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?”

“Yes.”

“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
Magazine
, 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)