A Plague of Souls

by D. Eliz­a­beth Wasden

At twelve, I swal­low my mother's soul. She has pre­pared me for the act, but my father turns away. She teach­es me how to swal­low oth­er souls and how to change men and women into mag­ic for my own pur­pos­es. I have worn her soul like a chain neck­lace, each link a les­son, every les­son a day. I have swal­lowed oth­er souls to pre­serve hers.

By the time I am twen­ty, her voice has become slight and faint. Her fea­tures are dim­ming, erod­ing, while salt cracks my palms and the ship creaks toward the shore. I am the last remain­ing onboard, and the hull is charred and splintered.

I aban­don the ship on a bar­ren shore­line. I walk many miles, pass­ing through a string of small vil­lages linked by a wide but ever nar­row­ing riv­er. I per­form tricks for the toothless—small chil­dren and old peasants—and fat, moist men with sav­age shark eyes. Com­man­ders-in-wait­ing, they press coins into my hand, as if try­ing to mark my skin. Do they not know that I have crossed the sea, that I have seen the coins burned into children’s eyes? That I still hear the chain as it creaks and low­ers them, sac­ri­fices to the sea gods all, into the ocean?

If not for my mother's voice, I would take their souls. Food I can go with­out for a time. A shel­ter is not always nec­es­sary, but souls I need, or I will perish.

My moth­er whis­pers to me, “Wait. Wait.” So I wait. I still my urge. I obey.

“Follow the road,” the last com­man­der says to me. He is unfa­mil­iar but smiles almost tri­umphant­ly, as if he knows what I am. “The Mar­shall will have work for you. Tell her it is I who sent you. Com­man­der Tavliz.”

I men­tion Com­man­der Tavl­iz as I pass through the peas­ants’ vil­lage to the south. Their huts are slight, thatched with thin sheets of wood and palm fronds. Many are miss­ing panels.

The sun and the heat press­es against my skin. My father told me once that those who depend on the sea wor­ship her, but the ocean does not send a breeze to this land. The peas­ants are thin, and their crops with­er, poor and stilt­ed. I won­der why their gods and the ocean would aban­don them so. The peas­ants most­ly ignore me, although their eyes scorch me as much as the sun’s heat.

My words catch the notice of a tall, straight-backed sol­dier. Bright yel­low feath­ers halo his head, and his armor shines like fish scales in the sun. When he tells me to fol­low him, I obey, telling myself that I can­not be a slave if I do not allow someone’s hand to force my own.

Chimes play as he escorts me through the gates of the Blue Palace. They are pleas­ant enough and famil­iar, although I can­not place them. I fol­low his steps through clois­ters and across court­yards and final­ly up a sin­gle flight of stairs. The stone floors and walls still hold the air of late spring, con­trast­ing with the heat out­side. I am grate­ful for the reprieve, accus­tomed as I am to the sea's breezes.

We reach our des­ti­na­tion, a room quar­tered and shad­ed by sheer cur­tains. A cloak and a ringlet made of dark feath­ers hang on the wall. A par­ti­tion, paper thin and red, reveals a shad­ow mov­ing behind it. I do not know what to expect, but my heart pounds in my ears. There is both free­dom and uncer­tain­ty in being so far from the sea.

“My advi­sors tell me, 'Mar­shall, you are unwise to con­sult with anoth­er skilled in black arts.' Do you know what I tell them?” The woman's voice is a ragged whis­per, sharp and uneven as a rock.

“I do not know, Marshall.” I am young but not as young as I once was. Not as quick or as open. The sea has taught me many things.

“I tell them that I have no tra­di­tion to keep or to break this time. My path has become its own, so I make my own traditions.” She clears her throat, and her hand wraps around the screened pan­el that sep­a­rates us. The back of the hand is smoother than I expect, the fin­gers straighter.

“I know some­thing of tra­di­tion myself, bit­ter as it is,” I say. She releas­es the red screen again. Has she peered at me from beyond the veil of red that lies between us like an ocean swim­ming with death?

“Yes, you would know,” she says and laughs. “Of all the damned crea­ture took from me, she could not strip my mem­o­ries of home. Of trib­ute. Of duty. Yet.” She holds up a finger.

I imme­di­ate­ly think of the plants drown­ing in dust and heat, of the with­er­ing peas­ants. “Yet your peo­ple suf­fer. Do you ever wan­der to your win­dows or walk among them?”

