The landscape flies by, thriving forests and parks, rivers and lakes, peppered with barely glimpsed houses, mansions mostly but some snug little cottages, Second-Ring estates and the vacation homes of First-Ringers, the latter often kept secret from their ruling-class compatriots. Though not always. The Ystumllyn District, three rural wards strung together – as rural as one can get on a mountain-spanning city at least – left to nature though far from truly wild, a favorite destination for rich Third-Ring hikers and campers, is spoken of with longing even in the First Ring, with its otherworldly pleasures.
The little village of Ystumllyn, capital of the district, has the only public portal for leagues and leagues, and the itinerant god was grateful for the availability of the small two-wheeled ceffyl-drawn trap. The magnificent grey-dapple horse, her mane in complex braids, had kept up a steady stream of conversation all the way from the portal, even as she ran upon roads invisible to eyes other than hers, sometimes well above the treetops, others descending right down to the physical road that he would have taken many hours to walk upon if he had had to reach his destination on foot.
“You know, most people assume I can’t even speak,” she says. “They just think, ‘Oh, a horse! Take me to the prettiest lake, will you?’ When I say, ‘Sure thing!’ you should see them jump!” She laughs. Neighs. Either way it’s a pleasure to hear. “We’re almost there, by the way.”
She is slowing. “I’m sorry to say goodbye,” the god says. “Thank you for such an enjoyable ride.” His voice is congenial, inviting conversation, the sort of voice you find yourself opening up to, telling things you haven’t told your friends, and especially not your closest loved ones, a voice that you know will not judge you, that will understand and tell you what you need to hear. Not what you want to hear, perhaps, but what you need.
“Hey, I’m sorry to say goodbye, too,” the horse, Ffion, calls back, the wind whipping her words to his ears. “Good passengers are a gift. You said you’re only staying at this estate a short time?”
“A few hours,” he says – almost shouts, for his words have to fight against the air current to reach her. The have entered a long driveway, and the wheels bounce and hooves clipclop as they alight on the sand-clay road surface. “I’m not entirely certain how long, but not overnight.”
“I’ll stick around,” she says as they pull to a stop in front of the manor house. “You just whistle for me. You know how to whistle, right?”
He smiles at the comfortable bantering tone. “Thank you. Are you sure? Shall I, um, unhook the carriage?”
“No need. Don’t forget anything, now. Seriously, don’t leave anything behind. It’ll be destroyed.”
As he steps out, he turns to look back at her and sees the little trap-carriage folding in on itself, like a kind of origami, folding in and in and then up the yoke to become nothing but a small, comfortable-looking pack upon Ffion’s back. “There,” she says. “I’ll just take a trot around, graze – don’t worry, this will be a little break for me. Then I can have the pleasure of your company on my way back.”
The god’s path takes him into darkness more often than light, and within that darkness is misery beyond the imagining of most people in this part of the Insula. Though he does receive gratitude and indeed love from those he helps, the simple amiable appreciation of one being for another in such a beautiful setting is a balm to his soul. He walks to her and bows. “I shall whistle for you. And I look forward to the ride.” He puts a hand to his heart in gratitude.
She tosses her head and trots off toward the woodlands, and he watches her go. He has never had to treat one of the several species of intelligent horses that populate the Insula, and cannot help but wonder what their inner lives are like. Then he turns to face the doors of Afallon Fach, the estate whose lands now stretch around him as far as he can see – which, with the tall trees about, is admittedly not terribly far, but still enough space for hundreds of families. But if the entire Insula were to be packed with nothing but densely populated tenements and the farmland to feed the masses, there would be no green like this remaining. It is a conundrum that goes well beyond his remit, so as always, he puts it aside. He has more immediate concerns.
He walks up the steps and rings the bell, which chimes deep within the building, a small mansion that has had tastefully designed wings added to either side over the years.
