Enia pulled the scarf over her head to shield herself from unknowing people trying to greet the new-born. Her estate was on top of a hill located close the Silver city in the kingdom of Aepoh. Enia left through the main gate, which depicted a dragon’s head turning into liquid silver — ensuring that anyone passing by could not mistake the importance of the lands, the dragon silver purifiers. The lavish decorations didn’t just end with the estate. Every nook and cranny Enia passed by in the city was decorated with depictions of the king’s heroic dragon killings. Based on the trip Enia had made to Vimme in her childhood, it was clear to her that the king’s inspiration for using such extravagant decorations was a souvenir he had brought with him from his own trip to Vimme. The main difference was that where Vimme celebrated their emperor’s wealth with gold, the Silver King of Aepoh showcased the dangerous origins of the city’s precious silver every chance he got. At least in Vimme, they had the decency to limit the opulence to the royal quarters. A huge statue caught her eye on her way to the tavern; it was almost impossible not to get distracted by how lifelike it had been sculpted, even though Enia had passed it by many times. The statue depicted the king dangling a severed dragon head with his left hand and with the right hand holding up the dragon’s cut horn high above his head and looking into the cross section of the horn, which shone silver in the morning sun.
“Wish the King spent the silver in feeding the poor, isn’t that right Miss Lady Liath?”
Startled by the sudden disembodied voice, Enia grasped the child tightly on her chest and only loosened her grip once she realized that the lanky and thin gentleman that had greeted her was actually a familiar silhouette.
“Ahh, it’s you… I was entranced by the statue and did not hear your approach Mister Ulier. And please, Enia is proper enough to address me”.
The man elaborately removed his top hat, revealing his half-bare scalp with long, wispy strands of white hair and bowed.
“I’m sorry to startle you, but I am glad to see you. It has been a few weeks, hmm? Last I heard your child had fallen ill, but it seems as everything is for the better now?” He gestured towards the child Enia was embracing.
Enia moved the cloth that was holding the child to her chest and covered the head of her daughter that had begun peeking out from the tight bundle, hiding the body from the prying eyes of Ulier.
“I, uh, well, yes. She is for the better but not quite in full health.” She almost swallowed the last words.
“Well, I see! When she is in full health again, you must visit. Miss Ulier is dying to see her!” He retracted his stature from trying to get a glance of the child like a long-necked Jack getting wound back into his box.
“I will try my best to make that happen, but I must take my leave now. I am in a little hurry” she nervously curtsied as she picked up her pace to distance herself from Ulier — a strange but harmless man she had known for a long time.
The morning sunrays were starting to hit the top of the city’s castle towers covered in silver embellishments, which glared into Enia’s eyes. She soon found cover in the narrow streets and was walking past many of the citizens getting ready for the day — none of them taking a note of her passing by. Soon enough she noticed a street sign with a colourfully painted dog raising its opposing legs as if pretending a horse, with the text “Prancing Dog” written underneath it. The tavern was mostly empty as it was not even noon yet. She asked the tavern keep if he’d know where Sastem Marr would be. The keep pointed at the far end of the tavern where a figure with hunting equipment was sitting, looking at something that appeared to be a map.
“Are you Sastem Marr, who sent me the letter?”
“That is, I, aye”. Sastem rolled up the map and hid it in his hunting bag. “Please, have a seat.” Enia lowered her bags next to her and sat down, holding her child close.
“That’s the young’un resting there? Don’t answer that, I am so sorry for your loss”.
“Please, your letter said you know a way that I could see my child breathe again?”
“Keep it down, we don’t want anyone hearing us talk about this.” Lowering his voice, Sastem continued. “But yes. I know the way to the Inout river, and we can possibly rejoin your child’s soul with its body.”
“Inout? The river of the dead? I’ve heard rumours of people visiting it to say their last goodbyes, but never returning with what has already been taken”.
“The very place. I take people to say their last goodbyes to their loved ones there frequently, but the difference between their and your situation is that they don’t have the bodies with them — you do. Most of the time, the loved one has died in a battle somewhere far away, with only a letter sent of their passing. I believe, that with your child, the soul could reunite with the body and perhaps have a second chance?”
Enia thought about it a moment. “I suppose your reasoning is sound, but have you ever seen this working? I mean, you are a hunter are you not? I am not seeing that much of runes, magical or alchemical workings on you.”
“I, uh, did work with a necromancer for a moment in my past. We robbed crypts and burial chambers. The necromancer awakened the dead inside and made them open the door. My job was to do the actual stealing while the other one was focusing on the magics. But one day, we opened a crypt that was filled with dead warriors — ones that were buried with their weapons. Sufficed to say they didn’t take too kindly to their reawakening and killed the necromancer. I learned rituals, rites, and route to Inout by being around him, but from that experience I never went through to actually practise it.”
