OF LOCAL DEAD AND FOREIGN GODS
The train carriage rattled, and Liu Bukian startled awake from a dream about death. It was basically all she dreamt about anymore, but it never failed to make her feel more tired than she had been when she'd gone to sleep. Her sister was seated next to her. “Good morning, Liu,” Sun said quietly, “Sleep well?” Liu shook her head, and rubbed at her eyes.
They had been on the train for an entire afternoon and well after evening, but Hạnh was still excited. “It’s incredible, how fast the trees and hills pass by.” The fighter explained to Liu when she had noticed that she was awake. Then, “The lady with the tea cart passed through earlier while you were asleep. May I have some tea?” Liu shook her head again, and Hạnh sighed and looked back out the window. “That’s alright. Just being on a train is a rare privilege.”
Lykomedes, who was on the seat opposite of Liu, groaned, “Will you give it a rest with the train? Nobody but you cares.”
“It’s incredible, just incredible…” Hạnh continued, staring at the trees whipping past the train as it approached the coastal city of Kios. Lykomedes was never enough to tarnish the novelty of modern technology for her. When she finally had enough rubbernecking to be satisfied, she turned towards the sorcerer. “You should be grateful for the opportunity, Lykomedes. When was the last time you got to ride on a train?”
“I rode on trains all the time, only, they kept me in the back with the other practitioners. Thaumaturgy doesn’t mix with technology—although, I’d bet you a silver that this train has one of those new magic-resistant engines. Not that I have any money anymore.” He sighed. “What a rotten deal.”
“I thought you said the terms were generous when we made the deal.” Liu said quietly.
Lykomedes pressed his thumbs together. “They were. When we made the deal. Now, in hindsight, I’m having regrets.”
“You’d have rather I left you where you were?”
“Of course not.” Lykomedes turned to stare out of the window. “I’m just saying, I wish I had bargained better when I had the chance.”
“Wishes aren’t fishes…” Sun said in the tired, singsong manner of someone repeating a proverb they had been told many times as a child.
“Yeah, yeah.” Lykomedes said. “You got a better deal than I did, and you don’t even do anything useful. That’s harmful nepotism.”
“Hardly,” Sun crossed her arms, “I’m indispensible to my kid sister. She could hardly even get dressed in the morning without me.”
“I’m not so useless that I need you to pick my clothes for me, Sun. I do it only because if I didn’t, you’d be constantly nagging me that I need to wash this or clean that or wear something new.” Liu said. Her preferred wardrobe was drab, built for comfort, and the same shade of inky black as her uncombed mop of curly hair, and Sun was the only one who insisted that she groomed herself regularly and wore something in a dress code other than ‘funeral casual.’ It was exhausting.
“You’re a slob, Liu.” Lykomedes said. “You should be thanking Sun for keeping you from collapsing into a total gross disaster. That service, I will admit, is indispensible.”
“Don’t call my sister a slob.” Sun snapped.
“Thank you.” Liu said.
Sun returned the smile, bright and pure. “Oh you’re a slob. I just don’t like Lykomedes saying it.”
The train slowed as it approached a building. The sea was visible from the window. “Oh! We’re arriving!” Hạnh shouted, continuing to demonstrate her capacity to announce the obvious. “I can’t wait, I’ve never seen so much water!”
As the train pulled into the station, Hạnh stayed at the window, wiggling with excitement as she watched the people moving about—the lines of practitioners separated from non-practitioners, the other tracks, the huge clock. Liu smiled. “It’s much more modern here than the countryside. You’re going to see plenty of new things here in the city.”
Hạnh turned to answer, a smile on her face, when the compartment door slid open. A young man in the silly scarlet toga of a Kionian porter had politely poked his head inside. “Excuse me, we’ve pulled into the train station, did you need any—oh,” He looked around the cabin, his eyes settling on Liu, “I’m sorry, I thought I heard a conversation.”
“Just speaking to myself.” Liu said, staring back until she remembered it was impolite. She willed herself into the smile expected of women in Kios. The effort drained her tremendously—she’d have preferred Sun do it for her, but Sun didn’t know the directions to the park, and if left to her own devices, would get lost in the huge modern city.
“I see. Did you need any help with your luggage?” He asked. Liu nodded, taking a single hard case from the stow compartment and handing it to him. She picked up her own rucksack, and politely ignored him when he offered to help her. He led her off the train, a useless gesture (Kios was a land of useless gestures), and gave a short, spiffy little bow to her with a hand gesture she was unfamiliar with. She wanted to ask Lykomedes what it meant, but it was too crowded in the station. So many living souls moving around her, screaming with noise—she found an exit and left as soon as she could.