As he waits, he can hear, carried to him on the caressing breeze, the cheerful, excited voices of children, or perhaps adults who have not forgotten the child within their souls. He cannot make out the words, but his mind flashes back to only this morning, in a hideous slum tucked away in a wealthy, productive Third-Ring city, an inevitable result of ward policies that maximize profit over all else. The children of the slum make their living picking through a tremendous garbage heap, finding fragmentary strips of gold, silver, and star-steel that can be sold to the trash-heap’s informal ‘owner’ for a mere third-hekte for each stater of their worth. The children have no choice but to accept what payment they can get, and to suffer from the slow poisoning of other alchemical waste they encounter. And that is far from the only indignity they must endure.
Or rather, that they had to endure. The Guardia sometimes seems to be no more than a tool of the wealthy and powerful to wield against the poor and weak, but now and again they right wrongs. And a good number of them know, when there are traumatized people who need help, that they can call upon him. So when this trash-king was deposed and an entire cruel economy unravelled, the god sometimes known as Balm of Forgetting came at the call of an old friend to see what he could do.
It wasn’t much. But it was something.
Steps approach. The doors open.
The face which greets him is no servant. Black hair, a strong jaw, a powerful, lithe body. There is an aura of power, even danger around this god, but even a momentary glance is enough to see that he is walking wounded. His tanned skin is pale from trauma-induced stress.
Gwydion. Somrak’s mental image of him is an unmistakable match.
As the master of the estate looks him up and down, the healer god wonders what he sees. The surface is easy: a small, dark man with unbound, wind-tossed black hair shot with grey. Dressed like a hobo, almost, a once-expensive vest, frayed, over a construction-worker’s shirt and the denim pants of a farmer, torn at the knees, not as some fashion statement but because he had not had time to mend them since tearing them in a scuffle two weeks ago.
Does this highborn god see beyond that? Perhaps he does. Life in the Fourth Ring can teach much to an opened mind.
“Gwydion, of the House of Math?” he asks.
“That is me,” the god says. “Please come in.” He stands aside to allow passage, revealing his companion. “This is Alma.”
The introduction is unnecessary. She is, if anything, even more physically attractive than Gwydion, and from what he saw in Somrak’s mind, he would know her in an instant. But physical beauty means little among gods. True, it is often a reflection of the soul, in the way that mortals only think it is for themselves, but beauty can be kind, or it can be cruel. And it can just as easily be a mask for the most grotesque corruption. But there is an aura about her, even more than Gwydion, of empathy and of pain. Even without being primed by Somrak and by Sky, the healer knows he would be ready to help these two, no question.
The tall, snow-skinned, white-haired goddess nods in greeting. “Welcome, Doctor…”
“Wasure,” he says. “Thank you for the welcome. Is there somewhere we can sit and talk?”
The two of them share a look, apprehensive but hopeful. “Uhm…yes,” Alma says. “Where do you think would be best?”
Gwydion considers her question for a moment, revealing his newcomer status in this estate. He recovers after a moment. “The library should serve well. This way, Doctor Wasure.”
“Just Wasure is fine,” the healer says, looking around the entry room, taking in the tasteful decoration. Gwydion leads the way as they proceed into a hallway with a turn, then another, before they arrive at a room lined with the sort of thick leather-bound books that are the only reason Wasure would want to own a house. A house, he reflects, makes an excellent place of safe-keeping for books that are too heavy to carry around. But when is there time to read?
“We have heard good things about your work,” Alma says conversationally. He can hear the worry she is trying to mask. “But I will confess to being a little skeptical about this whole process.”
Wasure smiles, his teeth very white in a face deeply tanned by the outdoors. “Somrak… He’s always been skeptical of my treatments, too. If he told you I’m so good, he’s being a bit of a hypocrite. But he said you needed me right away.” He sits, feeling the pain in his feet and back that he has been ignoring all day. The chair tells him something about the people who built this estate, something that matches the other things he has seen. They understand comfort. More concerned with how a chair can actually give ease than with how it looks, they deserve the gratitude he now feels for their tastes.