“You never got caught?”
“Never, except when the necromancer died. There was an investigation, but they assumed he worked alone… So, I got off the hook”.
“Hmm, I believe you. I attempted everything when she was alive. Why should I halt now if there is a chance, even if slight?”.
“That’s the spirit! We should leave as soon as possible. Every moment we loiter makes it harder to find your child in the river.”
Enia and Sastem left the tavern and headed to the nearby woods. At first, they made good time with their travelling, as a lot of the forest had been cut down to be used as building materials for the bustling city. Soon the foliage grew denser and harder to move around in. It was difficult for Enia to keep up. Her dress got caught up on branches and other prickly vegetation which made her to stop and untangle herself every few steps.
“Sastem, do you have a blade on you? Can I borrow it?” Sastem turned around and saw the predicament.
“Of course, wouldn’t be much of a hunter if I did not”.
Enia grabbed the knife and shortened the hem of her dress, revealing that in her hurry, she had left her home wearing simple house shoes that were not fit for the trip, but they had to do. Sastem pointed ahead.
“There are some cliffs ahead. They are not too steep, but I hope your shoes can manage them”.
With the newfound freedom Enia had gained from cutting her dress, she put more speed on her stride and got up the hill. On top of the mound, they stopped and Sastem took a look out ahead, trying to find their next direction. He grabbed a trinket out of his breast pocket and held it in front of him, looking through it.
“Is that how you find the passage to Inout?”
“It helps. If I gave this to you, you could not see what I see”. He offered the trinket to Enia.
She tried to glance through the crimson yet transparent resin jewel, but all it did was make the forest ahead tinted red.
“When I look through it, I see a faint purple glow and that is where I usually find a passage to Inout”. Sastem explained while he grabbed the trinket back. “Let us move on, before it gets too dark”.
After a fair distance of descent back to the deep forest they stopped in front of a rockface on the ground. Sastem took the trinket out of his pocket again and laid it on the rock.
“Do not fear what you are going to see here. It will not try to hurt you, but it can be dangerous in other ways.” He then took out his knife and made a small cut on his finger. He let the blood drip on the trinket and from it, the blood dripped on the rock. He grabbed the trinket back and took a few steps back.
“Now we wait. There is no rhyme or reason when it will happen. It can be in a moment or in a few hours. Sometimes I’ve had to wait days. Giving it more or less blood does not matter. Let us sit down, rest and eat while we can”.
Both took a seat close by in the shadow of a large tree. Enia took her child out of her chest sling and carefully laid her down in front of her. She stared at the little still body and clenched her fist.
“She constantly wept, you know.” Enia began talking without looking at Sastem. “Right after birth she was crying. Which is exactly what she was supposed to do, but when she would not stop, after a while I started to worry. I kept her with me at all times, would not even let Margie, who took care of me when I was a child, take care of her. Healers came and went, so many of them that I lost count. None of them could understand what was amiss. Outside she appeared perfect, healthy, but inside something was off that caused her pain, never-ending agony that just ate at her until near to her end, she only had strength to whimper. And then there was only silence”.
“From all I’ve brought to Inout, I’m glad I was able to bring you. I truly hope you find her in there”.
With his knife Sastem took a slice of cured meat and offered it to Enia. She refused and instead took some dark bread filled with dried berries and nuts from her knapsack.
“How about your husband, is he still around? I assumed he would have come with you.” Sastem muttered through the chewing of his food.
“He was killed by the vile Aeoph high lord. He coveted our estate and the family business. My husband would not sell it, because refining dragon silver is a business that can have catastrophic consequences for the operating area if you are not careful and considerate of your surroundings — and the Lord was neither. So, after trying to overtalk him into it multiple times, the Lord in his frustration wanted a duel. My husband agreed, and the wounds they endured during their fight ended up killing them both. Leaving the estate for me.”
“I think I heard about this but always thought it to be just rumours. I am so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you Sastem.”
“It must have been hard to find someone to take over after your husband passed.”
“It proved impossible on such a short notice. In the end, I had to take charge myself, pregnant or not. I only stopped after it was evident that she was sick.”
After a few bites of her bread, she started to notice something odd with the flat rock in front of them. The rock moved like it was water, the textures of the rock swirled around.
“Sastem, something is happening!”
“Start packing and get ready. When it is open, we do not have much time.”