Safely away from the press of people, she found a bench, closing her eyes as she sat down with a groan. She felt for the pull of divine presence—she found three, which vexed her. She opened her eyes, and looked down at the ground. Her shadow stared back hungrily, and she closed her eyes again. “Not now,” She sighed. The park was in the modern section of Kios, which would be nearest to the train station. She reasoned out the distance, then, with a heave that embarrassed her a bit, grabbed her luggage and stood, walking to the nearest soul that eclipsed the nearby mortals. The soul of a god.
The park was a tiny slice of wildlife in a sprawling acropolis—Kios was a canal city on the Aeolan sea, a lagoon atoll connected to the mainland by track-bridge and harbors, and the lagoon it was built upon had been rid of trees or animals for almost a century. The local god had died long ago; Liu could feel its presence underfoot, the wild magic seeping into the sediment below the timbers and columns that held the city above water. Lykomedes’ ability to sense magic was working—she had cannibalized the most useful of his traits when she had bound his spirit. She wished she had taken his ability to parse local customs when she had stolen his knowledge of the Aeolan languages. All she knew was that clothing was far too revealing here and that everyone was annoyingly polite in the Aeolan League. Everything else, she had learned through conversation with the sorcerer before she had traveled to Kios.
Liu’s legs were aching when she finally reached the tiny wooded area inside the shrine, full of native and foreign plants alike. She noticed a few stalkwoods that Hạnh would have been able to identify, and even a few of her own homeland’s vibrant flowers among the little paradise. It was quiet—the park had been built to commemorate the Aeolan-Imperial treaty after the war, and Liu doubted that any of the locals even cared to traverse more than its grassy outskirts. There was a small shrine in a center clearing, one dedicated to general local gods. It was stone, and usually a small worship plinth covered the front for people to kneel at and make offerings. Instead, the plinth was occupied by a dead beast, bleeding onto the concrete. Small patches of wildflowers bloomed where runnels of its blood ran into the grass.
The god always took the same form when it cared to incarnate: a massive beast with the head of an ox, the body of a stag and the legs of a lion, in a state of constant death and rot. Its ribs were exposed, and its bones were a bloodstained wood of the deepest burl and grain. Little blue birds nested in the exposed entrails, picking at the meat of the god where it hung in easy chunks from its splintered oaken bones. Massive wooden antlers spread from its head instead of horns, and little pink flowers bloomed at the ends. Tear tracks of blood poured from its black eyes as it regarded Liu. When it spoke, it spoke from the trees, from the ground, even the whistling calls of the birds nearby. It was a voice of gravel, that was pulled up from deep within the earth, and even Liu, jaded and tired as she was, stood up a bit straighter at its commanding tone. “Sit,” The land god growled, and she was thankful to sit in the soft grass, folding her legs beneath herself. “This land is sick,” It continued, “These are the only trees within a half-league of this grove. I could not tunnel thee here, and thus, thou hast taken up transport with the human gun. Shameful.” It called every metal technology a ‘gun’.
“It was fine. Hạnh enjoyed it, she’d never been on one.” Liu said, pulling off her soft shoes and putting her feet in the grass. She was glad that the god didn’t care about clothing or cleaning habits; this was her last chance to really relax while she was in the stuffy city.
“Tis no shame on my part!” It roared in its thousand-throated voice, “Tis shameful that these humans do not respect the land, that they must alter it so. They are worse here than in thy homeland. The god of this lagoon is dead, and so, I must work in her behalf.”
“I sensed two other gods nearby. Incarnated, too, not like the local land god.” Liu said, laying down in the grass and closing her eyes. She preferred not to look at its body while she talked to it. Having her head touching the ground made its voice softer, somehow.
“They are foreign gods. Human gods, with human bearers. One of them, thou hast met before.”
Liu looked up. “Aetas is here?”
The land god inclined its horrible head.
Liu laid back down. “Just because she’s a sky god doesn’t mean she’s foreign. In fact, you’re farther from home than she is. The people of this country were the ones who originally incarnated here, she’s one of their patron—”
“I do not recognize human borders!” A lack of patience was the besetting sin of every land god. Many would think that Liu should be grateful to be a mere human who met so many gods; meeting a single god was something people traveled for leagues and waited months for, and most found it to be a life-changing experience. Liu would prefer she had stayed home and called forth ancestors for a living.
