Stygian Blues
rating: +12+x

What was it like to be alive?

I have to admit that this type of question arises inside my mind at least thrice per cycle: I watch every human and beast and even the small protozoa and the cyanobacteria pass through, their souls a mirror into their every thought, their every feeling, the culmination of their entire time inside a single gelatin-like mirror. And through these mirrors, I could see life, and it was so foreign to anything I had experienced. Dizzying colors to look at and sentimental connections that would numb any who dared letting them in.

And I would let them in. I would intoxicate myself in them, drown myself in the memories of people I had never met, that I would never meet, because they were long gone. And if they were long gone, they wouldn’t mind me borrowing their everything.

They would mind, however. What you do isn’t part of what you should be doing, river. You are but a river, and rivers flow forward. They don’t stop to look at their surroundings.”

Airiao floated above me, and I remember the Sovereign of the Salares de Antaño was able to read my words as they passed, picking and choosing each sentence with His beak as He washed His body clean of the filth that bleed out His many feathers.

“I don’t think wondering about what’s out of one’s reach is going against Their will.”, is what I think I replied — without mouth or ears, you can never be too confident in your answers — “I still do my job, and the souls reach their place. It’s just…”

”Just… What?” Airiao turns to my phlegmatic waters, walking past His own reflection. ”Pray tell your excuse, river.”

“Do you not wonder? About the land-before?”

”I don’t get paid to wonder, river, and neither do you.” Airiao replied, and with that He flew into the reddened sky, done with His task for this cycle. I continued to flow, guiding all those who needed guidance towards the realms that required them. Some souls required be moved into the many passages of the Maze of Records, disappearing under the immense Akashic weight of all knowledge, or taken by the Malebranche who would drag bodies and memories full of hatred and regret into the endless pit of the Bog of Corruption and Shame.

The ones who would go onto the Maze had done good things in life, and those dragged into the pit had done terrible things. I knew this, as I had seen it many times. A man would step into a pure-white room and would insert metallic pieces into others countless times a day, prolonging their time in the land-before, while others would cut short other beings’ time using similar equipment. I felt important, I felt of great use, and I felt like I had done a good job for the first time since my inception. I had also felt myself dying countless times, or what I believed felt like dying, I guess. I had only felt like it once before, when the Sovereign Balfagor had decided to cut my flow with one of His hands, letting me remain in place for many cycles. I felt myself losing myself bit by bit, and… Although I knew I was disappearing, it felt… Nice. If you disappear, it means you have an end, and if you have an end, wouldn’t you have a beginning, too? If you die, that means you were alive before.

So was I alive, then? Am I alive, or do I ‘feel’ alive because I have looked into life?

”That’s a difficult question to answer, river. Not even I could, and I was alive once.”

Right now I pass through Nokor, the forgotten city, and I am met with Nokor the All-Seeing, the Sovereign that is the entire city I pass through, the vibrations of my thoughts on Her dead earth translating my words into something She could understand.

This was new information to me. Were Sovereigns alive once? Had they been part of the land I was so obsessed with?

”I cannot offer you the answer you seek, and I know you know this. Management would never allow it, because it’s not information you need, and what you don’t need is not to be given to you.” Each word spoked by Nokor was like a tremor, both to me and to the area surrounding it, the entire realm shaking as the city morphed to allow Her voice to come out and be heard.

“Allow me another question, then.” I had to be careful here. So far, I had lucked out so far, not meeting with the kinds of Sovereigns who would report me to their superiors, but I could still push too far and get myself in trouble. Despite the many souls I carried, at least eleven other rivers did the same job I did. I didn’t doubt I could easily be replaced if necessary.

”Why should I, river?” Nokor asked. I could hear Her lips curling into a smile, whichever part of the city analogue to it curving. ”There is no reason for me to even consider your existence.”

Part of me was angered; I felt myself rushing through the canal at a faster pace, offended by the Sovereign’s words. “Ignore me then, and let me flow in peace.” I wasn’t one to lash out at others, but something about Her words made me bubble. My thoughts mattered. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t have them.

I could feel Nokor looking at me, staring through each window and doorway and passage and crossing, all ‘eyes’ fixated on my being.

”I could ignore you, yes… And yet.” Nokor stopped, and although I could not read Her mind or see the intention between Her words or actions, I knew that if I was irrelevant, then She was equally as irrelevant: None passed through the forgotten city but the river that carried souls to and from. ”What is your question, river?”

For the first time in a while, I felt validated. Like my voice mattered. Is this how it… No, no jump to conclusions. You had a question to make.

“What is it like to be alive?”

A silence like no other fell for what felt like an eternity. Maybe it had been, I couldn’t know. After said eternity, and maybe another two or three more passed, Nokor let out a single sound.

Pfft.

The forgotten city trembled as if punished for and by a capital sin, brick ladders and parapets crumbling into the streets, destroying marketplaces and guilds, dust rising into the sky, buildings disappearing under the weight of the most rambunctious laugh this realm had ever heard.

”Is that really the question? Why, what nonsense is this? Why would you request me to answer to such silliness, river?”

“W-what do you mean?” If I could blush from embarrassment, or change color or shape, I would have turned red, and shrunk into a figment, never to move again. “It’s not silly, it’s-”

A massive pillar collapsed in front of me, crushing a thousand souls under its weight, memories of trips to Ibiza and amphetamine overdoses disappearing in an instant. The gap through which I passed grew larger, and I began carrying further detritus as I sped along, escaping the grasps of a fallen kingdom, one without rulers or subjects.

