cw: mature subject matter, graphic violence
Everything was ready for the ritual, and Aluin found there were more ways to enlightenment than divinity—more ways to power than training or speeches.
A book in the hands of an occultist. Wrapped in chains, locked shut, hieroglyphs written down its spine. Dangerous work from unstable scholars. Practices better left unread. Aluin stood still in a cell as the occultist drew symbols on the wall, eye-stalks and claws, then lit candles.
Bloodied tentacles twitched around him. Offerings to the void.
He would throw off the shackles of fear and embrace that which was forbidden. A ritual with ancient spirits known to ruin the mind. To sever the soul from one’s body. To grant the power of havoc, so he could pursue vengeance, and his people could rest easy in their graves.
It had taken nights, sleepless, to find the ritual book. Boat trips to other cities, and caravans spanning long roads. Days of scholars dismissing him, calling him a madman. He had come across a relic hunter, a woman with dark circles under her eyes and a dagger at her side, who didn’t ask questions—only gave a price.
It’s a terrifying power, she’d said, counting out his coins, but it’s still power. Good luck finding a translator for it. She handed him a key, telling him to keep the book locked or the hieroglyphs would keep him awake. He searched out an occultist afterward, who was all too eager to read it.
The occultist stepped out of the ring and cleared his throat. He unlocked the book. The key clicked into place, chains rattling as they fell to the ground. The man reached into his robes and retrieved a decayed skull. Lined with cracks, centuries old. Gems sat in its eye sockets. He held it high with one hand, the book open in the other, and chanted.
A chill formed in the air, a shiver coursing through Aluin’s body. Candle flames flickered. The skull’s ruby-adorned eyes glowed crimson red.
The chant became a shout. Nearby books snapped open, pages flipping. Candles melted faster and faster, the occultist picking up speed, speaking in tongues banished by man. Aluin lifted from the ground. His eyes burned. Tentacles spasmed, the blood coating them fading. The offer was accepted.
He hung onto a thread of consciousness—each word from the occultist echoed; every syllable a headache. His hearing cut to a ringing. Creatures flashed in front of him, hooded beings with gaunt limbs, never blinking, always watching. One reached out and touched his chest with a skeletal finger, breathing in.
Aluin exhaled mist as it ended. It clouded before him, cerulean and translucent—the essence of his soul detached from his body. He floated down to the floor with grace. A spectral afterimage followed, a perpetual aftereffect from the ritual. He looked at his hands; the veins running down his wrists a ghastly blue.
“How do you feel?” the occultist asked, stepping forward. “What did you witness?”
“The end of those who wronged me,” Aluin said.
He grabbed the man’s arm and breathed in.
Wisps of the occultist’s spirit, like trails of vapour, drifted out from his mouth and eyes. Aluin inhaled the man’s soul as he struggled and cried out. The occultist collapsed against stone, light drained from his eyes and his skin pale. His body became a lifeless husk.
The forbidden power surged, and Aluin took off into the night.
- - -
He'd gazed into the unknown, blessed by what had gazed back.
Smoke puffed into the sky from a damp bonfire. It led Aluin to a bandit camp fenced off with wooden stakes. Murderers relaxed inside, plotting out the next settlement to pillage and burn. He stepped through dew-coated grass, approaching the camp’s entrance. The occultist’s soul thrashed within him, and mist drifted off his eyes.
His afterimage followed behind. The remnant of his own soul seconds in the past.
“Think I eard’ a rabbit,” a bandit called, stepping out from the entrance. “Or a deer, or…” he looked at Aluin and unhooked an axe from his belt. Aluin walked forward, palms open at his side, cerulean smoke escaping his mouth.
Wind shifted the tall grass surrounding him. Crickets buzzed in the forest.
“What the hell are you?” the bandit asked.
The man laughed, then charged forward. Aluin stood still. He didn’t need to dodge blows he did not fear. The bandit closed the distance, swinging his axe in an overhead arc, looking to split his skull. Wind whistled with the motion.
Aluin called upon the soul of the occultist.
A spectral ghost stepped out from his body. It took the blow of the axe against its will, feeling its pain and absorbing the impact. The axe broke into the occultist’s spectral head. His skull cracked. The ghost dissipated into the air, dead once more.
The bandit stumbled back, and Aluin grabbed his wrist. He pressed his fingers down against veins—feeling the heartbeat quicken. Aluin breathed in and the bandit cried out, his soul ripped from his body, wisps of his spirit forced out from his eyes.
Commotion erupted. He sprinted into the camp. A man rushed at him with a dagger, and Aluin demanded it to be blocked. A ghost stepped out—the dagger punctured its spirit. Aluin grabbed the man’s face, pushing fingers into his eyes, and inhaled.
He pried the dagger out of the man’s hands.
A bandit wearing a wolf pelt charged at him. Aluin called upon a spirit, summoning it, commanding it forward. It snagged the bandit by the neck and twisted him around. The man struggled as the ghost held him in a chokehold.
Aluin tightened his grip against the dagger’s hilt, approached the bandit, and stabbed. It pierced through the wolf pelt and sunk into flesh. He tore the dagger out and stabbed again, and again, blood spraying in the blade’s wake. Ruptured arteries, not enough.
He pressed a hand against the man’s chest and breathed in.
Trails of the bandit’s spirit drifted out from the stab wounds.
Another brigand swung an axe at him. A spirit intercepted, taking the hit, then tackled the assailant to the dirt. Aluin—cobalt smoke flowing off his body—took the spirit’s place, pinning the man on all fours. Others gathered around.
“Help!” he called. His eyes darted from side to side. “The void demon’s got me! Don’t stand there-”
“I will wear your soul!” Aluin shouted, pressing a hand against the man's face. “And you will die twice! Against me,” he inhaled, “and for me.”
The brigand flailed under Aluin’s grip. A crossbow sounded, a heavy ‘thunk’ with a cable snapping back. A spirit lept from Aluin’s body, taking the bolt to the heart. Other bandits cowered as he stood, weapons drawn, hesitant to strike. The bonfire crackled.
One attacked, and the rest followed.
None could land a hit on Aluin. All he needed was touch to absorb their souls, while their weapons struck at spiritual remnants of their brethren—deserters of the army and outcasts bound to a life of thievery.
The corpses piled. Empty carcasses. A bastion of souls serving Aluin. Some bandits retreated, running off into the night, bound to tell a story few would believe. He approached one last brigand, this one wearing a skull helm of a dead moose. Spirits held the man in place and pushed his head into the dirt.
“You’re the leader here?” Aluin kneeled down. He exhaled the screams of the spirits within him. “You’re the one that ordered the raid on my town? Unlucky for you I was out hunting that night, huh? I buried every one of my people. Did you know that?”
“Look, you can take whatever you want,” the leader said, “gold, food, jewelry. Hell, I’ll give you the positions of the other camps. I’ll go raid them with you. You can take anything, I swear it—just let me live.”
“Then I wouldn’t have everything I want, would I?”
Aluin grinned, grabbing the brigand by the neck. He inhaled through clenched teeth, slowly, drinking the man’s soul like a savoured glass of wine. The sound of the brigand’s cries was melodic to his ears. He laughed the second it ended.
After months of searching for the ritual book, he’d found vengeance.
And it was not enough to sate him.