“The birds,” she says, turn­ing away from me and toward the win­dow. No light pass­es through it, and the panes are dark with tar or paint. She clutch­es her knee tight­ly then shoos with her hand at the black win­dow. “They trou­ble me so.”

“Why do the ocean gods not pro­tect you or your peo­ple? You could gar­ner their favor.”

“The gods.” She coughs. “Who can trust the gods? We can only curse them for our fates.”

She clutch­es the screen with her hand and beck­ons the guard. He folds the screen into its sec­tions, and I ful­ly see her. Her cheeks are pale and hol­low like dead coral. Her hair is pulled back into some­thing that must have once been a long braid. She wears a pale blue dress that falls off her bony shoul­ders and an excep­tion­al­ly large pearl that nuz­zles against her fin­ger like an engorged tick. Still, her eyes are keen as a hawk’s.

“One needs not trust them,” I say. “My peo­ple wor­ship the gods of the sea, the sky, the heav­ens, and the soil.”

“An ally to all may well be an ene­my to all.” Her eyes glint like the lanterns affixed to the ship’s cab­in as it swept across the ocean. “Especially one who robs men and women of their very souls.”

For a moment, I sit still. Then, I pull at the two braids on either side of my face. I untie them and play with the frayed ends. “How far to have fall­en to employ my gifts?”

“Indeed. I’m not cer­tain how many of my cap­tains or com­man­ders would understand.”

“Tradition be damned.”

“So I said. So I said.” She leans back and for­ward, rock­ing her­self out of her chair. Stand­ing, she is even frail­er and slighter, a wisp of a woman, yet more ter­ri­fy­ing. Dark shad­ows encir­cle her eyes, and her lips are almost blue.

She says, “Find a god of the sky for me, one who hides inside the feath­ers of a crow or a black­bird or a grack­le. I know not what form she will take, only that she hides behind the dark cloak of deceit.”

“Why would I do such a thing?” I ask, but I am already tempt­ed to try. My moth­er tells no sto­ries of soul-eaters who walk with gods. I am not even cer­tain that they car­ry two souls as we do. Could they have but one or many? My mind races with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of steal­ing from a god.

The Mar­shall leans into the sol­dier behind me. He sup­ports her weight eas­i­ly. She whis­pers to him, and he exits the room. She grips my chair instead. When I look up at her, her eyes glit­ter like embers breathed to life. “Soul-eaters do not wan­der our lands freely. I have pur­chased you, paid for your fare. You repay me by destroy­ing my ship and mur­der­ing my crew. This I know, as the mes­sage arrived this very morning.”

She holds a fin­ger to her lips before I can speak, but I am think­ing the entire time. “You could kill me and take my curse with you. If the gods did not fin­ish you, my own sol­diers and peas­ants would. Why earn your free­dom but for a breath of time?” she said. “Earn your free­dom by cap­tur­ing the god and bring­ing her to me.”

“You will par­don and free me?”


“Very well,” I say. In truth, pos­si­bil­i­ties scream in my head. I can­not hear my mother’s protests, although I am cer­tain they exist.

The Mar­shall says, “My sol­dier will fetch Com­man­der Tavl­iz and his con­scripts. They are but crim­i­nals, so you need not feel guilt if capa­ble. Draw your pow­er from them.”

“I am a soul-eater. I do not feel guilt.”

“As you say,” she says and shuf­fles to her chair. “Feed from the con­scripts but do not touch my peas­ants. Bring the god­dess to me, soul-eater.”

Com­man­der Tavl­iz waits for me when I rise the next day.

With him walk his con­scripts, eight men wear­ing loose, shab­by cloth­ing. Their expres­sions are as dull as the cloth. Their mas­ter wears a bright red crest and armor, sim­i­lar to the set the Marshall’s guard wore.

Chimes sound in the dis­tance, soft as a breeze in one moment and force­ful as a gale in anoth­er. Soon, fam­i­lies gath­er around us. They hold hands as the com­man­der pro­claims the guilt of each conscript.

“I accept the oath of the marked. I accept the sac­ri­fice made in offering.” Each man promis­es this.

They draw straws, and the com­man­der cuts the throats of those bear­ing the three short­est. Their throats spray against the air like the ocean against a prow.

I con­cen­trate on the necks of the men as they open. Their Shad­ow Souls, which have drawn near their hosts at the moment of death, swirl around the men’s heads like cyclones. As soon as the Blood Souls spill from their necks, the souls twist and turn, wrap­ping around one anoth­er, near­ly meld­ing into one. Now, the souls are as fine as spi­der silk. They are streams of light, and I must cap­ture them.

