Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
And see she did. While the throng of souls filled the tunnel like a river of mist, it was impossible to miss the undead shepherds. Floating above the surging spirits, the spherical skulls cavorted through the air. Long spikes protruded from what remained of the cranial plates, which bore more than the normal pair of eye sockets. Impacted teeth bent some of the sockets, though none were twisted so far as to give the impression that the hole had once been a mouth. The Avoso dipped their spikes into the river of souls, occasionally coming away with a wispy soul snagged on a steel rod.
Phemonoe stood still and stared. Before I looked at her, I thought she’d balked in fear, but she leaned forward in awe. “What are they doing?”
“Guiding the spirits towards the second tunnel, and purging those they think Xinva shouldn’t have spared.” I plunged my foot into the press of souls and smiled as they created an absence around me. Phemonoe followed at my side, gawking at the Avoso. Even up close, the features of the spirits were obscured, but I could still see them with far more clarity than if I’d never been the God of Death. I gestured at the closest handful of death’s-heads. “The Avoso flock to the first tunnel because the spirits are more plentiful here. We’ll see less of them as we go down.”
In the first tunnel, the heat was manageable, but as we reached the lower tunnels it would become less bearable. The stench, too, would increase, until even the noseless would have tears streaming down their faces. Thankfully, the furthest we had to go was the mouth of the fourth, so our sense of smell would recover. The acidic tang mellowed into a sour curdle. I coughed. Yup, still as bad as I remembered it.
The spirits kept a wide berth around us, our silent companions. It was rare for a spirit to moan or wail in the underworld, as only the most destitute or heartbroken could break the veil of obscurity. None traveling with us suffered so, though. Only the dripping of condensation from the roof of the tunnel broke the hushed whisper of their passing. Sometimes the Avoso keened in delight when they found a spirit they were fond of, but mostly the loudest sound was our feet shuffling across the slightly damp floor.
We reached the end without incident and waited as a crush of souls pressed through the bend into the second tunnel. Although the turn shut off all light inside it, I knew it was merely a half turn to the next level. And, hidden in a recess in the darkness, was the cache of foreign souls we’d collected over the centuries. It wasn’t a large stockpile, as most of the fallen enemies were grandfathered into the Carthian fold once we’d conquered their peoples, but sometimes we’d scoop up a nationless vagabond or an unbowed hero, and into the dark crevice they’d go.
I waited until the flow of souls through the bend was merely a trickle before dragging my fingers along the wall. Hugging her robes tight, Phemonoe slid back against the wall next to me, one eye on the passing souls and the other catching curious glimpses of what I was doing. Grunting, I pushed my fingers into the cracks, shivering against the feel of the soft stone on my bones. Nearly malleable, the rocks contoured around my fingertips, which gouged a hole to house the Apkalla’s soul.
Hissing, I drew the cold spirit into my upper body, down my arms, and channeled it through my hands into the wall. It chilled me and left me feeling dizzy when it passed, but it was good to have the weight off my shoulders. The spirit glowed an unhealthy yellow as it drizzled from my fingers, lighting the fissure from floor to ceiling. The hue was out of place with the blue-tinted souls passing behind me. When the last of the Apkalla’s spirit was in the dimples, I scraped clay over the holes to seal it inside.
Sighing, I extracted my hands from the wall and shook them. It didn’t remove the clinging film from the clay, and I had to resist the urge to wipe my hands on my robes. A quick pass with my senses told me the other members of the archive were still there, all of the handful–
My eyes narrowed at the fissure. One of the souls was missing. Balvasco, a strange warrior who claimed to have come from beyond the edge of the world. He’d lived peacefully among the tribe that had once inhabited Ibithia, before a plague had wiped them out. The seal on his holding had been broken, and not that long ago by the feel of it. Considering the only gods alive who knew about it were Thane, Malia, and myself, it was fairly likely that Thane had removed him. To fight the Stitcher? Perhaps, but he hadn’t mentioned it.