I ran and ran, no matter how much rock I carried or how many bodies I left behind, because I feared this would be the end of me, and I couldn’t accept this. Being mocked? Hardly a problem, but losing myself before my answers were to be answered? I wouldn’t let it happen.

As I left the realm, Nokor stopped laughing, barely anything of Her left to emit sound. And yet She continued.

”You’re so silly, river. How have you not yet realized? It’s so obvious, haha, so…”

Whatever She meant, I didn’t care. It was too late to turn back, and it wasn’t as though I could if I wanted. The city’s voice grew dimmer and dimmer as She collapsed, and soon She was no more. All that remained of the Sovereign were my doubts, still unanswered.



So it was silly, then. Why was it? ‘How have you not yet realized?’. What did that mean? It couldn’t mean that it was obvious, because it wasn’t. Because I didn’t know! How could I know?! I wasn’t alive. Not in the sense of ‘life’ that I most cared about. I hadn’t gone on a trip through Ibiza, visiting the playa d’en Bossa and enjoying butifarra, whatever any of that meant. I hadn’t gone to Egypt, or Tasmania, or had visited the tallest building or gone to any of the Seven wonders, or… Or anything, really. All I had was envy towards that which I did not possess.

”Envy is a great thing to possess, river. I wish I had some.”

Another Sovereign flew over me, Mersault His name, passing through the Cascade au bout du Monde I was.

“Leave me alone, Sovereign. I am tired of interference. I wish not to speak to anyone but the souls that bring me the closest to what life might be.”

”Ah, are we feeling daring today, river? To speak of life in a place devoid of it. Why, that might just be against policy.”

Policy. Did He mean the policy I knew very little about, given by an uncaring managing body that only stepped in to destroy and disrupt? Yes, yes, I said it! Or thought it, at least. I was tired. I ran a long, long curse with no one to talk to but Sovereigns who judged my every turn, and unresponsive souls, more an addictive candy than true confidants. With an existence so miserable, what could I do but resent my higher-ups? Maybe Nokor had a point as She refused to consider me even a thing that had any right to exist.

”Ah, now, now, don’t be such a downer either. Policies around these parts are as loose as Their control over any of us.” Mersault laughed, His broken crystal wings snapping one after the other before reforming anew. ”So you are allowed to say anything you wish, think anything you desire. It won’t change a thing, but it’ll make you feel more alive.”

There it was, the word I seeked.

I was annoyed at this point, passing through the area without a care, guided by pure instinct. “‘More’ alive? Don’t give me that! I want to be alive in the first place!”

Mersault blinked, or it seemed like He did, His body pulsating rhythmically. Then, He laughed. Thankfully, no pillars came down on me, nor the realm began decaying along it, but it still annoyed me.

”… Wait, so you really don’t see what others do, then? Was it not all an elaborate joke, a way to entertain yourself while you drift aimlessly?”

“Of course it wasn’t. What would I gain from a joke?” And how do you know I’ve spoken to others about this?…

The silence following my question was the hardest I’d ever received, almost unbearable. I wouldn’t put it past Mersault that this had been intentional, some sort of pressure He was able to exude. His paws extended, and my current raised speed, the land slowly tilting forward.

”You are silly, river. Do you know what life is?”

Something I don’t possess. Something I wish I possessed.

”Life is something you and I both possess, river. Life is something undeniable, and because you exist, you have it. Did no one teach you that?”

Then why wasn’t I like the souls I carried? Why was I not in Ibiza, or being a doctor, or a policeman, or smelling flowers, or even being taught what any of these were?

”Because that is not the life you’re meant to live. Life out there is different from life here. And has that made it any less valuable?”

Of course it has!

”Perhaps to you, but might I make a comparison? Unlike you, I know not what Ibiza is, or these ‘beaches’ it contains. No matter how much I look into you, I cannot and will never understand what you see when you see through these souls. Isn’t that unfair, that I, as a Sovereign, am unable to understand what the lower workers feel like? Enough to make oneself wish it was different, perhaps?”

A smile crept up. ”We don’t pick our lives, river, because no matter what, we have to look elsewhere, unsatisfied. I am sorry to say that tragically, you are alive. Not for long, however, if that offers any respite.”

… Eh?

What does that mean?

”It means you’re about to die. Don’t you see the cascade at the end? You’re dying.”

I look forward, and realize I am but a fraction of what I was, my being slipping through the gaps into the dark. I could not feel the parts of me plunging down.

No. No no no, this isn’t fair. I wanted to live, I wanted to feel alive. I want to travel the world, and consume food, fall in love, understand others, speak with a mouth, and not mere thoughts, I-

The last soul of the river Stygia fell down the hole, and silence reigned once more.

”What a waste of a life.”

A loud click, then silence again.






















“What is it like to feel alive?”

Airiao looks over the horizon, and sees the river approach again, carrying all souls in need of oblivion. He jumps into the crevice, waiting for them to wash Him absolved.

”Does it really matter, river?”

Airiao knew the answer to His question, of course. He’d heard it so many times before. It never stopped being amusing.

Rivers are born and eventually, they die. When put like that, they really are alive, no?



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