I draw them to me. I call out to them with my love and my hunger, and I allow them inside me, between my breasts. My thirst is so great that I bare­ly taste them as I swal­low them. My moth­er bids me to prac­tice the art and to not indulge in feel­ing, but I lick my lips.

They are all guilty men, although I can­not say if they are more or less guilty than the rest of us. All three are mur­der­ers, and two are thieves. I am also a mur­der­er and a thief on my best days, the days when I do not ache or want or need.

Their vic­tims taint their souls and give them pow­er, and now I absorb their pow­er too.

The moun­tain is before us, and the riv­er runs par­al­lel to our steps. The oth­er con­scripts do not speak to me, and few look at me. We pass a few groups of sol­diers. Some of them sing as they march, their boots crunch­ing on pine nee­dles. They wear small downy breast feath­ers tucked beneath their ears. When I turn toward the riv­er, the air smells of decay. A fish hawk dives and stabs at the riv­er with her talons. She comes up with a heavy fish.

“Tell me,” I say to the com­man­der as I watch the hawk car­ry its prize, “what rea­son does the Mar­shall have to hate against the gods?”

His eyes widen but for a moment. “The gods have not been kind to our Marshall,” he says. “When she was a child, a girl of ten, her father ordered a Reap­ing Fes­ti­val. The peas­ants and the lords, the ser­vants and the sol­diers, all of them offered one of their own for sac­ri­fice. So much blood spilt to beg favor in war. Her father offered her as the sacrifice.

“At the moment of the cut, a flock of hawks flew away with her father, her moth­er, and her two broth­ers. Weeks lat­er, black­birds returned a cloak and a head­dress made of feath­ers, feath­ers filled with her father’s and broth­er­s’ memories,” Tavl­iz says. “Nothing remained of her moth­er. Even those who once knew her moth­er well remem­ber noth­ing but her like­ness. Since then, the Mar­shall has for­sak­en the gods, even those of the sea, as they did noth­ing to pre­vent this act and have offered noth­ing in return.”

I say, “The Mar­shall spoke of one god in particular.”

“I do not know why. The Mar­shall har­bors many scars and keeps her words close.”

“Perhaps you do not wish to know,” I say.

Sur­pris­ing­ly, the com­man­der smiles at this. The wind blows through the marsh grass that skirts the river­bank. “I serve the Mar­shall, and I serve the gods of the sea. The Mar­shall has made it dif­fi­cult to do both at the same time on occasion.”

“This may be one. Would they not view an attack on oth­er gods as a defi­ant act?” I ask.

“If they do, we will not find their favor.”

“Let us hope we will not need it.”

My moth­er flut­ters like a but­ter­fly in my chest. “Turn back while you can, girl, or escape into the moun­tains. Do not tri­fle with the gods. You can knock one down, but you can­not hold it. They are all slip­pery crea­tures.”

Both the com­man­der and I smell sea air at once. Large rip­ples mar the river’s sur­face, and I am less scared than I should be. I can­not lis­ten to my mother’s words, lest her fear over­take me, but already my heart beats faster. In the end, she is dead and bare­ly a sliv­er of her liv­ing self, and I am very much alive indeed.

Dawn swipes at the river’s sur­face, crack­ing it with streaks of orange and pink. The sky creaks with the shrill calls and wing flaps of an army of star­lings. Their speck­led iri­des­cent breasts sparkle like jew­els as they descend upon us.

The con­scripts aban­don their sleep with growls. Three of them fling arrows at the flock, and anoth­er two swing large blades at the birds as they descend. The com­man­der wields a net weighed on its edges by stones. He gath­ers the net, plants his foot, and lets it fly. His method drowns the most birds, but still they come, blind­ing us with their num­bers. There are mil­lions of them; they swarm us, peck­ing and claw­ing at our faces and hands.

Reach­ing into myself, I fling one soul then anoth­er at the flock. Feath­ers fall from the sky like ash. Beaks and bones and talons drop, and for a moment, the sky is clear enough to see the next wave—this one herons and egrets and ibises.

We retreat toward the riv­er, and the herons fol­low. They shriek as one. I press my hands to my ears. A shock­wave flows across the earth, and we fall to the ground. I dig into the muck, bury­ing myself in grass. Behind us, the riv­er ris­es. I do not notice until the rogue wave, giant as the ship that car­ried me across the Drown­lands, dark­ens my sky. It holds there, and for a few sec­onds, I watch the cur­rents that shape it.