But he continues, “And just to be clear, I am charging for the portal and the ride from there. It was the easiest way to get here quickly and I cannot do that sort of magic myself. I overcharge my wealthier patients so I can provide free services for those who can’t pay. Somrak told me to send the bill to the Archon Math.” He looks at Dion. “Is that correct? Somrak can be a joker…”
“Oh…yes, I think that will be all right,” Dion says, apparently not bothered at all. “If not, I’ll take care of it.”
“We’ll take care of the bill,” Alma assures Wasure. “Do you mean you provide this same kind of service to people in poorer wards?”
Wasure inclines his head. “Victims of crimes, especially abuse and violence. There is never any shortage. The Guardia contracts my services for their members, and that’s steady pay to keep me fed, but private consultations like this let me fund clinics and train others who show talent in this.” He shrugs. “And the wealthy have their pain as well.”
Gwydion takes a seat across from him, while Alma moves to stand behind her partner, putting her hands on his shoulders. “How exactly does this work?”
“You may have heard about magic that locks away secrets within the head of the knower.” Wasure has explained this many times before. “That is how I started. I am a god of memory, but with a very narrow specialization. Enter the mind, find the memory, and put it in a metaphorical box. Lock it, and give the key to the holder – in the Guardia, with something important enough for calling on one such as me, that means a subcommander or the Commander himself.”
Wasure notes that the couple have offered him no refreshment yet. This does not surprise him, nor does it bother him. They are afraid of what his presence means, and don’t even realize they have forgotten hospitality. “But I realized that some memories were not secrets but still…undesirable. It’s dangerous to erase them, very dangerous. But if they could be locked away, and the key given to the patient, then they would still be there if needed, but muted. Knowledge of the pain is still there. Even knowledge of what happened. But the details, and the sheer power, are locked away, to be brought out only when the patient wishes. Not haunting the patient’s thoughts, disturbing sleep, and so on.”
“I wonder… The situation that caused our… current issue also triggered other memories.” Alma looks significantly at her partner. “Gwydion and I have both recently discovered new spheres and acquired new knowledge, and all those things are, in one way or another, connected with the trauma. Will this process affect those memories as well?”
“Not in my experience. Bursts of suppressed memories tend to come near the triggering trauma, but not long afterwards, no new memories will come from that trigger. Later traumas could trigger more memories, of course. But if the trauma is as bad as what Somrak told me, after the initial burst it could be drowning out finer details of the reawakened memories. Locking away the trauma could make the ‘new’ memories clearer.” Wasure pauses. “You should understand that, to do this, I have to enter your psyche to a great depth. I need to examine your memories to be certain I’m targeting exactly the right one. It’s usually not hard to find the one causing pain, but I will inevitably see adjacent, connected memories. It can’t be helped. All I can say is, I am bound by my oath to keep anything I see strictly confidential. I use the memory-locking technique on myself, so that no one can get it out of me.”
“With all due respect…who holds the key?” Alma sounds doubtful.
“Myself,” he says. “I could not trust another. But I have a refinement of the technique, which I’m afraid must remain a secret, so that if I am under duress I can make it impossible for me to release the memories even if I wanted to. No torture or mental command can force me. I would die before I revealed my patients’ thoughts.”
Dion asks, “And the Commander trusts you with secrets of the Guardia?”
Wasure nods. “If he did not, I assume that I would have been ‘eliminated’ long before now.”
Her expression still apprehensive, Alma looks from Wasure to Gwydion, silently asking the latter for his opinion. Gwydion considers it for several heartbeats, then looks at her and nods. “Somrak vouches for him.”
That these four words seal the deal for the both of them brings a burst of warmth to Wasure’s spirit. He has been acquainted with Somrak for decades, but only really began to know the god of fire when Somrak asked for help. A high opinion of himself is a mask that Somrak wears, and as is so often the case, the mask displays the very opposite of what it conceals. But Wasure, who has so recently seen many of Somrak’s most harrowing thoughts, found himself surprised at how much he liked the offblue agent. He had expected someone far colder and more callous, but what he discovered was someone who, despite his faults and mistakes, could inspire loyalty and trust.