The oozing rock started to bubble. From the watery rock, a round shape started to rise. Empty eyes, hollow nose, roots, moss, critters, and maggots covered the gigantic skull all over. It opened its mouth wide.
“Once a great Titan, now a passageway to Inout, keep us safe, o’ dear lords of Death!” Sastem walked through first.
The maw of the skull was massive, but they had to bend over a little to fit through. Critters writhed as the noise of their tiny wings and mandibles filled the air when they passed through the gateway. Slimy maggots dropped all around Enia and Sastem with every step they took. Inside the skull was very dark, and they could barely see where they were stepping, but it was rocky surface sloping downwards. They started to hear moving water, like a river. The skull slammed its jaw down and the resulting gust of wind almost knocked Enia and Sastem off balance from the cliff they were standing on. Then a cyan light slowly filled the space, revealing the sluggish river that flowed through a landscaped formed by hundreds of gigantic skeletons.
“I think there is a safe way to descend” Sastem noted and pointed at a rocky formation that looked like sculpted stairs.
Descending the steps, Enia noticed the rocky wall was engraved with humanoid deities. Their skin was splayed open in various ways or half of their body was flesh and the other bone. All the skulls were unhuman, misshaped, their eyes or mouth either missing or replaced with horns or perhaps tentacles. It was difficult to discern what they tried to convey. Enia’s skin crawled.
“Do you have the insight of who or what these things on the wall are?”
“From what I’ve understood, they are depictions of the lords of death. They govern the passage to salvation. I think at some point in time the river was easier to access and perhaps some fanatics carved these. Who knows really. Perhaps they’ve been here since the beginning”.
The moisture increased significantly the closer they got to the river. From time to time, Enia noticed movement in the water. A skeletal hand, a back of someone’s head, thousands upon thousands of bodies floating in the river in a stasis of rot. It was surprising that the river did not smell. Enia and Sastem approached the edge of the river.
“Try not to pay attention to the dead once we enter the river.” Sastem said as he and Enia took their first few steps into the water.
They quickly sank to waist height. Something tugged on Enia’s clothes. It was a soul trying to grasp Enia’s dress while the dregs of the torn-up hem flowed down the river. It managed to grab onto it with both hands and dragged themself above water. The hollow rotted face of the eternal ghost seemed to plead Enia for help with the little emotion it could express. It lost its grip soon after and got caught in the flowing river, still making desperate attempts to hold onto the piece of fabric that had slipped by its fingers.
“We should try to keep a steady pace and move to find your child’s soul” Sastem instructed and pointed at a way past steep rocky walls.
After a moment it dawned to Enia that the walls, rock formations, and the general landscape was from the gigantic skeletons they saw on top of the cliff. The change in perspective, being up close to them made them look more like stone cliffs and made her forget.
“This is… a Titan graveyard, is it not?”
“Essentially, yes. The Titans helped to carve the underworld for the lords of death in exchange for a place in a peaceful afterlife. That is at least my understanding of the stories.”
“Tell me, how are we supposed to find my child among the thousands of damned ones passing us by every minute?”
“We won’t. Your child will. The spirit is drawn to whoever it was connected to. Parents have such energy, but it is weak. We are lucky to have your daughter’s body with us. We are guaranteed to encounter her soul soon enough.”
They got to a level rock that was slightly higher than their waists, high enough to float above the water. Enia unbounded the child from her chest-sling and laid her to rest on the rock. It took mere moments before a glow began emanating behind the rock and a small shimmering hand grabbed the ledge of it. The child’s soul crawled towards the cold dead body. The spirit fused with its former home and the glow dissipated. Enia held her breath. She leaned in to listen for her daughter’s breathing and heartbeat, but nothing had changed. Defeated, she laid down to rest her head next to the child’s.
“All I sought was to see you grow up. And not, because time runs so hastily. To brush and braid your curls. To teach you to write, to draw, to love, to live, whatever your heart desires. All the things that I did not have the right to do myself.”
A twitch of the child’s fingers, then feet, brought up the mother standing. Then, shortly, a cough and a wheeze of the lungs. A cry that echoed throughout the underworld.
“Oh, that is a loud cry. We need to hurry back soon if the child doesn’t calm down quick” Sastem cowered lower as if to hide himself.
“Hush little one, we need to stay quiet” Enia embraced the child and wrapped her back against her chest.
