I wasn’t obsessed or anything. Obsession cost money. Manga was just something I liked. It comforted me. Gave me an escape. When dad left to go overseas, manga was there. Later, when mom followed him—well, I wasn’t really alone, I still had my comics.
In manga, the cute girl next door secretly crushed on the main character, and there was always a rival who pushed him to be better.
My next-door neighbours were a workaholic cat lady and a middle-aged shut-in who seemed to live on a diet of pizza and Chinese delivery. There was a girl who walked the same school route, but we never spoke. And my only rival was for worst test scores. Pretty sure he didn’t even know my name.
That’s okay. I didn’t know his either.
Overall, it wasn’t a bad life. Sure, there were things I still wanted to do, like go to Vegas, ask a girl to a dance, and start my own instant noodle restaurant. But I had no major regrets to dwell on. Which meant one less thing to do while I sat in the never-ending darkness of Limbo.
I did think though—a lot. I thought about unfulfilled noodle dreams, reality’s new Japanese art-style, and my upcoming first date. And I decided, screw it, I’m gonna go for it. ‘The die has been cast’, as Julius Caesar might say. I will have four perfect dates. I’ll pick out the best afterlife location and, you know what, I’ll open that instant noodle restaurant. I’d make sure my afterlife was better than ‘not bad’. I’d make sure it was pretty alright or my name isn’t--
A rectangle of light opened in the corner of my endless black world. I shielded my eyes, more out of reflex than any sensation of pain as a thin figure stepped into the doorway; their frame silhouetted by the brightness behind them.
“Ahoy, customer!” A friendly female voice chirped. She reached into limbo, her shadowed form blending into the blackness. “Gosh, why are you sitting here in the dark?”
Light flooded into the space, revealing an ordinary hotel room. “That’s better.” The woman smiled, her hand still on the light switch. She wore a black school uniform like Hades, and had blue hair like Hades as well, although considerably lighter.
“I’m Charon. I’ve got orders from the boss to pick you up.” She strolled into the room and glanced around “I hope you realize this is a very special service that I don’t regularly offer, except to my most valued customers. Do you have any luggage?”
“Um…” I stood near a television set. It would have been nice if someone had explained that limbo had a light switch earlier. “No, no luggage.”
“Perfect. You never know with some people. They’re told, ‘you can’t take it with you when you die’, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. You know what I’m saying?” Charon chuckled to herself. “Okay, let’s go. I have a schedule to keep.” She headed for the door.
I lagged a step behind as she navigated us down a carpeted corridor.
“Is this your first time in limbo?” She asked while we stood awkwardly together in the elevator.
“Yes. As far as I know.”
On the ground floor, semi-transparent souls wandered through a generic hotel lobby. A few sipped from takeaway coffee cups. I groaned at the realisation that limbo had a coffee bar and, most likely, room service.
Outside the hotel’s double doors, lay a blank greyness that extended in all directions for eternity—And also a sea-green vespa.
“Hop on.” Charon tossed me a helmet.
I climbed on to the back.
“Hold on tight, valued customer.” Charon grabbed my arms and wrapped them around her slim waist. The vespa’s engine purred to life. “This baby is faster than she looks.”
The unchanging landscape made it hard to tell if we were moving. I turned back for a farewell glance at the hotel building but saw nothing. Ahead, the gray began to clump together. It thickened into fog, then thinned to damp mist. An earthen cliff face came into view. Charon skidded her vespa to a stop, spraying pebbles in various directions.
“Please alight from the vehicle, valued customer.” Charon pulled off her helmet and stuck out her hand for mine.
I climbed off the vespa and returned the safety gear. What was the point of a helmet? Could ghosts get brain injuries?
Charon pushed her scooter into a wooden shelter then waved her hand. The shelter and Its contents disappeared, leaving in its place only small stones and lingering tendrils of Limbo.
“Nice trick.” I stepped toward the spot where the shed once stood and reached out to see if it could still be felt.
“Come now, valued customer.” Charon waved me on. She smiled politely. Somehow, despite being obscured by mist and under the shadow of the cliff face, her blue eyes seemed brighter. As if they were themselves a source of light. “Stay close, it isn’t far.”
Tiny rocks crunched under her boots—and dug into the soles of my feet. Why didn’t I have shoes? And on that subject, what was with the white gakuran I had on? It looked like my cousin’s old school uniform—was this what they buried me in?
I tugged at the collar and strained my neck to see if his name was written on the tag.
“The Acheron river.” Charon announced as we approached the bank of a swampy lake. Withered trees grew out from its dark waters and a soft mist hung above its surface. “On the other side, lies the underworld.”
I squinted into the distance but spied only more gloom. “Is the underworld nice?”
“It’s to die for.”
“What about—” I cleared my throat. “Hades?”
“Oh! Hades-sama is inspirational.” Charon’s eyes lit up even brighter. “Her no nonsense fiscal approach has done wonders for the economy. The Olympians are struggling to keep up.”
