Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The Weeping Queen shrank away from me, sinking into a corner of the throne. Chalice held like a ward, she stared spears. “Leave, before you destroy what little is left of my family.”
Her sudden lucidity led me to question her previous mania. I held my hands up placatingly. “You don’t have to suffer alone.”
“Ah, but I’m not.” A bit of her former lunacy glittered in her eyes. “My husband will return to me in the only way he can.”
“I’m sorry.” I looked at the scattered ashes around us, the divine essence so shattered that I couldn’t feel it, even knowing it was there. “But he’s gone. Whatever destroyed him, he’s not coming back.”
“Tell me.” Her knuckles were white on the stem. “If we are the keepers of mortal souls, who tends to ours?”
I frowned. “We take care of ourselves.”
Her smile was vicious. Eyes locked on mine, she bent over the arm of the throne and scooped another draught from the swamp. “And so, I take care of my own. If you cannot return them to me, then why are you still here?”
I grimaced as she flared her aura. From her scowl, she was going for intimidating, but the sheer imbalance between us just made her all the more pitiful. Even Hasda, without ambrosia, would have been able to contest her with ease.
Sighing, I shook my head. “If you change your mind, you can find me among the Frischiians. Our champion will avenge you, regardless.”
She said nothing, merely sipped from her goblet and settled into the throne. Frowning, I turned and left. I couldn’t force her to accept help, and in her current state of grief she seemed only to grasp reality insofar as it served to remind her of what she had lost, and how she thought she could recover it. Her mind was shrouded by a haze thicker than the ashes clouding the swamp.
What was strange, though, was the lack of mortal ashes among the divine. If this was their underworld, then some of their followers should have been cremated and their ashes scattered among those of their gods. Even a proto-pantheon would have at least one soul in its spectral realm.
Maybe the Sleepless, roaming the land of the living, were why no dead rested in the swamplands, but they resided in Batavii, and Sivarii lay beyond the Fyrisard. The Stitcher couldn’t have cleaned out all of the Sivariian tribes without the Frischiians knowing about it. So where, then, were the mortal dead? I was missing something as, perhaps, this infant pantheon had been.
The Weeping Queen wasn’t their God of Death, although she’d made this realm, in her sorrow, her abode. When she’d sensed the nature of my Office, she’d immediately latched onto that singular hope I provided. Perhaps they’d had no shepherd of the afterlife, but then, who had torched the gods? The Stitcher’s motif was squarely necromantic.
Mysteries that maybe Malia had inklings of answers for, but I did not.
When I reached the edge of the forest, the weeping returned. Grugwyn and Ynyr separated from their trees, glancing between me and the distant throne.
“What did you learn of her?” Ynyr asked, his staff piercing the film.
“Not as much as I would’ve liked, and what I did I didn’t particularly like.” Though the ambiance behind me dimmed slightly, the wailing maintained its volume. “She hoped I could resurrect the fallen gods. When she saw that I couldn’t, she withdrew. This realm is also fragile, as I discovered when I found out why you said not to drink the water.”
Leaves crinkling, Ynyr hummed. “It is more than we have gleaned.”
“What roles did her pantheon fill?” I shrugged at their confused looks. “A family of five, with the head gone and the children scattered, and none of them handled the dead?”
Grugwyn hooted, fluttering the leaves ringing his mouth. “The Sivarii have no fear of death. Their dead are given to the swamps, their rituals as primordial as they are primitive.”
“Perhaps observing them would give you better insight.” Ynyr stirred the waters with his staff, clearing away the ashes.
The ground beneath us thinned, and while Ynyr and Grugwyn exited with grace, I fell through as the membrane collapsed beneath me. Pond scum plastered my robes and splattered my face as I took a hard seat in warm marsh water. A spiny, frilled mammal slipped away beneath the surface, a withered hand waving from its trailing tail.
Grugwyn projected next to me, his avatar droopy from the weeping willows he pulled his leaves from. “A good omen, that.”