I scram­ble to my feet. The herons have dis­ap­peared. In their stead come hun­dreds of spear­men, taller than most men and wear­ing the extend­ed beaks of herons. They hold their spears ready.

I twist and look around for the com­man­der and the remain­ing con­scripts. They are all run­ning toward the tow­er­ing wave, hop­ing to escape into it and to be car­ried back to the sea. With­out them, I will only fail.

I send all of the souls with­in me, except for the frag­ile sliv­er of my moth­er and my own, at the com­man­der and his con­scripts. A wave of death lash­es at the back of their legs. They fall back­wards. I retrieve all of their souls as my mag­ic breaks the wave. I take a deep breath.

Soon, water floods my vision. I try to not swal­low. The cur­rents drag spear­men deep­er as I kick toward the sur­face. Spears and feath­ers lit­ter the riv­er. Some­thing push­es me upwards, pro­pelling me. It is a bull shark, and it flash­es its teeth just before I reach the surface.

I cough and swal­low and swim toward the bank. The riv­er sur­face is marred with debris and dead fish. I do not see any more birds, and when I reach the grass, I heave myself onto my back and exhale deeply. I am scratched and blood­ied. I ache.

Only then do I con­sid­er what I have done and know that I will stand alone.

I do not rest for long. The birds come again and again—doves, ducks, swans, owls, song­birds, and shore­birds all fall from the sky and strike at me. I expend far too much of my pow­er too ear­ly, but I learn and shield myself. I con­serve. The riv­er is qui­et and steady. I can­not expect more help from that quarter.

Birds begin to land on my shoul­ders and head. They weigh me down quick­ly, cov­er­ing me com­plete­ly, dri­ving me to my knees. The shield holds, but I can­not move.

I am wet and cold and hun­gry and vain.

I hold my moth­er close and gath­er the rest of the souls, spin them togeth­er, and release them. The birds dis­in­te­grate. Noth­ing remains. I have no god’s souls to show for any of it, and I am no bet­ter than when I land­ed on this shore.

In the dis­tance, some­one whis­tles a song that reminds me of the chimes that played at the Blue Palace. Many things cross my mind. Take the river’s cur­rents to the ocean and find trans­port home. Cross the moun­tains and start a new life beyond. Turn south and toward the sea again. Cross the riv­er and go north.

“You are fool­ish,” my moth­er says. “This can­not be undone. You can­not start again.”

The song comes clos­er and clos­er, and at last I see her. She is dark brown and stares at me with hard, yel­low eyes. The Marshall’s god­dess watch­es me from the road above the riv­er bank, and she strikes first. A strange ener­gy tin­gles at my scalp, then seeps into my blood as if I have drunk very strong wine.

I begin to raise my hands, but stop. I can­not remem­ber what I am doing. When I real­ize that I must defend myself, I do not know how to weave mag­ic with souls.

“You must sac­ri­fice,” some­one says. “That is what the gods require. Sac­ri­fice.”

I lis­ten to the voice and allow it to move through me, away from me, out of me. The bird shrieks as some­thing strikes it—my mag­ic and my mother’s soul, I remem­ber after a breath. Light bursts through the car­cass and pours into me.

For a moment, I am awash in her light and beau­ty. I have known a god in ways no oth­er mor­tal has. I know she car­ries mil­lions of souls and that they each have voic­es. Songs. Sto­ries. I know that she car­ries the mem­o­ries of all worlds. I know that she is with­in me and that I can­not hold her.

I am not myself any­more. I am nev­er alone. I remem­ber so lit­tle of my life before, and I know that I am shrink­ing. I grow small­er each day.

I lis­ten to all of the god’s voic­es until I can­not bear it and must close myself like an oys­ter. I am shut­ting down, allow­ing her to guide my hand.

Some­times, I remem­ber my moth­er and know that she is no longer with me. That is all I remem­ber, and all I can see.

D. Eliz­a­beth Was­den man­ages vol­un­teers for a small non­prof­it on the Del­mar­va Penin­su­la. Her fic­tion has appeared in Clarkesworld, Fan­ta­sy
, and G.U.D. She is a grad­u­ate of Clar­i­on West 2009 and is cur­rent­ly par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Clar­i­on West Write-a-Thon.

One Response to "A Plague of Souls"

  • Beau­ti­ful!

    1 Lucas Johnson said this (July 6, 2011 at 3:09 pm)