Alma reaches to hold Gwydion’s hand, then turns to Wasure, her voice deadly serious. “These memories…they are not just our secrets. They are Guardia and even Council secrets as well. There is a lot to lose if they ever see the light of day.”
“I understand,” Wasure says. “Two days ago, I treated Somrak. He told me it was all right to tell you. There were things I saw then that I think you are referring to now. Naturally, they are locked and I cannot speak of them, but perhaps knowing that I already hold those secrets is enough to reassure you.”
“What do we have to do?” Alma asks, coming around the sofa to sit next to Gwydion. “Do we simply give you permission and let you work on our psyches?”
“Permission is required, certainly. I would never enter a mind against its will, and even more so never cause changes in an unwilling one. But you will be an active participant, awake and aware. You will, I am afraid, have to look clearly upon those memories you want locked one more time, to be certain there is no error.” His voice is apologetic. “But after that, they will lose their power. You will be freed of them.”
Alma takes a deep breath, then nods. Her eyes are lowered, but they focus on Wasure’s shoes. Or rather the beaten, taped remains of his shoes. He remembers that he keeps forgetting to replace them. He is glad that at least he remembered to bathe recently.
Gwydion breaks the moment of silence. “Do we need to prepare? Enter a trance? Cast a ritual?”
Wasure shakes his head. “You just need to be ready. To feel the desire to be free of that pain enough to overcome your natural revulsion of having a stranger enter your mind. Ideally, we would spend hours or even days getting to know one another so that you would welcome me. But that is an ideal rarely possible for practical reasons. You have as much to do, I am sure, as do I. We both have those who need our help.”
“Then…what are we supposed to do?” Alma asks, her voice still uncertain.
“Why don’t we begin with you, Alma? Gwydion, could you stay here and make sure we are undisturbed?” Wasure stands, turns, picks up his chair, and moves it closer. He sits again and holds out his hands for Alma to take.
Taking another deep breath, the goddess slips her hands into his. He can feel how cool her hands are, and how strong her grip. He closes his eyes and slows his breath. Reaching across with his mind, he sends a message, barely touching the surface of hers. Forgive me for entering your mind. I will make it as brief as possible.
Alma does not react in surprise, as most of his mortal patients do, at hearing his mental voice. But she does flinch at the intrusion. The torturer invaded my body. Cast me out. Pretended to be me and… Contact is almost broken as she tries to block the memory before it surfaces.
He waits patiently for her to allow him closer again. This is the memory you wish to be locked away. I am afraid you will have to let me near it. This will not be pleasant, I know. But it will not take long.
This is not the only memory haunting me, Alma confesses. I barely know where to start. This is just the one that surfaces most frequently.
If there are indeed many, this will require additional sessions, Wasure tells her. But most unpleasant memories should not be locked. You must ask yourself if they make you weaker, or give you strength.
At that, Alma braces herself, then lets him enter her mind fully. Half-glimpsed around him, he sees so much joy, and so much pain. He does his best to avoid looking, but it is impossible not to catch fragments, especially those that include faces he recognizes, as those jump out of the background at him: flashing blades in front of the impassive face of the Fencer, desperate kisses shared with Gwydion, Sky smiling tenderly at her as he puts a blanket on her, Somrak screaming in pain as Alma watches her own body whipping him.
Ah yes, that last is a memory that he saw within Somrak, but from the opposite end of the whip. He is nearing the depths of Alma’s pain. And he is drawn toward one, as if she were leading him by the hand, or as if that memory were a point of great gravity, pulling him in. It is one of Sky, again. Sky, who has always refused Wasure’s help, and who Wasure now knows to be a devil. Sky, wearing a different face, looking down at Alma – no, not Alma, someone else, a memory that came to Alma second hand. A memory inflicted on her. And in it, Sky is committing an act of rape.
It is all the more soul-wrenching for how familiar it is. So many of those memories he locks away are of this crime. So Wasure does not flinch from it, but he does feel helpless fury wash over him, as always. Still, he retains as much detachment as he can. He is here to do a service. He does not allow himself the luxury of radiating anything more than measured sorrow into Alma’s psyche.