Then again, he had said the Stitcher’s forces went unaffected by his own undead. Using a soul that wasn’t Carthian was smart, to see if it was just an immunity to our people, but the fact that Balvasco’s spirit wasn’t here meant it’d been claimed by another, lost, or destroyed. None of those were pleasant options to consider. I growled a curse under my breath at that bastard Stitcher and pulled Phemonoe into the second tunnel.
She said nothing about the pause, but I could sense she wanted to. The wet tubes, waving like cilia from the walls of the next passage, however, captured her attention. She watched, mouth ajar, as Avoso collided with the glistening feelings and were absorbed. Moments later, the tubes spat them back out, leaving the porous skulls to float above the slightly diminished stream of souls.
The Avoso moved with greater purpose here, siphoning a spirit here, another there, specific in their sampling. The remains of those whose bodies or minds had needed healing in their relinquished lives found relief within the tubes. Soldiers, farmers, fishers, and beggars were among the gathered, although it was their need, and not their status, that drew the Avoso.
We passed on, Phemonoe admiring all the way.
By the third tunnel, the river of souls had thinned to half its initial width. Only a quarter of the Avoso population, bronze spikes instead of steel, harried the spirits here. A few floated in askance towards Phemonoe, but I waved them away. The copper let them sample the spirits with greater care, giving them a finer touch to better shepherd the soul into stouter, thicker cilia or onto the fourth tunnel.
Ahead, the river of souls parted around a lump, as if a rock. Nine wraiths stood in a ring, silver lacing their pale blue forms. Phemonoe gasped when she saw them, her hand grazing my bony arm.
“Are they…?” She didn’t finish her question. Drifting towards them in a daze, she passed through the arms of two spirits. Their clasped hands flurried around her as she entered the ring and reformed when she reached the center. Something like a veil settled over the High Oracle, a misty film that fell as the spirits of the Oracles raised an elusive chorus.
I couldn’t make out the words, or the notes, but the sound tickled my ears at the edge of my hearing. Phemonoe mouthed along wordlessly, although the way her throat worked made me think she was singing along. Eyes alight, she spun and beamed at each spirit in turn, mouthing a greeting to each.
Frowning at a sudden feeling of unease, I stepped forward to join her. The air chilled, and time seemed to slow. A ring of…I didn’t even know how I knew there was a ring, it gave no light, revealed no form, barely disturbed the air currents as it passed. But a ring of something fell from the sky and landed over the Oracles. When it collided with the ground, they vanished. Not just the spirits, but Phemonoe as well. One moment there, another gone. From the way her face remained unchanged before she vanished, she hadn’t realized anything amiss was happening.
I stumbled over the boundary, but nothing happened. The Oracles, living and dead, were gone without a trace. The strange ring that had descended over them hadn’t left a depression on the ground. When I scuffed my feet against the knobby stone where it had landed, my bones passed through, no invisible obstructions hiding beyond my senses. Beyond…huh.
No one had ever tried to access the astral plane from Peklo, at least not to my memory. I certainly hadn’t. Why would anyone ever need to? Peklo was a world unto itself, almost like a variant astral plane. But it was possible, I suppose, to access the true transcendent plane from here.
Before I gathered my projection around me, however, the air flickered and deposited the Oracles back into Sisiranga. For a brief moment, the phantoms of the deceased Oracles grinned at me with ghoulish skulls, but then the bones faded back into their murky mists before the specters themselves waded into the river of souls.
Phemonoe stumbled next to me, breathing hard. I caught her before she pitched onto the ground. Her smile was apologetic, although it whispered nuances that I couldn’t define. Straightening her robes, she pulled herself to her full height and affected confidence. “Thank you, Charax. The meeting went as well as it could have, and I’ve learned all I’m going to from them.”
I frowned. She probably couldn’t tell, but her voice had a strange echo to it, a reverberation that lowered it and gave the impression that a portion had been left behind in the astral realm and fought to escape the trap. Wisps of light trailed from her eyes as well, pale blue tails that were disturbingly close to the shade of the souls around us.
She saw my scowl and touched her cheek. “What? Is there something on my face?”