“Many cultures have regarded death as the beginning of the soul's journey to the afterworld. The Etruscans of ancient Italy pictured sea horses and dolphins carrying souls to Elysium, the Islands of the Blessed. The ancient Greeks undertook a darker journey, asking a boatman named Charon to ferry them across the river Styx, which marked the boundary between the world and Hades.”
The Journey to the Afterlife
But they were all wrong!
Dedessia, the Sea of Souls
Shade, 5 years old
I open my eyes and find a giant with a stick towering above me. His expression bears a certain rage, though I don't know why. Then my eyes wander to the ceiling which is made out of wood and looks unpleasantly crude. There is an unpleasant smell of human excrement in the air and I retch upon realizing that I myself am the one who smells like that.
“Up, I said!” The giant stabs his stick into my ribcage and my whole body jolts. The wooden stick electrifies me to the point of having my teeth chattering against each other. Then I bite my tongue and howl in pain.
Finally the stick is taken away. “Get going! I don't have all day.”
In absence of a better idea I roll to my belly and get on all fours. I would have done that sooner or later anyway. Doing it right now is a good idea to avoid a second contact with the stick.
Throbbing pain rises from my left palm and I wince. Instead of getting up I look at it. There is a collar-shaped mark burned into the skin of my chubby hand.
Chubby hand? Am I a child? And giant? No. Adult is the proper term, I think.
Out of the corner of my eye I see the man raising his stick once more, so I hurry to my feet. I notice a long, bloody scratch on his cheek, but as I watch the wound closes up and is gone. Standing upright is a wobbly endeavour, but somehow I manage it.
The man kneels down and grabs my burned hand, forcing it open which causes me a lot of pain. As for my opinion of such treatment? It seems like he doesn't give a shit.
Suddenly light envelops my hand and I feel something forced into me. From somewhere in the back of my mind I instinctively know that he is using magic, forcing mana directly into my body. Then he lets go.
The powerful feeling quickly subsides as I feel the energy flowing back to my burned hand. First the skin turns grey as ash, then dark. A surge of panic rises up inside me. My hand! Will it fall off? But the pain is gone.
The flesh dissolves into black mist and I open my mouth in horror, ready to scream. But before I can do so the process reverts and my flesh knits back together, leaving an unwounded hand behind. What the... I raise my eyes to look at the man.
He sneers and gestures with his stick. “A shade. What's your name?”
Name? Of course I have a name! It's Johann... I think. Why am I not sure? No. Johann never used magic, so why do I know what magic is? Something is definitely wrong with my memories! My eyes dart left and right as if someone could throw me a bone to find the correct answer. The man raises his stick and forces a decision.
If in doubt it is best to confirm the question, so I try to put on a stupefied expression. “What?”
He sneers and hits my chest with his open palm. There is no way to avoid the blow with this body, so I have to take it. The impact forces the air out of my lungs and leaves me gasping.
“Just another low,” he grumbles.
My collar is grabbed and I am pulled into one of the room's corners.
There is no empathy or consideration in his actions. I am just goods to him. And apparently I am even seen as low quality. Hopefully that's a good thing and allows me to escape later on.
“Don't move and stay silent. Otherwise you get the stick!” He drops me unceremoniously and heads back to his former position. On one side that gives me time to find my breath, on the other I have the opportunity to have a look around to judge my situation.
The room is elongated and dirty. I think I already noticed that it stinks. A dark, wooden construction without windows. The only light comes from dimly glowing orbs which hang from the ceiling. There are about thirty beds and one big table at the other end of the room. On my side is a big, wooden door, but I don't even consider an escape because of the guard in front of the door. Like the man with the stick the guard is clad in leather and has his own stick at his belt. Though I highly doubt that he needs it against me.
There are other children of my age. One is lying next to me and doesn't look that well, staring at the ceiling with empty eyes. But his chest is moving in a steady rhythm, so I suppose he is alive.
The others are distributed in groups among other parts of the room. They all are silent like me, observing their surroundings.
On the other end of the room is a screaming and crying flock of children. They are pressed to the wall and trying to gain as much distance as possible. I count seventeen and notice that they look like animals in their rags. Much like me. But unlike me and the others on my end there is neither calculation nor wisdom in their eyes.
