The Thirteenth Sign

ferry

Photo by Jayant Kulkarni on Pexels.com

“This is most unusual.” The ferryman, standing at the head of his riverboat, guided it steadily, pull by pull, across waters darker than pitch.

“It is allowed. I have Persephone’s blessing.” The voice from beneath the ashen robes and hood was deep, husky, even coarse, but still unmistakably female. It was the only sign of her identity besides a vague shape, for no part of her flesh was visible to him.

While the waters of the Styx were liquid obsidian, the mist surrounding them swirled white as smoke, perhaps belched out between the Underworld and the living by the furnaces of Hades.

“Sisyphus had Persephone’s ear, and you chose your timing well, what with the winter solstice coming upon the land above.” The old man took another stroke, and then listened as if someone might call. Even to the cloaked figure, he looked unkempt and foul, his stench could have been rotting fish, the breath of rats, or gangrenous flesh. His long, stringy hair and beard dripped an unsavory substance.

She said nothing but felt her skin shiver as she imagined her unseen and silent companions slithering across her legs and groin.

Then there was the sound of small waves lapping a shore, and arcane fog gave way to natural light. The shades of the dead emerged as a horde of humanity, men, women, children, of every nation, tribe, and tongue. They awaited their turn on the barren shore to board the ferry, but in their case, the journey to Hell would be one way.

The boat made dock and the ferryman set aside his pole. Bones creaked as he climbed up onto the pier and secured his craft with fraying hemp. The shambling departed began to advance, their fate long since sealed, but Charon waved them back. He offered no hand to the concealed woman, but she wouldn’t have taken it if proffered.

In contrast to the psychopomp, she nimbly ascended to the groaning planks. Charon did not restrain her, and the dead shuddered in terror at the woman, though they could hardly imagine why.

“Theseus.”

At his word, she hesitated. “What of him?”

“Dionysius, Heracles, Orpheus, they all returned from the Underworld, all for good reason, or so I’m sure they believed. That I may include your name among those legendary others, what shall I call you and what is your quest?”

Enraged by what she considered impudence, the gray figure spun on one foot to face him and ripped away her cowl. For an instant, even the guide of the dead trembled, deep set eyes wide with terror.

Her hair was a tangle of thousands of serpents, and her face that of a python, but only for an instant. In the time it took for the demon to blink, her visage had dramatically shifted to that of an enchantress, a woman so beautiful, she could bewitch even one such as he…almost.

“If you must know, my name Ophiuchus, and thanks to the pleading of his wife Persephone, your Lord and Master Pluto has given me exactly one year to find the vile creature that murdered me and consigned my soul to Hell. Now if you’ll excuse me, my brief time among the living awaits.”

The multitude parted before her as once did the mountainous waves of the Red Sea before the Hebrew Prophet Moses. The name Ophiuchus meant nothing to Charon, not being well-versed in the ways of the upper world, but among the thousands and then thousands more, the whispers traveled upward like steam or the hissing of vipers.

“The thirteenth sign.”

Charon looked at his feet, surprised to see she had left him a gift of sorts. Thin, bony fingers captured them with long, crooked nails and he lifted the cards to his face. These he did recognize as Tarot, for this artifact of occultism was commonly known. The first card was Temperance, which ill-suited the woman. However, the second card was Death, which brought comfort to his spirit as it was his old companion.

He stared back the way she had gone, anticipating that if she did not return, she would send another to replace her, though that one would likely not come willingly. Then, remembering his duty, he tucked the cards into his ragged loincloth. Charon beckoned his passengers to board the ferry, and ushered this charges to their final rest.

For Ophiuchus there would be no rest. There was only the frantic pursuit of a foe disguised as a mortal, a prey who was an apex predator. Could she turn the tables on him in time? Not alone and not as a formless shade from Hades. The thirteenth sign of the Zodiac would need to seek out the other twelve. She would start with Capricorn, and work her way through as many of the others as she needed. The Lords of Law and Chaos preserve her if she did not find and defeat her enemy before she reached Sagittarius. The centaur would be her last hope, and a slim one, if the year expired before the slayer was found.

I wrote this for Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie’s Photo Challenge #328. The idea is to take the photo displayed above and use it as a prompt for crafting a short story, poem, or other creative work. I think inspiration may have finally returned to me because this story is a sort of “jumping off point” for a project that I’ve been considering.

A lot of the references and symbolism are probably known to you from Greek mythology, but there are most likely some you haven’t recognized. This time, I won’t explain everything to you, but if you’re curious, Google is always at your disposal.

I will say that the various signs of the Zodiac are all associated with certain Tarot cards, so my inserting Temperance and Death into the mix wasn’t really from so far out in left field.

To read other stories based on the link, go to Mister Linky.

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