Anguish. Suffocating anguish. Screams of shredded souls deafening her ears, running down her throat. Invisible claws tearing at her, desperately, hungrily.
Endless pain. Senseless, hopeless. All-consuming. And she is naked before it, so vulnerable to it. No flesh to hold her, to sacrifice to these panicked, howling wrecks of what used to be people. They go for her soul. And she cannot hide from them. No…
No! This same pain again. This agony! Just like before, like that other time in the cells. But greater now. Stronger now. There are more of them. Or of what is left of them. They are so broken…nothing left that she can use to repair them. Nothing but her core.
And that is what they seek.
“Please, please…” she whimpers though she finds no lips to whimper with. “I can’t save your souls… You can’t take mine.”
A voice. Quiet. Kind. “Enough, now… Let her go.”
Why should they listen? The words sound like a gentle request. No order. No threat. Why should the wailing stop? The digging of corrosive talons pause? Why should they obey?
But they do. The shredded souls quiet down, their screaming trailing off with a questioning tone. She can feel them backing away, slowly. Hesitantly. And hover around her. Awaiting their chance.
Relief. Such welcome relief. Such wonderful silence. Magnificent emptiness of emotion. Of pain.
A stray thought finds its way to her conscience, poking at it softly like a parent gently awakening a slumbering child. “Who is there?” she asks. “How did you do that?”
“Even the most desperate soul listens if spoken to in the right tone,” the voice replies with a soft, beatific smile. Alma cannot see its source but she has learned long ago that voices can smile and cry and laugh and rage. And this one sounds so peaceful… so ancient. “And all of them can be saved, no matter how torn they are.”
A light begins to glow gently in the dim twilight that her eyes are becoming used to seeing. Her scrying eyes, so recently transformed into the standard of her vision. She looks around as the soft glimmer of her surroundings gains rhyme and reason. Up, down, left, right…directions are meaningless here. Is she standing up? Or lying down? It does not matter. For either a body is required and hers is far behind. Bodies cannot enter the ultimate sanctum, the very threshold of existence.
“The Wheel…” she breathes, amusing herself with the way concepts like breath remain attached to her even here. Matter shaping mind. “We are in the Wheel. It is you who I’ve felt watching me before.”
“Not just I,” the voice says. Male? Female? Who could possibly tell? “But yes, we have watched you come and go. It has been a long time since one of us has visited from the material realms. And we wondered if you would notice us.”
“One of you?” How many are there?, she wonders. “Do you mean Spinners? Gods of the Wheel?”
“Gods?” The voice sounds positively confused. “What are gods?”
The simple question hits her with unexpected weight. For so many reasons. How to explain the concept of a god to a being dwelling at the edge of all beings. There are no fears here. No desires. Nothing in the way of the matter that brings most gods to life. A challenge not much different from explaining the sound of birdsong to a deaf person. But if these beings have no concept of a god…what are they? And why are they here?
She decides to use the one example she reasons they will understand: souls. “Gods are beings with complex souls like my own. In basic shape. Eight layers around a stable core. No frail parts to be eaten away by time.”
“Ah… We never called ourselves gods. Still, many have lived and died since we have been here.” The voice sounds almost amused though its tone carries an empty contemplation suggestive of many centuries passed in this place.
“Who are you, then?” Alma asks, feeling her own thoughts drift away from emotion, sharing in the peace of her strange companion.
“We are Shan’doír,” is the answer. “Like you. Shape to core to purpose. Serving the heart of the Wheel.”
Shan’doír… There is a name she has never heard before. “Is this where all the people who serve the Wheel go when they ascend, then?”
“All souls come through here sooner or later. But none like ours since the great war.” A pause in speech. Was that sadness in those words? “And these souls are waiting for you to save them.”
Around her, the lingering, watchful residues of shattered souls begin to move again, encircling her, not screaming anymore but pouring threateningly like acid eating its way through a tabletop. She panics again, feeling them closer and closer. “I…I don’t know how. I have done it before but those souls were not quite as shattered as this.”
“You are the heart of the Wheel, the cleansing filter through which all souls are undone and rebuilt,” the voice says calmly. “Open yourself to them and let them through. Your core is with the Wheel. It cannot be destroyed by the simple touch of a soul. Now do not fight that touch, or all you will achieve is pain.”
Alma hesitates but the voice sounds so serene, so certain. And she has nowhere to go, no way to escape these approaching specters. There are moments of epiphany in life, people say. Moments when the stars align or the sun shines through the clouds in inspiring ways just as a word is spoken, just as a thought strikes a nerve. The answers will come, people say, when we are ready to listen.
