrote my name, and as quickly as they would erase it, I would write it again. As did Gaius, and Claudia, and Tiberius when they understood what we had almost lost. Then one day, when Lethe flowed and the shades gathered before it, one of them stopped and looked at what I wrote. The next day, another did the same, and then another. Though Lethe had stolen their names, they still had themselves, even here.” She lifts a hand to indicate the gathered shades. “And upon the Shores themselves, they knelt with me and wrote it.”
“’I am here’,” the shade who smiled at him says, features resolving more firmly into a pretty face, skin darkening slowly to what he suspects was once—will be?—a deep brown, a suggestion of dark locks floating in the windless air. Around her, the other shades draw closer: dozens of faces, dark and pale and every shade between, the ragged remains of their clothes showing dozens of the cultures that came under Roman rule. “We are here,” she adds, fierce pride rippling through her voice. “And here we will remain.”
“Not everyone understands yet,” Licinia says as Lethe vanishes into churning grey water and the shades, glutted on their waters, start to drift away. “But every day we all write it anew, and each time, more see it and begin to understand. Our work has only just begun, but it will be done. The Shores are ours; we certainly have the time.”
The number of questions is already infinite and still grows, and the inconveniences of linear existence require he select only one at a time, which is impossible. Then, gazing at the shades gathered around her, he pauses, reviewing what she just said: The Shores are ours. “The Shores are now claimed by Lucifer, called the Morningstar. He will not cede them to you.”
“The Morningstar may call himself Master of the Shores,” Licinia answers. “That does not make it true. His claim violates natural law; the Shores are not his.”
“The Shores are within the demesne of the Underworld and therefore the realm of the gods,” he says in confusion; no one under the tutelage of Cornelia Africana would not know such a fundamental part of natural law. “The gods who once ruled are dead or have fled; there are none to challenge him for them on your behalf. The Shores were unclaimed lands; his claim of them, while unwelcome, was just.”
“The Shores were not unclaimed,” she replies. “They belong to us.”
He stares at her, at a loss for words.
“We are the shades of the Shores, exiled here for all eternity for lack of a coin to pay our passage on Charon’s barge,” Licinia continues. “The gods who claimed the Underworld have passed and none designated an heir; that does not mean the Underworld was the Morningstar’s to claim. We are here and here we remain; the Shores are ours. No challenge was offered or accepted, no battle was fought and won; the Morningstar trespasses on what is not his own and enforces his claim of possession with the Misborn. His occupation of the Shores violates natural law; he must leave.”
“And who taught you to so creatively interpret natural law?”
“Cornelia Africana, daughter of Africanus and Mother of the Gracchi,” she answers. “You cannot imagine that my mother would so neglect my education once I entered her house?”
Of course she did. Castiel gazes at the featureless landscape, then at her. “Even if you could claim the Shores, you would have no more authority over the Rivers than the Morningstar does now. You still could not cross into Elysium or any other land of the dead.”
“We don’t want to cross.” Licinia takes a deliberate step forward before looking down. “I thought, instead, we might plant a garden.”
Following her gaze, his breath catches; where she was standing, thin blades of new spring grass poke through the lifeless dirt that before his eyes grows darker, richer. A fragile stem pushes itself upward, tiny leaves unfurling before his disbelieving eyes; crouching, he reaches a shaking hand to touch one perfect leaf and feels the thrum of life: Creation. “How…”
“The Shores are ours” Licinia states. “And we will make them a Paradise. It is not over yet.”
Castiel’s head snaps up. “What?”
“He asked the question, and through all of time and space, we heard it,” she answers. “We did not understand it then: we hardly understood ourselves. Now, we understand, and unto you we render our answer: yes. It’s not over yet.”
“Who asked the question?”
“The impossible,” she says. “And where I stand, here on the Shores, is where it shall begin.”
“Why here?” he asks. “Why now?”
“When nothing is written, all we have is now,” she answers. “So now is when it must be.”
He watches another plant fight its way to the surface; the soil is poor (it’s not actual soil), the environment hostile (this can’t possibly qualify as air), it shouldn’t be able to survive (or even exist) but perhaps no one informed it. Even if they had, it has no reason to care. If it could, it would.
“You said ‘if’,” Licinia says in a different voice. “’If’ we could claim the Shores. Is there some reason for doubt?”
