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 says, jerking 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 before humanity had even reached two cell status, amoebas floating in primordial seas.
He passes the Grove, a black haired boy cradling the body of a dead man as the shouting masses reached 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 rocking 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'd watched all of human 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; there's nothing he can do now. The time is long past he could do anything at all.
If you can, you should.
He pauses at the sight of a cracked door, frowning; easing it open, he's witness to a silent tableau of Cornelia Africana, Sempronia Graccha, Emet, and Sappho surrounding a narrow bed 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 bed to gracefully lower himself into one of the hundred prostrations that an Egyptian priest learns as a matter of course. He examines him, satisfied at what he finds: Amon-Ra's divine spark is present, of course, but the mark of Hippocrates is there as well, given to one who has 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 him and the bed and the 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 between 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 says, wondering if perhaps Emet's education was lacking after all; he does remember his last vessel among the Egyptian priestly caste had a propensity to fall asleep during lectures.
"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 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 an angel within him before returning to Claudia's bedside. She was in such pain despite the syrup of poppies, her mind clouded; there was no need to take a temporary vessel while he waited for her to die, no need for him to wait those hours with her at all...but her death was slow as her body began to shut down, and she was afraid. Only hours--barely a breath before it ended--but even so, he took away her pain, cleared her mind to speak to her mother and her sister, give them some 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; it's only a memory, and there's nothing he can do now. 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' 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: it is vast, Messenger. 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. "I remember...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 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 cruel, the medium at best malicious neglect, at worst the calculated destruction of a young girl's fragile mind. She was sold to the highest--or 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."
"I remember...you said that, too." She shakes her head. "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 instinctive urge 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'd hear me," she answers. "Not here."
He jerks around. "You summoned me?"
"I forgot so much," she answers, then touches her chest, and for a moment, something gleams silver-gold, bright: her name, written into her shade. "But I never forgot me. You did 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 any gift should be used."
He thinks of those endless, locked doors. "Some things," he answers softly, "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 ridiculous miracles. "That sounds familiar."
"Practice what you preach, Messenger." She shakes her head. "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. The Door has been unguarded since the murder of Cerberus."
She hesitates. "That is not all."
Of course it's not. "The Misborn are the natural heirs of Cerberus." She nods, shoulders slumping. "That's how they passed through to come here without the Morningstar's consent. They 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 the Land of the Dead. Dead or living, 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 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 bitterly, thinking of Lucifer; he bred monsters of gods and never thought what that meant. "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 the masses of shades surround him, their despair and fear and pain endless, terrible to behold. "And this is your army?" 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.
He's not. If you can, you should.
"There are worse things than pain," Licinia says, stiffening as her eyes going to River. "There's forgetting why you endure it."
Before their eyes, the River changes, swimming calm robin's-egg blue and green, inviting; as one, the masses rush toward it, throwing themselves into the shallows and thrusting their heads beneath the surface, drinking deeply.
"Lethe," he says as one of the shapes returns, and he glimpses a blank oval set with dimly sketched eyes that seem to look through him; nothing exists behind them. "It takes--"
"Your pain," she answers. "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 answers rigidly. "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. They opened his skull and filled with gold, for the reward offered for his head was based on weight." 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 me," she answers. "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 woman who welcomed me as a loving mother, the man who believed I had no flaw, the daughter I bore to him in our marriage bed, and the sisters who were my greatest comfort." 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 it nothing," Licinia says softly, ripples of determination in her voice. "So here I stand and here I remain; I refuse it. I reject it."
Watching the Shores become churned mud as more come forward, eager, desperate, he thinks of Dean and Bobby, of Andy and Gary, of Kellie and Ray, Alicia bleeding in that field, of needles and smoke and the thousand ways he learned to forget. "I don't think I could."
"I don't see why," she answers. "You've done it a thousand times before and will a thousand times again." Licinia smiles up at him, brilliant and sweet, 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' terrible death, Scipio's betrayal, the reveal of Sempronia's suffering, and 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.
"It's hard," she says, reaching out a hand and pulling a shade to her side. Not formless, however; deep brown eyes beneath black hair smile at him shyly, overwriting the hideousness of her slow death. "But it's easier when you're not alone."
"We give it nothing," Claudia says, and another shade joins them, then another, and another. "Here we stand, and here we remain."
"We refuse it," one says as more join them; he searches their forming faces, watching them become more substantial, become--become people. "We reject it."
A tall male eases up beside Claudia as his brother joins Licinia. "It's hard," Gaius says, his mother's brilliant eyes smiling at him. "But we're never alone. Thank you, Castiel."
