Alma arrives at her family’s estate and says her farewells to Pavia. She is already late for the ceremony, she knows, but her presence there is only essential to one person: herself. So, after scheduling her escort back to the portal for three hours later, Alma rushes through seldom-used but well-known halls to reach an apparent dead end.
The hallway here leads into the shadows. Inside them, framed in black metal, small pieces of black glass meticulously arranged in intricate patterns would reveal the most delicate glyphs stretching in a spiral, drawing a portal that would fill the world with awe, if ever a light were to shine through them.
Alma reaches into that darkness and touches the glass, allowing the magic in the symbols to sense her essence, to recognize death in her. In the blink of an eye, the darkness engulfs her. She appears inside the sacred hall, a massive underground cavern lit only by the narrow skylight that pierces through the ceiling to allow the light of the sun in. The hall is still part of Death’s estate but the ground, up there, is part of the Life Clan’s property in the First Ring. All the life gods in the Urbis will be standing under the sun, around that opening in their ground, just as all the death gods in the Insula are standing down here, in the darkness cast around that single pillar of light shining on the circular platform in the center of the room. With all of them gathered here, not a creature will die, not a being will be born today.
But something is wrong. The ceremony should have started already. The sun needs to be aligned perfectly with the platform, shining directly on it to activate the Wheel. The Wheel Spinner, only goddess of the Wheel in the whole of the Insula, should be standing at the center, serving as its body, filtering the souls collected by the death gods throughout the year and resetting, renewing them so that the life gods can send them on their next incarnation.
The sun is shining. But the Spinner is nowhere to be found. The death gods are mostly just standing around, waiting for something to happen. Alma takes advantage of this and moves into the throng of brothers, cousins, uncles, aunts and other family members, looking for the place where her father will be standing. He will not be standing on any platforms or sitting on any thrones. In this most sacred of rituals, all death gods stand as equals.
A wheezing voice by her left rings familiar with spite just as she spots Death’s second wife, Macana and her son, Molochai. “Oh look… brothers. The… prodigal daughter… returns.”
Alma stops and turns to look at Clochol, the Death by Asphyxia, stretching his many, powerful arms. His large hands, fit for holding a mortal neck as its owner kicks and flails in suffocation, are open in mock surprise. Even if his blueish-purple face with bulging, bloodshot eyes smiles at Alma, she knows that he is not in the very least pleased with seeing her.
By his side, Sudic, the Weaver, Death by Hanging, taps his eight, spidery legs, with which he is said to hold the ropes that encircle the necks of his victims. The countless eyes that cover his torso blink at the goddess, one by one, while his voice scratches against his silk-filled windpipes. “If you are going to infiltrate a ceremony, at least be polite enough to be on time.”
And just behind Sudic, Narec, Drinker of Souls, scratches his sickly bluish-grey skin with yellowed, sharp talons and runs his tongue over his pointed fangs while he whistles derisively, “Or else take the door.”
Without a lower jaw, for this is how his worshippers envision him, he is forced to speak through slits on both sides of his neck. Seeing these three of her brothers always reminds Alma of how lucky she is to not have her sphere allocated to a specific type of death.
“Ready… to pick… sides,… this time?” Clochol wheezes, one finger mockingly twiddling with the earring nailed directly into his skull since he was created without a left ear.
The joke sends both his monstrous brothers into maniacal laughter, making Clochol laugh too at his own poor excuse for a witty sense of humor. Soon, however, his wheezing frame is shaking with breathless cough and he walks away, closely followed by Sudic and Narec, who prop him up so that he doesn’t fall. Alma sighs at all this, wondering if it is her taint or their divine nature that keeps the brothers despising her so even in spite of the obvious bonds connecting them all.
“Don’t pay attention to them,” Molochai says, gently hugging her hips.
Alma puts a hand on his head and strokes his hair. “I won’t, little brother. Not this time.”
Not far away, the gentle Macana nods and smiles reassuringly at her through soft, wrinkled features and waves a delicate hand in greeting. Alma smiles and nods back at her, in gratitude for her constant support. Macana has always been there to help her deal with unfriendly, bullying brothers like Clochol and his siblings. Her family is riddled with such characters.
“They do, however, have a point,” someone says from the vicinity of Alma’s right thigh. “You are late, sister.”
Alma looks down at Supa, the short, bulky, heavily armored death god with long frizzy hair that barely allows for the clan mark dangling from his left ear to be visible and a fiery beard that the dwarven people living in caves and tunnels all over – actually, under the Isle, have created for themselves. Rough-mannered and ill-tempered, he has never been affectionate toward his only sister. But he has never stood against her either.
So it is without animosity that Alma replies, “I was detained elsewhere. Why is the Wheel not turning yet?”
A carrion bird, black as night, lands on Supa’s helmed head. The creature’s exposed skull and spine sway as it crows, its mother’s silver chrysanthemum poking through the feathers of his left wing, while the fine chain of the supposed earring rattles softly against its vertebrae, “The Spinner failed the first attempts. She stepped out to regain her strength.”