Even as an angel, he could not have helped them (he wouldn’t have even considered the question), but now, as mortal as the shades were in life, he wants to try. The shades want to claim a place that may soon not exist and fight the Misborn as if there’s some possibility they might actually win. Inches from his knee, a dark pink bud shyly peers from its green frame, tiny leaves unfurling for the first time all of Time: here, in this place that was created to be nothing. He slides his fingers through the still-lifeless dirt and remembers watching that night with the rest of the Host as the first human claimed herself, I am, and with it, proved humanity’s claim to all Creation.
Five symbols, an idea: I am here. Licinia drew them into the Shores themselves and now other shades do, too. “Do the Shores erase your name still? Theirs?”
She frowns in confusion. “Yes, but not as often, and never when we are by,” she answers. “Castiel—”
“You dispute Morningstar’s claim to these lands?”
“You didn’t answer—”
“You are making a formal petition to a Messenger to adjudicate a dispute between those born mortal and the divine,” he interrupts, rising to his feet and facing her; if you can, you should. “The formalities are the basis of invocation of natural law. Licinia, daughter of Africana, your mother did not leave your education so wanting that you would not know this.”
Licinia straightens, raising her chin proudly. “Qafsiel Kaziel, Cassiel, Castiel, Messenger of the Pantheons, and the Host made manifest on earth,” she recites, “he who is the balance and the karma, the scales and the weight, and that which weighs all things, with whatever rite, using whatever name, in whatever appearance it is right to invoke thee, we entreat thee to hear us.”
He wishes Cornelia could see Licinia now. “We will hear you, Licinia, daughter of Africana.”
“The Shades of the Shores dispute the Morningstar’s claim to be Master of the Shores,” she answers. “The gods are dead or have fled, their claims to the Underworld made null, leaving no legitimate heir. The Morningstar’s false claim is based on a faulty premise; the Shores are not unclaimed. Our residence makes us the Shores’ natural master; they are ours. If the Morningstar wants them, it is from us that he must first take them.”
They were here first: truly a classic.
“The Morningstar’s claim to the Shores rests on it being unclaimed territory, belonging to none in the absence of the gods,” he answers. “Your residence here was established long before he first made his claim, and your right to make claim proved by the presence of your name written upon the Shores themselves. Morningstar’s claim to defacto ownership in the absence of legitimate claimants is therefore dissolved; his rule is by conquest alone and is therefore open to challenge.” Calling in a knife, Castiel cuts across his palm and crouches, turning his hand so the blood drips to pool in the lifeless dust and frames his next words carefully. “We accept your challenge, and our decision is this: the Shores are now in dispute. Ownership will be decided by combat and to the victor goes the spoils in full until the end of Time.” Castiel makes the second cut, watching the blood well up and begin to pool in his palm. “Our judgment is thus rendered.” he says, turning his hand and watching the blood begin to drip, pooling by that from the first cut. “That is our will, and it shall be done.”
The Underworld doesn’t respond, though it certainly heard him and understood; it is less than impressed by his authority, it seems. He shouldn’t be surprised; divinity in all its forms rarely deigns to answer to those born mortal. And while he wasn’t born thus, he is now most definitely mortal.
The long silence is abruptly broken as Gaius steps forward, hand resting on his shoulder, fingers startlingly warm and strong. His voice is gentle as he says, “It doesn’t matter, Castiel. We do not expect this of you.”
Of course not: humans have long been trained to keep their expectations low, to ask for what should be given, to beg for what are their natural rights. They wrote their names into the Shores themselves and still it pretends it has the right to defy them. If he were still an angel, he would—
He can almost hear Dean’s voice: it doesn’t have the right to disobey you, so stop giving it ideas.
“We are Castiel, once known as Cassiel, Qephetzial, and Qafsiel Kaziel, among our many names: called the Arbitrator, the Weight and the Balance, and the Balance of the World; we are the balance and the karma, the scales and the weight and that which weighs all things: and the last of the Host in Creation.” The Underworld seems to compress itself, gathering like a great weight hanging just above them, waiting for only an excuse to crush all beneath. “The petition has been heard and we have rendered our judgment, for now and all time, as is our right. This is our will and it will be done.”
