There are no words for it.
It is a mixture of pain, fear, anger, despair, anguish, confusion, every single negative thought wrapped in breathtaking, unbearable suffering. And it is just getting worse.
What’s going on?! Nekh’s voice resounds in her head, as panicked as she is. What’s happening?!
Alma does not answer. Her eyes can barely see past the blurring mists of her agony. Somewhere, in the bowels of the station, something unspeakable has been done. Souls are screaming, burned, broken, ripped apart by some violent cataclysm. She can hear them, horribly maimed, their shrieks echoing into the night.
She runs into the station, feeling their pain grow stronger within her, yearning desperately to escape the ever-sharper cries that tear at her soul but knowing that she could never walk away. Not her. Not from them…
Gods, how can you bear this?! Nekh insists, his bond to her forcing him to share in her anguish. Shut’em up!
But Alma cannot stop them screaming anymore than she can stop running. She dashes down the stairs into the basement, nearly knocking down Gwydion, who is just making it down the last step. He looks at her almost as if he does not recognize her, so haunted and distorted her face looks.
Sky is already there, at the door to the cell holding area. He turns to look at them, stricken but stony, his eyes dull with silent anger and grief. Around them, the basement looks surprisingly untouched. But inside the cell block…
Sky moves aside to let his Sergeants in.
Gwydion’s voice sounds almost like a whisper against the wailing of tortured souls. “What happened here?”
The cells are barely touched, no more than a few bars twisted and broken on the one that used to hold the sorcerer. Inside them, the bodies of the two prisoners, each in their own cell, lie seated against the walls, their blood smeared on the white plaster, drawing an impact zone and then the drag marks of the dead carcasses where they had hit the walls and slid down to the floor. The old hag looks almost pristine, aside from the crushed back of her skull. The sorcerer is missing his hands and his nose, and his chest has been turned into a bloody pulp.
“A bomb, or a spell,” Sky says, half to himself, almost as if he cannot believe what he is seeing. “I don’t know how. The sorcerer was thoroughly searched. He was wearing enchanted shackles. He couldn’t possibly have cast a spell.”
No… No… It’s not possible… Alma whimpers in thought as she paces around the room, unable to stand still under the desperate attacks of two shattered souls.
Two?… No, three. Against the far wall, away from the sorcerer’s cell, a body in Guardia blue is splayed out. It takes the goddess some effort to recognize it as Corporal Stathos. Sergeant Machado is already kneeling by him.
And always, the soundless, wordless, shapeless voices scream, louder and louder, in pain, in despair, unyielding to any force, souls that have lost their essence, unable to find peace. She can barely hear anything else. But no one else can hear them, no one. Pained as they look, Gwydion and Sky cannot hear their awful cries. It is at her that they scream, at her that they pull, attracted to the death goddess’ essence.
“His soul–” she tries to tell them. “All their souls–”
Make them stop, Alma!! Nekh wails. Make them shut up!!
“Stop!” Alma screams, bending double in agony, covering her ears against all the terrible voices. “Stop screaming! I can’t!”
She senses more than sees Sky, who was kneeling by Stathos’ mangled corpse, rise to his feet at her screams. Although he is just a couple of steps away, a short eternity goes by before she feels his strong arms wrap around her, keep her on her feet. He holds her gently but tightly to his chest and she grips his shirt as if she could hide from the voices in his embrace. Sky’s caring touch is a meager shelter against the wailing of souls that can no longer see beyond their own agony.
“Nothing left… There’s nothing left!” she desperately tries to explain, looking up at his concerned expression. “Just screams… Pain… I can’t release them.”
Sky’s eyes widen with comprehension as she speaks. “I could feel…something,” he whispers almost to himself. “They’re screaming so loudly even I can sense it.”
From somewhere by the door, Sergeant Machado roars, “Lamore, get those damn looky-loos out of the hallway. You’re in charge of the station upstairs for now. I need to be down here.”
“Yes sir!” the Corporal replies.
Please, Alma, Nekh begs in a painful whimper. Make it stop…
A shadow moves in Alma’s peripheral vision. Gwydion has covered the distance between them and the sorcerer’s cell that he had been inspecting before Alma screamed for help. He looks at her through worried, terrified eyes, anguished to find something he can do.
“It hurts,” she whimpers pleadingly at him, weakly pushing herself away from Sky’s hold, hoping desperately to find as before, relief in Gwydion’s arms. “Can’t…make it stop.”
Gwydion reaches out a hand to her, glancing at Sky to release her. The tall god nods gently in agreement but speaks to her first.
“Alma…” he says.
Oh no… Nekh speaks weakly. What are they–? They’re trying to get in!
The muscles in Alma’s arms spasm uncontrollably as, suddenly, the desecrated remains of the broken souls bash, all at once, into her spectral shields. Destroyed, poisoned, shapeless as they are, they burn like acid sloshing against her skin, searing into her mind, melting into her soul.
“Alma!” Sky calls her as she fights for breath. “Can Stathos, can any of them tell us what happened? Can the sorcerer tell us anything?”
Alma’s voice sounds almost like a squeak. “No… They don’t exist anymore. All there’s left is pain.”
Someone else joins them. Corporal Lamore, looking like there is not a single drop of blood left in her, is now standing by them, holding a piece of paper in her trembling hand.