Alma stares into the hollow orbits of Panai, Harbinger of Death and Cleaner of Corpses, as she processes the words he has just spoken. The Spinner is old and grows weaker every year but she has never failed to activate the Wheel.
“Yes, at this rate, we won’t have a ceremony next year,” Lwal echoes her fears as he enters the conversation.
Guardian god of cemeteries that lurks among the graves of mortals, Lwal is another of those unfortunate gods shaped too strongly by the feeble, fearful minds of Man. Created with a knack to tolerate few people and like no one but gravediggers, his otherwise noble spirit is trapped inside a hideous, chimeric body. Pale and sickly, his muscular human torso covered in short dirty hair that always smells of death and decay, he walks on strong, lupine legs balanced by a long, scrawny tail. His weaselly, elongated face crowned with bat-like ears, the left of which pierced as law demands, always seems to leer at everyone.
“Where are your pets?” he growls in question. “I thought you didn’t go anywhere without them.”
“They have no business being here,” Alma states, ice building in her voice at hearing the Bunnies being called pets.
“And you do?” Panai inquires, casually scratching his polished skull with a skeletal foot. The sound it makes would be blood curdling if Alma weren’t so used to it.
Alma’s eyes shoot back to Panai. If her gaze were a blade, it would pierce through steel right now. “Last I checked, we still shared a father, Panai. Unless you know something I don’t about that.”
“Oh, my little sister is developing a sharp tongue, I see!” the good humored tones of Imset’s voice ring suddenly as he drapes a cloaked arm over her shoulders. “Long time no see, Almy.”
Alma chuckles at the rarely used pet name. Imset, the Darkness at the End of Life, is the twin of her oldest brother. Always draped in the cloak that shapes his body entirely made of shadows, he is also one of the most good-natured of all of Death’s sons.
“The First Ring is too rich a prowling territory for the likes of me, Immy,” Alma greets him with a hug. “But it is always a pleasure to see you. Where is Lum? You two are never apart.”
Imset jerks his head to the left. “Look behind me.”
Closeby, Luminus, the Light at the End that guides souls into the afterlife salutes Alma by touching two fingers to his forehead. His body made of light where Imset’s is made of darkness, Luminus is the oldest of Death’s sons, born from Becech’s chest, three days before his twin. Though he keeps very much to himself, he is the gentlest of them all. He seems to be busy entertaining their easily bored cousins, Namka, Orcal and Ghedibo, three tiny, colorful and cheerful fairy-like goddesses in charge of collecting the souls of little babies. So Alma just smiles and nods back at him, not wanting to impose.
A fearsome bark puts an end to the conversation.
“Back to your positions, the lot of you! Sharia is returning. Alma, get out of the way!”
Alma looks into the distance to see Varah, the Fencer, glaring at her through a crimson eye. It is obvious that Alma is performing badly by not obeying her aunt’s shouted orders immediately. But there is also wild pleasure there, hidden deep in that glare. After all, is Alma not doing what her aunt had told her to do, in her very own special way? Does the Death by Blade see the spine that she has always urged her niece to grow finally stretching into existence?
Just as Alma is about to move, the tip of a cane taps her shin.
“Excuse me, young lady,” a withered, slightly cackling voice speaks from somewhere behind the goddess.
Alma twirls on her heels to face Sharia, Spinner of the Wheel. Old and wrinkled, her spine bent and shrunken by the weight of the centuries, Sharia is the only known goddess of the Wheel alive, charged with guarding the ever turning spiral of death and rebirth and summoning it into the material realms, where the living dwell, once a year so that the souls of the dead may be wiped clean of their memories and readied for a new life.
But the Wheel is a demanding master and Sharia bears its mark. Life flees swiftly from her grey hair and cloudy eyes. Every year she looks thinner, weaker, more worn. And without a successor in sight, the day may soon come when the Wheel no longer turns for the souls of the Urbis.
Alma tries to keep these worries away from her mind as she smiles pleasantly at the ancient goddess. “Do you not recognize me, Spinner?”
Sharia squints at her for a long moment. Eventually, her face brightens in recognition.
“Little Alma! How you have grown!” she cackles. “Why, you were just a little girl last year.”
Alma chuckles. “I am afraid it has been decades since I was a little girl.”
Much to her surprise, Sharia’s eyes narrow in irritation at her reply. “I am old, not daft, little girl!” the Spinner scolds her. “And I know what I say. Help me, please. I could swear this place gets bigger each year.”
“With pleasure, Sharia.”
Alma takes the arm that the old goddess proffers and does her best to steady the Spinner’s steps as they walk toward the platform in the center of the room. The sun will not be shining over it for much longer. At their passing, the assembled death gods move aside to let them through. Alma catches a glimpse of Melinor standing by her father, both looking at her with badly hidden curiosity.
“Is this the year you finally join us, dear?” Sharia’s voice interrupts her thoughts.
Alma sighs. “I would love to but where would I stand? Every year, I fail to answer that question.”