“Then why am I here? I had to decipher the location you described—I was lucky Lykomedes had been here a few times before—and even then had to pay for a train ticket all the way here. I’m assuming you want me to seal something, but—”
“Correct!” The land god rumbled, “Thou’rt quested to bind and seal a human spirit, the mother of a stillborn, which has killed several humans thus far. The humans believe there is a killer among them, and are searching with the use of physical searchmen, ignoring the spiritual. The fools! This land is so ill without a land god, they do not think that a spirit can incarnate here!”
“Even I don’t think a spirit should be able to incarnate in such a modern city, let alone one powerful enough to kill. Don’t they burn their dead here? How is there enough mortality that a malevolent spirit can return by itself?”
“With no land god and no forest, this land is mostly humans, and their beast-slaves are the only life in this city. Their foreign gods cannot bring any balance to this wasteland they are not bound to. There is no messenger to take the spirits to the afterlife. The burning of the body only makes this worse—the cure becomes the poison, and when the spirit cannot return to a body only to find it dead, it does not know to pass on. This spirit perished of the agony of stillbirth. It is confused, and unable to understand its loss. It kills in search of its child’s spirit. Thou’rt to be its psychopomp, before it forgets what it is searching for, and becomes a demon. I will not have you bind another demon.”
“I know my limits.” Liu said. She looked at her shadow, and it did not look back. The presence of a god had scared away her spirits, for the time being. “Just give me the details.”
“This is all I know.” There was a bit of regret in the land god’s voice.
“So I have nothing to go on?”
“The foreign gods nested here will know more than me. I have not been to this lagoon since before its god perished. I only know what is known by the connection I had with her, and by the birds of this city.”
“If the spirit is only killing humans, why do you want it sealed? You hate humans. I thought you’d be all for the human-killing.” Liu said, sitting back up. She was personally ambivalent on the subject of human-killing; if anything, it created more work opportunities for her.
“My motives are my own. Thou'rt my servant and I have quested thee, and my will is thy mission!”
“I don’t worship you. I don’t even know your name. You have literally no power over me.”
“It used to be that heroes would do anything for a god. Now must I make of a thief a champion? Must I make brave the itinerate and lazy?” The land god closed its terrible eyes for a moment, and some pressure in her skull that Liu hadn’t noticed since the first time she had found the beast as a child disappeared for a moment. “It would do thee better to suffer my boon than my curse, child.”
“Threaten me all you like, I don’t have the money to stay in the city. Even if you want me to work for you for free, it won’t work on a logistical scale. With the money I spent on the train ticket, I’ll barely afford dinner tonight.”
“The gun-travel was that costly, then? Damn the human who was the first tradesman! Damn the human who first thought to buy, and damn the human who first sold to him!” The god screamed. Its tantrums were so regular in audience with Liu that she wasn’t even fazed by its earth-shaking fury.
“Yeah, it’s certainly a rotten system.” Liu said, standing without bowing. She would show deference to it whenever it finally got around to giving her any real spiritual insight or reward for her work. Or even its name.
“One day, when thy service to me is complete, I shall turn thee into a bird, so you can escape this wretched species.” It rumbled.
“That would be nice. But in the meantime…” She said, clearing her throat and rubbing her forefinger and thumb together.
“Yes, my champion cannot stand in poverty. Never let it be said that I am not a gracious master! Behold! I have filled thy purse.”
She pulled her coinpurse from her pocket. It certainly felt full, almost as much as when she’d convinced Hạnh to win a tournament in Glaukaria. She felt excitement rising in her throat when she opened it, only to find it full of… “Fucking acorns? What the fuck am I supposed to buy with these?” She dumped the acorns out, trying to scoop the last few silvers in her coinpurse to safety.
“I do not know what humans value. I assumed acorns, as they have many uses and are quite nice to hold in the mouth.” The god said, almost sheepishly.
Liu finally got the last acorn out of her purse. “Fucking—silver! Gold! Gems and jewels! Not fucking acorns!”
“This area is deplete of such things. Gems and jewels are perhaps nice to have in the mouth, but I do not know why gold of such things is so coveted. At least silver has uses.”
“Forget it. I’ll see if Aetas can help me out, or if there’s anyone Lykomedes knows who can take me in for the night.”
“Do not let that foreign god steal away your prize!”
“Yeah yeah, I’ll make sure to be the one who seals the mother ghost.” Liu turned to leave.
“If thy wish is to sleep in shelter, thou art welcome to sleep against my bosom.” The rotting chimaera offered.
“No thanks. Too…mushy.”
“I could turn thee into a fox for the night, if warmth is thy issue. The acorns can be thy supper—they are quite good even to just hold in the mouth, I assure thee.”
