The old man rowed the boat with a bone weary persistence, but hadn’t said a word. The traveler had ridden in the boat for what felt to be ages already, and grew tired of the ceaseless, repetitive sounds of silence. The traveler felt emboldened by his boredom, and with the fire for companionship, he persisted once more.
“Is it as bad as they say?” the young traveler asked the boatman.
The boatman rowed for answer.
The traveler looked about, his neck tucked in tight to the thick wool cloak he wore about him, the cold threatening to steal the very life from him. He peered as far as the eye could see, but the night like sky of the deep cavern was thick and unyielding. Worse, there was a heavy fog all about them, and the stench of something rotten was growing stronger. He leaned over and gazed at the water. It was no better.
“How deep does the water go?” the traveler asked.
The boatman turned his head, his neck creaking like an old door that hadn’t been opened in many years. His face came into full view of the traveler, an unlikely sight to anyone living for a long and countless many years. The traveler regretted his nervous queries looking into that pale corpse ugly face, lips pulled back exposing full teeth, eyes hollowed out showing dark endless rings about twin orbs of eyes with no hint of pupils end and eye’s beginning.
The traveler looked down into the boat. He bit his lips and willed himself to say no more. The sound of water sloshed about the tiny vessel, the vice like grip of their desperate situation choked in on him. He felt suddenly overcome with claustrophobia, wishing he could leave the boat, wishing he could go back, wishing this evil fate had found another.
And then a new sound came to his ears, an ugly sound, like dry leaves in late October, rustling about on cobblestone just before being smashed under heavy feet. It was the dry sandy sound of the boatman laughing, “Have no wish for answers do you?”
The traveler didn’t want to raise his head, but was more terrified of refusing the lord of the boat. He looked up, and without looking square on, fearful of being sucked into the eternal gaze of the boatman, he looked away just slightly. Then he asked, “How do you mean?”
“All these questions, and yet you won’t even look the one who has your answers in the eye,” the boatman said. He shifted his gaze down toward the travelers hands, “Rub them together anymore and you’ll catch yourself afire.”
The traveler looked at his hands and realized how red they’d become. He pushed them away from each other and forced them to his sides. He licked his lips a few times and felt the sticky dry reality of his fear, and then he spoke, “Is it as bad as they say?”
“Worse,” said the boatman, turning to look into whatever ugly thing lay before them. “They say beyond my border there are lands of fire that never cease, and mountains of ice that never melt. They say there are masters worse than the ancient demons and dogs of unending—unyielding—rage and appetite. And cities with no law but murder, and chaos.”
The traveler licked his lips again.
“But that isn’t what you really wish to know is it?” the boatman asked.
“No,” the traveler said.
“You want to know if it’s possible, what you do, if it’s e’er been done?”
“Aye,” the traveler said. “Has it, sir?”
“Ne’er on my watch. Fools have tried, but none have come back. Not from there. They say a man foolish enough to enter is damned from birth, cursed with the headstrong pride of ill belief and hope. Wise men know their limits, know their bounds.”
The traveler gazed into the ugly darkness beyond their one lone torch. A soft sound came upon an unsure breeze, at first it sounded like a song, but as they grew closer the sound grew into an ugly distinct thing. “What is that?”
The boatman’s laugh came back over the boat like a low cloud just before a storm. Then he said, in a hushed whisper, “That is the land of the dead ye hear boy, the howls of the damned, the forgotten, the desperate fools who paid no heed in life. That is the sound of your own future.”