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Soul Hymn

Have you ever thought of death, about when your time finally came?

How would you have pictured it? I’d always thought I’d die in my sleep at an advanced age, after having led an ordinary life— as average as a recluse such as me could’ve made it, anyway.

Others might have given you an answer along the lines of: “I’d like to spend the rest of my days surrounded by my loved ones.”

A generally accepted answer, I would say.

But, what if something unexpected happened, like getting run over by a car or a bus? Or getting stabbed during a mugging? Or gunned down in a dark alley? How would you have imagined what the experience would be like, then?

“Depends on the injury,” would be my answer, being fond of thought experiments and thorough analysis of the details therein.

In this example, the severity of the injury would be a great indication you how long you had to live, and in what condition.

An important vein is cut, and you can’t stop the bleeding? That’s a peaceful death— similar to going to sleep.

A shot through the head and you’re instantly killed.

A viral disease could take several days, filled with agonizing pain all over your body.

The possibilities of ways of death were endless.

Now, I know what you might be thinking: “why’s this moron talking to me about death? Doesn’t he have anything better to do?”

A point in fact: I didn’t.

The days were long in this damp, dirty cell.

Do you wonder why I’ve been thinking of imminent death? Every night for the past month, I’ve been cooped up in this wretched place, forced to listen to the tortured screams of others.

They all ended precisely two minutes and twenty-two seconds after the feverish chanting began. How did I know this?

I counted.

It’s a little funny, in a morbid way.

I knew exactly how I would die, I just didn’t know exactly when.

Old age? Ordinary life? In a deathbed surrounded by loved ones?

What a joke!

I giggled and lost myself in the laughter for a while, before mastering myself.

Then, the screaming started.

“1, 2, 3…” I murmured as the unfortunate soul, a young woman from what I could tell, raised her voice.

Ugh, the begging. Why did they have to beg?

“Please let me go!” I heard her shouts as she sobbed. “I’ll do anything, please!! PLEASE!”

The chanting continued uninterrupted, as I knew it would. No murderer in the history of murder has ever spared anyone who begged. Why should anyone even try?

“I’ll fucking kill all of you!” She snarled as I heard the jangling of chains. “I swear if it’s the last thing I do— I don’t care if I have to come back from the dead!”

Switching tactics, huh? A complete lateral move, she went from abject fear to murderous anger in a split second.

I giggled and rolled my eyes. “123, 124, 125…”

“What do you even want?!” Ah, the next emotion was undoubtedly confusion at their lack of reaction.

The cultists raised their voices, and the chanting reached a crescendo as they neared the end of the ritual.

“Answer me, you—“

“142,” I nodded, feeling the temperature in the air drop down several degrees as the woman suddenly went quiet and the chanting stopped.

Two minutes and twenty-two seconds, on the dot.

Every time. Every day.

I told you I’d memorized how long it took for them to kill their prisoners.

When was it finally going to be my time? Why did they keep me alive for so long? It’d been a month and five days.

I kept track of every death.

In the early days, I thought if I shouted hard enough, I would be able to get help.

How naïve I was, then.

I heard a shuffling sound from the cell next door, followed by light sobbing. Ooh, they brought in a new prisoner at some point.

I must have dozed off when it was happening.

I giggled again as the cultists passed by my cell. From the sound of it, a body was being dragged on the stone floor. I’d gotten good at telling what they were doing from the sounds.

For example, at that very moment, two of the men were dragging the body.

I then heard a loud groan of un-oiled metal; the sound of a very particular door opening. I took a deep breath, knowing the stench about to hit me was going to be bad.

They were dumping their latest victim in the room where they kept all of the bodies.

In the cell next to mine, there was the sound of choking, followed by the sound of liquid splashing against the ground.

The newbie had unmistakably vomited.

Poor thing hadn’t been prepared like I was. I remembered my first time subjected to that stench without warning— quite the unpleasant experience.