I nodded silently as my guide spoke dreamily of Hades’ natural business acumen. She was half-way through a story involving Hades preventing the harpies from unionizing when she stopped short. A line of semi-transparent people queued in front of a wooden pier.
“One moment, valued customer.” Charon swung her arm out and a long oar materialized in her hand. “Clear a path. Premium-grade traveller coming through.”
No one moved.
Charon cleared her throat and repeated the command louder. A balding spirit in front of us grumbled but stayed put.
“Premium—” Charon slapped the grumbler with the oar, knocking him from the line. “--Customer.” She wacked the next in the queue. “Clear—” and the next, “—a path.”
“We’re here.” Charon waved her hand toward the end of the short pier where a small boat with a lantern bobbed in the water. “Apologies for the disturbance, valued customer. Sometimes the dead can be obstinate. Shall we?”
The waiting dead mumbled as they picked themselves back up and reformed their line. I took a deep breath and stepped onto the pier.
“Careful, valued customer. You don’t want to fall in.” Charon extended her hand to help me into the wobbling boat.
“Why? What happens if I fall in?”
“It’s cold and very deep. Come now.” She flapped her hand impatiently.
The ferry rocked as I sat. “So Hades…what sort of things does she like?”
“Profit.” Charon pushed off the pier with an oar. “Now departing. Please keep your hands and feet inside the vessel at all times. Safety gear can be found under your seat and is to be worn at all times. Exposure to the Acheron can lead to a permanent cryogenic state. Please mind the vessel’s edge.”
I reached under the wooden bench I’d plopped down on and pulled out a cape. The material felt rough, heavy, and looked more likely to sink me than help me float.
“What does this do?” I asked as I swept it over my shoulders.
“Ah, glad you asked, valued customer. Our complimentary cloak helps prevent water from splashing you. So you can arrive to your destination dry and fully mobile.” Charon stood at the back of the boat shifting her oar in the water. The pier grew small in the distance along with the line of souls left behind, until the river’s mist closed in shrouding the shore.
“No lifejacket?” I asked.
Charon pulled a look. “What would you need a lifejacket for, you’re dead.” She cleared her throat. “We’re soon entering the marsh. Listen closely and you’ll hear the enchanting song of the frog-swans. A once in an afterlife experience on every underworlder’s checklist.”
Charon continued to monologue trivia about the river but the tour’s sights were monotonous. Smoke on the water made it impossible to see more than a few feet in any direction. Seemed Luci was right when she called Hades’ underworld gloomy.
“We’re soon crossing into the Styx. Expect turbulence as—”
Groans of pain cut the ferryman off. The cries grew louder, surrounding us. The agonized moans drilled deep into my core until I became tight with discomfort. I boxed my ears.
“What is that?” I shouted.
“The frog-swans,” Charon shouted back. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
Wouldn’t be how I described them. Charon shifted her pole to avoid a rock sending me sideways. I gripped the edge of my seat to stop myself from going over. The boat swayed in the rapid current sending water splashing onto my cloak and the planks by my feet. My bare feet.
“Excuse me…” I called over the harrowing howl of the frog-swans. Maybe there were some safety slippers somewhere. My seat lurched out from under me then dropped along with the rest of the vessel before splatting back into the water. I tumbled forward landing face first in the ferryman’s soft lap.
I looked up to see a red-faced Charon glaring down at me.
“Sorry, I—” The boat tilted, tossing me inbetween her breasts.
Charon’s eyes flashed red. “HentaiiI!” She pulled the oar from the water and swung, hurling me through the air.
Could ghosts fly? They could—couldn’t they? Hover at least…I hoped as I sped face-first toward the icy Acheron river.
She didn’t lie. The water was cold. I kicked my legs to stay afloat. My limbs stiffened and shivers ran throughout my soul. It didn’t seem right for a spirit to ache, but I did. Continued movement was a force of will. I had to get out of the water before I ended up spending eternity as a block of ice.
Mist encircled me as did the mocking moans of the frog-swans. I swam aimlessly into the mist only to find more mist—and the ugliest bird I’d ever seen.
The creature’s mottled green skin was slick with slime and a thin coating of ice. It looked down with bulging frog eyes before flapping its leathery wings and crying out, “KEK.”
“Shhh. I-it’s okay—” I gagged and choked as waves of icy water lapped at my face. If I could climb onto it’s back, maybe I could somehow get to shore. I swam closer. “Nice—“ I trembled with cold. My jaw rigid. “Nice birdy.”
The frog-swan bent its long neck and opened its maw, revealing rows of long sharp teeth. It lunged. I slipped under the icy black water and swam blindly before resurfacing. My legs froze. I flailed with my arms and arched my back, flicking my useless legs like a merman.
The creature cried out as it struck at me. It smelt of death. I stared into its slit pupils and let loose a hopeless battle cry. The frog-swan reared back and batted its wings before snapping its face at mine. I scrunched my eyes closed, awaiting impact.