This is not the time for epiphanies, it seems. As Alma forces herself to relax, fearfully opening herself to the shattered souls, no enlightenment comes to her. No spell, no mental pathway to shift her mana into a new shape. At the first touch, she flinches in pain before reclaiming control and relaxing again. One by one, the souls trickle into her and she feels them homing in on her core, advancing hungrily. She feels them reach for it, grab it, penetrate it without pause, curl within it like a caterpillar in a silk cocoon…and leave. Simply leave instead of claiming her essence to themselves. Leave… Emerge like butterflies spreading wings to the sun, changed, whole. Two brand new souls made of the vestiges of eight, singing in glee at their rebirth as they fade into the matrix of the spectral realm. Through the heart of the Wheel.
If she had lungs to breathe with, the goddess would be breathing out deeply in relief. ““Thank you,” she says. “This sphere–” She catches herself, thinking that if these entities don’t know about gods, they will probably have no concept of spheres either. “This ability of mine has only recently awakened and I don’t quite know how to control it yet.”
“You will learn,” the Shan’doír voice assures her. “We have much to teach you. But now is not the time for that. You should not stay here too long while you are still learning. And the material realms must await your return.”
And suddenly, the memory hits her. Of the eerie corridor and the necromancer’s lair. Of being attacked. “Fates… Sky…the others! The demons! Yes, I have to return!” She looks around but there is nothing to see. No path she can discern. “But how?”
“Relax, listen to the Wheel,” the voice instructs her. “The paths in and out of it can be felt, not seen. There will be a difference. And there your gateway will be.”
“Will you be here, should I find my way back?” she asks.
“Of course, little soul. There is nowhere else for us to be.”
The moons glow bright on the rooftops tonight, not another soul to be seen. A kingdom of desolation and it looks like she’s the queen. The heat is haunting like the growing fear inside. Couldn’t make it there, heavens know she tried.
Rush! Rush, Saira!
The air feels dead and wrong. A faint scent of smoke wafts in the breeze.
The scent is stronger now, the air thicker. Smoke and fire.
Not fire again. Not this same nightmare again. She runs into the growing smoke, sees the old abandoned building aflame.
And stops. Watching. How many times has it burnt down now? Twenty? Two hundred? A thousand times? Every night in her dreams. Most nights, at least. She never makes it on time. She never has.
Because she didn’t make it the first time. The one time it really mattered.
“Why?” she hears her friends voices rise in the air in tandem with the crackling flames.
The echoes surround her, screaming. Accusing. And she sits.
Her feet dangle over the edge of a rooftop just opposite the building’s. She cries from the smoke, from the suffering of years. How many times has she made that jump to the balcony so that she could look inside and watch her friends, her adopted family die all over again?
“Saira!” the voices beckon.
And just like clockwork, the shadows appear. Dark figures blurred by the smoke, moving on the rooftops not far away from her. She could chase them. She could catch them.
Maybe. Maybe. She never has. Not in her dreams. It took her years to catch them in the real world. And she hasn’t caught them all. Not yet. There is one missing. One still out there.
She swings her legs back onto the rooftop, stands up. Her crossbow is strapped across her back and she reaches for it, arms it with a fresh bolt.
And walks away.
“Why, Saira?” the voices ask.
She doesn’t answer. They aren’t real. They never were. Her friends are at peace and she is on her way to join them, she knows. But first, she has to find him. The one who keeps getting away.
She has one more target to kill.
And another family to save.
Darkness again. Then a whimper. Long, drawn out. Weak. The low cry of someone who has been sobbing for far too long. Alma opens her eyes, wondering if it is her who is whimpering. No, not her eyes. She has no eyes here. She feels the living shell wrapped around her. A heart beating. Lungs breathing. A fully functioning unit.
That is not hers. She cannot command it to open eyes or sample scents. Or move. She feels imprisoned, though not completely uncomfortable. Not completely bound. There is such a frail connection between her soul and this flesh. But what is this flesh? Whose flesh is it? And are they here with her?
She stretches her senses through it in scouting spectral tendrils, but their path is barred, their efforts restricted by an invisible barrier. Within her reach there is mostly darkness, mostly cold. Everything so undefined. So empty. Echoing like a dome. Surrounding her. And though she hovers about, she cannot touch anything, extend her will to a single muscle, a single organ. Such a strange thing.
“Where am I?” she wonders.