I breathed through my mouth for a while, waiting for the cultists to finish their business and close the door. One of these days, I was going to be thrown in that place after they killed me.

My final resting place.

Not a grave in a sea of graves, but thrown unceremoniously over other corpses and left to rot in the open air.

You might have asked: “why aren’t you trying to fight against this?”

Who said I didn’t try?

I remember trying to escape on many occasions. I used to bang on the doors, shout, try to fiddle with the lock with two long pieces of stone I’d thought to use as lock picks.

When none of that worked, I decided to try a more hands-on approach.

I had the whole thing planned out. I would wait for one of the cultists to serve me my dinner— apparently, I merited a single feeding a day— before daringly knocking the cultist out and making a break for it.

Unfortunately, reality never seems to play out as you want it to.

The cultist ended up knocking me out cold with a swift fist to the chin. It was funny what malnutrition and extended discomfort can do to a human body’s reflexes and perception.

I hadn’t even seen the fist coming until it slammed into my chin with a meaty thwack and sent me under.

Then, the punishment came. I was given fifteen lashes and was then forced to watch one of their horrific rituals.

That was when I learned that, yes, magic was indeed real— and quite bloody, at that.

They had dragged me into their ritual room and chained me up in a chair off to the side.

The room was well lit with torches of all things, showing me a deeply etched equilateral triangle at the center of a much larger circle covered with symbols and markings I did not understand.

Eight people stood on specific marked points on the circle, while three stood at each edge of the triangle.

I’d always wondered what happened at the two minutes twenty-two seconds mark. As it turned out, the victim— a balding middle-aged man, this time— got lifted off the ground, groaning lowly as if in a trance.

His skin ripped itself off his body, revealing the musculature beneath glistening with blood.

I couldn’t turn my eyes away, watching with morbid fascination as the blood dripped onto the floor and was absorbed, lighting up the triangle.

Not long after, the circle began to glow with the same power— if a bit less brightly.

I watched the man’s entire body tense up as the blood drained from his body at a ridiculous rate, splashing noisily against the floor and seeping into the symbols, powering the ritual even further.

I watched as his body was halfway desiccated from the drain of the ritual— his eye sockets hollowing themselves out as his eyes shriveled up into dead tissue.

What was left of the man was a twitching mess, desperately clinging to life; a life ended abruptly by a cultist’s knife.

The men hadn’t said a word to me after the fact; they’d just hauled me back to my cell and locked the door.

That was to be my fate. That was how I was going to die. They were going to tie me up, tear my skin off, and drain my blood to strengthen their magic.

To what end, I had no idea.

All I could do was to wait for the inevitable. None of it mattered anyway. It was all so hilarious.

I giggled again.

“Who’s there!?” I heard shouting from the cell next to mine. “Who are you?! Are you one of them?”

I said nothing, hoping she would go quiet soon. I was in no mood for conversation.

“Hello? Hello?” The person, a young girl from the sound of it, kept trying. “Is anyone there? I heard you!”

Still, I kept my silence.

“I’m going crazy in here,” she started talking to herself. “That’s it! I’m losing my mind, hearing voices. That must be it.”

A few minutes of blissful— heavenly— silence passed before I heard the sound of hands slamming against a door.

“Help!” She shouted, almost hysterically. “Help! Anyone!”

“Shut the hell up in there!” I shouted back, just for the hell of it. “Can’t a guy spend his last remaining days in peace? Can I at least have that?”

A few moments of silence ensued, until—

“What the hell— I knew I heard something!” The girl sounded excited. “Hey! Hey, can you hear me? Hello?”

“Oh for the love of the Goddess…” I murmured, before addressing the girl. “Yeah, I can hear you. What do you want, newbie?”

She started rattling off questions at an incredible pace. I couldn’t keep up.

“Hey, hey!! Hey!” I interrupted her.

“What?” Annoyance and impatience seeped into her question.

“Could you slow down? How am I supposed to answer five billion questions?” I said, sighing.