A low growl and multiple shrieks echoed through the air. Enia and Sastem looked at each other and nodded in agreement to move on. All the while, the child whimpered cries of agony. Big sounds of watery movement rushed behind them. They tried to stumble through the river but whatever was chasing them was gaining distance fast. Even the souls that had the strength started to change direction and began to flee with them. They saw a low nook to hide in below a crushed giant skeleton. The splinters of the bone created a dense grating to hide behind. Some of the ghostly undead followed the trio and tried to hide with them. A hulking dark mass appeared in front of Sastem, Enia and her daughter. It focused on the dead that did not hide under the bones. The monster grabbed a running soul by its neck and devoured it. Enia could see the spirits of the dead travelling through the monster’s body, trying to break through its skin and it frightened her. The monster emitted such hatred and malice that it made her feel sick and the child felt it too. Enia covered the child’s mouth.
“I think the monster is distracted enough for us to escape. We are not far from the entrance” Sastem whispered and pointed at the other side.
Carefully they moved away from the hideout. One of the souls with them grabbed Enia’s shoulder and was shaking its head to beg them for not to go. Enia silently shook her head back and shrugged loose from the spirit’s grip. The monster focused on devouring more phantoms.
The group moved on slowly and silently as possible to get to the other side. Halfway through, the noises from behind them stopped. A low growl and a loud shriek right after, the monster turned to Enia’s and Sastem’s direction. They picked up the pace and the child now picking up on her mother’s horror she started to cry.
Enia reached the river ledge, got up and turned to reach her hand for Sastem. She kneeled and got hold of his hand, but there was no strength in his grip. The monster’s hand, with nails as sharp as knives was through Sastem’s chest, dripping blood and guts. Sastem’s head faced down, but his soul stared directly into Enia’s eye’s, horrified, begging for help. The monster dragged the glowing spirit out of the body and devoured it with a pleased expression. Enia fell to her back with the child, who was still crying but the monster did not seem to care for either of them. The souls in the monster’s body suddenly stopped squirming and then vanished inside it. Its body started to heat up visibly and turn into skin of a man. The horns of the monster shed from his head and eventually a normal looking human male was in place of the monster.
“It’s y-you!” Enia recognized the man as her husband’s murderer.
He proceeded to climb over Sastem’s body, get up from the river and walk right past Enia, who was frozen still. After a moment Enia turned to look behind her and saw the man in front of the skull entrance. Without much of an effort he pushed the skull’s jaw open and left the underworld. Enia sat up and unbounded her crying child off from her chest.
“Shh, the monster is gone now. There is nothing to be afraid of” but the child would not calm down. Enia started to hum a calming tune in hopes for it to ease her child’s mind.
“The gentle spring sun wakes you.
Summer brings the joy in your feet.
In autumn, the rain makes you cover.
Come winter it is time for sleep.”
But she still did not stop crying. Her cries just got stronger and coarse. Enia started to panic and cry for help. There was no response. She got up and started to pace around with the child in her arms. Enia cried in confusion. She embraced the child tightly, wishing she would get better. Her tears flowed into the fabric the child was wrapped in, and then, the coarse cries halted. With a panic she carefully laid her child down on the ground, unwrapping her from the cloth. The child’s body had turned into hues of blue and purple and the once rosy cheeks were white. Exhausted and tired the mother had no tears left to cry. Emptiness filled her, heart shattered and mind devoid of thought, she gazed past into the horizon of the endless river.
A group of souls gathered close by the river edge as if to mourn the child. Enia’s gaze locked in with one of them and she noticed it was pointing at the child. A glow emitted below her gaze. The child’s spirit was silently cooing and joyfully shaking about. Enia laughed and relaxed. She truly smiled for the first time in weeks. She knew that the pain of her sickness did not follow.
Whatever gods who govern the souls are not so cruel to have a tiny child suffer for eternity, she thought.
Enia proceeded to embrace her child with its spirit and walk towards the river. The souls gathered in the river edge gave way for her to enter. She climbed down into the river and the spectres bowed and sank into the water. They raised their arms from the water with open hands, ready to receive her child’s spirit.
“I am so sorry to have you suffer again, but I know now. I need to let you go, into the unknown. Goodbye, my shooting star, Oknirua.” She smiled at her for the last time, closed her eyes and sighed.
Carefully she lowered her child into the hands of the souls. The child’s body vanished into the river, but the glowing spirit stayed in their hands. The souls gently moved away and took the child’s spirit with them, diving into the depths.
Enia turned around and left for the entrance. Walking the step’s back up felt difficult for her. Leaving the underworld meant she’d never see her child again, but it was something she had to do. She reached the entrance, the gaping maw of the skull, and saw the morning sun’s rays gleaming through the treetops. Reluctantly she walked out, and the skull shut its jaw and melted away into the ground. There was no trace of it, as if it was never there. Enia began walking out of the forest.