The sobbing stops. “No, no, no, no, nooooo, who are you?” a frightened voice asks, its tones stretched with the strain of terror. “Please, don’t hurt me. Please, please, please…”
Alma searches the voidness in vain, hovering in every direction. Seeing nothing. “Unless you are a necromancer, you have nothing to fear,” she assures the trembling, almost childlike voice. “Who are you? I can’t see you from here.”
“Y-you…you’re the one she tortured to death,” the stuttering voice whimpers.
Tortured? To death? When? By whom? “It hurt to deal with those souls but I am quite certain that I am not dead,” the goddess replies. “My name is Alma. What is yours?”
The voice speaks again, small and hesitant at first but then pouring out in a rush of terror, like a flood escaping a broken dam. “I’m Trocia. She didn’t torture you. She took a woman off the street, and changed her to look like you. The woman had a little boy… And then she tortured the woman to death in front of Azzageddi.”
Pain. Anguish. They fill Alma’s surroundings, so palpable that the goddess can almost put a taste to them. She tries to reach Trocia, to empathize with her and reassure her but to no avail. The girl – she sounds to Alma like a young girl just in the brink of physical maturity – hides still from Alma’s reach.
“Monster,” the goddess growls. “I will see her rot in torment for eternity.”
The image of a face, pale, hollow-eyed and timid appears at the edge of Alma’s awareness. Dark hair, young features still round with the residues of childhood marred by grief. Trocia’s image of herself. “She wants to hurt you,” the girl says, a colder, bitter edge now sharpening her tone. “She wants to hurt everyone. But she really wants to hurt you. And Azzageddi. And Margrave.”
“Do you know why?” Alma asks.
And does it even matter? When has reason been important to the mad, the deranged, the immoral and amoral?
“She…sometimes she screams about the people who hurt her,” Trocia replies, her figure now clearer to Alma’s vision. Contracted, flimsy. Almost as if trying to hide within herself. “The Death Clan. Azzageddi k-killed her. Sent her to Hell. She…she sometimes forgets I’m here.” A pause. “Those are the best times.”
“Where is here, exactly?” Alma asks softly, hating Nua for what she has done to this distraught soul and wishing she could somehow spare Trocia all this pain. “And why isn’t she with us?”
For a moment, Trocia’s soul is revealed to her completely, its shape and its bonds to the living body around them both becoming clear. “This is me. My body! She left, oh she left, I thought…and then she put you in here.” The girl fades into the darkness again, just her voice left, quiet and morose. “Now…now she won’t need me anymore.”
“You mean she…” Alma feels as chill – no, not a chill. A surge of energy and dread – rush through her entire spectral being. If this is Trocia’s body and Nua is no longer in it–
Terrifying realization dawns. The soul bomb, the escape into the Wheel. Nua must have used those things to rob Alma of her own body. To take it for herself? But what can Nua do in a divine body? Alma’s power lies in her soul!
But…a divine body is ageless. It heals quickly. And it looks exactly like Alma.
The goddess struggles desperately against her bindings, horrible imagination filling her thoughts with images of her loved ones being attacked by her own body, hesitating to attack it and dying as a result of it.
No, no. They would fight her. They would kill her if they had to! They would do it if it meant saving themselves and all the others.
“Demons, I can’t move!” she cries as the wall built around her holds in spite of her efforts. “I can’t touch this body! I can’t control it! I need to see! I need to know what she is doing with my body!”
“No please I don’t want to open my eyes!” Trocia begs. “I don’t want to see what she’s doing to them! She makes me watch! She made me hold still while she made Azzageddi…”
The words make Alma stop struggling. Her rage simmers, cold in her voice as she demands, “While she made him what?”
“She made him…” Trocia’s voice chokes with a sob, a whimper. Pain and disgust and shame and helplessness fill Alma’s world. “Made him have sex with my body. And then she let me take control again. She told him she’d hurt me if he stopped.”
How to react to that? What to feel first? What to say? What to think? Alma is reduced to silence and stillness for a long, heartbroken moment. And she feels all of the sorrow in the world for this girl.
And she feels it for Sky.
“Oh little soul…” she whispers in dismay. “Please, help me defeat that monster. Let me at least see what she is doing to the people I love so that I can help them. Please…”
Trocia’s crying becomes a distant whimper and Alma fears for awhile that the girl has decided to leave the goddess here to rot in oblivion. But then, physical senses return. Sight and hearing and touch. Cold metal beneath her back and wrapped around her wrists and ankles. Voices. A ceiling. Weak, barely allowed sensations. Barely tolerated awareness.
Terrible things going on out there.