It felt odd, talking to someone else; someone who wasn’t dead and decaying in my cell, I mean. I glanced at the long-dead corpse to my side and stifled a giggle.

Poor Bill.

Okay, Bill wasn’t actually his name.

But he looked like a Bill to me— you know, back before he became a rat-infested carcass. He was a freshly dead body then, with glassy brown eyes and a balding head; a big, fat man-corpse.

Now, he was missing both eyes, all of his fingers, most of his toes… His fat was all gone, as well as all the meat below that.

Bill’s current appearance reminded me of a documentary I’d once watched, about how carcasses were utterly devoured by rodents, bugs, and other scavenger animals.

Rumor had it that Bill was a traitor to whatever order these cultists belonged to and was thrown in here to starve to death. I was introduced to him shortly after he’d shuffled off the mortal coil.

“Who are you? Are you with them?” She demanded angrily.

I laughed.

“Yes, I’m totally with them,” I said derisively, the raspiness of my voice adding to the scathing nature of my response. “I just figured I’d trap myself in this cell for a month— you know, just for laughs.”

I coughed, not used to speaking after my long period of captivity.

“No, I’m not with them,” I added in condescendingly to spite the unknown woman further. “Any more questions, or can I have some peace and quiet?”

“Where are we?” She continued, undaunted.

“No idea,” was my answer; why did she even ask that?

I’m sure many captors told their captives where they held them. That was real smart.

“W-what do they want?” She asked, an undercurrent of fear seeping into her voice as she slowly began to have a grasp of her situation.

“They are going to sacrifice you in a horrible ritual that’ll drain your blood,” I said bluntly. There was no way of easing her into it. “They made me watch it one time. It’s quick, at least. So, there’s that.”

I had hoped that would calm her down, but instead, it had done the exact opposite. She burst into loud sobs, saying that she didn’t believe it over and over.

I sighed in annoyance.

Another crier; why did I always get the criers? Was it in the ‘How to be Evil 101’ guidebook?

If you want to commit ritual sacrifice, you must always pick those that are likely to cry and beg for mercy. A scared sacrifice is always a better one!

I giggled again, the sound drowning out the girl’s sobs for a few moments. I’d done this song and dance before, during the start of my captivity. There was no real point in giving them false hope.

It was best that they got it over with as quickly as possible.

I tuned out her sobs— a skill I’d honed in earlier years by ignoring boring teachers, and mastered during my captivity— and instead focused in on Bill’s ribs, watching the rats gnaw on the bones in a futile attempt to get more nourishment out of the month-old corpse.

“Poor Bill,” I muttered to myself, feeling something rise up within me. I hurriedly crushed it before it got any bigger.

I knew that feeling.

It was a deep and powerful mix of despair, sadness, and anger; just what I didn’t need at this moment.

Anger caused you to waste energy, and in a place like this, I needed every sliver of power I could get.

Though, sometimes, I didn’t even know why I bothered. My last escape attempt was a miserable failure, and the punishment afterward… I winced.

The sobs gradually weakened into whimpers, and then there was nothing— sweet nothing.

Finally! I thought she was never going to shut up.

Bonus points: she wasn’t even attempting to strike up further conversation— meaning she’d cried herself into unconsciousness.

I let out a relieved sigh. It’s the little things in life, like the fact that Bill-The-Corpse didn’t stink as bad as he used to.

Bill, the only constant in this hell; I wouldn’t know what to do without him. I would have lost my mind a long time ago.

You assume you aren’t already a crazy loon. My own voice slyly drawled. Laughing randomly and muttering incoherently. You’re like those crazy bums that used to intimidate you on public transport.

“I’m not gonna argue with you, me,” I replied quietly. “So fuck off.”

There was no answer.

“That’s better.”

I leaned back against the wall, trying to get as much comfort as I could out of the unyielding stone. A rather long yawn later, I prepared to get some rest.

