Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
From the depths of this barren, beryl realm fluttered a faint pulse. The energy felt colder, matching the lifeless atmosphere around me. Soft light, diffused by the dark trees and milky water, dulled the land. Not quite white, not quite blue, the ambient glow surrounded all and had no discernable source. As present was the light, so absent was life. No ghosts, no apparitions of the creatures Malia had described, not even ripples of uncertain origin marred the surface of the pallid swamps around me.
Another pulse, sharper but with less force, pinged my ribs. Something in the transition had thinned me, because I felt almost gaunt again. Not skeletal, because I still had my skin and muscle, but I’d lost some of the padding I’d developed. Grunting at the mud sucking my feet, I trudged towards the source of the pulses.
The closer I got, the thinner the trees grew. Concerningly, the water also grew murkier, flakes of ash filmed the water. The particles clung to my shins and, when I tripped, my hands and wrists. By the time I reached the glowing throne of bone, all of my limbs were gray from the filth.
I had no time to wonder at the white-haired woman draped across it and weeping hard. Behind me, water sloshed as beings moved in my wake. A pair of twiggy figures, one with a gnarled staff, approached, trailing vines that connected them to the nearest trees. A wooden spear grew in the hands of the staffless one. Leaves fluttered across its face, forming a scowl. Its companion brushed a hand covered in budding flowers against its shoulder.
“Peace, Grugwyn,” the staff-bearer said, his voice hoarse with age. “He answers my call.”
The woman’s sobs answered the coilna’s frown. And they were coilna, the Ghorin elementalists who walked the trees. Their spirits could flow like water through the wood, flitting from branch to branch like ephemeral squirrels. These humanoid forms, their geas, were how they interacted with the outside world, although their elven kin required no such avatars. What they were doing here, in this proto-underworld, I didn’t know, but the elder seemed ready to share.
“We seek the staff that Grimshaw—the one your mate calls the Stitcher—has fashioned.” Ynyr, the older coilna, rubbed his own. “It is not our heirloom, but it is as a tainted cousin.”
“If it’s not yours, why are you here?” I gestured towards the wail-filled throne. “For her?”
Leaning heavily on his staff, Ynyr sighed. “Her state is our responsibility. Grimshaw was of the Ghorin, before he sought to make a name for himself. Failing to do so among his brethren, he fled reprimand to establish his own dynasty.” He shook his head. “We did not think he would go to such measures, and that was a dire misstep.”
“A Staff of Power should be used for growth, not destruction,” Grugwyn growled, his leaves rustling in unseen wind. “There was naught but one before, and its cultivation was a thing of beauty. But to twist one so, killing even gods…”
“Has he ascended?” I shivered at a piercing cry from the distraught woman.
Ynyr shook his head. “We are unsure. Our gaze has been elsewhere.” He looked past me with a pained look. “She will not hear us, nor heed our healing. Your mate she hid from but, perhaps, she will listen to you.”
I grunted. “I can try.”
Ynyr grabbed my sleeve as I turned. “One thing. Don’t drink the water.”
“I wasn’t planning on it?” I gave him a confused look.
“She may not offer, but even so.” The coilna thumped his staff, which emitted a pulse much like the ones I’d felt before.
“I’ll keep that in mind.” I frowned and thumped away. Behind me, the coilna rewound into the trees, receding up their vines. The mud underfoot firmed as I approached the throne, the ash thickening the water. Past a certain point, the surface of the water went completely still. Not even my thrusting steps rippled the film, the rings clinging to my calves.
Ash made it hard to tell where the woman’s dress ended. Draped as she was across the seat, facing away from me, the train of her dress flowed into the water well below its surface. Capillary action had stained it, both with wetness and with ash. I wasn’t sure what its original color had been, but the ambient light and cloying ash gave it a glowing, glaucous hue. Sound faded around us, save for her sobs.
When I was a stone’s throw from the throne, she jerked and sat up. Tears had furrowed tracks through the grime on her face, her eyes shriveled instead of puffy. Mourning had thinned her, but not so much as to make her sickly. And yet, she had retained a level of beauty and grace. The way her bones protruded from her arms spoke of weakness, but her eyes held resilient strength and a hint of madness.
“What news have you, death walker?” she rasped.
“I’m afraid that was my question.” I shifted beneath those crazed eyes.
Fresh tears streaked her face as she quaffed from a stained silver chalice. Where, or when, she’d gotten the goblet I didn’t know, but its contents inked a black smile at the corners of her mouth. Glass empty, she scooped a fresh drink from the water beneath her and clutched at the cup.
“Then they are truly lost.” She stared into the chalice, coughed a sob, and tipped the glass to her lips again.
“I’m sorry, I’m new to these parts.” Something about the way the drink stained her mouth left me unsettled. “Who is lost?”
“You walk amongst death, yet you cannot see it?” Manic laughter slipped between her wails. “I had hoped…you are so strong. Yet you cannot gather them to me again.”
“If I knew whom, perhaps I could.” Slowly, I circled around the throne, angling to get behind the seat. Her nails skittered across its back, and I was curious if there was an inscription she was mindlessly playing with in her grief. Her mind was certainly in no shape for answering questions, so I’d glean what I could. “Do you mean your children?”
“One has already come, though you cannot return him.” She sucked at her drink, tears mingling with the ashy water. “One is known yet just as lost. One is lost yet might return. What one might fill this void?”
“Loss leaves a ragged hole that will fester and puss, if you don’t tend to the wound.” I frowned as I saw the back of the throne. Only the gouges from her nails marked it, nothing remarkable about the material itself save its resemblance to bleached bone. But, in the curious light, it was hard to be sure. “You risk being stripped by fate of your surviving family if you refuse to stir yourself for them. What of your son? Your daughter?”
“Eyes, yet he cannot see. Ears, yet he cannot hear.” Sniffling, she upended the chalice and finished her drink. Racked by silent sobs, she stretched and scooped another drink. “My light has gone from me, my love poisoned. No scouring more toxic than that administered by once favored hands. The chains which bind me, hold me together. You bid me leave them, yet it is by their strength that I would lift them.” She tipped her glass to me. “Would you understand? Shed the scales that blind you?”
I shook my head. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t drink ashes where no fire has burned.”
“My family may not seem much to one such as you, but it is my greatest treasure.” Shivering, she withdrew the goblet and drank deeply.
A suspicion I didn’t like tingled above my elbows. I pushed against the astral plane, transitioning just enough to gaze upon the Weeping Queen’s ghostly realm with transcendent eyes. The spectral swamplands trembled beneath my feet, the plane struggling to hold under the weight of that soft gaze, but it showed enough.
Shards of divine aura, fainter than shadows at noon, floated on the surface of the swamp like flotsam. Two distinct entities, one younger, the other older, had been cremated and their…ashes scattered.
And she was drinking them.
When I detransitioned, I found her staring at me with a deathly pale face.
“Go,” she whispered. Ash-flecked water sloshed on her dress as she clutched her chalice close.
“Let me help you.” I took a step towards her, hand outstretched, and she cowered away from me. I sighed.
The faith of her people had been so weak—the foundation of her pantheon little more than her family—which left their pantheon susceptible to annihilation. And the Stitcher had obliterated them.
If her surviving son planned to confront the Stitcher, he would likely meet a similar fate. Without a stronger cult or the support of an outside pantheon, he had practically no hope of reestablishing the beliefs that had preceded the Stitcher. I could help him, but I had to find him first. And maybe I could help put his mother back together in the process.