And he sees the expression on Sky’s face. That unfamiliar, pale face. Sky does not want to do this. He is victim as well as victimizer. The woman who is suffering can hear words in her own memory, words spoken by one who is psychically possessing her, Do it, Azzageddi. Do it or I shall do far worse to this pathetic fool’s body.
Alma’s voice comes to him, sad and wounded. I will let you judge for yourself whether this weakens me.
This is not your memory, he replies, keeping his thought-voice impassive, but another’s, shared to cause you pain. It does you no good the feel what this girl felt. But being another’s, it is quite easy to lock away, for it has only a weak connection to others. May I?
Please… Alma suddenly sounds much younger, like a child.
He reaches out and touches the memory, and instantly it shrinks to a dark pinpoint. In the process, he experiences the full force of it that Alma has. But after that devastating moment, the simple fact remains – that the necromancer Nua forced Sky to commit this act as a simultaneous torture of himself and of Trocia, whose body Nua controlled. But Trocia’s screams, Sky’s agonized face, these are sealed away, for Alma as much as for him. Rather than actively preying on her mind, they become like the memory of a broken arm from childhood – she knows it happened but the trauma is gone.
Wasure leaves her the knowledge of how to unfold this memory again, should she ever need to search it for details. Then he shakes it off with a mental shiver, and asks her, There is more, is there not?
There is, she concedes.
Another memory drifts near, seething and sobbing, practically begging for his attention. This one?
That one. The goddess’ inner voice is a whimper. You want to… she trails off, resigned.
I do not want to, he tells her, calm and gentle and implacable. But it is the only way.
And so she opens to him more of the memories Nua shared with her, of the necromancer curling against Gwydion in Alma’s body, of kissing and whipping him. And Somrak as well. Memories that Nua delighted in showing Alma, that have haunted her waking and dreaming ever since. Her friends. Her loved ones. Suffering at her own hands.
Those hands, in the exterior, physical world, clench in pain around Wasure’s. He squeezes them back in reassurance. These memories, although inflicted on Alma by the necromancer, are ones that were experienced by her own body while Nua was occupying it. The dividing lines between mind and body and soul are wavering and blurred, and these memories are stronger, more deeply felt because of the physical side. She can feel her own muscles jump as she remembers pulling her arm back and slashing forward, cutting Gwydion’s flesh and spirit with the whip. But as he touches the memory, with her permission, it shrinks away, locked and powerless over her.
The release is as overwhelming as the onslaught of the memories, and Alma crashes back to full awareness of her surroundings. She opens her eyes as they fill with tears. She pulls her hands free of Wasure’s and hides her face in them as her body jerks with powerful sobs.
Wasure, flung from her mind, opens his own eyes and finds Gwydion looking stricken, returning from where he had gone to stand near the library door. Wasure nods toward Alma to indicate the session is ended and Gwydion should go to her. Then, as the god rushes to his beloved’s side, Wasure rises and goes to look out the window at the pleasant view, breathing carefully, entering his own mind and locking away the horrors he has taken on.
He can see the owners of those youthful voices he heard earlier, several children returning from some playful expedition in the woods. No, not all children, he sees. Three young adults, two teenage boys, and two children. He recognizes them from half-glimpsed memories.
Behind him, he hears Alma weeping, cradled in Gwydion’s arms as the god whispers to her, comforting words of little logical but great emotional truth, until she comes back to herself. Wasure waits, watching Alma’s children, letting all else fall away as he watches them approach the house. Alma’s pain became, for a moment, his own pain. Alma’s memories became his own memories.
Of course they are less harmful to him. He is acquainted with Sky, and learning that the former off-blue is actually a devil was disturbing, but considering the monsters in god and mortal form that Wasure has encountered, less disturbing than seeing Sky caught up in such a loathsome act. The mixture of disgust and pity will only serve to block his ability to help these people, here and now, however. So he watches the young people, noting their long, furred ears, focusing on their cheerful attachment to each other. Love. That is what he sees. Family. Care.