“And yet, every year you return,” Sharia notes, glancing up at Alma with a strange expression on her parchment-skinned face. “Even when you are invited not to.”
“This is still my clan,” Alma states firmly, bitterly. “Unless they cast me out, I have every right to be here. I have seen some uglier faces than these, lately. I will not be bullied out.”
She hardens her heart against the criticism and accusations she fears, but expects, from the Spinner. For all her sins, her taint, her weakness, Alma now knows that she does not deserve the treatment she has many times received from her family. For maybe the first time in her life, she allows herself to feel what she has been denied all these years: anger. At being discriminated againt, mocked, used, rejected by those who should be her safe harbor in a storm. Now, with the loving support of the new family she has been trying to build for herself, Alma is beginning to let go of the fear of rejection from her clan to embrace the reassuring knowledge that her friends and children await her return back home. Home… Where they are.
“Yes… You have grown,” Sharia whispers softly. “And not a moment too soon.”
Surprised by the Spinner’s words, Alma grins like a child receiving an unexpected compliment.
Still, she holds on to the simmering revolt that tempers her tone. “My father’s daughter may be weak, wise one, but my children’s mother cannot afford such luxury. Nor can my friends’ friend.”
Sharia nods thoughtfully and stops walking. They have arrived at the center of the platform.
“And where will she stand this year?” the Spinner asks, sweeping the room with her cane.
Alma snorts and looks up at the disk of sunlight coming through the ceiling and that falls so deliciously warm on her face. The answer to that question eludes her still.
“Is there some place halfway up?” she jests.
Sharia tilts her head to one side. “Funny you should mention that.”
She beckons for Alma to lean forward, as if she were about to reveal the secret of a hidden platform or room. Alma complies, entranced by the beautiful, vibrant, nacred blues and greens that suddenly surge through the Spinner’s eyes like rays of pure energy. Sharia stares into Alma’s deep blue eyes for a moment and slowly raises a hand to the young goddess’ forehead.
“Brace yourself,” she says. “This won’t be entirely pleasant.”
By the time her words register, it is already too late. At a touch of Sharia’s fingers, Alma’s soul seems to explode. The young goddess stumbles, taken by surprise as new energy, a new calling awakens in her. Her soul breaks from its bindings, rejecting its previous shape.
Alma throws her head back as a scream dies in her throat. The sensation is breathtaking, thrilling and painful. She feels her essence being stretched to impossible lengths, spreading as if it had the whole world to fill, her soul being pulled in opposite directions by her opposing spheres until it is but a thin strand of spectral mana. No longer the same shape as her soul, her body refuses to obey her command. And then, it refuses to hold her at all. She sees more than hears or feels it thumping onto the floor, lifeless, empty as the shell any body ever is to its precious cargo. She rises in the air, levitating until floor and ceiling are both halfway away. So strange… She can still feel herself, still find a shape to her essence. She can see and hear and feel the world around her but everything is so distant…so alien to her. The room feels flimsy, wavering as if it were just one of many possible rooms that could ever exist in this very same place of space and time and probability. Her family feels solid, though, shimmering like stars against a dull sky, all of them as certain and real as only death can stand at the edge of life. Family…but they are not like her. Not like her at all. How could they ever understand? If they can’t feel this…this… paaaaiinnn! Her back arched in pain, her spectral eyes open in an agony that is somehow mixed with pleasure, Alma watches powerless as the Wheel awakens and pillars of light shoot up from the ground all around her, twisting and converging to join the guiding light of her soul.
Below her, the room is silent with the astonishment of hundreds of death gods.
“What are you lot waiting for?” Sharia yells at them. “The Wheel is turning!”
Awakened by her words, Death gives the order and the ceremony begins. With a deep breath, each death god and goddess in the room calls forth every soul collected throughout the year to leave the realm of the dead, acting as a channel through which the souls by them released are brought back from their restful, biding sleep in the spectral realms and guided into the Wheel. One by one, the souls converge to the center of the room in a beautiful, eerie aerial dance, attracted by the alluring call of the Wheel, swarming to its heart, Alma.
“Don’t fight them, child!” Sharia advises her. “Let them through. First time is always the worst.””
It feels like the Soul Bomb all over again. The young goddess is like a beacon to these souls and they race to tackle her, enter her, move through her. But this time…
They race to leave her as well, to shoot in all directions through the gaping skylight above. None of them tries to hold on to her, none tries to steal her core. Instead, they each leave something behind and take something away, melting into Alma and then out of her, slightly different, slightly changed, clean and renewed.
It is all Alma can do to keep hold of herself in the swift, chaotic trade that threatens to completely rearrange her soul.
What – What is–? she manages to think. Speaking is completely out of the question. Throat and lungs are needed for that and she left hers on the floor, down there. Will she get them back?
She is confused, scared and yet, something in her core tells her that she is safe, that nothing of what she is will be lost. It is a knowing, wizened piece of her that was not there before.
“What’s happening?” Sharia guesses her question as if she could hear her thoughts. “You found your place in the Wheel. Now… let it turn!”