Both pools vanish into the dead soil, leaving it as untouched as if they’d never been, and for an endless moment, there’s a stillness unlike anything he’s ever experienced. The very air (such as it is) seems to be waiting, though for what, he can’t imagine.
Gaius’s hand tightens on his shoulder. “What is happening?”
Abruptly, the weight vanishes, and the neat circle of grass surges outward, the featureless dirt vanishing in great gulps of verdant green, spreading beneath the feet of the startled shades like a carpet made of spring. Licinia jumps as only inches away, a sapling pushes free of what looks like rich soil, tender and young, followed by another, then another. The shades exclaim, shifting to look at blankets of clover and newborn bushes already bearing green berries that ripen to red before their eyes.
“That,” Castiel says in satisfaction. Crouching, he watches the lone flower burst into bloom as a dozen more break through the grass around it, and reaches to touch the velvet-soft petals, breathing in air fragrant from blossoms that haven’t existed on earth since before humanity was more than a thought in his Father’s mind. This day the Underworld, home and sometimes prison of souls born mortal, submitted to a mortal’s demand for obedience, for no other reason than he told it to. It’s not raising the dead, of course, but then, he had Grace. This time, he had nothing but himself. Dean would very much approve.
The hem of a toga and a pair of blurry but recognizable military boots intrude on his vision, and he looks up, grinning helplessly at Gaius’s expression. He knows that one and yes, it is very difficult to pick one question from among so many. “What—what does this mean?” Gaius asks finally.
“It means war,” Castiel says, rising to his feet. “I will not send you into battle unarmed, however,” he continues, focusing on Licinia. “Licinia, daughter of Africana, come here.”
Enchanted, he watches flowers blossom wherever she steps before she drops gracefully to her knees, skirts pooling like quicksilver in a verdant frame. She raises her head, and he swipes a finger through the blood on his palm and touches it to her forehead, breathing his blessing in his native tongue. “Rise, Licinia of the Shores, and pick up your sword. Your army awaits your command. The battle begins when you step on the field.”
“Me? But—” She stops short and looks down at her own hand closing over the gold and sapphire hilt of the sword nesting in the grass beside her, blade silver ice. “Oh,” she whispers, lifting it. “Where did…”
“It came from you,” he answers, extending his hand and helping her to her feet. “You made it of yourself, just as you and the other shades created this Garden.”
She shakes her head. “I didn’t—I don’t understand.”
The soul after death is the sum of its mortal life; all that was only potential is lost. Even if it loses nothing of itself, it can never be more: static, unchanged and unchanging until the end of Time. For all he questioned, that he never did, and looking at Licinia now, he can only wonder how he believed in such an impossible lie. She isn’t the sum of a mortal life; her mortal life is only a portion of what she is and will be, potential unrealized yet stretching to the limits of infinity itself.
“The woman you could have been in life is gone,” he tells her, looking into the bewildered eyes the color of the ocean. “She existed in your mortal life in potential, but she was too small, too much of the living world to be here. The woman before me now…her potential was born here, on the Shores themselves. You created her over millennia from every piece of yourself you fought to keep, every day that you refused Lethe, and every shade that you saved, and you create her still. The sword you hold now is you, the woman you were and are now and could be, forged in every battle you fought, in every victory and every loss in all your existence. That is the woman who would dare challenge the Morningstar; it is only fit that you be the one to lead the battle.”
Licinia nods slowly, eyes wet with unshed tears, and Castiel looks at the other shades, potential written in bright silver and growing before his eyes. Of course Licinia could give it to others: an idea, I am. That’s what ideas do; they spread.
“For divine favor, there is always a price, and as petitioner, it is from you payment must be rendered,” he says, fighting back a smile, and Licinia nods quickly, wiping her eyes, expression calm, betraying neither disappointment nor surprise; mortals have long accepted the capriciousness of their gods. Their standards are very much due for a change. “This is our will: when you step on the field, you will not doubt, you will not wonder, you will not fear, you will not despair; you will fight and you will win.”
Licinia blinks, mouth dropping open, staring at him before she smiles. “It will be done.”
“I know.” Castiel counts the people quickly and then remembers there’s no time here; he has all he needs. “Your army needs generals,” he says, tugging her to his side. “Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, come here.”