It didn’t come.
Mouth still open, the ugly bird whipped its head back and forth trying to dislodge a long red plank. Not a plank—Japanese characters written vertically. A sound effect, like in a manga. Doki Doki. Which meant, I was either in love with this monster or terrified of it. And my confused boner couldn’t wait to find out which.
I spied another sound effect hanging in the air to my left and reached for it. My fingers curled around the arrow shaped characters as I pulled my half-frozen soul out of the water. The Frog-swan freed itself and charged again, knocking me and the characters I was holding back into the frigid marsh.
The slimy green bastard paddled close, probing its head into the black waters searching for me. I plunged the sound effect I held into its soft side. It shrieked and writhed as I pulled. I’d hoped to lift myself out and up onto its back, instead the pressure tore through its thin skin.
The frog-swan splashed and cried. Alternating between my hand and new weapon, I climbed the beast like a mountaineer. Gooey flesh squished under my nails. Reaching the top, I swung my frozen-solid leg over its back and prepared to hold on until the hideous creature decided to visit land.
It ceased to struggle. Its swan-like neck drooped followed by the rest of its muscles. We floated for a bit before a now familiar cry reached my ears. Through the mist a second frog-swan came into view. It screamed as it spied its motionless kin.
If it didn’t see me, maybe it’d go away. I pressed myself against the dead frog-swan. Rancid slime stuck to my lips, which by cruel reflex I then licked. A soft glow developed between me and the dead creature. It’s friend and I locked eyes. It glided toward me.
Clutching my partial sound-effect, I awaited battle. My lower body itched and burned. I clenched my toes in pain then realized I was clenching my toes. I was thawing. The enemy eased into striking distance. Maybe I could take this one alive—no sooner had I finished the thought, then a giant hand shot out of the water and grabbed the slimy skinned bird. With no consideration for my plans, the massive fist flung the amphibious fowl shooting across the sky.
As I admired the distance, another hand wrapped itself around me and pulled me deep into the inky waters. I gasped and terror surged through me as water flooded into my mouth. The panic slightly subsided when breathing in the water didn’t result in drowning. Then I remembered I was already dead.
I opened my eyes to find myself face to nose with a giant man. He loosened his grip but not enough for me to stab him with my partial doki if the need arose. He opened his mouth and if spirits could piss themselves, I’d have done it.
Rather than eat me, he spoke. “Tell Hekate,” his voice boomed, “I accept the terms.”
“Okay.” I replied. Which was clearly the correct answer as the giant thrust me back up to the surface and released me. Unfortunately, my frog-swan raft had drifted away. The water however, no longer felt cold and my lower half had fully defrosted.
I swam until I heard Charon’s voice.
“Valued customer!” She cried out. Through the mist, the light of her lantern swayed over the rippling waves.
“Over here.” I called back. She pulled me onto her boat.
“My deepest apologies, valued customer.” Charon blushed. “If we could not tell Hades-sama about our little accident, it’d be greatly appreciated. To make up for the inconvenience, your next ferry ride will be free of charge. How does that sound?”
“Yeah, sure.” I glanced back at the water.
“Great.” Charon cleared her throat and we resumed travel in silence. Once the current had settled, she started back up her tour. “We’ve now crossed into the river Styx. The Styx is the largest of the—”
“Yes, valued customer?”
“Back there, earlier…I saw someone in the water.”
“Ah.” Charon pushed her oar. “It’s not uncommon to find shades in the rivers.”
“The man I saw was gigantic. Big enough to lift this boat up with his hand.”
Charon’s face grew dark. “Acheron,” she muttered.
“That’s the name of the river we started in, yeah?”
“Mm. And the titan it was named after. Acheron was a healer. During the Titanomachy, he remained neutral, tending to the injured on both sides of the war. When the Olympians won, unlike other Titans who stayed neutral, Acheron was punished, because he had healed the enemy. Zeus chained him to the bottom of the river that bears his name.”
“That’s pretty messed up.”
“The underworld isn’t just an economic powerhouse—it’s also a prison. It’d be best if you don’t mention him to Hades-sama.” Charon paused. “Did he say anything to you?”
“No,” I lied. I wasn’t completely sure why, but it felt like the titan had trusted me with something important. Tell Hekate I accept the terms. Maybe it was something that could free him?
“Who is Hekate?”
Charon gasped. “You don’t know Hekate-sama? She handles all the marketing. She could sell milk to a cow.”
“Oooh. Right.” I had no idea who that was but it sounded like she was friends with Hades.
“We’re now approaching Asphodel port. Please wait to disembark until directed.”
The boat stopped next to the pier. Charon exited first then helped me climb out.
A flurry of barking resounded as a three-headed puppy sprinted toward us. A sour-faced Hades followed. She handed Charon a coin pouch.
“Thank you.” The Ferryman bowed her head and returned to her boat. Hades waited for her to push off back toward the Acheron before turning to me.
She glared. “You’re late.”