She hesitates, looking back at Sergeant Machado, who is doing his best to stay out of the way without actually leaving, but then says to Sky, “Inspector. I’m sorry but…you must read this.”
She holds out the note and Sky takes it in one hand, gently helping Alma into Gwydion’s arms, who holds her close to him, whispering soothing words in her ear as he looks questioningly at the inspector. Whatever is in the note, Sky seems staggered by it.
“I have to go,” he states, holding the note out so that only Gwydion can read it. The magic god’s hands instinctively cup Alma’s cheek, to blind her to the words. “Assist Alma in laying these souls to rest. If they can truly tell us nothing…there must be a way to take away their pain. If…if not, get her out of here and find a way to contact the Death Clan. Machado, with me.”
With that, Sky disappears out of the room and up the stairs, barking orders about teams and full armor, closely followed by Sergeant Machado, leaving Alma shaking, legs nearly giving out, in Gwydion’s arms. She hides her face against his neck, breathing in his scent, crying tearlessly, chokingly at the trickling fire that burns through her spirit.
“It’s all right,” Gwydion whispers, trying his best to sound reassuring. “It’s all right… Breathe… I have you now.”
He glances at Cala, who quietly leaves the room, growling for people to clear the area. Gwydion makes a motion to follow and Alma clings to him desperately.
“Please, don’t leave,” she begs him.
Another wave of excruciating pain makes her scream again. Her legs fold under her, her hands clench Gwydion’s ribs, even Nekh recoils and hides deep in the recesses of her mind. Shapeless, she cannot stop the souls from flowing into her essence. They are getting closer to her core.
Gwydion helps her to a sitting position on the floor and kneels by her, never letting go. “Shhh…I won’t,” he reassures her, stroking the back of her head. “I won’t. But I do want to take you away from here.”
“No… No, they’ll follow me!” Alma tells him. “They are latched on.”
“There has to be something we can do, Alma,” Gwydion insists softly.
He finds a more comfortable position, sitting with his back against a pillar and cradling her, keeping her face looking at his and away from the spot where, not three steps away, Stathos’ dead body lies staring blindly at the ceiling.
“What is it that they are doing to you?” the god asks as he strokes stray locks of her hair, plastered against her face with sweat, away from her forehead and eyes.
His touch is soothing, calming, but not nearly enough to numb her pain.
“It just…hurts,” she says, breathing heavily with the effort of thinking beyond the tormenting haze. “So much… They need a core… To be released. Bomb blew it up. Now, they want mine. Ripping… Drilling… I can’t stop them.”
“Can’t you find them a new one?” Gwydion suggests. “Make one if need be?”
“No – I don’t know.” Alma shakes her head. “The pain… Weak. Can’t focus…”
The god of magic looks at her in silence for a moment, his eyes scouring her face, guided by wild thoughts, desperate plunges into memory and conjecture. His hand cups her face, carefully pulls her up as he leans down to her. Alma reaches for his shoulder with a pale, shaking hand.
His eyes already glow golden, his breath glimmers with countless motes of light as he says, “Focus on me.”
Alma nods weakly and their lips meet. Silence, relief. The kiss drowns the voices, banishes them beyond the borders of her soul again, strengthening her shields with Gwydion’s mana. All she feels is his presence, his touch, the strong, refreshing sensation of his life force warming her heart, saving her soul from being dismantled for parts. She accepts his gift with desperate gratitude, strains to make it last endlessly.
But the voices return, bickering, muttering. After the day’s events, Gwydion must be as depleted as she is, maybe even more. His power will not last much longer, Alma realizes. There must be something she can do. Her thoughts made sharper by the relief that Gwydion’s touch and mana provide, the goddess looks for a solution. New cores cannot be made by someone like her but if only she could find an alternative. Could she use Nekh as bait?
Suddenly, her senses spark. There! The hag’s soul is not completely without a core! But it is badly damaged… If Alma can repair it, then the other two will flock to the easier target, bind to that. And she will be able to release them.
She uses all the mana she can spare, all the precious mana she can afford to take from Gwydion to seize the fractured core and weave the rest of the hag’s soul around it, layering it in spectral patches glued together by Alma’s own mana. Soon, they mend the core. And immediately, like scavengers looking for the weakest, easiest prey they can find, the spectral dust and shards of Stathos’ and the sorcerer’s soul turn their attention to the restored core. They scream as they charge it and it screams in pain and desperation as they assimilate it, latching on, melting into it until only one soul, newly created, remains.
The screams are so terrible that even Gwydion shudders as they pierce through the spectral fabrics of reality. Still, the new soul is released.
They break from the kiss. The god throws his head back, fighting for breath.
“It’s over,” Alma wheezes. “They’re…gone.”
In the abysmal silence that follows, their heavy breaths seem to roar. Slowly, the gods recover, grateful for the temporary privacy they were granted. Alma lies peacefully against Gwydion, curled up in his embrace, her breathing now deep and rhythmic. He lowers his head to look at her, tired but relieved. His hand once again strokes her hair, caresses her ashen face.
He kisses her forehead. Then her lips. He rests his forehead against hers.
“I feel so weak,” Alma whispers. “Who would do something like that? And why Stathos?”
“Don’t worry about that now,” he replies. “Rest. I’ll hold you until you feel stronger.”
“Thank you for staying,” she says, too tired to make sense of her own words.
Gwydion smiles softly and kisses her forehead again. “Where else would I go?”