The door to the cell opened, dashing any chances I had of obtaining some shut-eye. I opened my eyes, taking in the appearance of the cultist before me.

Most of his face was hidden underneath a purple mask— part of the all-purple ceremonial outfit these guys liked to wear.

That was lesson two of ‘How to be Evil 101’: always have your group wear matching outfits. If you’re going to commit atrocities, then you have to do it in style!

“Hello, Evil Cultist,” I smiled at the cultist, tilting my head in slight confusion. “Is it time, already?”

A silent nod was my answer.

“I see. Any chance I could convince you to do it after I get some sleep? I can feel a migraine coming.”

His eyes shifted in a way that made me think he didn’t know what to make of me. He ended up shaking his head in the end.

Damn it.

Well, it was worth a shot.

“Screw it,” I let out a long, frustrated breath and got up. “Let’s just get this shit show over with.”

“H-hello?” The crier’s voice came from the other cell. “Is any—“

“Oh, would you just shut up for once in your damned life!?” I called out in irritation. “Spend your last days with some dignity, will you? I’m off to die now! See ya— or, um, wait, I won’t see ya, since I’ll be dead, huh?”

Appalled silence; at least, I thought she was appalled.

One could only hope.

“Lead the way, then. Let’s not keep death waiting, Evil Cultist,” I turned my attention back to the cultist. I had expected him to drag me there, but he actually walked out, glancing back at me curiously.

I followed.

Why aren’t you fighting back? My own mind snarled at me. Fight back. Make them drag you there, show them you won’t go down without a fight! Where is your pride? Where’s your instinct to live?

I rolled my eyes at the thoughts.

Fighting would lead me nowhere.

Besides, I was tired of the long days sitting around and doing nothing but listening to people beg for their lives and then die.

Why should I beg and try to escape when I knew it wouldn’t save me?

I wanted it to stop.

We walked through the dark stone corridors, the sound of our footfalls music to my ears; with every step, I felt lighter and lighter.

We reached the door leading into the ritual room.

This was it.

Freedom.

I drew odd looks from the other cultists as I was calmly led to an ornate looking chair in the center of the room. I blinked, before being turned and forced to sit on it.

How odd. I thought as my eyes began to take it all in.

They’d almost completely changed the layout of the ritual circle. The large circle was still there, but the runes around it were definitely different.

It was almost-Solenic in form, but I couldn’t make the letters out.

Was it a form of proto-Solenic, perhaps?

After strapping me down to the throne, the cultist joined his fellows at the side of the circle, to my right.

Nine of them, standing within a small circle of their own, stood as still as statues. I studied the circles further with what little time I had left.

They weren’t actually circles, I slowly realized.

It was the same proto-Solenic runes around the main circle, forming circles of their own and winding their way to my own not-circle.

Nine not-lines, leading into my not-circle from the right; my gaze shifted leftwards. There was another, much larger not-line, weaving its way into a large not-circle. A red-garbed cultist stood at its center.

“Let the Transference begin,” the apparent cult leader said, and the chanting began.

“One, two, three…” I began to count, frowning slightly. This wasn’t the regular chant, I began to realize halfway through my counting process. The language was different, sounding similar to Solenic— the same proto-Solenic the runes were written in?

“142…” I finished my count, and yet they were still chanting.

I guess you’re not going to die the way you thought. The sly voice in my mind jibed.

I felt panic at the rising uncertainty, and forced it down as best as I could, with limited results.

It was all different, much too different.

They’d captured me over a month ago, and kept me here the entire time. The others were sacrificed within hours of arrival.

Even my ritual was different. Would the manner of my death be the same as that of the poor soul from before?

Uncertainty and unease took hold of me.

I felt my hair stand on end and the air grow heavy with a palpable sense of power, weighing on me from all sides, suffocating me.

An alarmed cry jolted me out of my panicked thoughts. I sharply turned to the red-garbed lead cultist who was frantically scratching at his forearm.