A third man is guarding them and now that my tormentor is free, he grabs one of the children and pulls him away from the rest of the pack. The child is fighting, even trying to bite the man. But that's just an annoyance to the adult. He takes the child's hand and presses his thumb on the boy's palm while mumbling something, scraping a burning rune into the child's hand.
The boy's screams turn pitched and he shudders, then his whole body goes limp and he drops to the ground. The tormentor heads to the table and turns an hourglass. “Why do I always get this job? It stinks and the brats can't be reasoned with.”
“Because you are good at it?” The guard chuckles while the tormentor makes an obscene gesture. Then they continue talking about stuff which I don't understand. I only get something about prices and having not enough warriors for the next raid.
But another thing bothers me. Somehow I feel like the man didn't perform the spell properly. It was... imperfect. Though I don't know why I know that.
After about five minutes the hourglass runs out and the man uses his stick to wake up the boy. It takes three electrifying stabs until the child awakes and the process I already went through repeats itself. But this time the boy isn't a mad, screaming creature any more. His eyes are calculating and show knowledge.
Only one thing is different. When he is asked about his name he answers, “Zanders.”
“Any more names? What were you in your previous life?”, the tormentor asks with interest.
“I... a Satyr?” The boy looks down at his body in puzzlement. “What is going on?”
“And we have a winner. Hereby I declare you a mid.” The tormentor batters Zanders to the ground and pulls a thin collar from his pocket. He snaps it shut around Zanders's neck and inscribes 'Zanders' on it, just by using a finger. A shudder runs down my spine while Zanders is pulled over to me and my silent companion.
Slave collar! The buried memory appears out of the haze which surrounds my mind. But the collar is a minor one which needs the true name of a person. Otherwise it is nothing more than a piece of shiny metal.
I eye Zanders who has the same problems in getting up as I had. At least I am already sitting and trying to make sense out of my situation. And I avoided revealing my name. I shudder at the thought of having such a thing around my neck.
A slave collar forces you to serve your master by imbuing your mind with the wish to fulfil any command. There is almost no way around it. The only way you can oppose it, is by slightly twisting the way you execute the command. Otherwise you slowly turn mad as the need to act upon the command gets stronger and stronger.
I watch the process with the rest of the children until the tormentor divides us into four groups, each group with one or two mids and three to four lows. There is also a bigger group with children who didn't remember their names, nor heal up after having mana forced into them.
I also notice that the healing process was for everyone slightly different. Some simply healed up. The wounds of others shone with an eerie light. The light made me uncomfortable, but at least it didn't hurt.
The tormentor gestures for the big group of nine children, boys and girls. “Get them out. The trash can work on the fields.” The second guard guides the children who are still clutching their burned hands out of the room.
After they are gone the tormentor returns his attention to us. We are three groups of five and one group of six.
“Welcome to Dedessia, the River Styx, the Sea of Souls, an endless world with neither kindness nor hope. Some of you may call it the afterlife, or the time between reincarnations. Only the strongest of the strong land here after their death. We have no normal humans here, in case you remember what that is. So don't be fooled by the appearances of your peers. It's all just a shell to hide your true nature. But don't worry, in time we will help you to discard it. After all we want what's inside.” His expression turns into a grin. “I call this dimension simply Hell! But don't hope to escape this place by simply dying. That's no good.” He starts pacing up and down in front of us.
“If you die in this dimension you will reincarnate, that's true. But if you die here before you have regained your memories you will have lost them. Forever. No matter what you are. Demon, angel, mythical beast... or even a god. Though we don't get many of those. The stronger you were in your previous life, the stronger you are reborn here. So you guys will probably have enough strength to regain most of your memories before you bite the dust. The ones who already left us won't have that privilege. They are cards which had to be discarded beforehand.”
He draws in a sharp breath.
“Sadly you were unlucky enough to be fathered in our clan, Inanimatum. We are not some nice tomboys who give you a free ticket on remembering who you are. And to be honest I don't care who you are. You will fight for us against our neighbours until you die. As our personal slave-warriors. And if you cause problems I'll make your life here very miserable.”
“Just look around you and remember one thing. The only people you can trust from now on are the members of your own group. Everyone else is your enemy until we have finished your training. That will take a few years, so have fun until then.”