He's surprised by his own smile, something bubbling up from somewhere deep that feels like hope. "It is good to see you, Gaius Sempronius." Gaius tips his head, eyebrows raised. "Yes, of course, I almost forgot; you were right."
Gaius grins back. "I rather thought I would be."
He fights down laughter; this isn't the time (or perhaps, it is). "So I assume that this is…."
"My army, yes," Licinia finishes, laughter in her eyes. "Kindness is everything, Castiel of Chitaqua. It was a gift, and I did with it as you would expect; I gave it to all who could understand it. More will come; my work is only begun, but it shall be done."
He searches the dozens of faces. "I didn't know it could be passed to others." He honestly doesn't think that's possible.
"I've had time to work out the details," she says, and he looks into the face of the woman she didn't get to be in life. "There's been little else to do."
He starts to answer, then pauses, taking in the shades gathered around her: an army. "What are you doing?"
"The Morningstar calls himself Master of the Shores; it is in his name that the Misborn patrol our Shores and hunt our people," Licinia answers, raising her chin. "We do not accept his claim."
"The Shores were unclaimed by any god or mortal," he answers, and doesn't say because no one wanted them. "His conquest, while unwelcome, was just."
"They were not unclaimed," she replies. "No challenge was offered or accepted, no battle was fought and won; he trespasses on what is not his own and enforces his claim of possession with the Misborn. We do not accept this; the Shores were not his to take."
Castiel gazes at the featureless landscape, then at her, puzzled. "Even if you could claim the Shores, you would have no more authority over the Rivers than he does now," he tries. "You still could not cross."
"We don't want to cross," she says, taking 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 grows darker, richer. A fragile plant pushes itself upward, tiny leaves unfurling before his eyes, and kneeling, he reaches a shaking hand to touch one perfect leaf and feels the thrum of life: Creation.
"Here we stand," she says. "And here we remain. Why should we go elsewhere? This is our home, and we will make it a paradise. It is not over yet."
Castiel's head snaps up. "You heard it, too?
"He asked the question, and through all of time and space, we heard it," she confirms. "We did not understand it then: we hardly understood ourselves. Now, we understand, and unto you we give our answer: yes. It's not over yet."
Dean's suggestion of a secret newsletter is becoming increasingly plausible. "Who asked the question?"
"The impossible," she answers. "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, the environment hostile, it shouldn't be able to survive (or even exist) but perhaps it simply doesn't care. It could use help, however. If you can, you should. "You dispute Morningstar's claim to these lands? You claim ownership of the Shores?" She nods. "By what right? Say it."
"We challenge Morningstar's claim to the Shores; these are not unclaimed lands," Licinia answers. "Our residence makes us its natural owners; it is from us he must take them."
"You were here first, yes, excellent choice." Calling in a knife, Castiel cuts across his palm and turns it to hover over the dirt, watching the soil absorb his blood. "The Host recognizes your claim and finds it just. No challenge was made or accepted, and no battle was fought and won, so where you stand are now disputed lands. Our decision is this: ownership will be decided by combat and to the victor goes the spoils in full. This is our will and it will be done."
He glances up to see Licinia blinking slowly. "You can do that?"
"We are the last of the Host in all Creation," he says, watching his blood splash across the bright greenery. "There is no one who can tell us we can't." Standing up, he smiles at her. "Come here; we will not send you into battle unarmed."
Enchanted, he watches green grow wherever she steps before she drops gracefully to her knees, skirts pooling like quicksilver in a growing green frame. She raises her head, and he swipes a finger through his blood and touches it to her forehead, breathing his blessing in his native tongue. "Rise, Licinia of the Shores, and pick up your sword. The battle begins when you step on the field."
She nods and he extends a hand, helping her to her feet, and looks into the blue eyes. "The woman you wished to claim was not found in life," he says. "But she was not lost, Licinia. You found her here; I look upon her now." Licinia smiles slowly, mouth trembling. "Remember this: when you step on the field, you do not doubt, you do not wonder, you do not despair, you do not fear; you win."
"I will," she says, squeezing his hand and stepping back. Around her, the grass spreads further, a tiny, incongruous miracle; this is where she stands. He counts the shades quickly and then remembers there's no time here; he has all he needs.
"Gaius, come here," he says, and he sinks to her knees. Touching his forehead, he breathes his benediction; if you can, you should. "Rise, Gaius of the Shores, and pick up your sword."
Original post: http://seperis.tumblr.com/post/168949243210/so-because-my-life-does-not-have-challenges-enough
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