“What is the meaning of this!?” He snarled as the chanting stopped. He looked down at the glowing runes, and then directed the ugliest glare I’d ever seen in my direction.

“You..!” He pointed at me; wait, no, it was at the cultist behind me. “Traitor! You placed an illusion to—“

“Did you truly think that we wouldn’t try to read the runes on the ritual circle you concocted!?” The other cultist scoffed, gesturing wildly around him. “This was obviously meant to kill every last one of us here, in order to transfer all the power to you.”

The traitor waved his hand on the ground, and the runes at my circle shifted around, forming into mirror images of themselves.

This shift moved outwards, completely reversing the workings of the entire circle, as far as I could tell.

“You never meant for any of us to ascend with you. I made it so that we take your power, instead!” The cultist shouted at his red-cloaked leader and chanted what I assumed to be the final words of the ritual.

A dramatic reveal of backstabbing by the leader, followed by a coup orchestrated by the second in command at the last moment?

My last moments were proving to be interesting ones, at least.

A few seconds later, the rest of the cultists also bent over, including the leader of the coup.

“What..?” I was confused. Why were they affected?

The lead cultist laughed in glee even as his skin began to tear itself off. “You didn’t reverse the flow of power from me to you. You reversed it from us to him,” he pointed at me.

The second-in-command’s most likely scathing reply was never uttered as every single one of them fell to their knees, scratching and clawing at themselves.

Just like the man they had killed before my eyes, their skin peeled off, and their blood was drawn from their bodies into the runes, making them pulse in an almost familiar rhythm.

Ba-dum, ba-dum. Ba-dum, ba-dum.

Like a heartbeat. The analytical part of my mind noted. No, in sync with my heartbeat.

The runes began to glow bright red, an undercurrent of power trailing from every cultist towards me.

Ba-dum, ba-dum. Ba-dum, ba-dum.

I cringed in pain, the runes slowly searing themselves onto my feet, working their way up my body until all I felt was unbridled agony.

It took me a few seconds to realize the new scream I was hearing was my own.

The cultists had died a while back, their bodies having shut down after most of their lifeblood was drained away.

Ba-dum, ba-dum. Ba-dum, ba-dum.

For a moment, when the agony had reached its peak, I felt something in the deepest reaches of my being shatter.

Its fragments floated in my awareness for the briefest of instants before reaching its tendrils into the runes and fusing itself to them. 

The experience was enhanced with peculiar music, unfamiliar and erratic.

It was an almost haunting melody, weaving into the fragmented shards of my mind, and stitching them together into a facsimile of a working brain.

Broken and remade.

It was reincarnation, I realized; or, a very convincing mockery of it.

Though this pain was beyond anything I had felt before, I was still able to move and think.

Other words suddenly flooded into my mind, drawing my attention to my arms.

I stared at the bright red markings still searing themselves into my skin, and marveled at the ingenuity of them, seemingly understanding them completely, and not understanding them at all at the same time.

The concepts there were simple enough; Power, Transference, Retention, Compression, Absorption, Dispersal…

Descriptions where single words encompassed whole libraries worth of magical concepts building towards a complete understanding of the universe itself, but every time I tried to reach for the meanings of the individual words, the information slipped away from my hands.

It was like trying to catch water. I managed to get my hands covered in them, but most of it was beyond my grasp.

Information forever unavailable to me, locked away in a world too advanced for my own psyche to fully comprehend. Wait, no, not too advanced— it was different than that.

I had glimpsed into the ‘Pure World’ from which all magic originates; these words meant nothing to me, but at the same time, they held meanings upon meanings, all of which were beyond my current understanding.

And then, the pain simply ended. The music cut off.

The intricate proto-Solenic marks covering my skin faded into nothingness, leaving me alone in the ritual room, surrounded by dead bodies and wondering if the last few moments had happened at all.

I felt myself sag forward, sudden exhaustion coming over me. The last thing I heard before the darkness took me was the pounding of my own heart.

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