Yeah, sure. As if I could trust someone who has a slave collar around his neck. Zanders is one big listening device that just screams spy!
I blink, not entirely sure how that thought crossed my mind. It was like someone else thought for me.
Without warning the guard and the tormentor pull their sticks and start electrifying the first row of listeners, chasing us towards the exit. On the corridor outside we are forced to the left by another guard. It feels like we are group of sheep to them.
At the end of the corridor we leave what I now recognize as a wooden blockhouse, or a barrack.
There is a barrack yard stretching out in front of us and I recognize rows and rows of similar buildings. A high stonewall encircles the entire area. What strikes me as really odd is the sky is bathing everything in dim twilight. No sun, no moon, no nothing. Just a sad, depressing glow with various shades of red, violet and darkness. I am not entirely sure, but shouldn't it be blue with clouds? Or at least some stars if it is night?
While I try to suck up as many details as possible I get to know the overseers' stick once more and fall. My gawking made me fall behind without noticing it.
Someone helps me to my feet and I notice Zanders and a blonde girl pulling on my hands. Then we are driven forward, as fast as our bodies are able to.
The overseers chase us to a regulated river which is running through the complex. A cove which is secured with steel bars allows safe entry into the water and the whole group is simply shoved over the stony boundary. The fall is just one metre, but for bodies like ours that's high. At least the water isn't deep enough to drown us and allows barely to stand with our faces above the water.
But the guards waste no time and threaten us with their sticks, forcing us into shallower water until we are able to climb out of the cove.
After having taken a bath the speedy relocation ends at our new home. It is another barrack with a single floor. The guard and Tormentor introduce us to our new living quarters. Pit-latrine behind the building, canteen, bathhouse – a dirty shower with musky water coming out of it, and sleeping quarters.
Each group is allocated their own big room with beds and a glowing orb at the ceiling. Again no windows.
The two overseers lock our group inside one of the rooms and I turn my attention to the other members of our group. There is Zanders and that girl who helped me up. She is a blonde with shoulder length hair. The boy with brown hair and the defeated expression is also here. Another girl with a brown, curly mane completes the rough circle which we are forming, eyeing each other with suspicion.
After a while Zanders decides to speak up. “Okay. This is creepy. We have to talk. My name is Zanders and I think I was a Satyr in my previous life. There is not much else though. What about you guys?”
What a dangerous question. Do the others realize what saying their name in front of Zanders means? Do they know what the collar entails?
The girl with the curly mane raises her voice. “I think I-”
I interrupt her rudely. “Does remembering our names mean that we will get a nice rank like you? It even comes with a name, like a dog's collar.” Okay. That's as far as I am willing to lean myself out of the window.
I don't want anyone to notice that I remember too much. As much as I have seen of this world so far I think it is very likely that the overseers would use torture to get our real names from us. And what follows is the collar.
Being locked in a room with one untrustworthy person is bad enough. I hope the others get the hint and wait with their grand revelations until they have a few more facts about this world.
Zanders's expression twists and he probably attempted a snippy reply, but I interrupt him. “Sorry. Maybe I went overboard. But this whole situation is wearing me down. And thanks for helping me up earlier.” I let my eyes wander from Zanders to the girl and nod.
“I don't remember anything aside from a little hazy, factual knowledge. But the overseer called me a shade when he forced me to heal my wound. So why not use that for the moment? I am Shade.”
Curly's eyes wander from me to Zanders's trinket. “I fear I am in the same boat. Call me Manticore.”
The defeated boy is next. “Aswang.”
When there is no further information the blonde ends the introduction. “Legna. The overseer was very pleased about me being an angel, so I'll simply twist the name a little. Somehow I don't feel like an angel. A- and no problem for helping you up. They said we should trust each other.”
“I think they just meant that light when your wound healed. Apparently we got something like classes when we awoke in this world,” Zanders says.
I close my eyes, trying to ignore the stupidity of our pseudo-leader. “We were born like anywhere else. But up until they tried to awaken our memories we were kept like animals. Actually you were nibbling on the overseers' gloves until he used that spell on you.”
Aswang's eyes wander to me. “And you are the one who scratched him.”
I frown. “Really? If so, then that's fine with me.” Next time I'll scratch out an eye. Let's see if he can heal that.