“What is it?” I climbed to my feet and tried my best to wipe the sludge from my hands and legs.
“A huzivann, very rare,” he said as Ynyr joined us. “The Sivariians view them favorably. When they release their dead to the waters, if a huzivann appears, they believe that the creature will guide the body to an honorable resting place.”
“The unflattering truth is that the huzivann are scavengers, and the corpse is sequestered in its den.” Ynyr looked in the direction Grugwyn had pointed. The dark-furred creature was long gone. Stirring the water with his staff, Ynyr set out after it. “If you feel eyes on you, watch the trees. God though you are, the oglelovs are greedy creatures and might test their mettle against you.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for them.” Most of the trees around us were willows with roots like mangroves, and neither branch nor root held enough cover to hide the serpentine leopards. Nevertheless, I kept an eye on the canopy as we made our way to the Sivariian village.
As we trekked, however, the only thing that assaulted us was the humidity. The muggy air was suffocating, and even the coilna wilted in the heat. Their anchoring vines snapped sluggishly from trunk to trunk, lagging further and further behind with every transition. Legless toads with leathery wings and a slender, sting-tipped tail flapped from the trees, occasionally diving behind us and struggling beneath the water with smaller prey. Ynyr named them as dawlyrs, and said their venom caused swelling and discomfort but was non-lethal to larger creatures. They were also a delicacy for elderly Sivariians, although the next generation preferred a serpent that lived in rotwood and wore slimy skin, like a worm, rather than the scales of its brethren.
It wasn’t long before we came upon the people themselves. Long, unkempt hair hung from most heads, necklaces with dangling dried animal bits bouncing against brown-scaled leathers that likely came from the rumored oglelovs. A few of the men held long-stemmed pipes in their mouths, puffing hazy yellow smoke. Children in mud-stained smocks chased each other and furry, six-legged critters, around thatch roofed pavilions, gathering places that doubled as dwellings. Laid back villagers sat in rough, wooden rockers, lazily watching our approach.
Their general disarray seemed an almost aesthetic decision. The pavilions were deceptively organized, aisles straight enough to see down testifying to the planning that went behind the settlement’s construction. But the air of indifference that hung over the Sivariians was hard to differentiate from apathy.
I turned to ask Ynyr about this, whether the Sivariians had always been so casual or whether the loss of their gods had stunned them to stupor, and found both coilna gone. Leaves rustled in the distance behind me, but on every tree, no specific two, making it hard to tell which way the elven druids had gone. They were no Carthian people, so they showed no disrespect by their sudden departure, but it still struck me as odd. Why struggle all the way here, only to leave the moment we arrived?
No elders rose from their chairs to greet me as I stepped from the water proper to the spongy ground of the village. The children ran past—or into—me with no regard for my presence. Eyes tracked my progress, but they didn’t seem to register what they saw. It was as if the whole village were dreaming, yet awake. It wasn’t until I came across a group of hunters seated around a pavilion table, drinking themselves into a stupor, that I found a potential source for the lethargy.
Dark liquid sloshed in oaken tankards, eerily reminiscent of the Weeping Queen’s ashen draught. No flakes flecked the drinks, however, and the shade of death was absent as well. No, this wine came from a sable berry I didn’t recognize, a dimpled fruit that resembled a cranberry crossed with a blackberry. Thumb-sized, a crushed handful refilled an empty tankard, the drained flesh dumped into a bronze libation bowl. But no effigy was carved in the pavilion lintel, no icon on the mantel above the hearth. So who, then, was the offering saved for?
As the men painted false mustaches on their lips, their eyes dulled. Laughter became blunted, subsided to rumbles that would have been growls from soberer men. By the time they’d drained their mugs a second or third time, they were all of them subdued, drinking mechanically.
Something was very wrong with this place. I sensed no sorcery, felt no gods lurking in the shadows, and yet I knew someone had to be behind this. The stupor of this place went beyond human depression. Total oblivion had settled here, and I was going to find out who’d sent it.