“Form no covenants with a god of the sky! They are fickle and capricious. Thou’rt warned, traveler.” The god roared, before deliquescing into a pile of dead flesh. The birds that had nested in its guts flew away as it turned quickly into a cloud of insects, until it was gone—the only sign it had been there being the flowers that had formed where its blood had flowed into the grass.
“So that was a god, huh?” Lykomedes said. “I barely got a look before I went back down. I’ve never felt—I mean, am I alone in saying that it was intimidating as hell?”
“If Liu knew its name, we would be able to see it as she does. As it is, we can only see it in a spiritual form—and a god is far beyond us mortal souls. We cannot comprehend it, so we are all sent back to our place of binding, as shadows retreating from sunlight.” Hạnh said, practicing the forms of one of her martial arts.
“It’s always been scary. Even when we were children, Liu brought me to it once, right after she found it…it was like it was screaming inside my head. Only she can really deal with it, living or dead. I don't know if it's because she's a medium, or because she's just...Liu. Land gods are…older than humans. They’re not used to us like sky gods are.” Sun said, between bites of some fried meat-and-vegetable on a stick. “This is so good, by the way. What is it called, Lykomedes?”
“Souvia. How come I can only get the aftertaste? It smells so good—why does she let you eat when I’m the one who has actually been here before? This is torture.” He moaned plaintively, like a pouting child.
“Take it up with her. She has me do most of her eating because she likes to sit in her own head and think sometimes. She’s the thinker of the family—father only kept me around for my looks, so I could net him a good son-in-law.” She affected a pout that was undoubtedly out of place on her sister’s face. “Liu could be so much prettier than I was if she just grew her hair out and wore nicer clothes, I think.”
“I don’t see it. She has a face like a jackal and a body like a malevolent twig.” Lykomedes said, and out of instinct, Sun raised Liu’s fist to punch him, and Lykomedes flinched away before remembering that he was dead.
“I doubt that Liu would be satisfied as a housewife, though. Even if she had the choice to stay home, I think she would still prefer the life of a wanderer.” Hạnh said diplomatically, her voice still trance-like as she continued practicing her forms. Sun still did not understand the point of training when you were a spirit. It didn’t do her any good—for all of her ghostly practice, Hạnh still had gotten Liu’s ass kicked in the first few fights they’d been involved in, before she had learned how to move in her body.
“True,” Sun admitted, taking another bite of the souvia, “Besides, the only thing being a pretty little housewife got me was murdered on my wedding night.” She finished the souvia and flicked the little stick it had been served on into the street. “C’mon, lets get to the temple. She’s trusting me to not get lost.”
“I know the way. Let me get us there.” Lykomedes said. “You just look like some foreigner in weird clothes, nobody will give you directions.”
“If you were in control, you would also look like a foreigner in weird clothes,” She reminded him with suspicion, “She doesn’t want you in control without supervision, anyway. No telling where she’d wake up. At least she trusts me.”
“Hey, hey!” Lykomedes said defensively. “I’m just trying to help.”
“I know where the temple is, anyway. Just walk towards the sea, it’s the two tall buildings facing each other.” Sun said, walking towards the ocean breeze. The sunset was gorgeous, romantic. There was quite a charm to this foreign land, and its people. In the mainland, it had been more humid, and Liu was apparently allergic to something in the trees. They had spent a fair few days out in the rain before they had found Lykomedes’ spirit—unable to speak the local language and having barely any of the League silvers they needed to afford shelter. Aetas had provided for them in her temple in Glaukaria, and had told them where they would find Lykomedes' ghost. She was sweet, and patient, especially for a goddess. The woman who had been her avatar was a kind-faced, older priestess who had reminded Sun of the elders back home, the type that would have handed her sweets or let her get away with some kind of mischief as a child.
Sun chewed at Liu’s lip as she tried to bring herself out of reminiscence. Even after five years of being dead, it was…difficult. Spirits tended to agonize over their own memories, and when given a living body to inhabit, chase after sensations and pleasures, the things they’d missed—it was why Liu didn’t trust Lykomedes or Hạnh to possess her without keeping watch, to supervise them, ready to take back control if they forgot themselves. Liu had never once tried to wrest back control from Sun, even when she had returned to her fiancé on the first day after her death, or when she was driven away by his grief-stricken family members. If they had just let her explain. To be fair, it was hard to tell someone, ‘Hey, I’m your wife, I’m just in the body of my sister. Oh, my father didn’t tell you our family practices illegal spirit magic? Don’t worry, I was too dumb to learn it, now lets get back to planning our honeymoon!’ It was even more awkward when she had crashed her own funeral to do it. She had buried herself in worldly pleasure afterwards, frequently embarrassing Liu by having her wake up in unfamiliar beds and places. Liu had never said a word about it, letting Sun do as she pleased.