He lets that wash away the pain. He must. If he could not, then the things he has seen would have led him to self-annihilation long ago.
Behind him, he hears Gwydion’s voice. “Are you all right? Are you…better?”
“I am…It feels better. But it is hard…reliving it all one more time.”
“Is it done, then? So quickly? It was only a few minutes.”
“It felt like an eternity,” Alma tells him. “Maybe I’m primed for it. I don’t know.” She pauses a moment. “It is not all gone. Just two or three of the worst memories. But…you mustn’t fight it. It’s like… Like when Arion entered your dreams, I guess? I could feel…he can’t do it if you don’t let him in.”
Wasure does not know who Arion is. But it is none of his business, so he sets that aside. It seems time to re-engage. The trauma of experiencing Alma’s memories of torture is fading. He is ready for more.
He turns to see that Gwydion is watching him, an arm around Alma, and the Dei sergeant asks, “Will there be more sessions then?”
“With Alma? If she wishes.” He stands, loose and relaxed, the fingers of one hand idly checking a loose button that is about to fall off if he doesn’t sew it back on soon. He says to both of them, but mostly to Alma, “I can go right back in. But I’ve found it works best to allow some time, a few days or at minimum a few hours, between sessions. You may find there are memories you thought you wanted locked away that you no longer do. And do not forget – if you change your mind, you can always unlock that which is locked.”
Alma listens and nods. Her eyes are red from crying, and her pale skin is flushed, but she seems considerably relieved. “I think…I would rather wait and see. Is there anything you recommend I do? Regarding these other memories?”
“They may be somewhat more intense for a little while.” Wasure has seen that sometimes, things can become briefly worse after treatment. “There is only so much space in your fore-conscious, and some of what has been occupying it has been cleared away. But because you know now that the worst memories can be put away, the impact of the other memories is often somewhat reduced. Just knowing that this treatment is an option can sometimes lead to deciding there is no need to lock some of them.” He pauses. “Quiet, lack of stress, peace – these are all helpful. Avoiding the memories through work or excitement is not helpful in this process. I understand you have several children?”
Alma nods. “They are playing outside. Hopefully safe but well supervised. One of my children is currently away, but the six remaining do live with me.”
“Somrak told me of them in simple conversation, not as part of the healing process,” he says. “He seemed charmed by them, though mildly exasperated. He mentioned that they seem reluctant to accept that the desire to be alone is not always negative. Is this sometimes stressful?”
Alma hesitates in answering. “Well…they are very…communal. And my sanctum is the first home they’ve known…” She looks down, a bit embarrassed.
“I am not implying that they are doing anything wrong,” Wasure says, picking his words carefully. “Just that, in your current state, you might need more time alone or with only one or two other people at a time. Calm, supportive people. If you explain that to them, enlist them in aiding your recovery, perhaps that would give them a feeling of being helpful which they may well need. Loved ones often feel helpless and frustrated when those they love are suffering, especially when their attempts to help create more stress.”
Dismay is not an expression that suits the goddess’ face. “It will be heartbreaking to feel that I am casting them out of that sanctum.”
“Perhaps I could talk to them,” Wasure offers. “Or one of them? A leader, if there is one.”
She breathes in deeply and nods assent, considering. Then she looks at Gwydion. “Is it your turn now?”
His arm still around her, the handsome god strokes her hair, trying to look reassuring but unable to hide his nervousness. “They will understand,” he says. Then, readying himself, he removes his arm from her and holds out his hands. Wasure crosses the room and sits again in the chair across from them. He takes Gwydion’s hands in his own, feeling their strength, but also feeling the vulnerability of the god.
Wasure readies himself, knowing that this time he will experience Gwydion’s pain not second-hand, but directly, as the subject of it. This time will be far worse. But this is nothing new for him. This is his reason for being. It is what he must do, day after day, year after year.
For just one moment he wonders what it is like to take a day off, to practice his own advice and just be alone with himself, or even more unlikely, to relax in the arms of someone who loves him. Then he sets aside the absurd thought.
“Close your eyes, Gwydion, and let me in,” he says.