It was difficult to cope with being dead, but even remembering what she’d put Liu through embarrassed Sun. She wished she had been given the same deal as the other spirits, the “itinerants,” as Liu called them. She wished for Liu’s supervision, her voice in the back of the mind, ready to take back the reins if a situation became difficult or threatening. With Liu brooding in the back of her brain, Sun felt like she could get killed. Again. She didn’t fear the possibility of dying again—another bad side effect of being a ghost—but she feared getting her sister killed.
Worse, she was afraid of disappointing her, after Liu doing everything to keep her around. Her connection had been so weak when Liu had first pulled her back. She didn’t even know she had been murdered until Liu had ahold of her spirit, and even then…she had been so tired. Disappointed, but there wasn’t enough spite in her to want to stay. Whatever her sister had done to bind her spirit to her body had cost her dearly, and Sun still didn’t know what it was—many of her memories from the early days were hazy; almost an entire year since her embarrassment at the funeral went by without her memory. But she was back, and clearer than any other spirit Liu had summoned, even now after five years of practice.
She felt lonely without Liu. She tried to reach within—Liu had tried to teach her the basics of spirit magic as unsuccessfully as their father had—to call her forth, but nothing budged. The sun set below the horizon, turning the sky a bloody violet. Colors were so much more vibrant when she saw them through living eyes. She caught sight of the twin columns of the temples—a pair of statues sat on top of them that were hard to make out in the low light—and picked up her pace, circling around the block until she came around to the temple temenos.
The temples were made of the strange plaster-stone that buildings in the Aeolan League tended to be made from, painted in beautifully vibrant murals depicting their associated gods and heroes, separated from the square by walled off courtyards—also painted. She didn’t much care for the art style favored by the sea-faring Aeolans; it suited their ships better than painting the human figure in relief, she thought. She looked at each temple, and realized she had no idea which one was her destination. “Liu!” She hissed. There were still a few worshippers in the square, and guards posted at each entrance of the temple courtyards.
“I can be of assistance.” Lykomedes said, appearing nearby, leaning against one of the columns.
“Which one belongs to Aetas?” She asked, trying not to look like she was talking to the air.
“I can tell you, for a price.” The sorcerer said smugly.
“I’m not giving you control. I’m still not even sure how, so don’t—”
“Easy there, Sunny,” He said, holding his hands up, “I’m not trying to scam you. I just help you out here, you help me out when I’m in a jam and could use your feminine insight.”
“What, you want me to help you…pick up chicks?” Sun grimaced. “In my sister’s body?”
“Not exactly, but that would be a fun challenge, despite the cruel handicap. No, I just want to get my money’s worth out of the knowledge I have.”
“Fine, sure, just tell me which temple.”
“It’s—” Lykomedes began to point a thumb at the temple behind him, but the familiar sound of Liu’s heartbeat roared in her ears as the world turned grayer and colder. She closed Liu’s eyes, and when they opened, she was standing next to her sister. The heartbeat quieted, and Sun was reminded of how silent and uncomfortable being a ghost was—she was immediately overcome by the nausea of body separation, like a withdrawal. She was used to it enough not to dissipate and return to the well, but she still hated the feeling of life leaving her.
“You alright, sister?” Liu asked, which she always did.
“Yeah. I’m fine.” Sun lied, which she always did. “Thanks for getting me out of owing Lykomedes anything.”
“A deal’s a deal, I’m afraid.” Liu said, her long mouth pulling tight at its edges. “Spirits can’t make contracts with other spirits lightly.”
“What? So I owe him, what, makeup tips?”
“I seriously doubt makeup would help with Liu's face,” Lykomedes said haughtily, "You'll know what I want when I call upon you."
Liu sighed, walking towards the entrance of Aetas’s temple, wishing that sky gods had the same banishing effect on ghosts that land gods did. She entered the temple quickly—the guards didn’t even turn to notice her, just standing at attention like the sculpted marble Kios was famous for. She was hoping to get this over with as soon as possible. In her hurry, she had never even thought to check with Lykomedes’ magic the feeling of dread forming in the pit of her stomach, thinking it was just the sympathetic nausea that came as a side effect of spiritual separation, or the usual trepidation that she got before she was faced with social interactions.
But when she crossed the threshold, the trap sprung, and four cloaked figures fell upon her like hawks upon prey.